Abortion in the Bible?

It is a fairly common belief that the Bible is mute on the issue of abortion. However, my attention was recently drawn (by the March 31st edition of Robert Price’s somewhat amusing, rambling podcast, The Bible Geek Show), to a rather curious passage in Numbers 5.  Here are verses 11 to 31 reproduced in full from the NIV translation:

11. Then the LORD said to Moses, 12 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him 13 so that another man has sexual relations with her, and this is hidden from her husband and her impurity is undetected (since there is no witness against her and she has not been caught in the act), 14 and if feelings of jealousy come over her husband and he suspects his wife and she is impure—or if he is jealous and suspects her even though she is not impure— 15 then he is to take his wife to the priest. He must also take an offering of a tenth of an ephah of barley flour on her behalf. He must not pour olive oil on it or put incense on it, because it is a grain offering for jealousy, a reminder-offering to draw attention to wrongdoing.

16 “‘The priest shall bring her and have her stand before the LORD. 17 Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water. 18 After the priest has had the woman stand before the LORD, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the reminder-offering, the grain offering for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse. 19 Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has had sexual relations with you and you have not gone astray and become impure while married to your husband, may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you. 20 But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have made yourself impure by having sexual relations with a man other than your husband”— 21 here the priest is to put the woman under this curse—“may the LORD cause you to become a curse among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell. 22 May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries.”

“‘Then the woman is to say, “Amen. So be it.”

23 “‘The priest is to write these curses on a scroll and then wash them off into the bitter water. 24 He shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and this water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering will enter her. 25 The priest is to take from her hands the grain offering for jealousy, wave it before the LORD and bring it to the altar. 26 The priest is then to take a handful of the grain offering as a memorial offering and burn it on the altar; after that, he is to have the woman drink the water. 27 If she has made herself impure and been unfaithful to her husband, this will be the result: When she is made to drink the water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering, it will enter her, her abdomen will swell and her womb will miscarry, and she will become a curse. 28 If, however, the woman has not made herself impure, but is clean, she will be cleared of guilt and will be able to have children.

29 “‘This, then, is the law of jealousy when a woman goes astray and makes herself impure while married to her husband, 30 or when feelings of jealousy come over a man because he suspects his wife. The priest is to have her stand before the LORD and is to apply this entire law to her. 31 The husband will be innocent of any wrongdoing, but the woman will bear the consequences of her sin.

This is quite a curious (and rather revolting) bit of scripture. It seems to indicate that priests were using some sort of vile concoction to induce abortions. And they were happy doing this even if the woman’s husband merely suspected her of being unfaithful.

Also, with its use of curses, offerings, and concoctions, this scripture makes the priests look very much like the sort of witchdoctors still practicing in parts of the world (e.g. much of Africa) today, which drives home how primitively superstitious ancient Biblical culture really was.

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2 Responses to Abortion in the Bible?

  1. Ruedi says:

    So what exactly was in this concoction? water, dust from the tabernacle floor (which was a restricted area, and probably not full of cow poop and flies…), about four lines’ worth of ink.

    And what was the anticipated effect of this concoction? Either none, or miscarriage and infertility.

    Was the concoction per se able to physically cause both, depending on the woman’s purity? not likely.

    Conclusion: Other than the woman herself (and any eventual lover), only God knew whether she was innocent. And only God would use this concrete concoction to communicate his assessment and judgment by causing either nothing, or miscarriage/infertility.

    I’m not saying the practice commends itself to modern tastes and Western cultures, but I am saying that given the circumstances, this was a concrete way of underlining that only God could and would make the decision.

    • kpharri says:

      Ruedi:

      I agree that only God could know, beforehand, whether the concoction would have an effect or not. The point I’d like to make, though, and which I admittedly did not make clearly enough in the blog post, is that there are circumstances under which God condones abortion. Therefore, Christians who claim, on the basis of God’s will and teachings, that abortion is always wrong, would do well to read the passage from Numbers, where this idea is demonstrated to be false.

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