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This blog site will feature essays, columns and musings that deal with the intersection of Christianity and journalism and the American Songbook.

“Exodus 21:22-23 and the abortion problem” (article: National Right to Life News)

“Christian Perspective” column
National Right to Life News
May 1977

(Note: I cannot find evidence that this requested column was ever printed in the News. I had left the Christian Action Council by then and was working at the National Soft Drink Association in Washington, D.C.)
So far in our brief look at how God treats abortion and the unborn human (as revealed in the Bible) we have consciously omitted a look at Exodus 21:22-23. This might seem a bit odd because this passage is always brought up whenever the Bible and abortion are related to each other. Indeed, this is one of the first passages to be discussed in most biblical treatments of the abortion situation. Students of the Bible have claimed opposite truths from this Mosaic portion of Scripture. That is, some see this passage teaching the unborn child has no soul and is therefore not created in the image of God. Others see this passage teaching that the unborn child does have a soul and therefore is created in God’s image. I’m not convinced that this passage teaches either one of these things and so I’ve left our discussion of Exodus 21:22-23 for the last, and simply include it now in order to touch all the bases in our look at Scripture and abortion.

Before I get to my, position allow me to first outline the other major interpretations of this passage. As in the previous articles, it is essential for a proper understanding of what I’m going to say for you to have a Bible open to the particular portion of Scripture under consideration. The root difference in most interpretations lies really in the basic translation of the original Hebrew text. The passage can be translated two basic ways. The King James translation reads: “If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart, and yet no mischief follow; he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him, and he shall pay as the Judges determine. And if mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life. The other basic way the passage can be translated is as follows: “And if men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is no (further) injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him; and he shall pay as the judges decide. But if there is injury, then you shall appoint life for life.

The pivotal difference in these two translations is in the second one’s use of the words “miscarriage” and “further” injury. If one takes the King James version (which is a very literal and good translation in this case) one sees that “mischief” (i.e., harm) applies to both mother and child. Therefore, the so-called “law of retaliation” (i.e., “life for life, etc.”) applies to the “mischief” done to either mother or child (see Leviticus 24:17-22). The point would be then that in verse 22, the child is prematurely expelled but is not harmed. In verse 23, however, the child is prematurely expelled and is harmed. The conclusion to be drawn from this translation is that the life of the mother and the life of the unborn child are of equal weight before God and should be of equal weight before the law. (There is some question as to whether the law ought to deal with equal harshness toward killer of the mother and the killer of the unborn child, but that is a different matter.)

Since the King James translation of the Old Testament was not a new translation but rather a scholarly revision of existing translations using the Hebrew manuscripts as a guide, it should not be thought surprising to find earlier Biblical scholars who dealt with that Hebrew text coming to the same pro-life translation as the KJV translators. Indeed, one need only to cite such Christian theologians as Tertullian, Origen and Calvin (to name only three), who have specifically commented on this passage in early agree¬ment to see that this is not a spurious bit of translating.

However, there is a second major translation of this passage and it is just as old as the King James translation. It stems from the Vulgate Latin translation done by Jerome in the 4th century. It has come through Luther’s German translation up to such modern versions as the Revised Standard and New American Standard. This translation adds the words “miscarriage” and “further” injury to verse 22.-23. At face value, this translation radically changes the meaning of the passage since in verse 22 the child is “miscarried” and is harmed yet the mother is not harmed (“yet there is no (further) injury”). Since no intrinsic value is placed on the child there is only a fine! In verse 23, however, the mother is harmed (“there is injury”) and so the law of retaliation goes into effect. Therefore, it is argued that clearly the mother’s life is of far greater importance than the unborn child’s life, since if the mother dies there is the penalty of death for the killer while if the child dies there is only a fine.

While I believe that based on the Hebrew text the first translation (KJV) is as meritorious as the second translation (Jerome) the entire issue ought to be settled with a different line of reasoning. I am indebted to Rev. Cliff Bajema of the Christian Reformed Church for some valuable insight into this passage. I heartily endorse Bajema’s book Abortion and the Meaning of Personhood.

The view which I see Moses taking in Exodus 21:22-23, is centered on the woman (and not the child) and what is being referred to in verses 22-23 is a premature, but healthy birth of a child. I base my interpretation on three factors.

First, it is a fact that no matter what interpretation one takes on Exodus 21:22-23, the killing of the unborn child is an accident. There simply is no hint of a premeditated attack on the intrautero human. Therefore, if death occurred, it would fall under the accidental or unintentional death of Numbers 35, which calls for cities of refuge for these particular “manslayers” and not “life for life!” Concerning the woman, it is a fact that if she also were an innocent party, then her death would be either accidental or unintentional and so Numbers 35 (rather than the law of retaliation) would apply to her as well! The only application left open for the law of retaliation (verse 23-25) is that the woman was a guilty party in the fight. That is, she was an active participant on one side. Deuteronomy 25:11 implies that this could be the case. So, if the pregnant woman were to intervene in this fight on the side of one of the men and in the process she were harmed or killed, then it would not be accidental and the law of retaliation (“life for life”) would indeed apply. (It should be noted that Biblical justification for self-defense is problematic.) This seems to be the only logical understanding of Exodus 21:22-23.

The second reason I believe “harm” refers to the mother and not the child is that the Hebrew word for “children” in verse 22 is always used for a live child (except in 2 Samuel 12); see, for instance: I Kings 3:25; Isaiah 9:6; etc. The Hebrew word for “miscarriage” is completely different from the word used here and in fact does not even appear in this passage. For usage of the word “miscarriage” see Gen. 31:38; Ex. 23:26; Hosea 9:14; etc. In short, the concept of a “miscarriage” in Ex. 21:22-23 is a translator’s interpretation and not warranted by the Hebrew text itself! There is no reason to believe that when the woman’s “children” are prematurely expelled they are dead. Indeed, the word “children” would indicate just the opposite – that they are perhaps a bit bruised but very much alive!

The third reason I believe the “children” are not “harmed” (and therefore not under consideration in this law of retaliation passage) has to do with the Hebrew verb “to come out” in verse 22. This verb can also be translated “to go out,” “to come forth” or “to go forth.” When it is used in connection with childbirth it always (except for Num. 12:12) is used for a normal, live birth of a child (Gen. 15:4; 46:26; I Kings 8:19; Jeremiah 16; 20:18; etc.). It would seem then that when Moses uses this word in our passage he is most assuredly referring to another live birth, although in this case, prematurely expelled into the light of day.

To conclude then, it seems far more reasonable and faithful to the original Hebrew text to state that Exodus 21:22-23 does not call for the death penalty for the abortionists nor does it absolve the abortionists, because it doesn’t even deal with an abortion. First, there was no premeditated attack on the unborn child, and second, there was no death of the child. We pro-life evangelicals ought not to waste our time and energies trying to shape Exodus 21:22-23 to our perception of God’s pro-life character. He gives us better evidence of that beautiful side of him in other parts of the Bible, and we would do well to concentrate on those portions of his word to form our case against death.

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