Does the Bible Approve of Abortion?

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By Clark Bates| This week’s post is another response to “meme theology”, or in this case it might be considered “meme exegesis”.  As the fires of the abortion debate have been stoked once again, with the introduction of new state legislation, making abortion illegal in almost all instances, the vitriol has flooded social media. 

Recently, when engaging with an abortion advocate online, I was presented with the meme above and the claim that “the Bible promotes abortion”.  This is, of course, a backdoor attempt to religiously legitimize a practice most Christians find abhorrent, and it is often produced by those who would not seek biblical approval for any area of their life, making it disingenuous at best.

That being said, many Christians would simply reject the claim and respond in anger, possibly justified, but never actually examine the passages cited.  As I am a avid proponent of Christian apologists being biblically mature ahead of everything else, it follows that we should know the passages cited, their proper context, and how to respond biblically. 

That is the purpose of this week’s article.  Below I will address each passage and seek to explain why they cannot, legitimately, be applied to the abortion agenda today.

Exodus 21:22-23


“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.  But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”


The standard reasoning attached to this verse, and that which is implied in the meme, suggests that when a fetus is miscarried, the penalty is only a fine, whereas in the following verse, if the mother is killed, the penalty is life.  It has been articulated as follows:

“In other words, if you cause the death of the fetus, you merely pay a fine; if you cause the death of the woman, you lose your own life. Thus, the Bible clearly shows that a fetus is not considered a person. If the fetus were considered to be a person, then the penalty for killing it would be the same as for killing the woman—death. Abortion, then, is not murder.”[1]

The conclusions made in this reasoning stem from the belief that the Hebrew word יָצָא (yâtsâ) should be translated as “miscarriage” or as “depart”.  While the idea of “departing” is consistent with a possible translation, the concept of miscarriage is not.  This is a gloss based on the semantic range of the verb.  At its core, the verb is an action of “going out” or even “bringing forth”, which is its most common use in the OT.[2] This has also been acknowledged in modern English Bible translations, as the only version that translates this as suggesting the death of a child is the KJV.  All other English translations of this passage render the verse as “gives birth prematurely” which, while still being a gloss, is a more accurate treatment.

What is additionally important in this passage is the line that immediately follows:


“When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm…”


The “harm” in question here, is applied to the child, but could also, indirectly apply to the mother.  Let us also point out that even if we were to accept the tenuous linguistic argument that a “miscarriage” is in view here, that is not the same as an abortion.  An abortion is the intentional ending of an unborn human life.  A miscarriage can happen for many reasons, but always unintentionally.[3]

What’s more, in the following verse there is the penalty for what is to happen if harm does occur to the baby or the mother.  In such a situation, the law of lex talionis (eye for an eye) applies.  While those who use this passage to suggest that the Bible does not view a fetus as a human life argue that v. 22 applies to the fetus dying and v. 23 applies solely to the mother, they are making that argument on speculative grounds linguistically, and largely from presuppositions made prior to reading the text.  That is why this verse led scholars like Meredith Kline, formerly of Gordon-Cromwell, to say:

“This law, found in Ex. 21:22-25, turns out to be perhaps the most decisive positive evidence in Scripture that the fetus is to be regarded as a living person.”[4]

And if this were not enough, there is the larger corpus of Scripture which clearly presents the unborn life as sacred.[5]

Leviticus 27:6


“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, If anyone makes a special vow to the Lord involving the valuation of persons, then the valuation of a male from twenty years old up to sixty years old shall be fifty shekels of silver, according to the shekel of the sanctuary.  If the person is a female, the valuation shall be thirty shekels.  If the person is from five years old up to twenty years old, the valuation shall be for a male twenty shekels, and for a female ten shekels.  If the person is from a month old up to five years old, the valuation shall be for a male five shekels of silver, and for a female the valuation shall be three shekels of silver.  And if the person is sixty years old or over, then the valuation for a male shall be fifteen shekels, and for a female ten shekels.’”


The argument from this passage is largely an argument from silence.  Not much need to be said here in the way of refutation, for there is nothing in the verse to bring one to the conclusion found in the meme.  What is at issue is that the law in this passage refers to the value to be paid for a person, beginning with full grown males and females, down to children up to 1 month old.  The argument then, is that since there is no monetary value listed for children less than 1 month old, the passage is positively stating that children less than a month (a fetus included) are not considered human life.

Hopefully it is clear, at the outset, that not having a monetary value attached to children under 1 month does not necessarily, or even logically, conclude that they are not considered human life.  Formally stated, the argument from “silence is, in many cases, a lack of evidence, for the reason that the matter in question did not come within the scope of the author’s argument.”[6]  The assumption imported into the pro-abortion argument behind this verse is that a votive offering is somehow indicative of the redemptive value of human life.  The problem with such an assumption is that it is exactly that, an assumption.  The nature of a votive offering is unclear, especially in this text.

A votive offering is generaly recognized as an offering paid as part of a vow to God.  This vow could be for many reasons.  It could be a vow that resulted in blessing or protection.  In such cases the offering is either being paid by the offeror for themselves, or for the other party, but has no direct impact on the recognition of that individual’s humanity.  The reason for this is precisely as Dr. Briggs noted above so many years ago, the idea of the humanity of the individual was not within the scope of the argument.  As we have already seen, the value of unborn life was already clear in Jewish culture, and thus not part of the guidance in Lev. 27:1-7.  Even if the votive offering were one of redemption, it would be to redeem those who had made a vow, of service in most cases, to the temple or to the Lord in some fashion.[7] One can hardly expect a child less than one month old to be of service in a temple, especially since they would still be nursing.  A child of one month to five years could easily be of service, first with the mother, and then on their own, once old enough to work.  In either case, it has nothing to do with the humanity of the child.

Numbers 3:15-16


“And the Lord spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, saying, ‘List the sons of Levi, by fathers’ houses and by clans; every male from a month old and upward you shall list.’  So Moses listed them according to the word of the Lord, as he was commanded.”


Suffice it to say, the repetitious nature of these citations should become very clear at this point. This is, yet again, an argument from silence.  The context of the passage is the official numbering of the Israelites by tribe.  Given that the infant mortality rate (as far as it can be determined) for Israel in Late Antiquity (3-8th century AD) was as high as 30% [8], the mortality rate for the Ancient Near East would be considerably higher.  Thus, when taking a census, it would not be reasonable to count children highly unlikely to survive.

Again, it must re-stated that the humanity of the child is not in the purview of the verse.  What is in  sight is the population count.  A child less than one month would be less likely to be counted, given the mortality rate.  Additionally, to reason that the verse above necessitates a conclusion that the infant is not human, begs the question.  One must begin with the presupposition that (a) an unborn child is not human, or (b) the Bible explicitly states that an unborn child is not a human.  Option (a) is a modern philosophical invention being imported into the text, and option (b) is non-existent in the text.

Numbers 31:15-17; Hosea 9:14;16; 13:16; 2 Samuel 12:14


“Moses said to them, ‘Have you let all the women live?  Behold, these, on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the Lord in the incident of Peor, and so the plague came among the congregation of the Lord. Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man by lying with him.’ “


“Give them, O Lordwhat will you give?  Give them a miscarrying womb and dry breasts….Ephraim is stricken; their root is dried up; they shall bear no fruit.  Even though they give birth, I will put their beloved children to death….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.”

“Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord,the child who is born to you shall die.”


Given that several passages are in view here, let’s address them at one time.  To begin, the statement attached to these passages in the meme points out that God either “approves of” or actively “kills” fetuses or newborns.  Before even looking at the verses in question, an immediate response can be made on purely theological grounds.  As I have addressed in another post, God is the rightful owner of all humanity as He is the ultimate cause for all human life that ever has been and ever will be.  Because of this, it is solely within His right to take the life of whomever He pleases.

Setting that point aside, Numbers 31:15-17 refers to the killing of male children, not unborn babies, while addressing the issue of killing children is a topic worth discussing, it is not part of the argument for abortion that this meme is attempting to make, unless the abortion advocate is willing to acknowledge that a fetus is as much a human life as a born child, to which we would agree, but this is not an argument many will make.  The command to kill the male children is to prevent the Midianite boys from growing up to seek vengeance upon the Israelite people.  While it might seem extreme to modern sensibilities, it was a common practice of the age.

When addressing the Hosea 9 passages, it should be understood from the beginning, that the language used is poetic and figurative.  The nation of Israel is being represented in many ways, but all negatively.  Chapter 9 begins with punishments that will befall Israel because of their rejection of the law of God.  The verses immediately prior to those in the meme declare that the nation will be childless, either in an inability to conceive or to bring to term, and it is God acting out this judgment.  All references to unborn children in 9 are to miscarriage or infertility.  The direct killing stated in v.16 refers to born alive children.  While it is true that judgment language of this kind is found in many Ancient Near Eastern texts, they are commonly hyperbolic in the extremity to which they will go.

Clearly the Israelites did bear children that survived, as there are Israelites still living to this day.  Therefore, what we have in Hosea is a divine judgment text, not meant to be taken woodenly but as a blanket judgment of destruction to the people.  Barrenness itself was considered a divine curse throughout this time and beyond.[9]  While Numbers 13:16b is the closest any of these verses might come to speaking of an unborn child being murdered, it again falls within the context of a judgment text.  These actions did take place, and they were under the sovereign will of God, but to be equivalent to the pro-abortion argument it would require the proponent to believe that God was actively commanding them to commit the abortion AND that the abortions being performed were part of God’s judgment on the people receiving them.  Again, this is not an argument that will be made.

Lastly, 2 Samuel recounts the well-known passage in which David’s child by Bathsheba dies.  While the statement attached to this verse in the meme is technically correct, it again does nothing to support the current, pro-abortion, position.  Yes, it is true that God allows the death of, or even kills, a child to punish the parents.  This is clearly the case for David.  Yet, this is not normative either.  It is not abortion on demand for any reason, at any time.  Also, as has been stated above, it is God’s prerogative to take human life, and in this case, it is in the form of a child dying of natural causes AFTER birth.  It is not a case of child neglect, as has been approved in states like Virginia and New York, and is not tantamount to an abortion.  Secondly, as was also noted above, this is DIVINE JUDGEMENT upon the parents.  Unless the abortion practitioner or the one promoting abortion is suggesting that they are God’s tool of judgment upon the mothers, the reasoning does not follow.

Numbers 5:21; 27-28


And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the people of Israel, If any man’s wife goes astray and breaks faith with him, if a man lies with her sexually, and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband…the priest shall bring her near and set her before the Lord. And the priest shall take holy water in an earthenware vessel and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water….Then the priest shall make her take an oath, saying, ‘If no man has lain with you, and if you have not turned aside to uncleanness while you were under your husband’s authority, be free from this water of bitterness that brings the curse.  But if you have gone astray, though you are under your husband’s authority, and if you have defiled yourself, and some man other than your husband has lain with you…the Lord make you a curse and an oath among your people, when the Lord makes your thigh fall away and your body swell. May this water that brings the curse pass into your bowels and make your womb swell and your thigh fall away.’ And the woman shall say, ‘Amen, Amen.’”


This passage is often cited as one in which God “causes an abortion”.  At best, what may be in view here is another example of a miscarriage, but even this is suspect.  No, popularly used, English translations interpret this text to reference an abortion.  The exact statement is that the “abdomen will swell” and the “thigh will fall away”.  Both are euphemistic terms that are unclear.  While it is possible that the swelling of the abdomen might be suggestive of an illegitimate pregnancy that fails to come to term[10], the reference to the “thigh” is consistently euphemistic of the sexual organs.[11]

Rather, “The most probable explanation for the phrase ‘and make your abdomen swell and your thigh waste away . . .’ is that the woman suffers a collapse of the sexual organs known as a prolapsed uterus. In this condition, which may occur after multiple pregnancies, the pelvis floor (weakened by the pregnancies) collapses, and the uterus literally falls down. It may lodge in the vagina, or it may actually fall out of the body through the vagina. If it does so, it becomes edematous and swells up like a balloon. Conception becomes impossible, and the woman’s procreative life has effectively ended . . .”[12]  This being the case, pregnancy is not in view but rather the inability to ever conceive.

Genesis 38:24


“About three months later Judah was told, ‘Tamar your daughter-in-law has been immoral. Moreover, she is pregnant by immorality.’ And Judah said, ‘Bring her out, and let her be burned.’ “


The caption attached to this last verse declares that the “law of God” required the execution of pregnant women by burning to death.  Suffice it to say that the Law does not prescribe the burning of pregnant women, least of all here.  The larger context of this story is a narrative, not a legal passage, therefore drawing the conclusion that the actions taken or even attempted are approved by God would be contrary to the genre of the text.

The narrative within which this verse falls is the deception of Judah by his daughter-in-law, Tamar.  In the story, Tamar, has married Judah’s son, Er, but he has died without producing an heir.  According to the law, it falls to the closest male sibling of her husband to marry her and produce a child.[13] Judah commanded his second son, Onan, to perform his duties as the levirate, but Onan did not.  This left Tamar without an heir and without a husband, leaving her helpless as a woman in that time.  Tamar’s recourse is to disguise herself as a prostitute and convince her father-in-law, Judah, to sleep with her.  He does this, and she becomes pregnant.  The law actually requires that Judah marry Tamar at this point.

When Judah is told that his daughter-in-law has conceived through prostitution, he responds violently, but not in any way sanctioned by OT law.  When he learns that he is actually the father, he immediately adopts his role as her kinsman redeemer.  Judah, the one calling for her to be burned, is depicted in this narrative as the enemy, not the hero.  It is Tamar that is the righteous character in this story, for she is doing what is necessary to protect herself and ultimately continue the messianic line that would lead to David (Ruth 4:18-22) and ultimately to Christ (Matt.1:6-17).  Therefore, this verse neither promotes abortion, nor does it depict the law of God as validating the burning of a pregnant woman.  To suggest so is, like every other claim in the meme, a non sequitur.

Conclusion

Certainly, it can be said that a refutation of this position can be made without even appealing to the Bible.  Strictly operating from a theological standpoint and arguing back from the nature of God and His relation to mankind, to disprove any concept that God would approve of the modern practice of abortion.  However, as Christians, and apologists, it behooves us to know the biblical text intimately, and even a quick investigation into these texts and the surrounding context reveals the impotency of the argument presented.

The argument ultimately devolves into a form of, “If God can do it, so can I”, and this is probably the most accurate of statements to be made.  The inner corrupted desire of all mankind is to usurp the authority and role of God in their lives, and the abortion industry is no different.  The pro-abortion argument from Scripture is nothing more than tacit agreement that the person in favor of abortion is seeking to be God.

 

 

 

[1] Graham Spurgeon, “Is Abortion Murder?” in The Religious Case for Abortion, p. 16

[2] See Gen. 1:24; 4:16; 9:18; Ex. 28:35; 29:46; 32:34 and many, many more.

[3] The Mayo Clinic defines a miscarriage as the “spontaneous loss of a pregnancy before the 20th week.”

[4] M. G. Kline, “Lex Talionis and the Human Fetus,” JETS 20 (1977): 193-201

[5] Job 10:8-12; 15:14; Ps. 51:5; 58:3; 139:13-16; Eccles. 11:5; Jer. 1:5; Gal. 1:15

[6] C.A. Briggs, “The Argument E Silentio: With Special Reference to the Religion of Israel,” Journal of the Society of Biblical Literature and Exegesis, vol.3 (1), (June, 1883).

[7] This is similar to the vow made by Hannah concerning her son Samuel in 1 Sam.1:11.

[8]Meir Bar-Ilan, Mortality Rate in the Land of Israel in Late Antiquity: https://faculty.biu.ac.il/~barilm/articles/to_check/infant.html

[9] Consider the barrenness of Sarah (Gen. 15:2); Hannah (1 Sam. 1:5-11); the curse of David’s wife Michal (2 Sam. 6:23) and even the statement made by Elizabeth (Lk. 1:24-25).

[10] R.K. Harrison, Numbers, WEC, 111-3.

[11] Walter Riggans, Numbers, Daily Study Bible Series, p. 50 (cf. Gen. 24:2)

[12] Tikva Frymer-Kensky, “The Strange Case of the Suspected Sotah (Numbers V 11-31), Vetus Testamentum, 34:1 (January, 1984).  Also, Frymer-Kensky, “The Trial Before God of an Accused Adulteress,” Bible Review, 2:3 (Fall, 1986).

[13] Deut. 25:5-10

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Clark Bates has been serving the local church in various ministries for more than a decade. He has acted as an interim pastor and guest speaker for churches along the Southern Oregon Coast and lectured on apologetics and theology in Oregon, California, Michigan and Illinois. Clark holds a Bachelor’s degree in Religion from Liberty University, graduating magna cum laude, as well as a Master’s of Divinity degree from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. He is a graduate of the Cross Examined Instructor’s Academy, a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and actively involved with the Reasonable Faith St. Louis Chapter. He has appeared on Trinity Channel’s Apologetics Marathon opposite Reason to Believe’s Ken Samples and was recently featured on Ratio Christi TV’s broadcast “Truth Matters” discussing the reliability of the New Testament. Currently, Clark writes and produces videos for his website http://www.exejesus.com and is beginning his second master’s degree with Concordia Seminary, in St. Louis, Mo.