Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Commentary on Exodus 21:22-25 and Abortion

[The following essay was originally is written by Rebecca Merrill Groothuis and posted at her blog in response to a question about Exodus 21 and abortion. It clarifies the text's treatment of this issue quite well, which is why I am posting it here. Christians need to have a firm grasp of the Bible's teaching on this crucial issue of life and death. Sadly, many Christians do not because of biblical illiteracy and a lack of teaching on moral issues from the pulpit.]

Exodus 21:22-25 stipulates OT case law for two alternative consequences of a pregnant woman being accidentally hit by men who are fighting with each other. The first consequence (case 1) is set forth in vs. 22; the second consequence (case 2) is set forth in vs. 23-25. The text admits of various interpretations, which generally fall into two different views, each of which arises out of a different translation of a key phrase.

Generally speaking the two views turn on whether the Hebrew text in vs. 22a is translated so as to say the woman gives birth prematurely (view 1), or is translated to say the woman has a miscarriage (view 2). View 1 permits either a live birth or a miscarriage. View 2 permits only a miscarriage.

The first view is represented by the TNIV. The second view is represented by the NRSV.

TNIV, Exodus 21:22-25: "If people are fighting and a pregnant woman is hit and gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman's husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

NRSV, Exodus 21:22-25: 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.

However, the Hebrew text does not say “there is a miscarriage.” It says, “her children come out.” The KJV quaintly puts it, “so that her fruit depart from her.” The text does not require the death of the fetus, but rather offers the possibility of either death or survival. Thus view 1 is a more literal and accurate rendering of the text, and also allows for the woman’s offspring to come forth unharmed.

According to view 1, verse 22 (case 1) speaks of a scenario in which the woman is hit and “her fruit departs from her,” yet her “fruit” remains alive and well and the mother sustains no serious injury. (I couldn’t resist the KJV language here.) The man who hit the woman must then pay some agreed-upon compensation. But if, as in verses 23-25 (case 2), the woman is hit and the child or the woman or both sustain serious injury or death, then the offender must be punished in accordance with the severity of the injury or injuries. However, OT law required capital punishment only when the killing was willful and premeditated (see Numbers 35:31). Therefore, even if the mother or child or children were killed, the man responsible would not be required to die, but could ransom his life by surrendering to the father and/or husband of the deceased a monetary payment equal to the value of the life lost.

On this view, the fetus is deemed a human life—a life whose serious injury or death cannot be compensated merely by a routine fine, but must be addressed by the same means as any accidental injury or fatality of any human being.

Regarding the contemporary Jewish understanding of this text: The Jewish Study Bible (Oxford University Press, 2004) sets forth various views on this text. The view that considers the unborn fetus to be not a living person because only a monetary punishment is required for its death (Halakhic exegesis) concludes from this only that “abortion is permitted when necessary to save the mother”—which is a pro-life view!

The Bible never makes any provision for anything resembling potential life or pre-human life or considerations of quality of life or any of the other contrived notions devised in our modern/postmodern/post-human culture. A respect for human life at every stage of life is consistently upheld throughout the Bible. This view is consistent not only with the literal reading of the text itself, but also with the overall tenor and teaching of Scripture. Biblical truth is rightly discerned not only by careful exegesis of the text itself, but also by incisive assessment of that which, although not explicitly stated in Scripture, is logically entailed by what the Bible says.

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