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Today I’ll wrap up my series on abortion and the Bible. In previous posts I showed that Exodus 21:22-23 can be interpreted in two radically different ways. If men are fighting and accidentally hurt a pregnant woman, causing her to lose her child, one interpretation says the culprit should be fined for the miscarriage. But others read this passage as saying he should be executed for causing a premature birth in which the child later dies.

People disagree about how to translate the ancient Hebrew – miscarriage or premature birth? Exodus of course is one of the core books of the Jewish Scriptures, also called the Old Testament by Christians. Jews have generally favored the miscarriage interpretation, and pro-choice Christians say this passage suggests that abortion is not murder. Pro-life Christians tend to view these verses as involving premature birth.

I am not an expert on the Hebrew language, but when I studied for my doctorate in religion I learned that translating ancient texts is definitely not an exact science! There is often very substantial disagreement.

On this web site I have argued that God did not “write” the Bible and that many commandments attributed to God show signs of human weakness, ignorance, and even mindless viciousness. (Example: a child that curses one of its parents must be killed.) But suppose we assume for the sake of discussion that every verse of Scripture does reflect God’s will. What should we say about a passage like this that is so important and yet so ambiguous? Here are four possible ways of thinking about this predicament. None of them are at all attractive:

  1. God doesn’t care about clear communication. Murky and confusing commandments are just fine. That’s a bizarre suggestion.
  1. God guides some of us toward the right interpretation. That would mean Scripture is a helpful guidebook for those God favors, and a source of error for everyone else – odd, for a God of love and mercy. In this case it would suggest that God let Jews make the wrong interpretation for millenia, and finally revealed the right one to pro-life Americans.

During the American slavery controversy, Bible passages condoning slavery were quoted much more often by southern preachers than by clerics in the north. Did God give northern clergy the right interpretation just because they lived in anti-slavery states? Or was their exegesis shaped by their political views?

  1. God hates us all and considers every person worthy of eternal torture in Hell. It doesn’t matter much what we do on Earth. None of our actions are good in God’s eyes, so guiding us with clear Biblical teachings is unimportant. The only thing that matters is taking Jesus as savior, to avoid the fires of perdition. Fortunately these days few people accept such an extreme version of Calvinist theology.
  1. God didn’t realize how important the abortion controversy would become later on, especially in the U.S. So it wasn’t important to clarify this passage. But that would mean an all-knowing deity created a guidebook for living that would go out of date. That’s just silly.

Furthermore abortion has always been a significant concern. “Abortions have been performed since ancient times and recipes for ridding women of pregnancies are as bizarre as they are plentiful. The Egyptians prescribed crocodile dung. The ancient Greeks recommended pennyroyal, an extremely toxic herb as likely to kill the women as to abort the fetus. Other colorful abortion aids included sitting over a vat of boiling onions, honey/salt/mouse feces suppositories, mashed ants/camel spit/deer hair paste, and stepping over a live viper.” For more, click here.

Saying for the sake of discussion that the Bible is 100% God’s word leads us to bizarre conclusions. Logicians call this reductio ad absurdum – reducing to absurdity. If we follow some idea to its logical consequences and these consequences are ridiculous, the idea is probably just wrong. So this passage about abortion in the Bible helps prove that “Biblical inerrancy” is an error.

Roger Christan Schriner

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Last week I quoted a passage that has caused a lot of controversy about abortion and the Bible, Exodus 21:22-23.

When men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her shall be fined . . . If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life . . . (Revised Standard Version)

Scholars argue over what it means that “any harm follows.” Read the rest of this entry »