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Abortion and the God of the Bible
by Farrell Till

Abortion has become an issue so emotionally charged in American politics that many people will vote only for candidates who oppose it. In "Does a Person Exist at the Moment of Conception?" I showed that scientific evidence does not support the pro-life claim that a "person" exists from the very earliest stages of pregnancy. Most opponents of abortion will say that their opposition to it is more biblically than scientifically based, but they apparently don't know that the Bible really says nothing directly about abortion. What it says indirectly about the subject, however, indicates that those who wrote the Bible had an entirely different view of embryos than do modern opponents of abortion. One such indication can be seen in a passage in Exodus.

Exodus 21:22 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. 23 If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

Old Testament law mandated the death penalty for anyone who killed another person, even if the death was unintentional (Deut. 4:41-43; Deut. 19:10). As these passages show, Hebrew law provided for "cities of refuge," where those who had unintentionally killed other persons could flee and be safe from the "avengers of blood," who were entitled under their laws to exact an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, etc. Such laws indicate that the ancient Hebrews considered the killing of another person to be a serious offense that warranted death, but the passage quoted above from Exodus 21 provided only for a monetary fine when someone injured a pregnant woman and caused her to miscarry. Evidently, then, biblical authors, who fundamentalist Christians believe wrote by divine inspiration, did not consider the killing of an embryo to be as serious as the killing of an actual person.

No, no, no, Bible fundamentalists will say, you are distorting the meaning of the passage. What it really means is that the person who caused a pregnant woman to miscarry would pay a fine if the miscarriage was the only "harm" that came from the injury. In other words, if the child that was miscarried survived and experienced no other "harm," the one responsible for the miscarriage would have to pay a fine, but if there was further injury to the prematurely born child, the one who caused the miscarriage would have to pay with an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.

This interpretation, however, makes the woman almost entirely irrelevant to the law, because it makes all references to harm or injury applicable only to the miscarried child and none applicable to the woman who had been injured. This view is inconsistent with Old Testament laws that were very clear in their eye-for-an-eye themes. The Septuagint translation of the Old Testament, in fact, leaves no doubt that the fine was to be extracted because of the potential injury to the child that the miscarriage would cause.

And if two men strive together and smite a woman with child, and her child be born imperfectly formed, he shall be forced to pay a penalty; as the woman's husband may lay upon him, he shall pay with a valuation. But if he be perfectly formed, he shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.

This translation imposed a fine if the miscarried child was born "imperfectly formed," so the intention of this law, according to the Septuagint, was to fine those who caused the premature birth of a child who had not "formed" to the point of being able to survive out of the womb but to impose the eye-for-an-eye law if the child was "perfectly formed" yet dead or otherwise harmed upon birth. In other words, the law was apparently recognizing the difference in the death of an unborn child in the early stages of pregnancy, when it had not had time to form "perfectly," and the death of one in the later stages of pregnancy, when it had had time to form perfectly. The way this law was worded seemed to recognize a difference in the importance of an embryo that had not yet taken human form and one that had. An injury that caused the death of the former was punishable by just a fine, but an injury that caused the death of the latter called for imposition of the eye-for-an-eye-law or, in other words, imposition of the death penalty. This passage, then, certainly is not friendly to the often heard pro-life view that abortion at any stage of pregnancy is the same as murdering a person, because Hebrew law, which fundamentalist Christians believe was God's law, extracted a lesser penalty for the killing of an embryo in its early stages than was extracted for the killing of an embryo that had advanced far enough to be fully formed. One could say, then, that this law was consistent with modern court rulings that allow abortions in the early stages of pregnancy but restrict them in the latter stages.

At any rate, modern translations of Exodus 21:22 are quite clear in conveying that the penalty for causing the miscarriage of a fetus was less severe than the law that decreed death for the killing of a person. Here is the Revised English Bible rendition of the verse.

When in the course of a brawl, a man knocks against a pregnant woman so that she has a miscarriage but suffers no further injury, then the offender must pay whatever the woman's husband demands after assessment. But where injury ensues, you are to give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot....

In this translation, injury to both the unborn child and the mother are adjudicated. The person who caused the miscarriage would pay a fine for the loss of the unborn child, and that would be the extent of his punishment if the mother sustained "no further injury." However, if the mother did sustain injury, the offender would have to pay a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, etc. Either translation is rather clear in conveying that Hebrew law (read God's law) put less importance on injury or death to an unborn child than it did to a person who had already been born. The Bible, then, is not at all friendly to the pro-life claim that abortion is equivolant to murder.

A passage in the book of Numbers is even less friendly to the pro-life view. It is long, but it needs to be quoted in its entirety to present adequately the problem that it poses for those who believe that God considers abortion immoral.

Numbers 5:11 Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying: 12 Speak to the Israelites and say to them: If any man's wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him, 13 if a man has had intercourse with her but it is hidden from her husband, so that she is undetected though she has defiled herself, and there is no witness against her since she was not caught in the act; 14 if a spirit of jealousy comes on him, and he is jealous of his wife who has defiled herself; or if a spirit of jealousy comes on him, and he is jealous of his wife, though she has not defiled herself; 15 then the man shall bring his wife to the priest. And he shall bring the offering required for her, one-tenth of an ephah of barley flour. He shall pour no oil on it and put no frankincense on it, for it is a grain offering of jealousy, a grain offering of remembrance, bringing iniquity to remembrance. 16 Then the priest shall bring her near, and set her before Yahweh; 17 the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel, and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water. 18 The priest shall set the woman before Yahweh, dishevel the woman's hair, and place in her hands the grain offering of remembrance, which is the grain offering of jealousy. In his own hand the priest shall have the water of bitterness that brings the curse. 19 Then the priest shall make her take an oath, saying, "If no man has lain with you, if you have not turned aside to uncleanness while under your husband's authority, be immune to this water of bitterness that brings the curse. 20 But if you have gone astray while under your husband's authority, if you have defiled yourself and some man other than your husband has had intercourse with you," 21 --let the priest make the woman take the oath of the curse and say to the woman--"Yahweh make you an execration and an oath among your people, when Yaheh makes your uterus drop, your womb discharge; 22 now may this water that brings the curse enter your bowels and make your womb discharge, your uterus drop!" And the woman shall say, "Amen. Amen." 23 Then the priest shall put these curses in writing, and wash them off into the water of bitterness. 24 He shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that brings the curse, and the water that brings the curse shall enter her and cause bitter pain. 25 The priest shall take the grain offering of jealousy out of the woman's hand, and shall elevate the grain offering before Yahweh and bring it to the altar; 26 and the priest shall take a handful of the grain offering, as its memorial portion, and turn it into smoke on the altar, and afterward shall make the woman drink the water. 27 When he has made her drink the water, then, if she has defiled herself and has been unfaithful to her husband, the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain, and her womb shall discharge, her uterus drop, and the woman shall become an execration among her people. 28 But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be immune and be able to conceive children. 29 This is the law in cases of jealousy, when a wife, while under her husband's authority, goes astray and defiles herself, 30 or when a spirit of jealousy comes on a man and he is jealous of his wife; then he shall set the woman before Yaheh, and the priest shall apply this entire law to her. 31 The man shall be free from iniquity, but the woman shall bear her iniquity.

This passage describes a trial by ordeal, which was a primitive way of determining guilt or innocence. As the article linked to explains, this type of "judgment" usually involved fire or water. An accused person, for example, would have to walk through fire or retrieve a stone from boiling water or experience some similar trial. If the "ordeal" caused no injury or just slight injury or if the injuries healed quickly, the accused was judged to be innocent. Otherwise, he was considered guilty. The premise of the trial by ordeal was a superstitious belief that the gods would protect the innocent from harm during trials by ordeal. That the Bible contains an example of trial by ordeal commanded by the Hebrew god Yahweh should be proof to rational people that it is not the inspired, inerrant "word" of an all-knowing, loving, merciful deity but is instead a collection of writings that simply reflected the beliefs of the primitive, superstitious times in which it was written. Enlightened people today would understand that the reaction of women to a trial by ordeal like the one described above would depend on the individual strengths and weaknesses of their immunity systems and not on their actual guilt or innocence. No doubt, many innocent wives were condemned by the results of this trial by ordeal, and likewise many guilty wives with stronger immune systems were "exonerated" by it. Christians today, then, who demand that "biblical principles" be imposed on society at large, are really crusading to turn the clock back to a time when morality was determined by cultural superstitions and taboos rather than by rational considerations.

Be that as it may, the passage quoted above described a trial by ordeal that women had to submit to when their husbands suspected unverifiable infidelity. This particular ordeal required the suspects to drink a "water of bitterness" that was concocted by mixing "holy water" with dirt from the tabernacle floor. As the ordeal was described, some women would experience "bitter pain," "discharge from the womb," and a dropping of the uterus. Of course, those who experienced such effects were "determined" to be guilty of the infidelity of which their husbands had accused them. As noted above, any rational person would know that grievous effects like those described in the trial by ordeal could in no way determine actual guilt. That, however, is irrelevant to the reason why I introduced this passage into the controversy. We could imagine that over the course of the centuries that the Hebrew culture existed, this trial by ordeal was used many times when men suspected that their wives were guilty of infidelity. We could also imagine that in at least some of those cases, the accused wives were pregnant, either from sexual intercourse with their husbands or from the adulterous relationships they had been accused of, so just think seriously and, if possible, unemotionally for a moment. If pregnant women were subjected to an ordeal that could cause "bitter [abdominal] pain" or "discharge from the womb" or a fallen uterus, they would surely have aborted the fetuses they were carrying. If, then, abortion is the horribly immoral act that Christians believe their god is so opposed to, why would he ever have commanded a trial by ordeal that would have resulted in the abortion of at least some unborn children?

There are numerous other biblical passages that are inconsistent with the fundamentalist view that abortion at any stage of pregnancy is murder. Genesis 6-8 tells the story of how the god Yahweh became so distressed with the "wickedness" of his creation that he sent a great flood upon the earth that caused "all flesh" to die (7:21). Now if this story is actual historical fact, as most Bible believers think, then there were surely many pregnant women on earth at that time who died in the flood. When these women died, their unborn children would have also died. How can a story like this be reconciled with the widespread belief of the pro-life movement that abortion at any stage of pregnancy is morally repugnant to God? Either their premise is wrong or else their god was inaccurately depicted in the Bible, and I don't think they would find the second alternative acceptable.

There are even biblical passages in which the Hebrew god Yahweh, who is also the god of Christians, pronounced curses in which he condemned infants to be dashed to pieces and pregnant women to have their wombs ripped open. Notice that the text below says that the punishing curses being pronounced on Ephraim and Samaria would come from Yahweh.

Hosea 13:15 Although he [Ephraim] may flourish among rushes, the east wind shall come, a blast from Yahweh, rising from the wilderness; and his fountain shall dry up, his spring shall be parched. It shall strip his treasury of every precious thing. 16 Samaria shall bear her guilt, because she has rebelled against her God; they shall fall by the sword, their little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open.

There are other biblical passages that don't specifically mention the slaughter of pregnant women but that necessitate the conclusion that unborn children were killed by command of the god Yahweh. These commands concerned Yahweh's orders that when the Israelites invaded the land of Canaan, they should utterly destroy everyone in the cities that they conquered.

Deuteronomy 20:16 But as for the towns of these peoples that Yahweh your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. 17 You shall annihilate them--the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites--just as Yahweh your God has commanded....

Common sense would tell us that, just as pregnant women would have been living on earth when the god Yahweh sent a flood to destroy it, pregnant women would have also been in at least some of the towns and cities that the Israelites allegedly conquered when they crossed the Jordan River and invaded the land of Canaan. If, then, the Israelites obeyed Yahweh's command to leave nothing alive to breathe in these cities, then surely some pregnant women were killed. Abortion as performed today would kill only the unborn fetus but leave the mother alive, but Yahweh ordered the killing of pregnant women, which would have killed not just the women but also their unborn children. The passages below claim that the Israelite invasion of Canaan was successful and that Yahweh's command to leave nothing alive to breathe in the conquered cities was obeyed.

Joshua 10:40 So Joshua defeated the whole land, the hill country and the Negeb and the lowland and the slopes, and all their kings; he left no one remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as Yahweh God of Israel commanded.

Joshua 11:10 Joshua turned back at that time, and took Hazor, and struck its king down with the sword. Before that time Hazor was the head of all those kingdoms. 11 And they put to the sword all who were in it, utterly destroying them; there was no one left who breathed, and he burned Hazor with fire. 12 And all the towns of those kings, and all their kings, Joshua took, and struck them with the edge of the sword, utterly destroying them, as Moses the servant of Yahweh had commanded. 13 But Israel burned none of the towns that stood on mounds except Hazor, which Joshua did burn. 14 All the spoil of these towns, and the livestock, the Israelites took for their booty; but all the people they struck down with the edge of the sword, until they had destroyed them, and they did not leave any who breathed.

As I noted above, if the Israelites did indeed invade the land of Canaan and leave none alive to breathe in the cities and regions that they conquered, they would, by necessity, have killed many pregnant women and hence caused the deaths of their unborn children. The same would have been true of the Israelite massacre of the Amalekites under, presumably, direct orders from their god Yahweh.

1 Samuel 15:1 Samuel said to Saul, "Yahweh sent me to anoint you king over his people Israel; now therefore listen to the words of Yahweh. 2 Thus says Yahweh of hosts, 'I will punish the Amalekites for what they did in opposing the Israelites when they came up out of Egypt. 3 Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.'"

Passages like these, which depicted the Hebrew god Yahweh (who is also the Christian god) rather barbarically, are not at all uncommon in the Old Testament, so whatever basis the pro-life movement may have for its position on the controversial issue of abortion, they cannot logically base it on so-called biblical principals. Only those who believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God without really knowing what it teaches–and their numbers are admittedly legion–will be swayed by claims that abortion is inconsistent with the perfectly moral nature of the biblical god. After I had finished a preliminary version of this article, I saw a pickup truck in a local parking lot that had a bumpersticker on it that said, "God Is Prolife." I don't know who the owner of that truck is, but I do know that he can't know very much about the Bible. How could anyone possibly think that a god who would either do or command the atrocities described in the passages quoted above is "prolife"?

In "Does a Person Exist at the Moment of Conception?" I show that the scientific evidence does not support the pro-life claim that abortion constitutes murder.

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