Does the Bible support abortion?
I’ve started to notice a trend among my students: a hot take on an ancient Biblical text will go viral on social media (e.g. TikTok) and this will be used to defend an unorthodox position.
So far I’ve encountered how Joseph from Genesis was transgender or how Jesus was non-binary. Most of these statements can be easily dispatched by their sheer ridiculousness.
However, there is one that I thought was worth addressing: abortion and the Book of Numbers.
In chapter 5 from this book from the Old Testament, Moses instructs the people about what to do if a husband suspects that his wife is pregnant by another man.
The LORD said to Moses: Speak to the Israelites and tell them: If a man’s wife goes astray and becomes unfaithful to him by virtue of a man having intercourse with her in secret from her husband and she is able to conceal the fact that she has defiled herself for lack of a witness who might have caught her in the act;
or if a man is overcome by a feeling of jealousy that makes him suspect his wife, and she has defiled herself; or if a man is overcome by a feeling of jealousy that makes him suspect his wife and she has not defiled herself— then the man shall bring his wife to the priest…
The priest shall first have the woman come forward and stand before the LORD. In an earthen vessel he shall take holy water, as well as some dust from the floor of the tabernacle and put it in the water. Making the woman stand before the LORD, the priest shall uncover her head and place in her hands the grain offering of remembrance, that is, the grain offering of jealousy, while he himself shall hold the water of bitterness that brings a curse. Then the priest shall adjure the woman, saying to her, “If no other man has had intercourse with you, and you have not gone astray by defiling yourself while under the authority of your husband, be immune to this water of bitterness that brings a curse.
But if you have gone astray while under the authority of your husband, and if you have defiled yourself and a man other than your husband has had intercourse with you”—
so shall the priest adjure the woman with this imprecation—“may the LORD make you a curse and malediction among your people by causing your uterus to fall and your belly to swell!
May this water, then, that brings a curse, enter your bowels to make your belly swell and your uterus fall!” And the woman shall say, “Amen, amen!”
This passage has been used by the pro-abortion side to show that God is okay with abortion in certain circumstances. Here, it is argued, if a woman conceives a child from adultery, then an abortion is forced upon her by her husband and God.
It is important to understand that even though this is an extreme case, any inconsistency in the the Church’s pro-life ethic could be fatal to Her teaching against abortion. If even the Scriptures allow for some exceptions, then surely the Catholic Church must also, correct?
So does the Bible support abortion?
The easy thing to do would be to simply dismiss this passage as “Old Testament thinking.” I see this happen several times when we encounter passages that make modern people uncomfortable. It is of paramount importance to read each passage in its particular context as well as the context of the New Testament, where Jesus brings perfection to the Old Law.
And the context of this particular law is very interesting.
One of the most interesting things of note is that the Hebrew word for “adulteress” (nō’āp̄eṯ) is found in this passage, nor is the penalty for adultery, which is death.
I recently went to a synagogue and heard a very enlightening talk by a rabbi who said that an important principle in Jewish Biblical study is that “God does not stutter.” This means that all the words in the passage are important. In this case, the words that are not present also matter. The entire reason for the woman to go through the ordeal is because her husband suspects her of infidelity without any evidence.
Let us imagine a concrete situation during this time. A woman has a jealous husband. His jealously leads him to an irrational paranoia. When she becomes pregnant, he is convinced that she has been unfaithful. If he could prove her unfaithfulness, she would be executed. But without evidence, he could still accuse her. Women had limited ways to defend themselves against such accusations. Is she guilty until proven innocent?
Instead of a trial, she is given this ordeal. Dust from the tabernacle floor is mixed with water and she is given it to drink. It is very important here to point out that this holy water/holy dust cocktail is not an abortifacient. This is not the equivalent of an abortion pill, whose sole purpose and intended end is the killing of the unborn baby. The water and the dust are not imbued with a special magic. Instead, they are ways to call upon God for judgment. In fact, this is a unique law in the Torah. Every other judicial decision for crimes (e.g. murder, theft, adultery), involves a judgment by the chosen judges followed by the prescribed punishment if found guilty. But as the Medieval Jewish scholar Nachmanides points out, this is the ONLY decision of this type that is dependent upon a miracle of God. It is not the husband, wife, nor the priests who impose an “abortion.” Instead, only God’s miraculous intervention can make the curse stand.
Returning to our concrete situation, if you are an innocent woman whose husband has accused of infidelity, this law from Numbers 5 is actually a path to quick exoneration. Since the water/dust does not cause an abortion, drinking it will free you from the judgment of your husband, the judge, or the community at large. Compared to other infidelity ordeals, this one is much better than those of contemporary cultures at the time.
On top of this, nowhere else in the Scriptures does it say that this ordeal was ever applied. It is also unclear if the punishment even refers to abortion. Since it says that the innocent wife will be able to bear children, the opposite effect of infertility seems to be the punishment, not abortion.
But even if you concede that the unborn child is killed, this STILL does not support abortion. For abortion as we are debating it, involves the choice of the parent to kill the child. In the case of Numbers 5, it is all up to God. Trent Horn addressed this particular passage in his article “Refuting Religious Pro-Choice Arguments.” God is the one who has the right to take life when He chooses. God took the life of David’s son after David’s sin. This is not inconsistent with the Church’s pro-life ethic. We are against murder because only God has the right to take life.
If Numbers 5 described a situation where a woman was given an abortifacient and God’s miracle prevent her child from dying, then the pro-abortion argument would have more weight. On top of this, it would set up a situation much like the Salem Witch Trials where people had to prove their innocence. Instead, God instructs that the accused woman should drink an innocuous substance and only through His miraculous intervention would an unborn child die. And even if that child were to die, he or she would die not by the choice of the parent, but by the decision of God.
When you encounter those who would use Scripture to justify evil, remember this:
Even the Devil can quote the Bible.
Copyright 2022, WL Grayson