Does Numbers 5:11-31 proscribe abortion drugs in cases of adultery?

by Luke Wayne
2/5/19

While the Bible never uses the word "abortion," it clearly lays out a set of foundational ethical principles that identify abortion as murder. The earliest groups of Christians and Jews unanimously agreed on this understanding, as have Christians throughout the ages (see HERE and HERE). Yet, in recent times, pro-abortion advocates have tried to find support for their position in Scripture. One of the most common of these is the "test for adultery" in Numbers 5:11-31.

The Passage

This lengthy passage, which takes up most of the fifth chapter in Numbers, is focused on what should legally be done in a situation where a husband suspects his wife of sexual infidelity but has no witnesses to prove it (Numbers 5:11-14). The husband and wife were to come before the priest with a grain offering (Numbers 5:15), and the woman was to be presented "before the Lord" at the tabernacle, (Numbers 5:16).

The priest would then prepare holy water from the tabernacle and mix it with dust from the tabernacle's floor, (Numbers 5:17). While holding the grain offering, the woman was informed that the water would bring a curse on her if she was guilty, but would not harm her if she was innocent. She is placed under oath and must swear that she has not committed adultery, (Numbers 5:18-22). The priest writes the curse on a scroll and then washes it off into the water with the dust, (Numbers 5:23-25). The priest offers the grain offering, and then the woman drinks the water, (Numbers 5:26). At that time, if she is guilty, the curse comes upon her; if she is innocent, she will "be free to conceive children," (Numbers 5:27-28). If the curse comes upon the woman and proves her guilt, the husband is not to be held guilty for the results, (Numbers 5:31).

This passage is, by its very nature, unusual to our modern sensibilities and thus ripe for misinterpretation. In this case, the argument centers on the precise nature of the curse, which is described as:

"...the Lord make you a curse and an oath among your people by the Lord’s making your thigh waste away and your abdomen swell," (Numbers 5:21, see also 5:22, 27)

Advocates of prenatal infanticide claim that these words are describing an induced abortion brought about by drinking the water, in effect (so they say) not so different from our modern "morning after" pill.

The Argument

So, how could one come to the conclusion that this passage is describing an abortion? The argument lies primarily in the translation. Whereas the NASB (and most other translations) render the description of the curse quite literally in ways like:

"'and this water that brings a curse shall go into your stomach, and make your abdomen swell and your thigh waste away.' And the woman shall say, 'Amen. Amen,'" (Numbers 5:22, NASB).

The NIV offers the more interpretive rendering:

"'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,'" (Numbers 5:22, NIV).

Rendered this way, the curse brought on by the water is plainly described as a miscarriage. A few obscure paraphrases agree with this interpretation, but no other major translation renders the verse this way. There are a few other translations that at least interpret the curse as having an impact on the womb, though without reference to miscarriage. The ESV, for example, says that the curse will "make your womb swell and your thigh fall away," but this actually disagrees with the NIV. The word the ESV interprets to mean "womb" is the word that the NIV translates as "abdomen." The NIV inserts a reference to the womb where the ESV has "thigh." While both translations interpret the curse as having something to do with the woman's womb, they do not even agree which part of the curse is referring to the womb. And, of course, the ESV's interpretation makes no mention of a child or a miscarriage and lends itself more to an understanding of barrenness or infertility rather than that of miscarriage. The pro-abortion argument, then, depends entirely on the assumption that the NIV translators (and virtually no one else) have properly grasped the intended meaning of this passage.

This argument has at least two fundamental flaws. The first is that the passage does not, in fact, mean what the abortion advocate wishes it to mean. Secondly, even if the passage did mean what they want it to mean (i.e., that the curse symbolized by the dusty water caused a miscarriage), that would not actually prove what they want it to prove. Even that interpretation, read in context, would not condone intentional prenatal infanticide as is practiced by the abortion industry today.

What Does the Passage Imply?

The entire purpose of the ceremony as presented in the passage is to reveal whether or not adultery has occurred. The scenario presented is not that of a man who finds his wife pregnant, but rather a man who suspects his wife of unfaithfulness and is "overcome with a spirit of jealousy," (Numbers 5:14). No concerns about children or offspring are ever mentioned. That's not at all the point. What happens if the woman is guilty is a direct punishment from God on her for her sin. But is that punishment a miscarriage? This seems highly unlikely. The two aspects of the curse literally translate that her innards will swell and that her thigh will fall. There is, of course, room for debate as to exactly what physical symptoms are being described here, but a miscarriage hardly seems the obvious choice. It appears to be a highly unlikely option! Note the blessing that is contrasted with the curse:

"But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, she will then be free and conceive children," (Numbers 5:28).

The NIV renders the last clause as "she will be able to have children," but the implication is the same. The assumption behind this entire scenario is that she has not presently conceived and is not plainly able to have children. If she is innocent, she will be blessed with the ability to conceive and bear children, something she has not yet done. According to the ancient Jewish tradition recorded in the Mishnah, a woman who was pregnant or was nursing a child was not to undergo the ordeal at all!1 Thus, while one could perhaps read the passage to imply the curse of a barren womb, a miscarriage or abortion seems out of the question. It is also worth noting how the passage was read by the earliest ancient interpreters. The translators of the Septuagint (a pre-Christian Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures) rendered the passage as:

"And this water that brings the curse shall enter your belly, to swell the belly and make your thigh fall to pieces," (Numbers 5:22, LXX)2

Quite similar to how most translations render it today, with no reference to the womb or to miscarriage. The ancient Jewish readers certainly did not understand the passage to imply an abortion. Likewise, the passage was summarized in the writings of the ancient Jewish historian, Josephus, who said: 

"But if anyone suspects that his wife has been guilty of adultery, he was to bring a tenth deal of barley flour; they then cast one handful to God and gave the rest of it to the priests for food. One of the priests set the woman at the gates that are turned towards the temple, and took the veil from her head, and wrote the name of God on parchment, and enjoined her to swear that she had not at all injured her husband; and to wish that, if she had violated her chastity, her right thigh might be put out of joint; that her belly might swell; and that she might die thus: but that if her husband, by the violence of his affection, and of the jealousy which arose from it, had been rashly moved to this suspicion, that she might bear a male child in the tenth month. Now when these oaths were over, the priest wiped the name of God out of the parchment, and wrung the water into a vial. He also took some dust out of the temple, if any happened to be there, and put a little of it into the vial, and gave it her to drink; whereupon the woman, if she were unjustly accused, conceived with child, and brought it to perfection in her womb: but if she had broken her faith of wedlock to her husband, and had sworn falsely before God, she died in a reproachful manner; her thigh fell off from her, and her belly swelled with a dropsy. And these are the ceremonies about sacrifices, and about the purifications thereto belonging, which Moses provided for his countrymen. He also prescribed the following laws to them," (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book 3, Chapter 11, Section 6).

Josephus clearly understood the curse to be a painful and shameful execution. God was striking her dead for her crime in a distinctive and cautionary manner. He likewise affirms that the woman, if innocent, is rewarded with the conception of a child, clearly implying that conception had not yet taken place. Like the Septuagint translators, Josephus was an ancient Jewish scholar well read in the Torah and he clearly did not see an abortion in this passage. Quite the contrary, he elsewhere noted on the subject of abortion: 

"The law, moreover, enjoins us to bring up all our offspring and forbids women to cause abortion of what is begotten, or to destroy it afterward; and if any woman appears to have so done, she will be a murderer of her child, by destroying a living creature, and diminishing humankind," (Josephus, Against Apion Book 2, Chapter 25, Section 202).

Josephus saw the Torah as plainly opposed to prenatal infanticide. The ancient Aramaic translations, known as the Targums are also worth noting here. The Targums were not strict, literal translations. They often included explanations to help the Jew who did not know Hebrew to better understand the text. Thus, they provide a window into how the early rabbinic community would have understood this passage:

"And when he hath caused her to drink the water, it will be that if she hath been defiled by adultery, and hath acted with wrongness against her husband, those proving waters will enter into her with a curse, and her belly will swell, and her thigh become corrupt, and the woman will be an execration among the children of her people. The adulterer as well will be detected by these waters of probation, in whatever place he may be. But if the woman hath not been defiled by adultery, but is innocent, they will enter without harm, and her brightness will shine forth, and she will find affection before her husband, and become the mother of a son."3

Note that not only does this interpreter concur with Josephus that the passage implies the woman being struck dead, it also implies that these same symptoms will strike the guilty man, wherever he may be. The actual text of Numbers does not say this, of course, but such an interpretation demonstrates that they did not understand the curse to consist of symptoms that would uniquely affect female anatomy. A man has no womb and cannot have a miscarriage. The famous medieval Jewish scholar, Moses Maimonides, arrived at the same conclusion:

"When she dies, the adulterer because of whom she was compelled to drink will also die, wherever he is located. The same phenomena, the swelling of the belly and the rupture of the thigh, will also occur to him."4

And all of these various ancient Jewish communities were not alone in seeing the passage this way. The Samaritans, a rival people to the Jews who likewise worshipped Yahweh and honored the Torah, wrote:

"The latter also administered the draught of water from the temple to a woman who was suspected by her husband of adultery, if she had been unfaithful to him and had defiled herself with another man. If she was guiltless, this draught preserved her and she emerged unscathed; if guilty, she forthwith burst asunder and perished."5

And not only did ancient Christians fail to read anything like an abortion or a miscarriage into the language of this passage, but even ancient heretical offshoots of Christianity testify that the passage held no such meaning to the ancient readers! According to multiple heretical, apocryphal "gospel" traditions, Mary and Joseph were both subjected to the test of the water and both came away unharmed,6 Such stories are obviously later inventions and not historical episodes from the actual life of Jesus, but they do show that those who wrote them clearly understood the water to have nothing to do with abortion (else why would it be given to Joseph as well as Mary?). Rather, they read it as referring to a harmful sign in the bodies of guilty parties which publically revealed their sinful misconduct, exactly what the context would seem to imply.

And What if it Did Mean Miscarriage?

It is also worth briefly noting that, even if the passage actually did imply that the curse included a miscarriage, that would not imply that human abortion was okay for us to do. For one thing, it would clearly be saying that a miscarriage is a curse to be avoided, else what kind of punishment would it be? What's more, the drink is just water, dust, and ink. It's not a drug that would actually induce a miscarriage. Indeed, a drug could not make a distinction between the innocent and the guilty. The water is a symbol. Whatever happens to the guilty woman, it is God carrying it out.

God has the right to take life in situations where we do not. God punished David and Bathsheba for their adultery by striking their son dead after he had already been born. That certainly doesn't imply that humans have the right to willfully kill their newborn infants! Finally, Numbers 5:31 is careful to explain that the man is free from guilt with regard to what happens to the guilty woman. This means that, whatever the curse entails, it is something that, under other circumstances, the man would be guilty for it. It would be illegal for the man to have done it himself. It is the sort of thing for which the man would normally be guilty if it happened. Thus, if the passage were describing God causing a miscarriage, the passage would actually imply that we would be guilty if we were to do the same. Thus, even on the abortion advocate's interpretation, the passage not only does not condone abortion but actually assumes that abortion is forbidden.

 

 

  • 1. The Mishnah: Nashim, Sotah 4:3
  • 2. A New Translation of the Septuagint (Oxford University Press, 2007).
  • 3. Targum Pseudo Jonathan
  • 4. Moses Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Sefer Nashim, Sotah 3:16-17
  • 5. John Bowman, Samaritan Documents (Pickwick Publications, 1977) 72
  • 6. Protoevangelium of James, Section 16; Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, Chapter 12