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Michael Harvey
Rabbi | Advocate | Educator

Bible Study is the Pro-Lifer’s Nightmare

Since the unprecedented betrayal by far right Supreme Court Justices who stated under oath that Roe v. Wade was established law and was in no danger of reversal, the United States has seen an exponential rise of harmful and dangerous anti-abortion laws by states, fueled by the Christian right and their belief systems of when life begins and their religious understanding of abortion.  Accompanying the far right rhetoric is an almost impenetrable wall of misinformation and skewed theological claims that base themselves on the “Christian God” or “Biblical view” of life and murder.  The problem, of course, is that those on the Christian far-right have been so inundated with Christian pro-life interpretation of verses, that it does not even occur to them that they have been led down a particular path.  In truth, the Hebrew Bible does not (nor does the Christian translation of the Old Testament) state nothing about abortion and only contains one verse about the death of a fetus which, not surprisingly, completely destroys the pro-life message.  The rest of the verses of the Hebrew Bible that are used by pro-life Christians are ripped out of context in an exercise of eisegesis, inputting agenda into Biblical verses.  The same is true for the verses of the New Testament, none of which discuss abortion or the life of a fetus in any way.  While those within the far-right Christian denominations may simply dismiss the contexts and proper interpretations of these verses based upon indoctrination and the rejection of logic, I still am compelled to educate, as a Rabbi and teacher, for the minute possibility that a mind or two is changed.

Exodus 21:22

We begin, therefore, with the only verses in any Biblical canon that deal with the life and death of a fetus, the verses found in  parshat Mishpatim, starting at Exodus 21:22:

When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results [lit. her children emerge], but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning [lit. as the judges determine] 23 But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. 

This is as close as the Bible gets to a law regarding the life and death of a fetus.  It is important to note, before diving into the understanding of the above verses, the context of this law.  The law is preceded by a law about what to do when a “man strikes his slave,” and this it is preceded by a law stating that kidnapping warrants a death sentence, as does insulting your father or mother. In other words, this passage about a fetus is part of a law dealing with antagonist’s liability towards an innocent bystander and suggests that in most cases, restitution is to be made. It is by no means about abortion as we currently understand it. Additionally, the Hebrew in this passage is replete with difficulties, such as we don’t know why the Hebrew uses the plural in regards to the “expulsion of the fetus,” we don’t know “whether stillbirth, premature birth, or term delivery is intended.” Certainly there are theories but the text is not immediately understood on the surface, even if the translation appears to be.

What we can see clearly, however, is the consequences of the miscarriage in the text and the importance of it, as Rashi (a 10th century French commentator) summarizes from the 5th century Law Code, the Talmud that the individual responsible for the miscarriage is to be fined, but not tried for murder. More specifically, he states the “the man that struck the woman shall give the value of the offspring…to pay the value of the offspring to the husband. We estimate her value according to what she is worth if she were sold as a slave in the market giving her a higher value on account of her being with child (Bava Kamma 49a).”

The logical conclusion here is due to the phrase, “and he shall give [restitution],” meaning that “The assailant [shall give] the value of the fetuses.” In other words, the person who attacks the woman and causes the miscarriage or fatal emergence of a fetus is required to monetarily compensate the woman’s husband, the biblical “owner” of the woman and fetus, with an amount of money.  

Moving aside from the extremely problematic patriarchal ownership aspects of this understanding, which should bother modern day Jews and Christians, the verses that follow juxtapose the legal consequences for the death of a non-fetus, in the words “other damage.”  The “other damage” the verses refer to is damage done to the mother, not the fetus.  The “other damage” then is explained through the legal code of what is known as lex talionis: “a life” is “for a life,” “tooth for tooth,” etc.  Lex talionis is the biblical law code of equal justice of damage, ensuring that if damage is done to another human being, the aggressor is sentenced to the same damage.   Laws like this exist in law books of Near Eastern Israelite neighbors, such as in the Sumerian law fragments, Hammurabi’s code, Middle Assyrian Law, and the Hittite laws.   All of these Near Eastern laws follow the track of the Torah law in Exodus 21:22-25, that only calls for monetary compensation for the loss of a fetus by miscarriage or other means, which is different from the punishments laid out in the code of Lex talionis.  In sum, the punishment for a miscarriage is directly and clearly stated as different from the punishment of damage to the mother, a human, a life.

As stated above, these verses, Exodus 21:22-25, are the only verses that exist in any biblical canon that discuss the death and life of a fetus, and directly contradict any theological view that the fetus is seen as equal to a human life.  How these verses are blatantly ignored is the work of strong indoctrination and selective “cherry-picking” for a specific pro-life agenda.  The other verses used by pro-life far right Christians, which we will go over individually below, are ripped from their context in an act of eisegesis for the same agenda.

Isaiah 44:24

A common verse used by pro-life Christians is one that occurs in what we know to be the section of Deutero-Isaiah or Second Isaiah.  The 40th to the 66th chapters of Isaiah are known to be a different author than the first 39.  This author composed these verses at the end of the Babylonian exile, unlike the character of Isaiah who is thought to have lived during the 8th century BCE.  However, scholars now theorize that large sections of the first 33 chapters of Isaiah were composed by multiple authors and scribes who lived later.  In other words, while the book is named “Isaiah” and was composed to look like a prophecy, a great deal of the work was composed after the events of the Assyrian attack in 722 BCE but written to look like it was written before.  The use of pseudepigrapha, the naming of writings after a recognizable character, was common during this time, and it makes sense that the multiple authors used the pseudonym, “Isaiah” to get their work to be read and incorporated into the prophetic canon.  As for the author of Isaiah 44, Deutero-Isaiah, this is a separate author from the multiple scribes that came before, and lived centuries after 722 BCE, specifically after the exile that took place in 587 BCE.  His work was succeeded by “Trito-Isaiah” who is theorized to have composed chapters 56-66.  The writings of Deutero-Isaiah are thought to be one or many scribes, perhaps even a school of thought, and we cannot place when or why these multiple authors were combined as one book.  

The verse that pro-lifers attempt to use as an argument against abortion is that of Isaiah 44:24: “Thus said the LORD, your Redeemer, Who formed you in the womb: It is I, the LORD, who made everything, Who alone stretched out the heavens And unaided spread out the earth…”

The context of this verse is that Isaiah, speaking for God, tells the people of Judah, the Southern Kingdom, who have already seen the Northern Kingdom of Israel destroyed, that it was God that formed the people.  As prophetic works are written in poetry and existential stream of consciousness, the imagery of “being formed in the womb” refers not to a single person, but the people of Israel.  This is easily and logically concluded by the verse before: “Shout, O heavens, for the LORD has acted; Shout aloud, O depths of the earth! Shout for joy, O mountains, O forests with all your trees! For the LORD has redeemed Jacob, Has glorified Himself through Israel.”

The subject of the next line, therefore, is not a particular person, but Israel, a group of people who were formed by God.  This, like all the poetry of the prophetic works, is not to be confused with prose, a completely different type of literary form.  To take this poetry literally would be similar to taking all the similes and metaphors of Shakespeare literally.  One simply cannot insert one genre of writing into another.  The poetic meaning of “fashioned you (Israel) in the womb”, expounds upon the theological idea that from “the tight confinement of the womb to the vast expanse of the heavens,” God is the ultimate creator.  Moreover, by focusing on those words of “forming in the womb,” one misses the monotheistic point of the poetry stitch, “It is I, the Lord, who made everything,” dismissing the power or existence of Assyrian or Babylonian Gods who have destroyed the two kingdoms.  It is, in a sense, a theological reassurance, that though the house of God was destroyed, it is not because the God of Judah or Israel was non-existent or weaker, but created everything and thus the exile was done for a reason.  

Psalm 139:13-15

The Psalms, like the prophetic works, also exist in the genre of poetry and are different from the genre of prose.  Psalms are neither to be taken as historical nor literal, but as songs created by multiple authors as songs in synagogues and churches are composed. While theology and midrash attribute the 150 Psalms in the canon (and much more that did not make it into the canon) to David as the author, scholarship shows that none of the psalms can be dated on linguistic grounds to the time of David, the 10th century BCE.  Rather, the psalms are spread about from the preexilic to the postexilic; but this is difficult to track as many of the psalms are combinations of older Hebrew poetry, shaped into new ones.  Moreover, the psalms rarely contain historical references.  In any case, the author of Psalm 139 is speaking first person, singing of God’s greatness, God’s omniscience, the lifecycle of birth and death, and the theological humility that the human mind cannot possibly understand the greatness and mysteriousness of God’s expansive existence.  The verses used by pro-lifers, taken out of this context, are that of 13-15, sometimes omitting 14 altogether: 

It was You who created my conscience; You fashioned me in my mother’s womb. I praise You, for I am awesomely, wondrously made; Your work is wonderful; I know it very well. My frame was not concealed from You when I was shaped in a hidden place, knit together in the recesses of the earth.

For starters, in order to provide a foundation of the use of poetry, one needs to know that the Hebrew word translated as “conscience” here (Hilyotai) is actually literally translated as “kidneys.”  Of course, one would not know the author’s use of this idiom for “conscience” unless they had studied how the word was used in other Biblical poetic texts.  Seeing this idiomatic expression tells the reader, through the use of a literary trope, that we are not speaking literally or historically here, but through beautiful poetry.  The Psalmist understood the Torah law of fetuses versus that of lex talionis, but was speaking or singing about how God created all creatures in the womb and was knit together and shaped together to be ready to come out birthed, take the first breath, and thus become a full human.  

Jeremiah 1:5

The above understanding is similar to that of another verse used by pro-lifers, specifically Jeremiah 1:5: “Before I created you in the womb, I selected you; Before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet concerning the nations.”   Like the book of Isaiah, Jeremiah is composed by multiple authors and scribes, with the book itself even openly stating that some were written by Jeremiah’s companion, Baruch ben Neriah.  It is also important to note that the versions of Jeremiah in the Greek Septuagint and the Hebrew Masoretic text differ not only in sequence, but in length, in that the Greek version is ⅛ (12.5%) shorter.  

The verse, Jeremiah 1:5, is used in the same way by pro-lifers as in Psalm 139, speaking of being formed in the womb.  However, when looking at the historical understanding, we can infer that the verse speaks of the idea that Jeremiah was “commissioned as a prophet” at his birth, specifically too young to see much of the reign of Josiah.  The fact that the prophet, speaking from God back to the prophet, was “selected” to be a prophet before he was created, before he was created as a fetus into the womb and then born, refers to Jewish idea that Adam was shown the full lines of prophets in each generation, and thus had been selected by an omniscient God.  

Again, we must reiterate that we are reading poetry, not prose, and thus this should not be taken literally.  This is especially important considering the Hebrew words translated as “Before I created you in the womb” are literally translated as “Before I fashioned you in the belly I knew you.”  The word in Hebrew for “Know” (here in the form of Y’da’aticha) has long been poetically seen as a synonym for sexual intercourse (i.e. the man knew his wife; Cain knew his wife; Elkanah knew his wife)..  Therefore, as Robert Alter explains, the first stitch of the verse could mean that God knew Jeremiah before he was placed in the womb to become a human form.  Specifically, as Robert Alter explains, we see a biblical poetry pattern of the sequence of verbs: “first God has an intimate relationship with Jeremiah (‘knew’); then He consecrates him as a prophet.  The third verset spells out the nature of the consecration.”  One can deduce that this prophetic and poetic verse is not so simply ripped from its meaning and context for a pro-life agenda.  

While there are more verses that pro-lifers, specifically that in the Christian right camps, use as eisegesis to further their agenda, one need only point them to the verses surrounding their “proof-texts”, the slightest background in the difference between biblical poetry and prose, a short explanation of Hebrew roots and verbiage, and their arguments become empty, simply seen as those coming not of God nor inspired by God, but coming from men, and inspired by men with an agenda.  Again, I must reiterate that the Bible, in any form, in any translation, does not contain a single verse that specifically nor literally equates a fetus with a human.  In fact, the only verse that does speak about the fetus in the Bible, tells the exact opposite, that the fetus is not the same status as a human being.  More importantly, a reading of Genesis 2:7 tells the reader of the Bible, whether a literalist or a scholar, that the school of thought seen in the second chapter of the entire Torah, teaches that life was given with breath, “the LORD God formed man from the dust of the earth.c He blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being.”  This idea of life beginning at first breath, not within the womb, is reiterated in Genesis 6:3: The LORD said, “My breath shall not abide in man forever, since he too is flesh…”; as well as in Genesis 7:15: “They came to Noah into the ark, two each of all flesh in which there was breath of life.”

If the pro-lifers wish to argue theologically that they believe certain verses are important and others aren’t, if they wish to argue that certain verses should be outright ignored, as should history, context, and the literary analysis of biblical poetry and prose, then they are free to do so.  But one cannot stand by and allow the Christian right, the pro-life movement, to lie to its followers by stating that God is “pro-life” or that “life begins at conception” from a biblical point of view.

About the Author
Michael E. Harvey is the Amazon bestselling author of Let’s Talk: A Rabbi Speaks to Christians. An ordained rabbi, he has led congregations and now proudly serves as a hospital chaplain. Rabbi Mike is passionate about social justice, interfaith cooperation, and bringing deep Jewish learning to the lay public. He has followed these passions in serving his community, including founding and directing the Interfaith Council of the Caribbean as well as directing the Interfaith Leaders of Greater Lafayette. He also serves on the rabbinic advisory council of the American Jewish Archives. His new book "From the Gospels to the Gas Chambers: How Christian Scripture Inspires a Pattern of Genocide" is in production and is in need of a publisher.
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