Categories: 2023, Dan McClellan, New New Atheism, Other AuthorsPublished On: March 27, 2023

Examining Numbers 5, The Value of a Fetus in the Eyes of the Law, Personhood and the First Breath

Transcription from Dan McClellan.

The debate over abortion has been ongoing for centuries, and many have turned to religious texts for guidance on the issue. In this article, we will explore two passages from the Hebrew Bible, Numbers 5 and Exodus 21, that are often cited in discussions about abortion.

Numbers 5: The Sotah Ordeal

Some people have appealed to Numbers 5 as evidence that the Bible endorses or prescribes abortion. However, this is not a good reading of the text. The passage describes the ordeal of a woman suspected of adultery. If the woman is guilty, she will be cursed with infertility. If she is innocent, she will be blessed with fertility. The text says nothing about abortion.

The earliest readers of Numbers 5 did not interpret it as an endorsement of abortion. In fact, the rabbis debated whether it would be appropriate to involve a pregnant woman in the ordeal. Furthermore, the favorable outcome for the woman is fertility in the future; there is no fetus present in this example.

Exodus 21:22-23

While the Bible does not take a stance on abortion, it does take a stance on an issue that is relevant to the contemporary abortion debate. Exodus 21:22-23 provides case law on what happens if men who are fighting accidentally injure a pregnant woman. If they induce a miscarriage, the husband and the judges will determine a fine to impose. If the woman dies, then it will be life for life, in other words, the death penalty.

This passage indicates that the value of a fetus in the eyes of the law was considered to be lower than the value of a born human. However, some have argued that this passage refers to premature birth rather than miscarriage. While the Hebrew in and of itself is ambiguous, the context and broader literary context of Exodus 21 and the legal corpora of the ancient Near East make it absolutely unambiguous that the passage refers to miscarriage.

In fact, all ancient Jewish authorities understand this unambiguously to refer to miscarriage. Additionally, this law matches a number of other laws from the ancient Near East, such as Sumerian law, Law of Hammurabi, Middle Assyrian laws, and Neo-Babylonian laws. They all have sections that talk about what to do when a man hits a woman and either causes a miscarriage or causes the death of the woman.

When Does Life Begin?

While the Hebrew Bible does not explicitly state when life begins, the idea that life begins at first breath follows directly from the consistent presentation of the thorough integration of life and breath in Genesis 2:7. The deity breathes into the nostrils of the human the nishmat, the breath of life, turning them into a nephesh, which can mean soul, but also frequently means life.

The rabbis debated what manner of life exists at different stages of gestation, but across the board, personhood, full developed human life, happens at the first breath.

Conclusion

The Bible does not take a clear stance on abortion, but understanding the cultural and historical context of the passages that are often cited in discussions about abortion can help us to better understand the Bible’s perspective on this complex issue.

Full Transcript:

Hey everybody, this is the first of two videos I’m going to post addressing the question of whether or not the Bible takes a stance on abortion. In this video, I’d like to address Numbers 5, the Sotah, the ordeal of the woman suspected of adultery. I’ve seen a number of people appeal to this text as the Bible endorsing or prescribing abortion, but I don’t think this is a good reading of the text. It’s not how the earliest readers understood it. In fact, the rabbis, for a while, had a debate about whether or not it would be appropriate to involve a pregnant woman in the ordeal. But additionally, the favorable outcome for the woman is fertility in the future. The text says she will conceive. There is no fetus present in this example. The unfavorable outcome has more to do with imagery associated with infertility in the broader ancient Near East, and that is the most common punishment for marital infidelity and sexual sin, both within the Bible and in the broader ancient Near East. I don’t think this is about abortion.

Hey everybody, this is video number two, addressing the question of whether or not the Bible takes a stance on abortion. To be brief, no, it does not. However, it does take a stance on an issue that is relevant to the contemporary debate about abortion. If we look at Exodus 21, we find some case law there in verses 22 and 23 addressing what happens if men who are fighting accidentally injure a pregnant woman. In verse 22, it states that if they induce a miscarriage, the husband and the judges will determine a fine to impose. And verse 23 states that if a woman dies, then it will be life for life, in other words, the death penalty. What this indicates and one of the primary ways that this has been read within Judaism for millennia is that the value of a fetus in the eyes of the law was considered to be lower than the value of a born human.

Hey everybody, I’ve had a number of people who are concerned with my decision to understand Exodus 21:22 as a reference to miscarriage and not to premature birth. The strongest argument I’ve ever seen made that this is a reference to premature birth and not miscarriage is the notion that the verbal root “yatsa” is frequently used in reference to normal birth. While that is the case, usually it’s “yet” as in Jeremiah 1:5, “come out from the womb.” There’s usually more in the context that indicates it is a regular birth. And there is an objection that “yatsa” can be used to refer to miscarriage in some places, but the objection is that there is also additional stuff in the context to indicate the death of the fetus. Now while that is true, there are other places where other derivations of the root are used to refer to miscarriage in and of themselves, like “yotset” in Psalm 144, which talks about cattle miscarrying. This is pared-down Hebrew. It’s just וְיָצְאוּ. which actually means “her children they leave or depart.” It doesn’t say anything about the womb, and so it is ambiguous. I will grant that the Hebrew in and of itself is ambiguous. However, the context here and the broader literary context of Exodus 21 and the legal corpora of the ancient Near East make it absolutely unambiguous. To begin with, all ancient Jewish authorities understand this unambiguously to refer to miscarriage. Additionally, imposing a fine is something that happens when there is material loss. If this simply catalyzed a premature birth that did not result

If the Covenant code and broader Israelite and Judahite law is at all consistent, then this matches a number of other laws from the ancient Near East: Sumerian law, Law of Hammurabi, Middle Assyrian laws, Neo-Babylonian laws. They all have sections that talk about what to do when a man hits a woman and either causes a miscarriage or causes the death of the woman. Those are the two outcomes that are addressed consistently in the laws. And the Covenant code is directly based on Hammurabi’s law. And that’s what’s going on behind me. This is a segment from David Wright’s excellent book, Inventing God’s Law, which is precisely about how the Covenant code is based on the laws of Hammurabi. And as you can see, causing a miscarriage directly parallels the laws 209-214, which again address two circumstances: hitting a woman that causes a miscarriage or causes her to die. If your translation says this is about premature birth and not miscarriage, it is wrong.

Hey, thank you for the question. This is nowhere explicitly stated in the Hebrew Bible, that the idea that life begins at first breath follows directly from the consistent presentation of the thorough integration of life and breath in Genesis 2:7. The deity breathes into the nostrils of the human the nishmat, the breath of life, turning them into a nephesh. Nephesh, which can mean soul, is also frequently used precisely to mean life. And “nephesh” means neck or breath. This is similar to the concept of ruach, spirit, wind, or breath. It is also used frequently to refer to someone’s life. We see the rabbis debating what manner of life exists at different stages of gestation. For instance, before 40 days, it’s just water; after 40 days, it’s something different. But across the board, personhood, full developed human life, happens at the first breath.

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