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Recently, I have come across Numbers 5:27 being used to show that abortion is not wrong and, in fact, even was advocated to test against a woman committing adultery through a certain type of drink. In the New King James Version, the verse reads:

When he has made her drink the water, then it shall be, if she has defiled herself and behaved unfaithfully toward her husband, that the water that brings a curse will enter her and become bitter, and her belly will swell, her thigh will rot, and the woman will become a curse among her people.

While nothing about an induced miscarriage appears in the translation above, the New International Version has the following translation (emphasis added):

If she has made herself impure and been unfaithful to her husband, this will be the result: When she is made to drink the water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering, it will enter her, her abdomen will swell and her womb will miscarry, and she will become a curse.

How do we reconcile the two translations? Does the test that Numbers 5:27 promotes for Israel involve abortion/induced miscarriage for unfaithful wives?

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3 Answers 3

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This passage describes the "ordeal of bitter water"; if a man suspects his wife has committed adultery but he has no corroborating witnesses, she is asked to either confess guilt or make an oath of innocence before God & the religious leaders. If she pleads innocence, the priest performs a ritual and gives her water to drink. God is then expected to intervene to bring harm to the woman if she is guilty; otherwise it is understood that God has exonerated her.

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Textual analysis

The meaning of this contested passage revolves around the translation of וְנָפְלָ֖ה יְרֵכָ֑הּ (literally "and her thigh will rot" or, from the YLT, "and her thigh hath fallen"). There are 3 principal views on the meaning of this phrase:

  1. It literally refers to her thigh rotting--the woman will be physically injured (or die)
  2. It refers to a woman being/becoming barren (the curse to the guilty in verse 27 being the opposite of the blessing--conceiving--promised to the innocent in verse 28)
  3. It is a euphemism for a miscarriage

#1 is far and away the most common in English translations, #2 is less so, and #3 is almost unique (only found in the CEB and the NIV--and even the NIV only changed to #3 in the 2011 version--source).

If this phrase refers to a miscarriage or abortion, it is obscure; it does not use common, clearer Hebrew words to refer to a miscarriage. I am unaware of anything written before the 19th century that ever understood וְנָפְלָ֖ה יְרֵכָ֑הּ to be relevant to a discussion on abortion, and neither this phrase, nor anything like it, is used anywhere else in Biblical texts to refer to miscarriage or abortion.

Also working against interpretation 3 is the fact that nowhere in this passage on suspected adultery is it ever stated that the woman being trialed is pregnant. If the woman is found innocent, she is blessed by becoming pregnant, ergo, she wasn't already pregnant. Furthermore, there is no separate fate specified for an adulteress who is pregnant versus one who is not pregnant. If the phrase in question were explicitly a description of a miscarriage, there is a major plot hole--are only adulteresses who get pregnant punished?? The rest of the Torah would beg to differ (quite strongly, in fact).

Most translators recognize that if there is a Hebrew idiom at play here, it is uncorroborated & ambiguous; therefore, they try to translate the phrase fairly literally without adding interpretative spin that, while possible, is neither clear nor required by the text.

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Why this passage says nothing about the modern abortion debate

Interpretations 1 & 2 above have nothing to do with abortion. Let's consider what does or does not follow if we were to go out on a limb and accept interpretation 3 for sake of argument.

The ancient understanding of the text

Ancient Jewish writings, such as Josephus, the Targums, and Maimonides (all far closer in language & culture to the book of Numbers than we are today) understood that the punishment being specified here is that the adulterous woman would not miscarry, but die (source). Indeed, adultery is (in most cases) considered a capital crime in the Torah.

Even earlier, the Septuagint translators (circa 200 BC) also did not leave any reference to pregnancy or miscarriage in their translation of the passage--their words can be rendered in English:

And this water that brings the curse shall enter your belly, to swell the belly and make your thigh fall to pieces (ibid, quoting A New Translation of the Septuagint, Oxford University Press, 2007)

Logically invalid

Even if we assume that all the extant ancient writings on the passage misunderstood it, and we, sophisticated moderns are the only ones who read it correctly (I do not actually recommend making this assumption), using this passage to argue for the morality of mortals performing abortions is logically invalid.

The water given to the woman on trial is not an abortifacient; without Divine intervention the concoction would be innocuous. If she's innocent, no harm comes to her--which is, of course, unsurprising, as she hasn't ingested anything harmful. If she's guilty, God is expected to perform a miracle to demonstrate her guilt; if she's innocent, God is expected to bless her innocence. So even if this passage referred to a miscarriage (and it's not clear that it does), God is the one taking life in verse 27, just as God is the one granting life in verse 28.

That God is permitted to give & take life does not by itself say anything about whether flawed mortals may do so.

Reductio ad absurdum

David & Bathsheba's first child, conceived in adultery, was born alive and died a few days later (see 2 Samuel 12:14). The very same reasoning which starts by reading miscarriage into Numbers 5:27, and arguing from it that therefore God condones abortion, would also have to conclude that God condones killing infants after they are born.

The idea that if God did it in the Bible for reasons I do not fully understand, then I am permitted to do it as well is a really, really poor premise. Would we apply that to sacrificing one's son? The burning of Sodom & Gomorrah? The flood?

Unless we are prepared to conclude (I certainly am not) that the Bible gives mortals blanket approval to kill infants, perform human sacrifice, burn cities, and drown people who reject them, by reductio ad absurdum we cannot use Numbers 5:27 to argue that the Bible permits mortals to perform abortions either.

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Conclusion

Numbers 5:27 has nothing to say at all, one way or the other, on the morality of abortion, nor does it promote abortion for unfaithful wives.

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    Dear very fast down-voter, any suggestions for improvement? Commented Jun 6, 2022 at 5:39
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    I liked this answer and upvoted it. I was going to say something very similar. +1.
    – Dottard
    Commented Jun 6, 2022 at 6:16
  • Abortion is a very controversial subject, so don't feel too down when you are downvoted so quickly. All feelings aside, this is an amazing answer. +1 :)
    – Rajesh
    Commented Jun 6, 2022 at 15:33
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The bitter water mentioned in Number 5:27, was described to be made from "Holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water" (Number 5:17). The water had no medical ingredient, it was called bitter water, more likely meant it was difficult to drink, as dust was in there. It should not cause human induced abortion.

In Moses time, God presence was the key. Since the whole passage refer to jealousy and suspects of a husband to his wife that her impurity or unfaithfulness could not be identified. To avoid wrong doing of the Israelite due to jealousy and suspicion, God commanded Israelite to bring the case to him. This has the implication to nowadays, as we see from the follow verses;

  • Roman 12:19 (NIV) - Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.
  • Hebrew 10:30 (NIV) - For we know him who said, “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” and again, “The Lord will judge his people.”

The passage was an example in Moses time to ask the husband not to take revenge, but let God to judge.

If one put the focus on the bitter water, and think it was an example in the old days a human induced abortion, he missed the message God was given. In fact, there was no bitter water, it was just difficult to drink. There was no abortion, for it was too early for the wife to show a sign of pregnancy when the husband was suspicious of her unfaithfulness.

It is not applicable in presence time refering to human induced abortion.

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And totally ignore the verse about the Priest adding the scroll with the ink and the glue to the water with the dirt from the ground until the ink is gone from the scroll.. Now ask whether that might induce an abortion!!

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  • This does not provide an answer to the question. Once you have sufficient reputation you will be able to comment on any post; instead, provide answers that don't require clarification from the asker. - From Review
    – agarza
    Commented Feb 6 at 4:36
  • @ Michael James Logan - Welcome! You bring up a good point about an interpreter considering the whole context around a scripture under consideration. However, one should better explain his interpretation as it applies to the topic of the question. Thanks for your input, but add a little more research. Keep studying the Bible; it's great for the soul!
    – ray grant
    Commented Feb 6 at 20:43

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