The Killing of Unborn Children under the Law

The LORD God in the Old Testament kills unborn children and gives Israel permission to do the same.
The Bible contains no texts about abortion. Here the Bible offers us no direct word at all.
To cite Exodus 20.13, Deuteronomy 5: 17: “You shall not murder,” against abortion begs the question. The issue is one of definition: Is abortion murder or not? There is nothing in the context of the Decalogue, or indeed anywhere in the Torah, that offers an answer to this question.

Hays, Richard. Community, Cross, New Creation, Contemporary Introduction to New Testament Ethic. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

Pro-life Christians undermine the Great Commission

Abortion represents the seminal issue that galvanized the re-branded fundamentalists and the Republican Party, and it is the issue more than any other that exposes the cracks in the Evangelicalism. More importantly, in getting the abortion issue wrong, Evangelicals misrepresent God, and they wrongly condemn people looking for kindness and hope. By misrepresenting God and his agenda in the world, it becomes that much harder to make more and better disciples.

So as we dive into the Scripture one last time before formulating a biblically sensitve, theologically sound, historically informed, rational and logical ethic based in modern science, let’s listen to Walter Brueggemann one more time:

Entry into the Old Testament does not require Christian readers to deny their Christian confession. It does, however, require them to recognize the complexity of reading the Old Testament as Christians, and an attempt to take the text, as much as possible, without imposing Christian readings.

Brueggemann, Walter. An Unsettling God: The Heart of the Hebrew Bible. Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.

The Bible doesn't teach life begins at conception

I wrote about hermeneutics here, here and here. In dealing with the art and science of understanding meaning, we noticed that Psalm 139 and Jeremiah 1 had nothing to do with life beginning at conception. The metaphor of a cosmic tailor at the hands of the Evangelicals and Pro-life movement supported the impotence of God and the position that life did not start until the fetus was born. Whoops!

Stoning an adulteress killed unborn children

That article led to this one. The statements and actions of God in the Old Testament generally undermine the Evangelical, Pro-life statements about the sanctity of life. However, the law to stone an adulteress specifically undermines it. Leviticus 20:10 says, “If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife — with the wife of his neighbor — both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death.”

In killing the adulteress, there isn’t a hint of concern about the possible fetus growing in the woman’s uterus. In fact this is likely the reason the woman is to be killed. Genealogies and blood lines are incredibly important for the stability of a social order among semi-nomadic tribes. Along with the idea of cultic impurity, keeping the adulteress from having a bastard child made sense in the Ancient Near East.

Whatever the reason for that Law (and we just don’t know for sure), God’s general, but regular violence against people and animals in the Old Testament, and his specific command to kill adulterous women are at odds with the modern Pro-life definition of the sanctity of life in the Old Testament.

Statement of fact not a judgment

Before moving on, please take care to notice I am not making a moral judgment about the rightness or wrongness of The Lord God’s statements or actions in the Old Testament. I do not provide any commentary or editorial gloss on the badness or ugliness of the violence in the Old Testament. That was never my intention. All I wanted to show was the data in the Old Testament contradicts the statements of the Catholic and Evangelical Pro-life movement.

Desirable ethical statement, not found in the Old Testament

Sure, the premise that the image of God makes all life sacred is possible and desirable to believe. The conclusion that taking life is then murder follows logically from that premise. However possible and logical, it’s not justifiable using the Old Testament. In the end, we may adopt that ethic in the modern world, but not because it is taught or modeled in the Old Testament.

Different monetary value for male, female, children, adults, and the elderly

On the other hand, in Leviticus 27:3–7 and Numbers 18:15–16 God provides specific and clear directions on the value of life. There is no need to guess or use deductive logic based on opaque allusions here. No, The LORD God is loud and clear by assigning a dollar amount to each one.

First, men are more valuable in the Ancient Near East during the Bronze Age than women. This is true outside of Israel and inside. Specifically in Israel, according to the Law, a male one month to five years old is worth five shekels to The LORD God. A female of the same age is worth three. A male five years to twenty years is worth twenty, while a female is worth half that. From twenty to sixty years old, Men are worth fifty shekels, while women are worth thirty shekels. Over sixty years old and the worth of a human being declines to fifteen for the male and ten shekels for the female.

Even though this would be the perfect opportunity to explain to Israel that an unborn child was just as valuable as any other person, nothing is said. The text definitively marks the age when children are valued without mentioning the unborn.

The fetus is not considered a person in the Old Testament

We learn in Exodus 21: 22– 25, if a pregnant woman miscarries because of another fighting with her husband, the offender is responsible for paying a sum to the husband for his loss of progeny. Again, the passage does not deal with intentional abortion. It prescribes how to deal with an unintentionally inflicted injury that results in a miscarriage, but notice there is a qualitative distinction between the fetus and the mother. The mother is the only legal person with reference to whom the lex talionis applies.

Recently, Evangelical apologists went to work reinterpreting the traditional interpretation since it was so damaging to their biblical argument. Granted, this verse contains some wording that is without parallel elsewhere in the Old Testament and thus challenging to translate. Most translators following the advice of the United Bible Society surely get it right when they recognize “and her children go out” is literally “a miscarriage.” They rightly advise translators to follow this interpretation. “If the women is killed, then the person loses his life. If the women miscarries, then the husband is paid compensation for the lost fetus.”

In keeping with the historic and likely translation, The Septuagint puts a slightly different spin on the text. The determining factor for liability is not whether the woman suffers injury, but whether the miscarried child is “formed.”

According to rabbinic tradition, the fetus was “fully formed” on the forty-first day after conception. Philo of Alexandria believes, if the result of the miscarriage is undeveloped, there must be a fine. But, if the miscarriage is shaped and recognizable as a human, he must die. The crucial factor, according to this interpretation, would be how far advanced the pregnancy was at the time of the miscarriage. In any case, it must be emphasized that the Greek text, like the Hebrew, deals with accidental injury, not with deliberate abortion.

Divinely sanctioned abortion

Granted, Exodus 21: 22– 25 is difficult text, but Numbers 5:11–31 is much easier to understand.

A wife suspected of adultery was forced to drink a concoction administered by the priest. Some in Judaism believed it killed the mother. Others maintained that the uterus, the placenta or an embryo, would be damaged and the woman would survive to face her punishment. Either way, just as with the stoning of adulterous women, the LORD GOD — fully aware of the consequences — issues a law that is sure to kill a fetus.

These trials for adulterous women were found throughout the Ancient Near Eastern world. The key (right or wrong, good or bad) is that these ordeals or trials were carried out with the awareness that they may be killing a fetus.

Luke refers to Jesus’ divinity, not humanity

So is there any other Scripture that bears on our discussion? Mainstream scholarship condemns the use of Luke 1: 44 to establish full person hood for the unborn. To extrapolate from Luke 1:44 a general doctrine of the full person hood of the unborn is ridiculous and tendentious exegesis; indeed, it should not be dignified with the label “exegesis.” The text cannot be used to prove any particular claim about prenatal person hood, nor does it have the issue of abortion in any way in view. Luke includes this story to emphasize the deity of the baby, not its humanity.

Hays, Richard. The Moral Vision of the New Testament: Community, Cross, New Creation Contemporary, Introduction to New Testament Ethic. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.


This leaves us to conclude that the Bible does not clearly and consistently condemn abortion. In fact, it contains no texts about abortion. The Bible offers us no direct word at all. The fetus is not considered a person. God does not place a fetus on equal footing with an infant much less an adult female or male. There are numerous statements and actions carried out by The LORD God in the Old Testament among an Ancient Near Eastern people living during the Bronze Age that lead us to conclude modern Pro-life advocates define murder and sanctity differently than The LORD God in the Old Testament.

In my next post I will articulate a different ethical approach to life and abortion. Even though the Bible contains no texts about abortion, Scripture remains important and instructive when crafting a theologically sound, historically informed, rational and logical ethic situated in modern science.

Since Roe v Wade, one thing is absolutely certain. When Protestants adopted the Catholic position on reproduction and the Pro-life movement galvanized the Republican Party, Abortions skyrocketed. Abstinence education sucked the ethical oxygen out of the room. Evangelicals damned to hell the pragmatism and compromise necessary for reducing abortions in America.

On two different occasions (20 years), abortions rose dramatically under conservative Evangelical Presidents. Under “liberal” Democratic Presidents championing a practical approach because of the pluralism in America, abortions significantly dropped. It’s time to retool our approach informed by truth and love in order to significantly reduce abortions.