Questions From Readers
● Abortion, I realize, is wrong from the Biblical standpoint, for it is deliberately taking life. I understood that Exodus 21:22, 23 supported this fact. But recently I read a Bible version that gives these verses a different meaning. What do the verses really say and mean?
The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures renders Exodus 21:22, 23: “And in case men should struggle with each other and they really hurt a pregnant woman and her children do come out but no fatal accident occurs, he is to have damages imposed upon him without fail according to what the owner of the woman may lay upon him; and he must give it through the justices. But if a fatal accident should occur, then you must give soul for soul.”
Some other translations, though, render this passage in such a way that someone might conclude that abortion is not so serious. For example, the Revised Standard Version 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. . . . If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life.” The impression that one could get is that the only serious concern is for the woman, not the fetus. Someone might conclude from such a translation that if the hurt caused an abortion but no other damage to the woman, the guilty man was simply to be fined. So, abortion might not seem serious.
Perhaps such renderings have been influenced by how the first-century Jewish historian Flavius Josephus paraphrased these verses: “He that kicks a woman with child, so that the woman miscarry, let him pay a fine in money, as the judges shall determine, as having diminished the multitude [of the nation] by the destruction of what was in her womb; and let money also be given the woman’s husband by him that kicked her; but if she die of the stroke, let him also be put to death, the law judging it equitable that life should go for life.” Professor William Whiston, who translated Josephus’ writings, states that this understanding of Exodus 21:22, 23 reflected “the exposition of the Pharisees in the days of Josephus.”—Antiquities of the Jews, Book IV, Chapter viii, paragraph 33, and footnote.
On the other hand, the translators who produced the Greek Septuagint Version took a different view of the matter. In their translation, Exodus 21:22, 23 says that, “if two men strive and smite a woman with child, and her child be born imperfectly formed [or, “she miscarry of an embryo”], he shall be forced to pay a penalty.” So they thought that if what was aborted was too young to have developed recognizable human features, a monetary fine would suffice. But if the fetus was “perfectly formed” or “completely organised,” the man who gave cause to the abortion must pay life for life.—English translations of the Septuagint by Sir L. L. Brenton and Charles Thomson.
With so many and varied views, it clearly would be wise to go back to the original Hebrew to see what it does and does not say.
Exodus 21:22, 23 is in a part of the Mosaic law dealing with compensation for injuries. As the next verses show, the basic principle was “eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” But what was to be done if a pregnant woman was injured?
Actually, there could be a number of outcomes of the injury. Consider the woman first. She might be hurt, even crippled, but not fatally. Or the damage might have caused her death. Consider next the developing child or children in her womb. If her pregnancy was quite advanced, the blow or shock might bring on early labor so that she prematurely delivered a live baby. Or, the hurt to the mother might cause an abortion, a destruction of the life developing in her womb. Plainly, what the Law said about damage to a pregnant woman had to cover a range of possibilities.
What exactly did the Law say? We here present the literal rendering in the Hebrew-English interlinear by Dr. G. R. Berry (read from right to left):
וְכִי־יִנָּצוּ אֲנָשִׁים וְנָגְפוּ
strike they and ,men contend when And
אִשָּׁה הָרָה 22 וְיָצְאוּ יְלָדֶיהָ
,child her forth goes and ,1pregnant 2woman a
וְלאֹ יִהְיֶה אָסוֹן עָנוֹשׁ יֵעָנֵשׁ
,fined be shall he surely ;injury is not and
כַּאֲשֶׁר יָשִׁית עָלָיו בַּעַל
of husband the him upon put may as
הָאִשָּׁה וְנָתַן בִּפְלִלִים ׃
.judges the with give shall he and ,woman the
וְאִם־אָסוֹן יִהְיֶה וְנָתַתָּה נֶפֶשׁ
23 soul give shalt thou (and) ,is injury if And
תַּחַת נָפֶשׁ ׃
The Hebrew word here rendered “injury” (“harm,” Revised Standard Version; “mischief,” Authorized Version) is asón. According to the lexicon by William L. Holladay, asón means “mortal accident.” This is borne out by the usage of asón in its three other occurrences in the Bible. (Gen. 42:4, 38; 44:29) Thus, the rendering “fatal accident” in the New World Translation enables one more accurately to understand what the Law here said.
But then the question arises, To whom does the expression “fatal accident” apply? Is it the child, the mother or either of them? Some translations present an interpretation of the matter. For instance, The Jerusalem Bible reads: “If, when men come to blows, they hurt a woman who is pregnant and she suffers a miscarriage, though she does not die of it, the man responsible must pay the compensation demanded of him, . . . But should she die, you shall give life for life.” (Ex. 21:22, 23, italics added) This translation clearly shows that a fatal accident is at issue, but the inserted interpretive “she” leaves the impression that if the blow caused the woman to abort but she lived, then merely a fine was imposed. However, is that what the Hebrew text really says?
The aforementioned interlinear reading reveals that the Hebrew does not limit the application of “injury” (fatal accident) to just the mother. Thus, the respected commentary by C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch says that a fine was sufficient only when “no injury [fatal accident] was done either to the woman or the child that was born.” This commentary shows that if the Law meant that, just as long as the mother lived, a simple fine would cover any damage the Hebrew text would have added lah, “to her.” The verse would thus have said, ‘When men contend and they strike a pregnant woman and her child goes forth and no injury [fatal accident] is done to her, a fine must be paid.’ Yet, these commentators conclude: “The omission of lah, also, apparently renders it impracticable to refer the words to [an] injury done to the woman alone.”
Consequently, a fine was imposed when the damage caused the child to be born alive prematurely, with no fatal results to either mother or child. If, though, the blow took the life of either the mother or her child in the womb, the Law required “soul for soul.”
This harmonizes with other Bible passages that show that Jehovah God does not view a living human embryo or fetus as a mere piece of tissue in a woman’s womb. (Ps. 139:13-16) Bearing that out, Jehovah said to the prophet Jeremiah: “Before I was forming you in the belly I knew you, and before you proceeded to come forth from the womb I sanctified you.” (Jer. 1:5) Also, the stipulated “soul for soul” in the case of a man who caused the death of a woman or caused her to abort, would be consistent with the Bible’s overall teaching of respect for life and its opposition to manslaughter.—Gen. 9:6; Num. 35:30, 31; Rev. 21:8.
Therefore Exodus 21:22, 23 in no way minimizes the serious wrongness of abortion. Rather, it shows that the heavy penalty of “soul for soul” was set out in the Mosaic law for anyone who caused a “fatal accident” to a woman or a child developing in her womb.