Many people point to Luke 1:41 (“When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb.”) as evidence that, in the view of the Bible, a fetus is a child. But these people have misinterpreted the verse.
On one hand, the reasoning behind the flawed claim is straightforward: If it was a “child” that leaped while still in Elizabeth’s womb, whatever is in a womb must be a child. So a fetus is a child. And, in turn, abortion must be the same a killing a child. But though straightforward, this reasoning is misguided.
Language commonly disassociates a word from the time at which it applies. For instance, in Genesis 25:23, God tells Rebekah that “two nations are in your womb.” Surely this doesn’t mean that a fetus is a nation (and that, therefore, a single abortion is identical to genocide). Rather, the “two nations” are “two future nations.”
Similarly — as I explain in my Huffington Post piece, “What Does the Bible Really Say About Abortion?” — this is why in English a drawing of George Washington at age two might be captioned “The Founding Father as a Child” even though he wasn’t yet the founding father. And it’s the reason a mother might say that her motivation to get married and have children was that she pictured her life with her children and liked what she saw. “Her children” here — like “the founding father” and the “two nations” — represent the future. This is also why we might talk about “Mark Twain as a young child,” even though he wasn’t Mark Twain yet, not having yet assumed that pen name.
It might perhaps be clearer in all of these cases to specify the time. So, “the future Mark Twain as a young child,” a woman’s “future children,” or “the future founding father,” but language doesn’t require it. In just the same say, the Bible doesn’t need to specify “two future nations are in your womb” or “Elizabeth’s future child leaped in her womb.”
People are generally able to recognize this linguistic pattern, but when it comes to abortion and the status of a fetus, people are sometimes driven to read more into the text than was originally there.
So while Luke 1:41 is consistent with a fetus being a child, it is equally consistent with a fetus not being a child. Luke 1:41 does not tell us anything about the status of a fetus, so it doesn’t tell us anything about abortion.
[You may also want to read part 1 of this series.]
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:
- The text does not tell us that a fetus is a child, in spite of the Hebrew word yeled.
- 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.
I’ve received a lot of feedback on my recent piece, “What Does the Bible Really Say about Abortion,” in which I make the claim that even though the Bible shouts the importance of knowing when life beings, it doesn’t offer much specific guidance, and, in particular, doesn’t tell us if a fetus is a human.
You can read the article here, and listen to a discussion on the same themes here:
(The full episode from which that clip is taken is here.)
I didn’t have room in the article for the kind of depth that many people want, so my next posts here go into more detail about some of the passages that commonly come up in the context of abortion and the Bible:
- Exodus 21:22 — potentially about causing a woman to miscarry: “When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage…”
- Luke 1:41 — potentially about the status of a fetus: “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb.”
- Numbers 12:12 — potentially about the status of a fetus: “Do not let her be like one stillborn,…”
- Psalm 139:13 — potentially about the status of a fetus: “…you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”
- Exodus 23:26 — potentially about miscarriages: “No one shall miscarry or be barren in your land.”
- The Ten Commandments — potentially about abortion: “You shall not murder.”
- Leviticus 19:28 and Deuteronomy 14:1 — potentially about abortion: “You shall not make any gashes in your flesh for the dead or tattoo any marks upon you” and “You must not lacerate yourselves.”
- 1 Corinthians 6:19-20 — potentially about abortion: “Or do you not know that your body is a temple … and that you are not your own.”
A New York Times article yesterday titled “Christians Debate Verses From Bible on Homosexuality” presents, among other things, two views of what Paul says about homosexuality in Romans 1:26-27. Unfortunately, both positions depend on translation inaccuracies.
Caleb Kaltenbach, the lead pastor of Discovery Church in Simi Valley, CA, claims: “The word that Paul uses for `natural’ is not referring to what is natural to a specific person, but rather what is natural in light of God’s intent for the sexual design of humanity.” In other words, he says, no one can be naturally homosexual.
Matthew Vines, author of God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships, counters: “While Paul labels same-sex behavior `unnatural,’ he uses the same word to criticize long hair in men in 1 Corinthians 11:14, which most Christians read as a synonym for `unconventional.'” That is, it’s not that homosexuality is unnatural, but rather, like hair styles, a matter of conventionality.
I can’t find linguistic support for either view.
As issue is the Greek word fusis (“nature”) and its adjectival cousin fusikos (“natural”). According to Romans 1:26, “women exchanged natural [fusikos] intercourse for that which is against nature [fusis].” Pastor Kaltenbach thinks this refers not an individual’s nature but rather to a universal divine intent. Mr. Vines thinks this refers to conventionality.
Galatians 2:15 suggests that Pastor Kaltenbach is wrong about the word fusis. There, Paul writes that “we are Jews by nature [fusis]” even though (2:16) “we have come to believe in Christ Jesus.” Recognizing the obvious role of fusis in this passage, most translations render the text “we are Jews by birth.” In this case, fusis means precisely “that which is natural for a specific person,” namely, the person born a Jew. If Pastor Kaltenbach were right, Galatians 2:15 would mean that the new Christians were going against “what is natural in light of God’s intent for … humanity.”
We see that, contrary to Pastor Kaltenbach’s claim, fusis can in fact refer to what is natural to a specific person.
Turing to Mr. Vines’s position, 1 Corinthians 11:14 does use the word fusis, in the context of men growing their hair long, but the long hair isn’t against nature. Rather, the long hair is “degrading,” a quality conveyed by a different Greek word, atimia. (In other contexts, atimia ranges in meaning from “disgraceful” to “ordinary.” Romans 1:26 uses this word to describe some lusts as “shameful.”) That is, the role of “nature” here is not to describe the long hair. Rather, it’s “nature” that teaches that men’s long hair is atimia. It’s not quite true, in other words, that “Paul uses the same word [fusis] to criticize long hair in men.”
We see that even though Romans 1:26-27 shares vocabulary with 1 Corinthians 11:14, the long hair on men in 1 Corinthians is not parallel with the unnatural intercourse in Romans 1.
More generally, the linguistic nuances in Romans 1 offer little insight into whether Paul was speaking out against homosexuality. All we really know is that Paul was of the belief that there are two kids of sex, natural and unnatural. He doesn’t say whether homosexual sex, like heterosexual sex, admits of both categories.
This is the first verse of the “Isaiah Translation Challenge.” Post your translations, questions, and thoughts as comments.
Here’s a rough literal translation of Isaiah 54:1:
Rejoice, O barren woman who has not given birth.//
Shout joy and celebrate, O woman who has not ached.//
For the children of the desolate woman shall outnumber the children of the married woman.//
— says the Lord//
Isaiah 54:1 opens with two words in stark contrast: A command to “rejoice” followed immediately by “barren woman.” Rejoicing — perhaps “shouting for joy” — represents one extreme of the emotional spectrum, while “barren woman” embodies the other. In antiquity, there was perhaps no greater sorrow than to be barren. So even though Isaiah opens with a command — “rejoice, O barren woman” — he also practically assaults the reader with a question, namely, “what reason could the most dismayed member of society have to celebrate?”
Then Isaiah drives home the point in typical poetic fashion. He adds “who has not given birth” to modify “barren woman.” Though redundant, that phrase emphasizes the barren woman’s pain. Next — again in typical biblical poetic fashion — Isaiah repeats his theme with different words: “Shout for joy and celebrate, O woman who has not ached [with childbirth].”
Having twice commanded the barren, childless woman to be happy, Isaiah explains why: For the children of the desolate woman shall outnumber the children of the married woman.”
Verse 1 ends by attributing the poetry to God.
Because Hebrew is a gendered language, Isaiah can use feminine language where in English we need the word “woman,” so Isaiah’s command “rejoice” includes the information that he is addressing a girl or a woman. Additionally, adjectives in Hebrew can refer to people (similar to the way we say “an American,” which means “an American person”). So for the English “barren woman,” Isaiah only needs one word, the feminine adjective “barren.” Isaiah is thus able to express, “rejoice, O barren woman” with only two words.
Continuing the economy of language, Isaiah omits “who” in the clause “who has not given birth,” using only the two words “not birthed.” (This is not common biblical Hebrew, but neither is it unattested.)
So the English “Rejoice, O barren woman who has not given birth” requires but four words in Hebrew: “rejoice barren not birthed.”
Those four words are followed by five: “Shout joy and-celebrate not ached.” And here Isaiah introduces a subtle nuance. Instead of using the last two words (“not ached”) to modify the object of his imperative (as he did with “not given birth”) here those words are the object. In other words, in the first line Isaiah addresses “a barren woman who has not given birth” while here he addresses “one who has not ached.” This kind of slight deviation from the expected is part of what makes for great art.
Isaiah next takes advantage of Hebrew’s flexible word order. Instead of addressing the “children of the desolate woman” first, he says, “for more numerous are the children of the desolate woman than the children of the married woman.” And, again because of the gendered nature of Hebrew, Isaiah makes do with far fewer words: “for more-numerous children-of desolate than-children-of married.” (Complex details of Hebrew let Isaiah do away with the words “more” and “of” completely.)
Finally, as in our English, Isaiah puts “the Lord” after the verb “says,” so that God comes last in the verse.
In terms of the words, we don’t know the exact nuances of the words for “rejoice,” “celebrate,” etc. We do know that the imperative in the first line (“rejoice”) is the verbal form of the noun (“joy”) in the second. And our verb “ached” is probably more generally “was ill.”
In terms of imagery, the text starts with a specific woman and her pain in the first two phrases and then progresses to a general situation in the third, as if to say: “you, a specific unhappy person, should be happy, because people like you will be happy.”
The NRSV gives us, “Sing, O barren one who did not bear; burst into song and shout, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate woman will be more than the children of her that is married, says the LORD.”
This obviously fails in many ways. The archaic “O” is out of place. “Barren” and “bear” sound similar in a way that the Hebrew akarah (“barren”) and yalada (“bore”) do not. The English phrase has twice as many words as the Hebrew. The next line is unclear until the very last word, which tells the reader that the line is about a woman. And the line contains more than twice the number of words as the Hebrew. Additionally, “shout” doesn’t seem like a happy word. The English phrase “the children of X will be more than the children of Y” borders on the ungrammatical. “Her that is married” is hardly poetic.
The NAB is similarly problematic: “Raise a glad cry, you barren one who did not bear, break forth in jubilant song, you who were not in labor, For more numerous are the children of the deserted wife than the children of her who has a husband, says the LORD.”
It takes the NAB six words to introduce the two-word contrast between “rejoice” and “barren.” The translation misses the connection between “rejoice” and “joy,” by using the unrelated “raise a glad cry” and “jubilant song.” “Were not in labor” isn’t quite the point; it’s not just that the woman wasn’t in labor but rather that she’s never been in labor. The phrase “deserted wife” has no founding in the original Hebrew, which just refers to a female who is desolate, not necessarily a wife.
The Message — a version I seldom cite here — starts off with promise, but deteriorates rapidly into vapid prose: “`Sing, barren woman, who has never had a baby. Fill the air with song, you who’ve never experienced childbirth! You’re ending up with far more children than all those childbearing woman.’ GOD says so!”
For those who want, here are the Hebrew words of the original. Translations are after the slash. Comments are in (parentheses). English words needed to make sense of the Hebrew are in [braces].
roNI/Rejoice (feminine imperative) akaRA/barren woman [who has] lo/not yaLAda/given birth
pitzCHI/Shout (feminine imperative) riNAH/joy v-tzahaLI/and-celebrate [the one who has] lo/not CHAlah/been ill.
ki/for [more] raBIM/numerous [are] b’nai/children-of shomeiMAH/desolate (feminine) mi-b’nai/than-children-of v’uLAH/married (or “espoused”)
aMAR/said (or says) adoNAI/the Lord.
1. Does the English translation need to mirror the economy of language in the Hebrew?
2. Does the English translation need to preserve the parallel endings “not given birth” in the first line and “not ached” in the second? Does it have to preserve the subtle distinction between the two, noted above?
3. Does barrenness today represent what it used to? If not, is there a better way to express Isaiah’s contrast between rejoicing and sorrow?
So there it is. Post questions or your translation as a comment.
In the fall I promised an “Isaiah translation challenge” — a collective approach to understanding and translating the exquisite poetry of Isaiah 54. I’m pleased to announce that it’s here.
My next post is a detailed analysis of the text of Isaiah 54:1, written with an eye toward guiding poets and translators. I hope you’ll post your translation attempts in the comments there. (To help people focus on the original text, the comments will not appear right away.)
If you have a blog of your own, I’ll be grateful if you help spread the word so we can reach as many translators and poets as possible.
I’m looking forward to seeing the various translations!
As I recently explained on my blog for “The Unabridged Bible” (“Why did they Build the Tower of Babel?“), the Tower of Babel was waterproofed, the goal being to protect the people against a future flood from God.
The text even says so: “And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar” (Genesis 11:3, NRSV). But if you’re not an expert in ancient materials science you don’t know that bitumen was an ancient waterproofing substance.
So here’s the question: An ancient reader of the text would have known the role of bitumen, and the waterproofing is central to the narrative. Should the translation therefore help modern readers follow along? Perhaps the line should read, “They had brick for stone, and waterproofing bitumen for mortar.”
What do you think?
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all agree that crowds supporting Jesus carried weapons of some sort, usually translated “swords.” (Curiously, the Newsweek article omits Matthew.)
But Dr. Paula Fredriksen is quoted in the article as arguing that “the Greek word used in the Gospels that Martin interprets as sword really means something more akin to knife.”
She’s almost right. The word, machaira, means both “sword” and “knife.”
In Genesis 27:40, Abraham raises a “knife” against his bound son. In Hebrew, that’s ma’achelet and in Greek translation, machaira. Though etymology is notoriously unreliable, the root shared between the Hebrew words ma’achelet (“knife”?) and ochel (“food”) suggests some connection between the knife and food. But even if there is a connection, a ma’achelet is surely not a butter knife. It’s a sharp blade that’s deadly enough to slaughter with.
Furthermore, we also find machaira used to translate the Hebrew word cherev, “sword.”
Returning to the New Testament (which offers better evidence about Greek, because the Greek in the Septuagint is often a poor translation), we find that machaira is metaphorically the opposite of “peace,” in Matthew 10:34, for instance. And in John 18:10 — the passage about Jesus’s armed followers — one thing we know is that the weapon, a machaira, was carried in a sheath of some sort from which Simon Peter drew it.
Again, the machaira isn’t a butter knife, or (because it hadn’t yet been invented) a switchblade.
I think it’s misleading to say that the word doesn’t mean “sword.” It clearly does. The question is what kind. Perhaps we should call it a “dagger” in English, or perhaps there’s a better specific word, but it was certainly a violent weapon.
Jesus’s followers according to the Gospels were armed.
Translators and poets, get ready!
Now that I’ve submitted my second book manuscript to St. Martin’s Press, I’m looking forward to spending more time here. As part of my return, in the next little while I’m going to announce a project to translate Isaiah 54 collectively. Some of the most moving words ever penned, in my opinion, translations unfortunately run from banal to barely intelligible.
So get ready. Take a look at the text. Start studying the words. Familiarize yourself with the imagery. And think about the best way to convey Isaiah’s message in English.
I’ll post details here soon.