May 2023 | Tim Lewis
From Genesis to Revelation, what are the spiritual dimensions to the issue of the unborn child and abortion?
Transcript | Seed, Serpents and the Saviour:
God's Work and Satan's Assault on Human Life in the Womb
Let me very briefly outline what I am suggesting, before we get into God’s Word. The first idea is pretty uncontroversial: running through Scripture is God’s metanarrative, involving the Promised Seed who will crush the serpent’s head. As the Bible unfolds we are given more and more detail as what this looks like. The realisation that the serpent-crusher will be – needs to be – no less than God’s Son himself, come to live and die to save his people and defeat Satan. I’m sure you’ve heard many a talk on that theme, which is really the theme of the Bible, the theme that all the other subplots of biblical theology support. If you’ve ever seen The Passion of the Christ, it’s quite fitting – albeit artistic license – that Jesus crushes a snake during his anguished prayer in the garden. This is about Satan’s demise – achieved through cross and resurrection and to be continued, completed in fact at the Second Coming – proleptically illustrated in that snake’s death. So that’s the first line of the title.
But what I want to do – which is less frequently explored – is to trace how alongside this divine rescue mission, to borrow a phrase from Star Wars, the Empire fights back. The Devil does not go quietly. He thrashes about and does as much damage as he can, attempting to take as many people to hell with him as he can. Moreover, what we see throughout Scripture is a consistent, sustained attack on all that is good, true and beautiful in God’s world. And that continues beyond the pages of Scripture. The Devil comes only to steal, kill and destroy. Satan’s assault is also focused on God’s work in the womb – the new life God’s creates there. Remember the devil’s fate is sealed by the seed of a woman, and consequently he hates with a particular venom pregnant women and their offspring. As the bioethicist John Wyatt says, "Satan hates all people, they remind him of the King, because they all bear his image. So it is natural that he will try to destroy as many as possible before they are even born." As an aside, consider for a moment where the culture wars of our own time are at their fiercest, here and in the U.S.? It’s around abortion and it’s also about what actually constitutes a woman. Violence is being done to the very concept of what a woman is, that is an adult female, through the trans agenda. Men are essentially pretending to be women; entering female-only spaces; competing against women in female sports; making a mockery of God’s creation. And to question this insane ideology (Rom 1 writ large) is ironically to yourself be labelled as intolerant, hateful, violent. None of this should surprise us as students of the Scriptures. This is all part of the enemy’s plan. And it will fail.
So let’s begin at the beginning. Let’s go right back to Genesis 1. For reasons of time, I’m not going to read through all the Scripture, but it will be up on the screen and I will refer to it throughout.
26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
Human sexuality – just two genders, male and female – is a fundamental part of the created order. People are in God’s image precisely as male and female (v. 27). The Hebrew words used here [זָכָר and נְקֵבָה] put the accent on the biological and physical dimension of gender. Body, not mind, determines gender. Also, humanity being male and female is explicitly about procreation. The creation account in Gen 2 puts the accent on companionship and human flourishing, but here procreation – the creation of further image bearers – is emphasised. Human multiplication – whatever Extinction Rebellion or Just Stop Oil might tell you – is not this world’s real problem. Human sin is. God wipes out humanity, except Noah and his family, because the world is filled, not with people, but with violence (Gen 6:11, 13). The reason God floods the earth and begins again, the reason for this dramatic action – is that people are doing violence to other image bearers. And when God starts again with Noah, a sort of second Adam figure in Genesis 9, the assault on human life in God’s image is taken so seriously – that the death penalty is attached to murder, a penalty that is never revoked in Scripture. In a parallel ANE creation text the Atrahasis Epic the gods come up with all sorts of schemes, including barrenness and spontaneous abortion to limit population size. They are threatened by procreation. This is the pagan mindset, but it is far removed from the biblical mandate.
The first commandment, the first mitzvah, is – God willing is to have children. The Fall disrupts this. Many of the matriarchs struggle, godly women like Sarah, Rebekah, Hannah, and later Elizabeth struggle to conceive – this is no judgement on them personally. This is why Orthodox Jews tend to marry young and have large families. It’s also why The Book of Common Prayer says of marriage that: “First, It was ordained for the procreation of children…” So at the very start of the Bible we have a clear statement on the goodness of human sexuality and its inherent purpose in procreation, bringing children into the world. All this is very good: Gen 1:31.
This provides the backdrop for Genesis 3, where post-Fall, Adam and Eve receive God’s word of curse on the fertility of the land – and as an extension of that creational fecundity – the woman’s womb.
16 To the woman he said,
“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”
17 And to Adam he said,
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it’,
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
19 By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”
In v. 16 the word the ESV translates “childbearing” – in Hebrew word is literally “conception” (used in modern Hebrew for pregnancy, הֵרָיוֹן). Pregnancy and giving birth are no longer straightforward things. Barrenness now blights the lives of God’s people. Miscarriage, stillbirth, infant and maternal mortality enter the world. Nevertheless, the procreation mandate remains in place. Witness Eve’s joy at giving birth in Gen 4:1 even though Cain doesn’t turn out as most parents would have hoped… Furthermore, and this is crucial, wrapped up in this word to Eve, is actually the means of salvation. Salvation does not come through the man’s toil, in bringing forth food from the earth. Salvation comes through the woman’s work of pregnancy and childbirth; through the seed of the woman. For this reason Martin Luther can describe Gen 3:16 as a “happy and joyful punishment” [“Lectures on Genesis”, (Luther’s Works, vol. 1, p. 198)]. One theologian [Amy Marga] writes: “In the hands of a woman, the curse has become a tool in its own defeat.” Because: “[t]he power that women have to give birth is precisely the power that God harnesses to become incarnate and reconcile the world.” And it’s for this reason pregnant women and their children pose a particular threat to Satan. If we turn to look at verse 15, where God addresses the snake:
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring [literally “seed”, Heb. זֶרַע];
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.”
On the one hand this is about the enmity that exists between human beings and snakes. But something far more significant is going on. The snake might bruise the heel of human beings, suggesting in the main a less significant peril. But her offspring, the seed of the woman (singular here, זֶרַע in Heb.) is destined to bruise or crush the head of the serpent, suggesting a mortal wound. From the time of the early Church this has been taken as the first promise of the Gospel, the Protoevangelium, the promise of the Messianic seed, who would eventually crush Satan. I mentioned Orthodox Jews having large families to obey the first mitzvah. The other reason Jews have been minded to have numerous children, is that one of them might just turn out to be the Messiah. Well, one of them was. And Satan missed him! A key theme in fact in Patristic theology (e.g., Irenaeus) is about Jesus being overlooked by the devil, precisely because of his humble origins. Born of a humble girl in Nazareth. Satan, the great deceiver, has himself been deceived, and he is furious. Rev 12:12: “woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” We’ll come back to Rev 12 at the end.
So, to summarise so far:
Human sexuality and procreation are good.
The Fall brings conflict within male-female relationships and struggle regarding procreation.
But the procreation mandate remains in place.
Satan is threatened with a promised seed who will crush him and for this reason he focuses particular hatred towards pregnant women and their children.
We see these themes loom large in the next book of the Old Testament, Exodus.
In the first chapter of Exodus we read:
7 But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.
If that sounds familiar, it should do! Compare it with Genesis 1:28 – the same three verbs occur:
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it ."
God’s people are being faithful to his Word here, they are doing what he instructed, and being blessed. It is God who after all opens the womb and forms every unborn child. And so it is that the children of Israel – interesting phrase – explode in numbers! Immediately we read how this perturbs Pharoah (Exod 1:8–9):
8 Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens. They built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and the more they spread abroad. And the Egyptians were in dread of the people of Israel. 13 So they ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service, in mortar and brick, and in all kinds of work in the field. In all their work they ruthlessly made them work as slaves.
If the Israelites are following God’s will for humanity, doing what Adam and Eve are commanded to do; we should realise whose part Pharoah plays in the drama. Pharaoh represents Satan himself – he comes to steal, kill and destroy. Claire Mathews-McGinnis captures the wider theological point: “to side with YHWH results in the protection and nurture of children. To side with Pharaoh is to acquiesce in their death.” Pharoah’s initial plan utilises the midwives, he uses the Egyptian NHS if you like to kill new-born infants. Not a million miles from where we are today:
15 Then the king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but let the male children live. 18 So the king of Egypt called the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and let the male children live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives. And the people multiplied and grew very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every son that is born to the Hebrews you shall cast into the Nile, but you shall let every daughter live.”
Notice how it is male children specifically that are targeted by Pharoah. The Messiah – the promised seed – will be a male infant. This is different from the situation today, where overwhelmingly more girls are killed worldwide than boys in the womb. In some communities at a rate that has led to huge population imbalances. You may recall Keir Starmer, when Director of Public Prosecutions, deemed a criminal case against a UK doctor who had been performing sex selective abortions “not in the public interest.” Starmer presents himself as a great defender of human rights, and a feminist, but I would suggest he is actually completely blind to the biggest human rights scandal, not just of our age, but of all time. If you think Starmer is bad, Humza Yousaf is even worse – he wants abortion on demand up to birth for any reason. The two midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, in the midst of this culture of death, side with God. We should realise here that what Pharoah is proposing is possibly some form of partial birth abortion. For the babies to be killed as soon as their gender is determined, but before the mother and other family members realise that the baby is a healthy new-born, and thus some foul play is afoot, is an incredibly small window of opportunity. It’s plausible that they are intended to be killed as they are being born. One scholar has even argued that what the midwives would be expected to do is to deliver abortifacient drugs having determined the baby’s gender through prenatal examination. Either way it’s an horrific he is asking them to do – for those trained to bring life into the world to administer this cruel death. Again through, there is a parallel to the contemporary situation in the UK, given the highest midwifery bodies, have essentially been co-opted by the abortion industry; the definition of midwifery itself mangled and redefined, and students kicked off university midwifery courses just for being Pro-Life. This is all happening today. When questioned by Pharoah as to why they have not obeyed him, they respond: “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” (Exodus 1:19). This is a brilliant response. The word vigorous is the adjective חָיֶה. It is related to the word for “life” and for “animal.” So on the one hand they could be playing to Pharoah’s prejudices about the Hebrews, by confirming his view that they are essentially animal-like, inferior to the Egyptians. In modern idiom, “They breed like rabbits.” More significantly, something deeper is being communicated in terms of the Bible’s overarching narrative. It takes us back to Genesis 3:20, where Adam names his wife “Eve, because she was the mother of all living [חַי, from the same root as the word translated “vigorous” in Exod 1]. In other words, the Hebrew women and the midwives are following the biblical script, by nurturing life. If Pharoah is aligned with the serpent, they are like contemporary Eve’s.
People have long debated whether the actions of Shiphrah and Puah constituted falsehood, and were thus immoral. I think such questions – as well as overlooking the biblical theological allusions we have drawn out of the text – miss the very strong sense of the sacredness of life in the Scriptures, which we’ve seen is rooted in being made in God’s image and likeness. Like others in Scripture Shiphrah and Puah realise that sometimes obeying God and resisting dehumanising evil mean disobeying sinful laws. My parents knew an older Dutch Christian who managed to smuggle a Jewish child to safety in his rucksack, right past the Nazis in WW2, effectively deceiving them as to what he was carrying. Was he breaking the ninth commandment? I think rather we would say he was loving God and loving his neighbour [the Jewish child, and arguably even the Nazis, by keeping them from further evil].
We’re going to massively jump ahead now, skipping the other 37 books of the OT, and head straight to the Gospels.
There is a great deal more we could say about the unborn child in the rest of the OT. If you are interested the podcasts I have done with Dave Brennan on the Brephos website explore some of this in more detail and we are in the process of adding written content to the website including a series on ten key texts about the unborn child in the Bible. Fast-forwarding to the infancy narratives does allow us to see some of the links between these and the Exodus story. Not least between Pharoah and Herod, who is a new Pharoah, hell-bent on the destruction of Bethlehem’s baby boys, and like Pharoah, consistently opposed to God’s purposes throughout the Gospels.
The wise women, the midwives, find a parallel in the magi, the wise men, who also trick Herod, by not giving him the information he requires – albeit, like the midwives – they cannot prevent the slaughter of the innocents taking place. After the midwifery ruse fails, Pharoah commands all the people to drown the Hebrew boys in the Nile. Ultimately however Yahweh acts to deliver his “son,” as the people collectively are termed in Exod 4:23. In the same way God delivers Jesus, rescuing him from the tyrant’s fury and then calling his Son again out of Egypt (Matt 2:15, Hos 11:1).
The NT introduces further linguistic connections. Acts 7 summarises Israel’s time in Egypt, including the attack on the Hebrew baby boys. Acts 7:19:
He dealt shrewdly with our race and forced our fathers to expose their infants, so that they would not be kept alive.
The word infants here is brephe, the plural of brephos, which means infant. Elsewhere in the NT the word is used of Timothy being taught the Scriptures from infancy (2 Tim 3:15); figuratively of believers desiring God’s word, just as new-born babies crave milk (1 Pet 2:2). The rest of the occurrences are all within Luke’s Gospel. So “brephos” is the word used of the infant Jesus lying in the manger (Luke 2:12, 16). And of John as an unborn child, within Elizabeth’s womb (Luke 1:41, 44). There is an absolute continuity in the nature, personhood and value from the unborn to the new-born infant. John is filled with the Spirit even in the womb – prophesying to the also unborn, in fact embryonic, Christ (1:41, 44). And Jesus is himself conceived by the Holy Spirit, which overshadows Mary, like God’s Shekinah presence in the tabernacle (Exod 40:35) or his life-giving Spirit hovering over the waters at creation (Gen 1:2).
There is a great deal more we could say about Christology and the unborn Jesus, but the key thing I want to emphasise is that from his earliest moments the child Jesus is vulnerable and he is threatened. Now, if that is Herod’s approach, his attitude to infants, what is God’s attitude? What does Jesus’ life and teaching convey about children?
Just as Christ hallows the womb – by becoming an unborn child, he makes childhood holy, growing up in obedience to his parents, and seeking God even as a child (Luke 2:41–52). Then as an adult, throughout the Gospels Jesus makes time for children. He welcomes them, blesses them and heals them – a high proportion of Jesus’s healings are healings of children. Children feature prominently in Jesus’ teaching: to enter the Kingdom of God one must become like a little child. The Kingdom belongs to “such as these” and stern warnings are made to those who would cause children to stumble. Their angels in heaven constantly behold the face of God the Father. Jesus takes up the Jewish worldview that sees children as gift and blessing, never as problem or commodity.
15 Now they were bringing even infants [brephe] to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 17 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
Pointedly in Luke’s account of Jesus as welcoming children (Luke 18) Jesus receives brephe (infants) to bless and embrace. Pharoah and Herod seek to destroy brephe, Jesus blesses them. How different is the Christian worldview from the dominant ethic of every age, including our own!? And dare we say, often the Church – we must realise that it is Jesus’ own disciples who wish to bar entry for these little ones; it's the disciples who lose the plot when it comes to God’s will for the smallest and most vulnerable human beings; speaking out for them, advocating on their behalf.
So to welcome children is to imitate Jesus. To welcome children is also in some sense to welcome Jesus himself, in the least of these human beings. We can think of the pattern of Matthew 25. There is a further link between the Infancy Narratives and Christ’s actions. Just as Jesus takes the children in his arms and blesses them (Mark 10:16), using almost identical wording in Greek in Luke 2 Simeon takes the infant Jesus in his arms (Luke 2:28). Luke 2:28:
“he took him up in his arms and blessed God [and said,]” To welcome any child [does not just imitate Jesus, but] recalls Simeon’s embrace of the infant Jesus. Conversely to reject any child is to reject Christ. And what is killing a child in the womb if not a rejection of the worth, personhood and imaged status of that human being? It should come as no surprise therefore that the early Christian communities continued the very high Jewish regard for children, and their prohibition on abortion and infanticide. The very earliest Christian documents, such as the Didache, specifically condemn abortion, listing it alongside murder and adultery. With Christianity the value of the unborn child in his or her own right is especially highlighted, because it’s a natural development of the incarnation, which raises the bar for unborn life, beyond even the lofty view of biblical Judaism. In the OT God creates and loves the unborn child. In the NT God becomes an unborn child. There is no higher value that can be bestowed upon unborn human life.
Before we conclude I want to finally say a few words about John’s infancy narrative. If you’re still with me, you might be thinking, hang on John’s doesn’t have an infancy narrative… that’s Matthew and Luke terrain. John begins with the pre-existence of the divine Logos. Correct, John doesn’t have an infancy narrative as such. However, just as I think it is possible to see significant eucharistic themes in John 6 – John doesn’t have an account of the Last Supper either – so I think it is possible to find a Johannine infancy narrative in Revelation 12. I’m assuming John also wrote Revelation:
12 And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. 3 And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. 4 His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. 5 She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, 6 and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.
The child is unambiguously identified as Christ in v. 5, the one born to rule the nations, share God’s throne. And in similar fashion, Roman Catholic exegesis has traditionally identified the woman of v. 1 as Mary (Catholic portrayals of Mary often picture her standing on the moon, with a crown of twelve stars). Reacting against an at times unhealthy over-emphasis on Mary, Protestant exegesis has often been wary to make this connection, noting that the language of sun, moon and stars represents Israel collectively in Joseph’s dream (Gen 37:9). While this is true, I would argue that the linguistic data, apart from anything else in terms of context, make the reference to Mary hard to deny.
Rev 12:2: She was pregnant [ἔχω + γαστήρ] and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth [τίκτω].
Rev 12:5: She gave birth [τίκτω] to a male child [υἱός]
Matt 1:23: Behold, the virgin shall conceive [ἔχω + γαστήρ] and bear [τίκτω] a son [υἱός]
Remember also, that like John’s vision, the context in Matthew, Gabriel’s message, is that of a visionary angelic encounter by means of a dream (Matt 1:20). This is not to say that Mary is not closely associated with Israel. The Messiah is “of the Jews” collectively in that sense. But I think it would be strange to deny a fairly apparent reference to the virgin birth here. We discover that the identity of the “great red dragon” is revealed in v. 9 as “that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world,” recalling Satan’s first appearance in Gen 3. The dragon’s desire to devour the woman’s child plays on the ancient enmity between snake and the woman’s seed. Notice that the jeopardy for mother and child begins, not once the child is born, but while the mother is still pregnant, and her child unborn (v. 2). If Satan could have destroyed the child then, he would have. His animosity to the child after birth is of a piece with his hatred of the child in the womb. Just as the Devil knows the reality of the one God and trembles (Jas 2:19), so he knows the reality that the brephos within the womb is equivalent to the brephos outside the womb. What an indictment that so often Christ’s church misses or denies this reality. As mentioned, there is considerable fluidity to John’s vision. Just as the woman can represent the whole people of God, in the same way her offspring, literally “seed,” can indicate the wider Church, as well as Jesus. This is made explicit within Rev 12:17. But if anything, this simply makes the depiction more compelling. Having failed to deal with Christ, Satan’s fury is now directed against all Christians, those who are serious about holding to the commandments of God, those who hold human life as sacred, per the Genesis texts.
13 And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14 But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. 15 The serpent poured water like a river out of his mouth after the woman, to sweep her away with a flood. 16 But the earth came to the help of the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. 17 Then the dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus. And he stood on the sand of the sea.
You can see that the Exodus motifs continue in the eagle who carries the woman to safety [Exod 19:4: I carried you on eagle’s wings], and in the lethal deluge, reminiscent of the Nile river, Pharoah’s chosen means of infanticide. As Revelation goes on to emphasise, whatever Satan’s seeming power, his very real fury, his fate is sealed. He will be plunged into the lake of fire (Rev 20:10), just as Pharoah and his hosts were drowned in the Red Sea.
OK, I’m conscious we’ve covered a lot of ground, at some speed. You may not have agreed with all my exegesis. But hopefully the contours are now a little clearer:
Pharoah attempted to wipe out an entire generation of Hebrew boys.
Herod destroys Bethlehem’s baby boys.
Satan stands behind all attempts to dehumanise, to destroy life in the womb.
Our children too, a new generation, are threatened today – and on a scale more akin to Pharoah’s genocide than Herod’s localised massacre.
So what will our response be? Whose side do we wish to be on? The side of life or the culture of death. Let’s not pretend the culture of death doesn’t have immense power, influence and propaganda at its disposal. So did Pharoah, so did Herod. But God was not on their side, and he is not on the side of the abortion industry and their horrific, state-supported, tax-payer funded infanticide. Satan is a vanquished foe. He is going down and the abortion industry, with him. This year, next year, a hundred years from now.It will happen, and everything we do as Christians, whatever role God has placed you in, helps precipitate that. If you are a church leader, please do invite a Brephos speaker, or make a plan to teach on abortion yourself. Every prayer, every sermon, every conversation, every leaflet handed out, every encouragement to a frightened mother to keep her child, every hour spent publicly witnessing to this contemporary slaughter of the innocents, makes a difference and God sees.
Thank you, please keep going. As the Scripture says: “let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up.”
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