God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

The Bible on Abortion – Part 1

Perhaps most relevant to the Bible’s view on abortion is Exodus 21:22, which is in fact relevant for two reasons.

According to the NRSV the text proclaims:

When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine.

That is, someone who causes a woman to miscarry has to pay a fine.

But we’re not sure “miscarriage” is the right translation here. The NIV thinks this is about a woman who “gives birth prematurely” as a result of being hit.

This is a huge difference. Either the text is about causing an early birth or about causing a woman to lose her fetus.

The text literally refers to the fetus “leaving” the woman, without specifying the condition of the fetus, which is why it’s hard to know just from looking at the words which translation is right. (And the word for “fetus” is yeled, a fact I address below.)

If the NIV is right, then this passage doesn’t speak to abortions at all. But if, as seems likely, the NRSV is right, then Exodus 21:22 addresses what happens when someone causes a woman to miscarry, that is, causes an abortion. And the answer is that the person pays monetary damages.

Because the Bible specifically forbids monetary damages in the case of murder (in Numbers), we learn from this that, in the eyes of the Bible, a fetus is not a person.

In fact, this is a passage about fairness and lex talionis. In general, the biblical principle of justice is “an eye for an eye and a tooth for tooth.” But what happens if a man causes a woman to lose her fetus? The principle would dictate that he should lose his fetus, but he obviously hasn’t got one. This text, it seems, explains what to do instead. And the answer is that he has to pay monetary damages.

There’s another confusing aspect of the text, and that’s the clause “and yet no further harm follows.” Exodus 21:23-25 considers what happens if, by contrast, there is damage:

If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

Some people think that the “damage” refers to the fetus, and, in particular, that the “life for life” clause indicates that the fetus is a life. But this doesn’t seem likely, because of the follow-up. In particular, “tooth for tooth” doesn’t seem to be a provision that could reasonably be applied to a prematurely born child. Infants don’t have teeth.

More likely, this is about further damage that occurs to the woman. That is, just to be clear, the text says, the monetary damage is only for the fetus, not for any other damage that the woman may incur.

This text is relevant for a second reason: Some people suggest that the phrasing of the text tells us about the status of a fetus. In particular, the text refers to a woman’s yeled that leaves her. And yeled means “child” (generally as opposed to adult, like the English “youngster”).

If — some people claim — the fetus is already a yeled, then a fetus must be a human.

But this reasoning is flawed. To see how, we can look at similar passages, such as Genesis 25:22, in which the newly pregnant Rebecca worries because her twin children struggled within her. God tells her that, “Two nations are in your womb.” Surely this doesn’t mean that a fetus is a nation.

Rather, we commonly disconnect a word from the time at which it applies. The “nations” in Rebecca’s womb are “future nations,” just as a fetus is a “future child.” Similarly, in English, we might speak of a parent who loved his daughter even before she was conceived, but that doesn’t mean that a plan to have a child is a daughter.

So we see two things in Exodus 21:

  1. The text does not tell us that a fetus is a child, in spite of the Hebrew word yeled.
  2. The text tells us that causing a miscarriage is different than killing (if the passage is about miscarriages) or it tells us nothing about causing a miscarriage.

So people who cite Exodus 21 as prohibiting abortions have misunderstood the text.

Equally, people who cite Exodus 21 as permitting abortions have misunderstood the text, because Exodus 21 is about what happens by accident, not about what people do on purpose or what a woman does to or for herself.

At most, then, we learn from Exodus 21 that a fetus is not the same a human.

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September 6, 2015 - Posted by | biblical interpretation | , , , , , , ,

7 Comments »

  1. >Because the Bible specifically forbids monetary damages in the
    >case of murder (in Numbers), we learn from this that,
    >in the eyes of the Bible, a fetus is not a person

    This is not a murder. It is something less than murder for which I offer your explanation of “Thou shall not murder” in your wonderful book, “God Didn’t Say That”.

    >Some people think that the “damage” refers to the fetus,

    Well, the grammar certainly suggests as much (the verb yihyeh (masc) is refers to the child[ren] (masc) not being harmed, not the mother (fem)).

    >and, in particular, that the “life for life” clause indicates that the fetus is a
    >life. But this doesn’t seem likely, because of the follow-up. In particular,
    >”tooth for tooth” doesn’t seem to be a provision that could reasonably
    >be applied to a prematurely born child. Infants don’t have teeth.

    This argument has merit if the lex talionis is taken literally. It is not meant to be taken literally. What vv 22-25 more likely means is that if a premature birth resulting in harm to baby is caused by a person other than the mother, then a penalty more severe than a fine must be imposed. More specifically, the judges must punish the offender according to their understanding of the law of retaliation whatever that happened to be at that time.

    >If — some people claim — the fetus is already a yeled, then a fetus must be a human.

    As I inferred in my comment to your original post, there is no warrant – biblical or otherwise – to think that the ancient Hebrews even conceived of the idea of a fetus as something other than an unborn baby. Moreover, your argument that yeled is used to mean something other than child (i.e., nations in Gen 25:22) assumes a literal reading of the text. I argue that the use of yeled to mean nation is a metaphor AND reinforces the notion that a yeled is important to the ancient Hebrews in some way quite apart from its gestational state.

    >1. The text does not tell us that a fetus is a child, in spite of the Hebrew word yeled.

    Quite right. It tells us that a yeled is a yeled. Ancient Hebrews knew nothing of embryology. Stages of development were not recognized (at least in the biblical text). A pregnant woman carried within her womb a ‘yeled’. And it was a ‘yeled’ that came forth. The only time yeled was understood as something other than a child (or the offspring of certain animals) was when the word was used metaphorically (see above).

    >2. The text tells us that causing a miscarriage is different than killing (if the passage
    >is about miscarriages) or it tells us nothing about causing a miscarriage.

    No it does not. Miscarriage (in today’s lingo) is the death of an unborn child. The passage only refers to harm to a child born prematurely (tho’ it’s hard to see how a premature birth in those days didn’t result in the death of the child). In other words, the culture of their day contemplated a range of punishments to be determined by the nature of the harm caused. We know this because the author cited the lex talionis as the principle guiding the determination of the punishment to be the imposed.

    Blessings,

    Michael

    Comment by Michael | September 6, 2015 | Reply

    • >Some people think that the “damage” refers to the fetus,

      Well, the grammar certainly suggests as much (the verb yihyeh (masc) is refers to the child[ren] (masc) not being harmed, not the mother (fem)).

      The masculine verb YIHYEH agrees with the masculine noun NEZEK (damage), and has nothing to do with the person to whom that damage applies.

      Comment by Joel H. | September 21, 2015 | Reply

  2. […] may also want to read part 1 of this […]

    Pingback by The Bible on Abortion – Part 2 « God Didn't Say That | September 16, 2015 | Reply

  3. Joel, a linguistic question: does “yeled” in Biblical Hebrew actually mean the same as in Modern Hebrew, i.e. “child”? I am wondering because the root has to do with birth, does it not, so perhaps “yeled” is “someone born”? (Or “a future someone born”?)

    Comment by Asya Pereltsvaig | September 21, 2015 | Reply

  4. […] think this word has much to do with the status of a fetus, for reasons I’ve already pointed out — in particular, the general way in which words are disconnected from the time at which they […]

    Pingback by What’s This Leaping in Luke 1:41? « God Didn't Say That | September 24, 2015 | Reply

  5. This may be slightly off topic, but the idea of monetary damages as a sort of stop-gap solution where lex talionis cannot be applied got me wondering about another passage. In this passage, if I’m understanding the blog post right, the idea is that a man’s fetus cannot be destroyed in recompense, and so monetary compensation serves as a substitute. Deuteronomy 25:11-12 has a curious passage where a hypothetical woman seizes a man’s privates during a fight and has her hand cut off. I wonder if this might also be a similar case. I’m speculating here, but let’s suppose that the wording in the passage, to its original audience, would have implied damage to the man’s *mavushim*. Given that a woman does not have mabushim that could be damaged as punishment, could the cutting off of the hand also be a substitute for lex talionis in a case where it physically cannot be applied?

    Comment by Mitchell Powell | November 4, 2015 | Reply

    • An interesting thought.

      Comment by Joel H. | November 4, 2015 | Reply


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