An exegetical study of Exodus 21:22-25
This week in the light of the recent supreme court Roe V. Wade overturn, I have had several people ask if the Torah really supports abortion. The answer is clearly no.
One of the most important parts about theology is making sure your views within the complete lens of scripture agree. This is partly why denominations exist. The theory is that a denominations theology and doctrinal positions should agree with each other. Unfortunately, they usually don’t agree causing even more problems behind denominational lines. For instance, if you interpret one place in the Bible such as Exodus 21:22-25 to say that life must begin at physical birth there are simply way too many verses to try to reconcile to fit this idea (see the partial list below.) Therefore, you have to go back and ask how else might the one verse that doesn’t seem to agree or fit with the rest may be misinterpreted or reinterpreted to fit within the understanding of the rest of the verses that so plainly seem to describe humanity beginning at conception.
Many pro-choice advocates (especially within traditional Judaism) have tried to use Exodus 21:22-25 to prove that the Bible (and specifically Torah) would not hold life before birth equal to life after. This unfortunately is based on terrible translations. I am most surprised by traditional Jewish sources that seem to advocate for this as when you read this text in Hebrew there is nearly zero grounds to understand the text that way.
The RSV is one translation that supports the pro-choice conclusion. If you follow my Youtube channel or many of my posts you will know that I typically do not prefer the RSV, it reads,
When men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her shall be fined, according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay 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.
There are some theological problems with the RSV interpretation. The RSV assumes that a “miscarriage” happens, and the fetus is born dead. The text doesn’t say that. The NIV does not assume that a miscarriage happened. The NIV translates the text like this:
If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she 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 . . .
The difference is significant. The NIV implies the child is born alive. But when you read it in Hebrew, even using a good interlinear, you would even read it significantly more in this way. Remember when most of these translations were written, abortion wasn’t a debate or option. In many ways we are trying to read our modern view, or problems into an ancient text.
Consider this interlinear translation: And when men fight and strike a pregnant woman (‘ishah harah) and her children (yeladeyha) go forth (weyatse’u), and there is no injury, he shall surely be fined as the husband of the woman may put upon him; and he shall give by the judges. But if there is injury, 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.
The phrase translated as “and the children go forth” the RSV translates this as a miscarriage while the NIV translates it as a premature live birth.
When looking at the Hebrew and perhaps the NIV translation you might consider the Hebrew verb for miscarry or lose by abortion or be bereaved of the fruit of the womb, namely, shakal. It is used in Exodus 23:26, “None shall miscarry (meshakelah) or be barren in your land.” But this word is NOT used here in Exodus 21:22-25. We have very specific words in Hebrew unlike English which only has a couple options. (For instance, in English we say worship, in Hebrew we have at least 7 specific words for types of worship.)
The Hebrew word for birth here is “go forth” (ytsa’). Nowhere else in the Bible or anywhere else in extra biblical sources does this word ever refer to a miscarriage or abortion. In other words, treating it this way is terrible theology and has no hermeneutical grounds. When it refers to a birth it refers to live children “going forth” or “coming out” from the womb. For example, Genesis 25:25, “And the first came out (wyetse’) red, all of him like a hairy robe; and they called his name Esau.” (See also v. 26 and Genesis 38:28-30.)
Furthermore, the common Hebrew word for miscarry is NOT used but a word is used that elsewhere does not mean miscarry but ordinary live birth. If the text meant to say or imply this, there are other words in the Bible that clearly mean this that would have been used such as (golem, Psalm 139:16) or nephel, Job 3:16; Psalm 58:8; Ecclesiastes 6:3).
Rather here, the ordinary word for children is used in Exodus 21:22 (yeladeyha). It regularly refers to children who are born. “Yeled only denotes a child, as a fully developed human being, and not the fruit of the womb before it has assumed a human form” (Keil and Delitzsch, Pentateuch, vol. 2, p. 135).
In other words, when you study the Hebrew, (even if you don’t know Hebrew but simply use and interlinear), there is no miscarriage in this text. The child is born pre-maturely and is protected with the mother. If the child is injured there is to be recompense as with the injury of the mother.
The RSV translation has caused some issues with modern world abortion problems, but when you read the Hebrew it comes off quite differently. As I also mentioned, we need to be very careful we don’t read our modern ideas into the ancient text. This would also be poor hermeneutics.
This said, the church could do better. We need to care for the marginalized much better. Love Grace and Mercy to all our neighbors.
-Dr. Will Ryan
ProLife Bible Verses
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; Before you were born I sanctified you; I ordained you a prophet to the nations.” (Jeremiah 1:5)
For You formed my inward parts; You covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Marvelous are Your works, And that my soul knows very well. My frame was not hidden from You, When I was made in secret, And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. (Psalm 139:13,15)
“God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27)
“Truly children are a gift from the Lord; the fruit of the womb is a reward” (Psalm 127:3)
Listen to me, O coastlands, and give attention, you peoples from afar. The LORD called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name… And now the LORD says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him—for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD, and my God has become my strength. (Isaiah 49:1,5)
“Be fertile and multiply” (Genesis 1:28)
“And Isaac besought the Lord for his wife, because she was barren: and he heard him, and made Rebecca to conceive. But the children struggled in her womb…” (Genesis 25:21-22)
“In the womb he supplanted his brother, and as a man he contended with God.” (Hosea 12:3)
“But when Rebecca also had conceived at once of Isaac our father. For when the children were not yet born, nor had done any good or evil (that the purpose of God according to election might stand) . . .” (Romans 9:10-11)
Yet you are he who took me from the womb; you made me trust you at my mother’s breasts. On you was I cast from my birth, and from my mother’s womb you have been my God. (Psalms 22:9-10)
“God… from my mother’s womb had set me apart and called me through his grace” (St. Paul to the Galatians 1:15)
“They mingled with the nations and learned their works…They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to demons, and they shed innocent blood, the blood of their sons and their daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan, desecrating the land with bloodshed” (Psalm 106:35, 37-38)
“Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13, Deuteronomy 5:17)
“Do unto others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12)
Whoever strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death. (Exodus 21:12)
‘Cursed be anyone who takes a bribe to shed innocent blood.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’ (Deuteronomy 27:25)
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple. (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16 )