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Numbers 5:11-22 NIV

11 Then the Lord said to Moses, 12 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him 13 so that another man has sexual relations with her, and this is hidden from her husband and her impurity is undetected (since there is no witness against her and she has not been caught in the act), 14 and if feelings of jealousy come over her husband and he suspects his wife and she is impure—or if he is jealous and suspects her even though she is not impure— 15 then he is to take his wife to the priest. He must also take an offering of a tenth of an ephah[a] of barley flour on her behalf. He must not pour olive oil on it or put incense on it, because it is a grain offering for jealousy, a reminder-offering to draw attention to wrongdoing.

16 “‘The priest shall bring her and have her stand before the Lord. 17 Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water. 18 After the priest has had the woman stand before the Lord, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the reminder-offering, the grain offering for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse. 19 Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has had sexual relations with you and you have not gone astray and become impure while married to your husband, may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you. 20 But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have made yourself impure by having sexual relations with a man other than your husband”— 21 here the priest is to put the woman under this curse—“may the Lord cause you to become a curse[b] among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell. 22 May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries.”

“‘Then the woman is to say, “Amen. So be it.”

I recently saw this post by an atheist claiming this passage describes bible sanctioned abortion in the case of a cheating wife. I had read this before, but it never screamed out abortion to me, however on a second reading its not so clear. Is he correct in that this is abortion? If not, then what is this passage talking about?

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2 Answers 2

While I don't think this "sanctions" abortions per se, I think it is good to draw attention to this passage (and others like Exod 21:22-25) insofar as they show that all the "life begins at conception" etc. rhetoric of the religious right is not as clean-cut as they would have us believe.

That said, the context is that of divination---it is the deity, YHWH, who judges and makes the elixir effectual, not the elixir itself. In other words, this isn't about voluntary (or even forced) abortion, but ritual divination. It's more akin to tossing a woman into a pond to see if she's a witch, or casting lots to determine who is telling a lie.

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Exo. 21:22 seems pretty clear cut to me...if you know Hebrew. There's no evidence of abortion here either. The word the NIV translates as "womb" literally means "thigh." See Gen. 24:2 (unless you think Avraham's servant was putting his hand under Avraham's uterus). –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Jun 24 '13 at 2:19
The issue in Exod 21 isn't abortion, but the relative 'value' of a fetus vis-a-vis an adult. Having looked at the Hebrew, I'll concede that it's a very valid interpretation to suggest that the child is born prematurely, rather than miscarried, in which case, you're right, it isn't very convincing. –  jackweinbender Jun 24 '13 at 2:44

It's important to look at this in further context--look at some of the verses following the portion you show:

Number 5:21,27-28 NIV ...may the Lord cause you to become a curse among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell ... And when he has made her drink the water, then, if she has defiled herself and has broken faith with her husband, the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain, and her womb shall swell, and her thigh shall fall away, and the woman shall become a curse among her people. But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be free and shall conceive children.

The surrounding context confirms that this is indeed about ending the lives of children. Whether it's meant to miscarry the children currently in her womb or it's meant to be a lifelong curse of miscarrying any potential children (the structure makes it unclear), the fact remains that this is an intentional miscarrying of children for this woman's womb, and I think most everyone would consider that an abortion.

So then the real questions come: Does god condone abortions? Does God not care about babies? Should unborn children be denied rights as human beings?

The resounding answer that this passage gives to all three questions is a powerful NO! This passage shows just how serious God takes the covenant of marriage and how shameful and iniquitous it is when a baby is aborted.

Numbers 5:31 ESV The man shall be free from iniquity, but the woman shall bear her iniquity.

Numbers 5:38 NIV ...and the woman shall become a curse among her people...

This law was meant to be for a woman who intentionally cheated on her husband. As a punishment for this crime her baby, along with any potential children, was to be lost. But it's not God or the priest who aborts the baby, but it's the woman because of her wrongdoing.

This curse on the woman was to be seen as a de-facto abortion. Her iniquity of cheating on her husband would place on herself the iniquity of always miscarrying her children, and for this she would be seen as a curse among her people.

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