Editor’s Note: There is something unusual today’s post (other than the text and topic). If you catch it, recognize, or otherwise know why the post is unusual be the first to name what is unusual through a comment to this post (not on Facebook, email, etc.) and you will win your choice of one of Four books: Lambert’s, Babylonian Wisdom Literature, Lucas, Proverbs (Two Horizons Commentary, Eerdmans), Norman Whybray, Wealth and Poverty in the Book of Proverbs (JSOT Press)… yes my current project is with Proverbs, and yes I keep ordering books twice (or finding double copies on my shelves); or my own After Lament (ACU Press). Good Luck. (PS: Winner must be a current subscriber to “Seasons” – mean & tricky, just like when I was teaching.)
I admit that I have not sought out books that tackle a believer’s decision regarding abortion. So it’s entirely possible that what I consider to be another UFO (Unexpected Finding in the Old Testament) is in fact, already a common part of the discussion – but I don’t think so. I’ve never heard anyone mention much less identify Numbers 5 as critical text for the theological/ethical reflection on abortion. So with a warning that this is not an easy text to read or a subject to be taken lightly (and especially not for granted), but a topic that demands the utmost sensitivity and pastoral care for those we know and those we do not who have struggled through agonizing personal and family decisions – with all this said, here we go.
Numbers 5:11-31 provides a “what to do” when a husband suspects his wife has been having an affair (or just sex) with another man, though they have not been caught by witnesses (5:11-14). This conditional statement raises the question “why?” Why would a husband be suspicious or outright convinced when there are no witnesses? I think the answer is simple: she has turned up pregnant and her husband has reason to believe the child is not his, as in he knows they have not had intercourse in “?” months and yet she is pregnant. Perhaps he has been gone in the army, reassigned by Solomon’s work requirement, or maybe the marriage is just not going well.
If this happens the husband is allowed to “press charges” by bringing his wife to the priest with a required offering (5:15). The priest will bring her before the Lord and perform assorted rituals, mix holy water in a clay jar, and make her swear a solemn pledge that includes some form of these words: “if no man has slept with you and if you haven’t had an affair, becoming defiled while married to your husband, then be immune from the water of bitterness that brings these curses” (15:19-20 CEB). On the other hand, the priest also has her take an oath if she is guilty and she has had had sex with another man: “May the Lord make you a curse and a harmful pledge among your people, when the Lord induces a miscarriage and your womb discharges. And may the water that brings theses curses enter your stomach and make your womb discharge and make you miscarry” (5:21-22 CEB). Then she is to drink specially mixed water that will lead to the curse or her vindication (5:23-28).
The key question is simple: what is the curse? or what will happen to her if she is guilty? The Hebrew in verse 21 and 27 literally reads, “your thigh drop and your belly swollen” – which makes absolutely no sense as a literal statement. Instead, most English translations pick up on the “polite” reference to sexual organs with the word “thigh” (as in Abraham asking his servant to place his hand under Abraham’s “thigh” to swear an oath in Gen. 24:2; let’s just say that the hand placement is a bit higher than we have normally pictured – i.e., it was a very important oath). So the woman’s “thigh” = vagina or uterus will “drop” and her “belly” = abdomen will swell. Fair enough, but what does it mean? Translations vary:
- “your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell” (NASB)
- “makes you infertile, causing your womb to shrivel and your abdomen to swell” (NLT)
- “your uterus drop, your womb discharge” (NRSV)
- “your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell” (NIV)
- “you will never be able to give birth to a child, and everyone will curse your name” (CEV).
From these options, the most unlikely for “her thigh drop” are the New Living Translation (“makes you infertile”) and Contemporary English Version (“never be able to give birth to a child”). These translations both look to verse 28 and the result of the ordeal if she is innocent, “she will be immune and able to conceive” (CEB, so also NRSV) or “she will be cleared of guilt and will be able to have children” (NIV) or “she will then be free and conceive children” (NASB). They do not, however, work well with the idiom “thigh drop” or the second description of consequences in verse 27: “the water… [will] cause bitter pain” (CEB, NRSV; “bitter pain” NIV, “bitterness” NASB, “bitter suffering” NLT, skipped by the CEV?). In some way, if she is guilty, she will immediately suffer (pain) and her “thigh drop.” It is difficult not to conclude that the water/God’s curse will cause her to miscarry the child, conceived through a man other than her husband.
This text troubles me, not only for what happens to a woman that is guilty, but what does not happen to her husband or the man she slept with (if guilty). Sure, if she is innocent “nothing” happens to her (she does not miscarry the fetus or become infertile). But nothing happens to her husband either – whether he is wrong or right. And nothing happens to the “other man” – be it her lover or rapist. The final verse of the chapter pronounces either her husband or the other man “free from his iniquity” while the woman must bear her guilt (5:31). The system was not at all fair or equitable, nor does it recognize the vulnerable position a woman occupied when “her man” was not around. It was a man’s world (see 5:29), not the world as God created it to be (Gen. 2) or to become (see the male/female relationship in the Song of Songs).
The text also troubles me because of what happens to the woman and her unborn child: she loses the pregnancy. Or stated more precisely, the ordeal and God’s curse cause her to lose the pregnancy – and now you see why I am baffled that this text is never a part of discussions about abortion. This is not to say that scripture or God supports abortion, it is only to acknowledge this text exists and call us away from simplistic statements that disregard positions other than our own. Readers of good faith may reach different conclusions from Numbers 5:
- Numbers 5 supports the practice of abortion.
- Numbers 5 recognizes that terminating a pregnancy is God’s right and only God’s right (because God alone owns life).
- The ordeal in Numbers 5 and its consequences for the woman and her pregnancy was for the purpose of calming a jealous or suspicious husband. In these cases God brought about a miscarriage to protect the identity and land inheritance of individual family units. Today, our circumstances have changed. We also have more sophisticated and less dangerous means by which we can determine the father of a child and resolve any suspicion.
- I’ll let you fill in this final blank: Numbers 5 teaches us that God feels_________ about induced miscarriages or abortions.
- At the very least, Numbers 5 raises questions without clear answers, which may make many of us uncomfortable – or make us sigh in relief to see that the biblical witness is not exactly so straightforward or easy on one of the most complicated and high stakes issues or our time.
So there you have it, a text that needs desperately to find its way to the table when we are discussing abortion and related issues. (And a blog entry to which I am eager to read your comments, your thoughts.)
Glenn Pemberton is a minister turned professor turned writer. After serving churches in Texas and Colorado, Glenn completed a Ph.D. (Old Testament). He then taught at Oklahoma Christian University before coming to Abilene Christian University in 2005, retiring as professor emeritus in 2017 due to a severe chronic pain. Glenn now spends his time writing for the church. Along with short essays he has published four books, including The God who Saves: An Introduction to the Message of the Old Testament (2015), and Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms (2012). Glenn and his wife Dana continue to live in Abilene, Texas.