Does the Bible actually place value on life in the womb? Does it truly indicate that abortion is wrong? Many pro-life Christians say, “Yes!” wholeheartedly. But some people claim believers have long been misinterpreting key verses in Scripture and that these misinterpretations have supposedly stymied abortion rights for years.
A recent article in the Washington Post says the misinterpreted verse in question comes from Exodus 21, which describes the penalty for someone whose violence causes a pregnant woman to miscarry or give birth prematurely.
“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” (Exodus 21:22-25, ESV).
Seems clear, doesn’t it? The life of an unborn baby is just as valuable as any other. This principle is seen, not only in this passage, but all throughout Scripture.
But not according to some. In the article mentioned above, the authors quote the passage this way:
“When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other harm ensues, the one responsible shall be fined when the woman’s husband demands compensation; the payment will be determined as he judges. But if no other harm ensues, the penalty shall be life for life.”
The authors then share their own interpretation of that passage: “In other words, if a miscarriage is caused, the offender is fined for damages, but there is no other punishment as the fetus is not, in the Hebrew Bible, regarded as a person. If there is ‘other harm’—that is, if the pregnant person dies—the offender is seen as having committed manslaughter and punished accordingly.”
The article continues on to explain how translators working on the Septuagint incorrectly introduced the idea of unborn babies being treated as human beings in this passage because of one misinterpreted word. The word for “harm” in Hebrew (ason) was translated to exeikonismenon in Greek, which means “from the image.” Based on this passage, theologians then claimed fetuses in early formation did not have a soul, but those in later in formation did.
Was Exodus 21 Misinterpreted to Condemn Abortion?
After reading these authors’ arguments, you might question if Exodus 21 actually supports pro-life beliefs at all. If the personhood of unborn babies in this passage hinges on a misinterpreted word, then what if we’ve been wrong for all these years?
The problem is, these authors focused on the wrong word, says apologist Tim Chaffey.
“In both places [in the passage], they use the word ‘miscarriage,’ and that’s not the word in Hebrew. It’s not the word in Greek. It’s about being born prematurely,” he says.
In other words, the authors are assuming the violence results in a miscarriage either way and that the “harm” in this passage is only referring to the pregnant woman, not the baby as well.
But when you realize that this passage is talking about a premature birth, it becomes clear that the “harm” is referring to the baby as well. If the baby is born prematurely but there’s no harm, the abuser is simply fined. But if the baby is born prematurely with damage or, sadly, dead, then the abuser is punished accordingly.
The truth is that Exodus 21 does affirm the human value of unborn babies. And what’s more, it’s not the only passage that does so. Psalm 139 talks about how God lovingly fashions unborn babies’ bodies. Jeremiah 1 refers to how God knew the prophet while he was still in the womb. And when Mary visits Elizabeth in Luke 1, Elizabeth’s unborn baby leaps for joy through the Holy Spirit because he recognizes Jesus in Mary’s womb.
The world will continue trying to poke holes in Scripture’s clear teachings on life and its value. So as Christians, we must approach their claims critically—with discernment founded on the Bible.
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