Recently, I posted on my church’s Facebook page about a significant financial gift my congregation was going to be giving to a local pregnancy crisis center. I wanted to celebrate this let the greater community to celebrate with us. Obviously, I stated that St. John was staunchly PRO-LIFE.
As you might expect, there were some who angrily commented on how hateful St. John was for doing this. They vented all the typical, emotional fallacies and ad hominem arguments that are often used to support a woman’s supposed “right” to terminate the life of a child while in utero. Typically, these responses don’t surprise me. What did surprise me was several comments that cited Exodus 21:22-25 as proof for abortion rights.
Now, I’ll admit, I had to look up the passage. As a pastor, I know my bible pretty well, but there are sweeping portions of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy that are rather obscure. Many of these sections of the bible really only apply to a very specific time in Israel’s history, particularly that short period when Israel wondered in the wilderness for 40 years.
Here’s the fulltext of Exodus 21:22-25 — “When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
In the ESV translation above, it seems very clear that there are stiff penalties if a pregnant woman or her unborn child is harmed. Indeed, if either is killed than the perpetrator shall pay with his own life, and at the very least, fines are imposed to provide recompense to the husband/father for any harm or loss that might occur because of a premature birth.
Furthermore, note how this passage defines part of what is called the Civil Law of Israel–laws that helped articulate basic codes of conduct and the penalties for criminal behavior. These crimes and penalties were not religious in nature would not have been enforced by the religious authorities but instead by the local government (probably the village or tribal elders). In my opinion, this passage provides a remarkable glimpse at how an ancient people viewed life before birth, and rather than supporting a PRO-CHOICE argument, this passage instead is profoundly helpful to the PRO-LIFE cause. It shows that even in the bible, the value of life is not just a topic belonging to the abstract realm of doctrine and theology, but shaped the very moral and civil fabric of life in everyday, ordinary communities amongst the people of Israel. It shows, in other words, that human society has understood the sanctity of protecting the unborn even from the earliest of times.
So why are PRO-CHOICE people using this bible passage as a proof text for their pro-death position?
Well, maybe it’s just a bible version thing. After all, some modern translations sometimes get things wonky in the Old Testament. So I checked some other versions of the bible and found out that, indeed, a few versions translate this passage in an obscure way that could allow for a differentiation between harm done to the mother and harm done to the unborn baby. The RSV is an example of that.
Here is the RSV version:
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.
Notice, that the RSV version implies that if the miscarriage was the only harm done than the perpetrators would merely pay a fine, but if harm came to the mother, than it might mean something more serious, life for life, hand for hand, foot for foot, etc.. I suppose the logic that a PRO-CHOICE advocate would use in interpreting this is that the baby is valued only with dollar signs while harm to the mother’s life incurs stiffer penalties, even the death penalty.
Yet, even if the RSV is correct, the fact remains that penalty was meted-out either way to those who cause a miscarriage, even if only accidentally hitting the woman during a fight. In no way does the biblical text dismiss the criminal nature of such carless disregard. Restitution must be made by whatever fine the judge determines is fair. Which means, that no matter how this passage is understood and no matter what translation you use, in no way does Exodus 21 recommend, command, suggest, or even refer to an elective abortion.
Odds are good, that if you encounter someone who tries to tell you the bible supports abortion and then cites Exodus 21:22-25 as proof, they probably haven’t actually read the passage themselves but just googled something about “the bible and abortion.” I guess they assume you won’t know Exodus 21 from memory. Who would?
But now you do!
Finally, let me just add that the Christian’s PRO-LIFE perspective is not just shaped by any certain number of proof texts from the bible, as if it all comes down to who can quote the bible better. Random quotes from the bible have been used to support all kinds of crazy notions throughout history. Even Jesus Christ had to correct the misuse of the scriptures: See Matthew 12:1-8 & Matthew 19:1-9.
The bible is not just some black and white list of do’s and don’ts; rather, it describes all sorts of broken situations caused by broken sinful people in a broken, sinful, messed-up world. The bible teaches us that the consequence of all of this mess is death. That’s the big problem. God’s response was to send His son Jesus Christ to save humanity from death. Jesus Christ came to take away the sting of death and give eternal life which means that for anyone to try to use death as the answer or solution to the problems and frustrations of life IS NEVER THE RIGHT RESPONSE.
Additionally, sound reason demands that we resist the fallacious nature of all pro-choice arguments that try to pit the worth of the mother’s life over and against the life of the baby in her womb. These arguments are false dichotomies. In truth, a pro-life desire to end abortion in this country is premised on a desire to see mothers and families supported and affirmed. Many, many Christian organizations operate charities and pregnancy crisis centers for this very reason. Countless laws, tax breaks and social welfare programs exist through local, state and federal agencies to support mothers and young children. It is in these ways that staunchly prolife Christians can responsibly support and love both women and their unborn children.