Does Exodus 21 teach that the life of an unborn child is unimportant? Tim Chaffey, AiG–US, examines the issue.
“The Bible Condones Abortion.” Several years ago, those words greeted me when I logged on to a local online discussion board, which often focused on biblical issues. This statement intrigued me since I could not recall anything in Scripture that could remotely be taken in such a manner. So I clicked and opened the thread. In support of this claim, the person (let’s call him Bob) cited the account in Exodus 21:22–25, which talks about the consequences of men who were fighting when one of them accidentally struck a pregnant woman.
Before responding to this post, I decided to see if any other Christians had done a good job of refuting Bob’s claim. Sadly, no one had bothered to refute the errors Bob had made. One Christian (let’s call her Molly) attempted to provide an answer but made matters even worse. Molly essentially told Bob that this passage was found in the Old Testament and that Christians just follow the New Testament, which says abortion is wrong.
Although Christians have different understandings about the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, that is not the issue here. Molly basically granted Bob’s claims as being true. In other words, she said the Old Testament claims that abortion is not a big deal, but when Jesus came along, God changed His mind and decided it was wrong.
This discussion provides us with an opportunity to practice the “Don’t Answer . . . Answer” strategy outlined in Proverbs 26:4–5. The first step in this approach is to make sure we don’t respond to Bob in the same manner as he set forth his claims. His tone made it clear that he wanted to provoke Christians and attack the Bible. We need to make sure our answer does not attack Scripture and force it to contradict itself as Molly had unwittingly done. Nor should we attack Bob. Paul instructed the Corinthian believers to be “casting down arguments” and “bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5). While carefully refuting the arguments made by the enemies of the truth, we must also speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).
Molly should have challenged Bob’s presupposition that the Bible actually states what he claimed it does. I decided to look this passage up, and I found some interesting details. Bob had quoted from the New Revised Standard Version, which states:
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. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Exodus 21:22–25, NRSV)
According to the NRSV, this passage seems to teach that if the pregnant woman had a miscarriage but was not hurt herself, then the person who caused the miscarriage faced a mere fine determined by the woman’s husband and the judges. But if the woman were harmed, then the punishment would be “life for life, eye for eye,” and so on. In other words, the New Revised Standard Version makes the life of the mother appear more important than the life of the unborn child.
Even if this were an accurate translation of the passage, this Mosaic law does not really address the modern practice of abortion. This law regards an accident, but Bob sought to apply it to deliberately destroying the life of the unborn through abortion. Nevertheless, the passage is relevant to the abortion debate as it does address the issue of the value of life of the unborn.
When I looked up the verse in my Bible version, I read something different. Actually, the version was so different that the meaning completely changed. Here is the same passage from the NKJV:
If men fight, and hurt a woman with child, so that she gives birth prematurely, yet no harm follows, he shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman’s husband imposes on him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Exodus 21:22–25)
Did you notice the major difference? This passage states that if the fighting men hurt a pregnant woman “so that she gives birth prematurely, yet no harm follows,” then the man would be fined. What’s the difference? This version makes it clear that if the child were born prematurely (not miscarried) and neither the child nor the mother were harmed, then the man would be fined as the woman’s husband and the judges determined. However, if any harm were done to the premature infant or mother, then judgment would be carried out accordingly. If the child or woman died, then the man would be executed. The principle of proportional justice is set forth (i.e., punishment should fit the crime). So according to this version, the unborn child is fully human and must be treated as such.
Since such a drastic difference exists between these two versions on this passage, is it possible to know which one is right? The key is to go back and look at the original text to see if the translation should be “miscarriage” or “gives birth prematurely.” The Hebrew phrase is וְיָצְא֣וּ יְלָדֶ֔יהָ (yātsû yelādêhā), which literally means “her children come out.”
This meaning has been conveyed by nearly every other major Bible version:
The Septuagint, also called the LXX, is a Greek rendering of the Old Testament. It translated the phrase as “ἐξέλθη τὸ παιδίον” (exelthê to paidion). This literally means “the child to go out.”
In fact, in searching multiple translations, I only found a few that translated this phrase as “miscarriage.” In addition to the New Revised Standard Version (quoted by Bob), the earlier edition of this translation, the Revised Standard Version,1 uses the word “miscarriage.” Interestingly enough, the RSV was a revision of the American Standard Version (1901), which does not use this term. Instead, it uses the phrase “her fruit depart,” like the King James Version on which it was based. The only other version I found that used “miscarriage” in this passage was the Amplified Bible.
In the same book of the Bible, the same Hebrew root word is translated by the RSV, NRSV, and Amplified as “are delivered,” “give birth,” and “babies are born,” respectively. This translation occurs in the account of the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, who were ordered by Pharaoh to kill at birth all the sons of the Hebrew women. The midwives later told Pharaoh that “the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are lively and give birth before the midwives come to them” (Exodus 1:19, emphasis added).
Furthermore, Exodus 23:26 states, “No one will suffer miscarriage or be barren in your land.” Both the Amplified and NRSV translate the word as “miscarriage,” while the RSV renders the phrase as “cast her young.” So the Hebrew clearly has a word that means “miscarriage,” but it is not used in Exodus 21:22.
It seems inconsistent for the RSV, NRSV, and the Amplified Bible to render the same Hebrew word differently in these two places. Of course, the context determines how one should translate a particular word, but Exodus 21:22 clearly refers to premature birth, not miscarriage. When we compare Scripture with Scripture, we find that the unborn are described as fully human whenever discussed in the Bible. Here are just a few examples:
When taking these and other passages into consideration, the translators clearly should have translated Exodus 21:22–25 in a manner consistent with Scripture and faithful to the original language. For whatever reason, they did not do this.
Instead of possibly condoning abortion or at least minimizing the life of the unborn, the Bible clearly states throughout its pages that the unborn child is as much a human being as those of us who have already been born. In fact, Exodus 21:22–25 actually backfires on those who wish to use it to justify abortion because it teaches that the unborn child is just as valuable in God’s eyes as the person who has already been born.
Consider the following beautiful words composed by the Psalmist:
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. (Psalm 139:13–14)
When we consider all God has done for us through all our days, beginning from the moment of fertilization, may we praise Him for being the Creator and Lord of life.