Many questions in our inbox are questions that I could never anticipate — like this one today, sent to us by a listener named Jessica. Here’s what she writes: “Hello, Pastor John, and thank you for this podcast. I was recently confronted by an abortion advocate about a chapter in the Bible. I was then, and remain now, quite perplexed about its meaning.
“We read that suspicion of infidelity in the Old Testament triggered a potentially dangerous ritual in which a woman was put on trial, made to drink a potion of sorts, and, if she was found guilty, the verdict was rendered in physical consequences. The verses are Numbers 5:22 and 27, texts that say the adulterous woman’s ‘thigh shall fall away’ (the ESV translation), which doesn’t make any sense to me. Other translations say the consequence is ‘miscarriage and untimely birth’ (according to the NEB and REB translations). Basically, a guilty verdict was rendered by an induced abortion.
“In fact, that’s the interpretation I found in Old Testament scholar Norman Henry Snaith’s commentary, Leviticus and Numbers. On linguistic grounds, he said, ‘cause an abortion’ is a possible interpretation here. I was surprised. How would you respond?”
My response is first to ask, Was this abortion advocate seriously willing to follow where the Scriptures lead? Or was this simply a superficial cheap shot because a text might picture God as aborting a child? Now, I don’t know the answer to that question, but it would make a difference personally in how I spoke to that person directly.
My second response is to say that I don’t think we can have any confidence that this text describes an abortion or a God-caused miscarriage. In fact, I think a good case can be made that this is not what’s happening. And I’ll come back to that.
And my third response is that even if God were pictured here as bringing about the miscarriage as part of the punishment for adultery, that would not give us any right at all to take the life of the unborn. All of life is in God’s hands. He owns it. He gives it and he takes it according to his own infinite wisdom. It’s his. And therefore, he gives it where we can’t, and he takes it where we shouldn’t, because we are not God. So, let me say a word about each of those three responses.
If a person comes to us with a biblical objection to our pro-life position, it may be that the most helpful and hopeful thing we could do is sincerely offer them to sit down and do a serious study together with them of what the whole Bible has to say about the unborn and the rights we have or don’t have to intrude upon God’s person-forming work in the womb (as it says in Psalm 139).
That might be the test of the sincerity of their objection.
Does God Cause Miscarriage?
Second, let’s look at what the text actually says in Numbers 5. The situation is that a husband has accused his wife of committing adultery against him, but he has no proof. He brings her to the priest, who sets up a test to determine her guilt or innocence. He mixes holy water with dust from the tabernacle floor and has her drink it.
Significantly, the test is designed so that her innocence is assumed and what has to be proved is her guilt, not her innocence. The ordeal is favorable for the defendant — namely, the woman. In other words, it’s not as though, if nothing happens, she’s guilty. No. Something extraordinary has to happen to prove her guilt — indeed, something supernatural. The assumption is that God will decide this case.
If she’s guilty, Numbers 5:22 describes what will happen. Here’s the wording: “May this water that brings the curse pass into your bowels and make your womb swell and your thigh fall away.” If that does not happen, she’s innocent. Now, Jessica points out that some interpreters take this “falling away of the thigh” as a miscarriage or an induced abortion from God.
This is a pure guess. Nobody knows for sure what those words “falling away of the thigh” mean. That wording is not a common idiom. It’s not as though the writer used an idiom here that we all know from elsewhere means “miscarriage.” We don’t. We only have this context to go on.
More Likely Meaning
I think the text, the context here, points in a different direction. First of all, the Hebrew word for thigh can mean hip, as it does when Jacob’s hip is put out of joint (Genesis 32:25); or it can mean loins, including the sexual organs, as when Abraham’s servants swears by putting his hand in that sacred place of reproduction (Genesis 24:2–3).
“The focus of the punishment is not on miscarriage, but on the fact that the innocent will go on to have children.”
The falling of the woman’s loins would be a very odd way to describe a miscarriage, but it would not be an odd way to describe a vaginal prolapse. A prolapse, which my grandmother had to have surgery for while she was living with Noël and me — that’s why I know about this — is what happens when the pelvis muscles and tissues can no longer support the female sexual organs because the muscles and tissues are weak or damaged, which causes one or more of the pelvic organs to drop or press into or out of the vagina. Now, that’s an easily treatable situation today with surgery. In those days, that must have been horrible.
And then notice that Numbers 5:28 shows us what this punishment involves by contrasting it with the woman who proves innocent. Here’s what it says in verse 28: “But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be free and shall conceive children.” In other words, the focus of the punishment is not on miscarriage, but on the fact that the innocent will go on to have children, and the guilty woman won’t, because that’s the effect of the falling of the loins, I’m suggesting.
All Souls Are God’s
Now, suppose my interpretation is wrong, which it could be because none of us knows for sure what the “falling away of the thigh [or the loins]” means. And suppose this text really does say that God, the just judge, decreed that the child in the woman, supposing there was one (it doesn’t say), was aborted. Suppose that. What does that tell us about the life of the unborn and our right to take it or not? And the answer is nothing, because we are not God.
“God’s decision to take the life of an unborn child does not give us any permission to do the same.”
God says in Deuteronomy 32:39, “See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.” In other words, to be God is to have rights over life and death that others don’t have. Hannah speaks for God in the same way in 1 Samuel 2:6, when she says, “The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.” And Job, when he lost all ten of his children, said — and the verse following says he didn’t sin when he said this — “The Lord gave, and Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).
In other words, one of the things it means to be God is to have absolute rights over human life. God made all life. All life belongs to him. Only God can say Ezekiel 18:4 in truth: “Behold, all souls are mine.” Therefore, God’s decision to take the life of an unborn child does not give us any permission to do the same, any more than God’s giving us his own Son in crucifixion gives us the right to kill Jesus. God ordains the death of his own Son, not to legitimate murder, but to make it possible for murderers to be saved, including those who take the life of the unborn.