Abortion in the Old Testament seen as a dilemma for Christians

Part 1 This post is NOT an endorsement for abortion. Rather it demonstrates the confusion and moral dilemma surrounding the morality of such an action from the Jewish and Christian perspectives.

It is mainly from the Hebrew Scriptures that the modern-day Jewish people obtain their spiritual insight. In Judaism, a fetus is regarded as a pre-human, as not fully a human person. It is considered to become fully human only after it has half-emerged from the birth canal during the process of being born.

Christians primarily use the Christian Scriptures for guidance. However, the Hebrew Scriptures also contain passages that some feel may deal with abortion.

bulletGenesis 2:7:This passage describes how God made Adam’s body out of the dust of the earth. Later, the “man became a living soul” only after God “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” 
Some theologians have suggested that this passage states clearly that Adam’s personhood started when he took his first breath. Following this reasoning, a newborn would become a human person only after she or he starts breathing. This would imply that a fetus is only potentially human. Thus, an abortion would not terminate the life of a human person. The most important word in the Hebrew Scriptures that was used to describe a person was “nephesh;” it appears 755 times in the Old Testament. It is translated as “living soul” in the above passage. One scholar, H.W. Wolff, believes that the word’s root means “to breath.” He argues that during Old Testament times:”Living creatures are in this way exactly defined in Hebrew as creatures that breathe.”An alternate interpretation is that Adam and Eve were unique creations. They did not start as a fetus, and were not born. They were fully formed as adults. If this approach is taken, then It is not valid to compare a newborn who has not yet breathed to Eve and Adam when they were first created as fully formed adults who had not yet breathed.

Genesis 38:24:Tamar’s pregnancy was discovered three months after conception, presumably because it was visible at that time. This was positive proof that she had been sexually active. Because she was a widow, without a husband, she was assumed to be a prostitute. Her father-in-law Judah ordered that she be burned alive for her crime. If Tamar’s twin fetuses had been considered to be human beings, one would have expected her execution would have been delayed until after their birth. There was no condemnation on Judah for deciding to take this action. (Judah later changed his mind when he found out that he was the male responsible for Tamar’s pregnancy.) 
If the fetuses that she was carrying are not to be regarded as living human beings at the end of her first trimester of pregnancy, then causing their death would not be a great moral concern.
However, if the twin fetuses are to be considered as human persons, then it seems strange that they would be considered of such little value as to allow them to be killed for the alleged sin of the woman carrying them. In this case, this passage may be expressing a theme that runs through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation: that it is acceptable to kill or otherwise punish innocent person or persons for the sins or crimes of others — the pregnant woman in this case.
An alternate interpretation is that innocent persons were often punished for the sins of one member of the family. See Joshua 7:21, Daniel 3:28-19, and Daniel 6:24). So it might be normal to give little concern to the fetuses.

Luke 1:15….[John] shall be filled with the Holy Ghost, even from his mother’s womb. Some translations of the Bible, refer to the time when John was a fetus. Others refer to when John was a newborn; the New International Version uses the phrase “even from birth.” The passage in Greek appears to be ambiguous; it might refer to a time during the third trimester when the fetus is viable. At any length, it refers to John’ special birth, not necessarily to infants today.
Luke 1:35: “…The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.” In this passage, the angels refer to the fetus which Mary will carry as a “thing,” not a male person. The gender in the original Greek is neuter. Jesus is only referred to by the title “Son of God” after he is born, presumably after he becomes a person. This is consistent with the traditional Jewish belief that a fetus becomes a full human after it has half-emerged from the mother’s birth canal.
Luke 1:41…when Elizabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb…. Elizabeth’s fetus was in an advanced stage of pregnancy. Verse 36 states that she was in her 6th month, at a time when the fetus is probably viable with today’s medical technology. The verse might be intended to imply that a 6th month (26 to 30th week) fetus has some degree of awareness of its environment, is capable of living independently, and should be considered as a “pre-born” human person worthy of protection. It says nothing about a first trimester fetus without a functioning brain, consciousness or nervous system. This passage might be used to argue against the morality of a third-trimester abortion. 
Matthew 26:24: “…but woe unto that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! it had been good for that man if he had not been born.” This verse states that it would have been better for any person who betrayed Jesus if he had never been born. The verse might be interpreted as meaning that a terminated pregnancy might be better than a completed pregnancy, if the child’s life would be miserable.

Life begins and ends with breath

The Bible has a surprisingly straightforward definition of life, one outlined at length by Will McLeod on DailyKos back in March. From Genesis 2:7, where God literally breathes life into Adam in what can only be described as omnipotent CPR, to Isaiah 42:5, where God is referred to as the Creator who “gives breath to [the Earth’s] people,” the Bible is fairly consistent in defining things that are breathing as alive, and things that are not breathingas not-alive.

As feminist writer Joyce Arthur has pointed out, Jeremiah 1:4-5 is often cited to argue against this definition, as it states that “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.”

But the verse only refers to one person: Jeremiah. And even then, God is only referring to the knowledge that Jeremiah is destined for greatness, not a living and (ahem) breathing person.

Exodus 21:22-25: A fetus isn’t as alive as its mother

But let’s say for a moment that life begins some undetermined amount of time before the fetus takes its first breath. The Bible still credits the mother with being more-alive than the fetus she is carrying. As Exodus 21:22-25 reads:

If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely or has a miscarriage but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.

Setting aside the suggestion that a beating-induced miscarriage doesn’t constitute “serious injury,” the logic is fairly straightforward: “Life for life” applies to a woman, but not to the fetus she’s carrying. In other words, the fetus is definitively placed in the ranks of not-alive.

Numbers 5:11-31: Abortion is preferable to bastardization

Numbers 5:11-31, which outlines the trial by ordeal that women must go through if their husband suspects that the baby she’s carrying may not be his. As the verses outline, if a husband thinks that his wife has been unfaithful he is to take her to the priest, who then performs a ritual that would make a shaman in an Indiana Jones movie do a double-take. The priest is to take holy water; mix it with dirt from the temple floor and the ink from a curse he has just written down; and make the woman drink the mixture. If she hasn’t committed adultery, nothing will happen; if she cheated, “her abdomen will swell and her womb will miscarry” — the pregnancy will literally be terminated on the spot.

Rahab and Tamar

Depending on whether or not you attribute the magic and mysticism behind the trial-by-ordeal to the intrinsic sin behind adultery, or to God’s own intervention, you’re left with one of two conclusions. Either God mandates abortion in cases of adultery or God is performing the abortion themselves. Whichever is the case, the teaching is clear: It’s better to abort a fetus conceived out of wedlock than to carry that fetus to term.

Ecclesiastes 6:1-6: Content and quality of life matter in conjunction with mere life

This is one of the more interesting philosophical questions surrounding whether it is acceptable to prevent potential life from becoming actual life. If bringing a new life into the world will be a net-negative in terms of humanity’s happiness and overall well being, is it acceptable to end the process by which that new life would begin?

Ecclesiastes 6:1-6:

 “I have seen another evil under the sun, and it weighs heavily on mankind: God gives some people wealth, possessions and honor, so that they lack nothing their hearts desire, but God does not grant them the ability to enjoy them, and strangers enjoy them instead. This is meaningless, a grievous evil. A man may have a hundred children and live many years; yet no matter how long he lives, if he cannot enjoy his prosperity and does not receive proper burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he. It comes without meaning, it departs in darkness, and in darkness its name is shrouded. Though it never saw the sun or knew anything, it has more rest than does that man— even if he lives a thousand years twice over but fails to enjoy his prosperity. Do not all go to the same place?”

Conflicting biblical beliefs indicate that moral issues are complex and not easily judged.

About Dr. Ernie Sherretta, D. Min.

Retired Director of Religious Education for the Catholic Church since 2014, granted a B.A. in Philosophy from St. Charles Seminary, an M.A. in Religious Studies from St. Charles Seminary, an M.A. in Counseling Psychology from Immaculata University, and a Doctor of Ministry from the Lutheran Theological Seminary. Spiritual Well-Being Counselor
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