Does the Old Testament encourage abortion?

Two Bible passages have been used to suggest that the Bible encourages abortion. The first is Exodus 21:22 which says:

22 “When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. “

The second is Numbers 5:11-31 which is about when a husband believes that his wife has been unfaithful but there isn’t objective evidence.  In this case, the woman is given water mixed with a little dust and with the words of a curse dipped into it. If she is guilty then this is the curse:

“‘the Lord make you a curse and an oath among your people, when the Lord makes your thigh fall away and your body swell. 22 May this water that brings the curse pass into your bowels and make your womb swell and your thigh fall away.’”[1]

Let’s take these in turn

A miscarriage?

The assumption with Exodus 21 is that Moses describes a miscarriage. If this is the case, then the loss of the baby seems to go unpunished. The life has now value. This is based on how the RSV ) translated the verse. It’s best to be wary when just one or two translations go down a specific interpretation route not followed by others.  The Hebrew text simply states that the blow causes the child/chlldren to come out. In other words, there is nothing to suggest that this is describing a miscarriage as opposed to premature birth.[2] Moses says that there is no further penalty (other than a fine) if there is “no harm.” The “miscarriage translation assumes that this refers to further harm to the woman as harm has already been caused. However, the reference could be both to the woman and to the child. If there is no harm to either then there is no further punishment. However, if life is lost then atonement needs to be made in accordance with Lex Talon.

A forced abortion

With the Numbers text, the assumption is that

  1. The reference to her womb swelling and thigh falling away is a round about way of referring to a miscarriage/abortion. Note that the word translated womb can refer specifically to the womb or more generally to the belly and so may refer to a general swollenness.
  2. That the water includes a substance intended to trigger an abortion.

These assumptions require us to second guess and to read into the text things that are not there. The assumption is that the ordeal works like most ordeals where the participant is likely to be harmed unless a miraculous intervention protects them.

Here, the opposite seems to be the case. The woman is asked to drink something which may not be pleasant but is quite innocuous of itself. Therefore, the presumption is that unless she is guilty, then she will walk away fine. The trial in effect relies on the belief of both husband and wife in God’s ability to intervene. There is a solemnity to the ceremony and a challenge to take God’s word and command seriously. The guilty woman is encouraged to confess and if she does to face the lesser penalty of divorce without dowry rather than the death penalty for adultery.

Conclusion

Neither of these examples of case law suggest a tolerance of abortion without some very special pleading. Taken at face value and within the context of Scripture’s concern to protect life, these texts read as showing great concern to protect the lives of the vulnerable.

[1] Numbers 5:21-22.

[2] In fact, there is a specific Hebrew word, shakal (see Exodus 23:26) to describe miscarriage or abortion. C.f. https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-misuse-of-exodus-2122-25-by-pro-choice-advocates

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