Numbers 5 and Abortion

Numbers 5 and Abortion September 7, 2016

The purpose of this post is to summarize an argument made in my recent podcast which can be found here, for those wanting a shorter and more accessible resource on the topic. 

One of the common arguments thrown around by atheists toward those who hold to the traditional Christian faith (and Christian morality in particular) is that there is a divergence between the beliefs of contemporary Christians and the teachings of Scripture. It is argued that, though Christians today are opposed to abortion, the Bible itself promotes the idea that a fetus can be killed in certain circumstances. This argument hinges upon Numbers 5. Though perhaps convincing to someone who is not aware of the content of the text itself, there is no evidence in the actual Scriptural account that such a procedure is ever sanctioned.

Numbers 5 treats the proper manner in which to respond to a situation in which a woman is thought to have cheated on her husband while he was gone for an extended period of time. In order to determine the guilt or innocence of the woman, the priest is called to create “bitter water” which is a mixture of water and dust from the Tabernacle floor. This water is then administered to the woman. If she is innocent, this water will have no effect, but if she is guilty, her stomach will swell and thigh will rot (Num. 5:22).

The typical atheist approach to this is as follows: the woman in this situation is pregnant, and the husband thinks that she was impregnated by someone else. The liquid given to the woman is an abortifacient, and it causes the fetus to discharge from her womb. Thus, God commands that in this instance an abortion is to be performed.

This approach to the text is simply unfounded. There are a number of assumptions at work here which are not present in the passage itself. First, it is to be noted that there is absolutely no indication whatsoever that the woman in this instance is pregnant. That assumption is read into the text.

Second, the mixture of water and dust is not an abortifacient. There is no inherent ability of a mixture of water and dust to do anything. God is the one who causes the particular result of the woman drinking this solution. This is a completely different scenario than a man creating a pill or procedure that kills a child, and then allowing a woman to use it at will. Even if this was talking about the killing of a fetus, it would have been done by the power of God alone. Christian pro-life advocate do not purport that God himself does not have the power over death and life. It is precisely because he does that we do not have the right to decide when a life should end. So even if the most radical pro-abortion reading of this text were correct, it still would have no bearing on the question of whether a human person could decide to end the life of a fetus.

Third, the idea that the stomach swells and the thigh rots does not give any clear indication that the death of a fetus is occurring in this instance. It is true that some commentators argue that this appears to be the implication of the text, especially in light of the fact that the woman who is not guilty is able to conceive children (Num. 5:28). However, it is highly plausible that the curse upon a woman for cheating on her husband is the curse of barrenness, so that she is unable to conceive children in the future, rather than the death of an already present fetus (which, again, is nowhere mentioned here).

The language of the swelling of the belly and the rotting of the thigh is quite ambiguous. The 2011 NIV translates this as a “miscarriage,” which has given further credence to the pro-choice arguments. It is important to note, however, that the NIV is a dynamic translation, meaning that it allows for looser renderings of particular passages in order that the text is more readable. In other words, it often reflects the particular interpretation of constructions of the Hebrew text instead of a direct word-for-word translation. In this instance, the original text is most definitely not translated in a straight-forward manner. It is sometimes argued that the language of “thigh” can often be used as a euphemism for one’s private parts. This is true in certain instances, but it is certainly not universally the case. Also, even if the rotting of the thigh is actually a reference to reproductive organs, it could just as likely be connected to barrenness rather than miscarriage, as this makes more sense of the fact that no pregnancy is mentioned in the text at all.

The pro-abortion interpretation of Numbers 5 is just that: an interpretation of the text. Atheists often cite this text (always from the 2011 NIV) without comment as if such a conclusion is obvious. It simply is not. There is no pregnancy mentioned in this text. There is no explicit mention of a fetus which is killed. These are assumptions read into the passage, rather than taken out of it. And, again, even if this interpretation were correct, it would not amount to an abortion at all, but instead it would indicate that God himself has power over life and death.

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