Updated: Oct 25
Top Ten Pro-life Passages #3 // Exodus 21
“If people are fighting and 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, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. [Exodus 21:22-25 NIV]
Exodus 21:22–25 is an important Scripture in its own right for what it communicates about pregnancy, birth and children, but it has also been harnessed – probably more than any other Bible passage – in defence of abortion. So it is vital we understand this text.
Before we explore these verses it is worth remembering the consistent picture within the Old Testament is one where life begins at conception (e.g., Job 3:3; Hosea 9:11) and children are a gift from God to be celebrated (e.g., Psalms 127:3–5; 128:3).
Because children and pregnancy are such a blessing, “a miscarrying womb and dry breasts” are wished upon enemies in Hosea 9:14. Like similar desires in the Psalms this requires careful interpretation, rather than imitation, but it indicates how ingrained the belief was that children are a blessing to be treasured, including those still within the mother’s womb. Miscarriage and stillbirth were viewed as tragedies (Numbers 12:12; 2 Kings 2:21, etc.). One of the horrors associated with invasion was pregnant women being ripped open, killing them and their unborn children (see 2 Kings 8:12; 15:16; Hosea 13:16; Amos 1:13).
In Exodus the rapid growth of God’s people (Exodus 1:7) is seen as a good thing and a fulfilment of God’s creation purposes. It is Pharoah who wants to stop the Hebrew women having healthy baby boys. Although pregnant women and their offspring (including Moses!) are threatened at various points in the book, God’s will is that they and their children be protected. The midwives Shiphrah and Puah, as well as Moses’ mother Jochebed; his sister Miriam and Pharoah’s daughter are presented as heroines. It would be very odd if later on in Exodus Moses gave the people a law promoting abortion!
Exodus 21:22–25 follows God’s revelation of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. It comes within a section of Exodus known as “The Book of the Covenant,” which includes practical application of the Ten Commandments, as various scenarios are presented together with their consequences and punishments. Exodus 21 contains various short case laws on several diverse topics. A little over halfway through the chapter is the relevant passage:
22 “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. 23 But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (ESV)
Two or more men are fighting. There is no indication that they mean to do the woman (or her unborn child) harm, but their brawl has got out of control and a pregnant woman is injured as a result of their actions. But what exactly are the injuries and who sustains them?
The NRSV translates verses 22-23:
“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…”
It appears that a distinction is made between the death of the child (“a miscarriage”) and “further harm” to the mother, with her potential death covered by the category “life for life.” In other words, the argument goes, there is a qualitative difference between the death of a child in the womb (where a fine suffices) and the woman’s death (which is deemed a capital offence). The unborn child’s life on this interpretation is viewed as less valuable than the adult’s. We will come back to whether these are automatic conclusions or not, but first we need to recognise that versions such as the NRSV are deeply problematic. Similar wording appears in the GNT and NJB, which, together with the NRSV, are less recent translations.
For a start the word “further” does not exist in the Hebrew. It is added to clarify the “miscarriage” interpretation. In fact the word translated as “miscarriage” is not the usual Hebrew word for this (which is used a couple of chapters later in Exodus 23:26). It is instead a verb meaning literally “to come out,” which never on its own refers to miscarriage or stillbirth without qualifications indicating that the child was already dead. This word instead describes the healthy births of living children (Genesis 25:25–26; 38:28–30; Job 1:21, 3:11; Ecclesiastes 5:15; Jeremiah 1:5, for example). Moreover, the Hebrew “her children” is the usual word for a child once he or she is born. This confirms the humanity of the child and makes the miscarriage interpretation even less likely, as a word did exist to describe a miscarriage or stillborn child and occurs in Job 3:16, Psalm 58:8 and Ecclesiastes 6:3.
The most natural reading of Exodus 21:22–25 is that the brawlers are fined for the distress caused by the premature birth, with additional penalties if further injury or death results to either mother or child. If either mother or child did die it is probable that the capital sentence could be reduced to a financial penalty, given the deaths were unintentional (compare Exodus 21:12–13, 18–19, 28–30). This brings us back to the “miscarriage” interpretation.
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the NRSV, rather than the ESV, is correct, does it really make the case for abortion? Not at all! The men are still liable to pay criminal damages even if what happened was accidental, this is hardly a proof-text for deliberately ending a life in the womb, which is the purpose of every abortion. The Old Testament is clear how precious unborn children are so it would be a serious offence to destroy the person God so lovingly creates in the womb (Job 10:8–12; Psalm 139:13–16, etc.).
Even so, someone might argue, does the “miscarriage” interpretation not present a diminished view of the unborn child’s humanity or personhood, as somehow less valuable than the adult mother’s? Again, this hardly follows. At several points in Exodus 21 the death of non-free Israelites is dealt with (Exodus 21:20–21, 28-32). There is a clear disparity in punishments when these victims slaves are compared with free Israelites. This reflects the complex social framework in which Israel existed and these laws were given. Does it imply that slaves were somehow less human than anyone else? Of course not! No theologian makes that argument today. Yet as Russell Fuller points out: “there is more evidence to suggest that the slave was not a person than that the fetus was not, since the slave was explicitly called property ([Exod] 21:21).”1
Perhaps it is possible, when discussing these laws, to talk in terms of a lesser legal status, but never a lesser ontological status. A person is a person whether their legal value is judged to be three shekels or fifty (see Leviticus 27:1–8). Exodus 21:22–25 does not present any argument against the full humanity or personhood of the unborn child. Even less does it provide a biblical warrant for abortion, if anything it suggests the opposite.
For more on this passage see the article by John Piper: https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/the-misuse-of-exodus-21-22-25-by-pro-choice-advocates
As well as pages 142-43 in Scott Klusendorf, The Case for Life: Equipping Christians to Engage the Culture (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009).
 Russell Fuller, “Exodus 21:22–23: The Miscarriage Interpretation and the Personhood of the Fetus,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 37:2 (1994), 174. “Property” in Hebrew is literally “money.”
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