Chapter 5 in the Bible’s book of Numbers gives a potion through which God would judge a wife suspected of adultery. We analyzed it in part 1. Let’s move on to what it means.
So then does this potion cause a miscarriage?
This is the part that surprised me. Going into this research, I thought that the potion would cause a miscarriage. The Bible doesn’t much care about sex outside of marriage except when there’s a married woman involved, because that means that a man’s property was damaged (if calling a wife “property” isn’t correct, it’s not far off). Captured women as sex slaves are okay, multiple wives are okay, and prostitutes are okay (more). It’s only adultery if the woman has sex outside of marriage.
And maybe the potion would cause abortion—after all, while the focus of the ritual was discovering adultery, the woman still might be pregnant. Though we’re uncertain about the meaning of the curse, “This water . . . will go into your stomach and make your abdomen swell and your thigh fall away” in Numbers 5:21, that doesn’t sound like a supportive environment for a pregnancy.
A note in the NET Bible for this verse brings the scholars into the picture. It says, “Most commentators take the expressions to be euphemisms of miscarriage or stillbirth, meaning that there would be no fruit from an illegitimate union.”
Many verses in the Old Testament show that the Bible isn’t squeamish about the occasional miscarriage. Or even the killing of pregnant women or children. The popular Christian response that God is a doting grandfather who would never sanction an abortion is ridiculous. This is the same guy who said, “The people of Samaria . . . will fall by the sword; their little ones will be dashed to the ground, their pregnant women ripped open” (Hosea 13:16). Even today, roughly half of all pregnancies end in miscarriage. God apparently doesn’t much care.
Nevertheless, the goal of the test was to identify an adulterous woman. The trial as we have it (and it’s possible that the test was changed as it went through many copyists) was not designed as a test to resolve the problem of a man whose wife is pregnant, possibly with some other dude’s kid.
I thought that this trial was a potion that would magically abort a fetus that was not the husband’s. It is not.
I don’t like being corrected during a debate or argument, and I want to use only correct arguments. If “God himself used abortions to correct paternity debates” isn’t a correct argument, then I won’t use it anymore. And, with sufficient evidence that I’m wrong here, I’ll change my mind back.
This exercise is a helpful reminder that some Bible arguments are built on shaky foundations. “Most scholars agree” can be applied to an explanation like evolution that has overwhelming support among relevant scholars, or it can be applied to the meanings of the words translated as “swell” and “thigh” in Numbers 5, where substantial doubt clouds the issue and (perhaps) a scant majority agree. God’s holy word doesn’t look so impressive when God obviously didn’t do much to preserve the meaning through time.
While God’s potion as an abortifacient is likely the wrong interpretation, it could’ve caused abortions as a side effect, and plenty can be said about God’s disinterest in the life of a fetus. The Christian response is often to cherry-pick Bible verses about God’s cheerful side or about how he’s a tenacious defender of human rights. But no argument that claims God as a champion of human life is worth anything unless it looks at the whole Bible and addresses all of God’s killings and the Bible’s savagery. Taken as a whole, God in the Bible is a nasty piece of work.
Let’s compare the Bible with a souffle. You can make a souffle with the finest truffles, but if it has just one cockroach in it, it is a cockroach souffle. And the Bible has lots of cockroaches. (h/t commenter Greg G.)
When I cast the spell exactly as written,
a cake appeared in my oven.
— commenter Greg G.
Image from Wikipedia, public domain