The Jealousy Ritual Doesn't Describe An
Recently I have noticed some traffic on
Reddit about the assertion that Numbers 5:11-31, The Jealousy
Ritual, describes an abortion. It appears that Peake's
Commentary on the Bible and Dianne Bergant in The Collegeville
Bible Commentary are among those who describe it this way.
I am not familiar with these, but it appears they do not have
widespread circulation. As well, the newest revision of
the NIV Bible now describes it as an abortion, a
characterization that I feel is activist translation.
I would like to refute this here. I do
not believe I am a famous theologian, but I would like to
describe why. All references are given from the Holman
Christian Standard Bible unless otherwise specified.
The Woman Is Not Described As Pregnant
If you read Numbers 5, the first thing that
sticks out to me is that the woman is not described at any point
as being pregnant. The word harah, for a pregnant woman,
is not used once in the entire chapter of Numbers 5.
Indeed, verse 13, "but it is concealed from her husband, and she is undetected ... since there is no witness, and she wasn't caught in the act...." This could mean the woman is not pregnant to the point of showing, but it's worth pointing out. Nothing describes the woman as being pregnant anywhere.
The Words Used Do Not Describe Abortion
Hebrew is a language that sometimes uses context and nuance to describe something. I don't have a graduate degree in Hebrew, so I can't say I know everything. But here's what I find when I dig into the Hebrew using Strongs's regarding Numbers 5:27.
loins, shaft, side, thigh"
down, self, lots, out, cease, die, divide by lot, let fail"
belly: "belly, body, as they be born, within, womb"
So here we don't see that the word for belly must necessarily mean womb. But note that it says "your belly/womb will swell." If this resulted in an abortion, if the belly was bulging, loss of a child would result in the belly reducing in size, not swelling.
Also, it says first that her thigh
(body/lions) will rot or fall. It is possible this is
referring to a womb prolapse instead. The other
possibility is that the woman ends up with a rotted thigh, i.e.
difficulty walking, and then a swollen body, hence deformity.
So the Hebrew words are inconclusive and possibly vague. I do not believe one can, with just these words, say that this is describing an abortion.
It May Not Apply To Us Anyways
There are many other ways in which this ritual is different than an abortion, which I will describe in a minute. But it's worth pointing out at this point that it is written to Jews under the Old Covenant. The very vast majority of people whom I have heard talking about this issue are NT Gentile Christians. In two ways, both in religion and in covenant, even if it described an abortion, it would not apply to roughly 97% of people living in the United States, for instance. And because Jesus replaced the old covenant with the new covenant in His blood, it doesn't apply at all (read Hebrews).
Spiritual Versus Medical
Another reason this passage is not describing an abortion is that the effects of it rely on spiritual energy, i.e. divine intervention. An abortion in modern times has nothing to do with, and one could argue is even opposed to, religion or God. So they are not alike in this aspect either.
Parallel Passage About Harm to the Unborn
In Exodus 21:22-25 we see punishment for those who accidentally strike a woman and she gives birth prematurely.
22 “When men get in a fight and hit a pregnant woman so that her children are born prematurely but there is no injury, the one who hit her must be fined as the woman’s husband demands from him, and he must pay according to judicial assessment. 23 If there is an injury, then you must give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, bruise for bruise, wound for wound.
Note here the words in verse 22:
yeled: boy, child, fruit, son ("she gives birth")
yatsa: after, appear, assuredly, bear out, begotten, break out, bring forth out, up ("so that prematurely")
with child, conceive, great ("pregnant")
There are a couple of things we can learn from this. First, there are words and phrases that speak to having birth prematurely. None of these three words are listed in Numbers 5:27. Indeed, the word harah, for a pregnant woman, is not even used in the entire chapter of Numbers 5.
Second, the fact that God prescribed a
punishment for inadvertent premature birth of children, based on
the harm caused to the unborn, is telling. Note it says
"life for life" as well: in theory, if this premature birth
resulted in the death of the unborn, this could result in the
death penalty for the man who hit a pregnant woman. This
verse speaks against the jealousy ritual being for ritualized
abortion. Indeed, if one is paying attention to Numbers 5,
the ritual is about punishing an adulterous woman.
Other Ways that the Jealousy Ritual is Unlike Abortion
I would now like to wring out all the other
differences between this ritual and modern day abortion.
|Usually a woman's choice, and pro-choice
centers its argument on this.
|Initiated by the husband; not a woman's
|A woman must be pregnant to have an
|Does not specify if the woman is pregnant,
but implies she is not. Also the end result implies
she was not able to have children before.
|A woman is usually visibly pregnant when
they get an abortion, then this goes away.
|Does not specify, but says she is
"undetected," implying it's not possible to see.
|Long-term social consequences
|Not very many in the US, though abortion
still has a stigma (which I do not support).
|"She will become a curse among her
|Long-term medical consequences
|Not very many in the US.
|Severe. "The water that brings a
curse will enter her and cause bitter suffering; her belly
will swell, and her thigh will shrivel"
|Long-term fertility consequences
|Not very many in the US.
|Implies that if woman is unfaithful, she
will never have children: "But if the woman has not
defiled herself ... she ... will be able to conceive
|In a private abortion clinic.
|Public at the temple/altar.
|Unfortunately, many women who have been
raped choose abortion (keep reading).
|The OT law for rape was to kill the rapist,
not to abort the child, and this ritual does not apply in
cases of rape.
|In many states, a husband or significant
other has no right to stop a woman from aborting a baby.
|This ritual requires a husband (not just
any boyfriend) to initiate.
|Abortion often costs money but sometimes
private "humanitarian" agencies will pay or Medicare will
|No money was involved.
|Abortion is a medical procedure.
|The jealousy ritual is an obsolete
"Well My Version Says...."
The problem with this is that translators
can, and have, engaged in activism. The NIV is the only version
that translates Numbers 5:27 as "her womb will miscarry."
As such, I have no other conclusion but that the NIV translators
engaged in activism via mis-translation.
I can only conclude that the Jealousy Ritual
in Numbers 5 is not an abortion.