Difficult Bible Passages: Exodus 21:22-25

This passage is difficult in the sense that it is a contentious passage, partly because of the way different English translations render it, and how we understand certain Hebrew terms that are used. The real difficulty is the way this passage is used in modern-day debates over abortion.

The NIV rendering of the text is as follows: “If people are fighting and hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely 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.”

Now there is nothing too problematic here, but that is because of the way the passage has been translated. If you take something like the KJV then you find matters become a bit more cloudy: “If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine.”

But real issues arise if we use something like the RSV: “When men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her shall be fined, according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”

Here you can see what the problem is, and how it relates to the abortion debate. It seems that a baby has been killed here, yet the fine is just a monetary one. The pro-abortion crowd seize on this and argue that the unborn baby is obviously not very important if it only is worth some monetary compensation.

This then is really an exegetical and hermeneutical problem. Getting a right understanding of the original Hebrew is the way to proceed here. So which translation best conveys the meaning of this text? The main phrase that we must focus on of course is this: “and she gives birth prematurely”.

Is the NIV on the right path here? Let me here draw upon the expertise of a number of Old Testament scholars and Hebrew experts. Douglas Stuart for example notes, as do most commentators, that there is admittedly some wording here “that is without parallel elsewhere in the Old Testament and thus challenging to translate”.

He looks at the various translation options here and then says this: “The most likely translation for the disputed portion of the law would seem to be, “If men get into a fight and hurt a pregnant woman but she is still able to have children and there is no harm…”

John Piper offers five reasons why the NIV rendering is the preferred option. He says, “I agree with this translation. Here is my own literal rendering from the original Hebrew: And when men fight and strike a pregnant woman (‘ishah harah) and her children (yeladeyha) go forth (weyatse’u), and there is no injury, he shall surely be fined as the husband of the woman may put upon him; and he shall give by the judges. But if there is injury, you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”

He concludes, “The contextual evidence supports this conclusion best. There is no miscarriage in this text. The child is born pre-maturely and is protected with the same sanctions as the mother. If the child is injured there is to be recompense as with the injury of the mother. Therefore this text cannot be used by the pro-choice advocates to show that the Bible regards the unborn as less human or less worthy of protection than those who are born.”

Philip Graham Ryken takes this approach to the text: “When a pregnant woman was struck in a way that induced labor, there was an obvious risk of injury or even death to both mother and child. If there was a serious injury to either one of them, then the man who caused it would deserve strict justice – an eye for an eye, and so on. But even if the mother and her child survived, the man still needed to pay a fine, as determined by the elders. His rash and violent act had threatened two of the most vulnerable people in society: a mother and her unborn child. The law demanded a fine to show that the weak deserve special care.”

In his commentary, John Durham puts it this way: “If two men in a scuffle inadvertently strike a pregnant woman, causing by the trauma of the blow the premature birth of her child, if there is no harm, presumably either to the mother or the newborn child or children, the man who actually inflicted the blow is to pay compensation, fixed by the woman’s husband on the basis of an assessment agreed upon by an objective third party. If, however, there is permanent injury, either to the woman, or, presumably, to the child or the children she was carrying, equal injury is to be inflicted upon the one who caused it.”

In sum, it seems we can say that the full text provides us with this basic principle:
-if in a personal injury to a pregnant woman resulting in premature birth there is no serious harm, then the one who caused this is to make a monetary compensation as the appropriate price to pay (v.22);
-if in a personal injury to a pregnant woman there is serious harm, then the one who caused this is to receive the death penalty as suitable punishment (vv.23-25).

John Jefferson Davis offers his own summary of the data: “Exodus 21:22-25, far from justifying permissive abortion, in fact grants the unborn child a status in the eyes of the law equal to the mother’s. The passage is thus consistent with the high regard for prenatal life manifested elsewhere in Scripture.”

A concluding thought on this text comes from Old Testament scholar Meredith Kline who writes, “the most significant thing about abortion legislation in the biblical law is that there is none. It was so unthinkable that an Israelite woman should desire an abortion that there was no need to mention this offense in the criminal code.”


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15 Replies to “Difficult Bible Passages: Exodus 21:22-25”

  1. But in the end, has anyone bothered to ask a rabbi what this is all about? The linguistic shadings in the Bible are such that we may be missing something that is hiding in plain sight.
    Julia Marks

  2. Thanks Julia

    Of course any decent critical and scholarly commentary – such as the ones I quote from above – will in fact interact with plenty of cultural, historical, Jewish and Rabbinic background material as they deal with such texts.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  3. I think Meredith Kline’s comment sheds more light on topics the bible is apparently quiet on than many attempts I see at exegetic analysis. In my limited experience I’ve seen that even in some cultures today, where life seems so cheap to the casual observer, the concept of abortion is unthinkable. As I learn to communicate cross culturally I am learning that some topics which are an issue in my own culture barely have a point of reference in others.
    I’m no expert on this approach, so I’d sure like to see some comments from those who have some deeper insights.

    Roger Branford

  4. Thanks Bill;

    I’m not so sure this deserves “Difficult Bible passage” status – more like “Twisted Bible passage”.
    A few minutes on Blue Letter Bible sorts it easy.
    (Strong’s H3318 – “yatsa” cannot possibly mean miscarriage)

    1) to go out, come out, exit, go forth
    a) (Qal)
    1) to go or come out or forth, depart
    2) to go forth (to a place)
    3) to go forward, proceed to (to or toward something)
    4) to come or go forth (with purpose or for result)
    5) to come out of
    b) (Hiphil)
    1) to cause to go or come out, bring out, lead out
    2) to bring out of
    3) to lead out
    4) to deliver
    c) (Hophal) to be brought out or forth

    C’mon Julia – do we really need to hold our tongues until the “Hebrew shadings” come to light? It ain’t that complicated. That word is NEVER used for losing a child – which BTW, is usually regarded as a sign of evil, a curse or a judgement. (e.g. David’s first child with Bathsheba)

    And the million dollar question is…
    Why on earth did the RSV use the word “miscarriage” when the obvious meaning is “induced labor”?

    Even ignoring the word (yatsa) and looking at the context it is still clearly out of place to say “miscarriage”.

    No-one could ever say that striking a woman and causing a miscarriage could ever be a “no harm” situation. Not even in today’s sick world. So this strongly contradicts verse 24 – which penalizes battery in the best outcome (baby is early but fine), and has the death penalty for the worst (death of baby obviously). As for death of the mother – this is murder, or manslaughter, not “striking” which is already covered in the previous Chapter – the 10 commandments (Ex 20:13)

    They want to find abortion in the Bible? Sure. The Bible passage that is closest to a description of abortion is the sacrifice of children to Molech.

    To which God says…

    If the people of the community close their eyes when that man gives one of his children to Molech and they fail to put him to death, I will set my face against that man and his family and will cut off from their people both him and all who follow him in prostituting themselves to Molech. (Lev. 20:4-5)

    Tim Lovett

  5. Hi Bill,

    I don’t find this passage a tricky one and actually the meaning seems quite plain without all the scholarship (unless you read the RSV).

    The passage is clearly talking about two different outcomes following a fight. I find it quite ironic that abortionists find any comfort in this passage at all.

    Nick Davies

  6. I never understood how this is misunderstood. If you use the KJV it just means that some of the words they have used back then have changed meaning from what we know as them now. It is a really simple passage, if you induce labour and nothing wrong happens to either baby or mother, then a fine is the punishment, otherwise you receive the same punishment and the one you dished out to either woman or child. The only way how this could not be “difficult” is if you put your own meaning into the passage from the get go, and that is bad reading in the first place and should be discouraged.
    Ian Nairn

  7. What the Bible says has little or no weight with modern secular pro-choice types. Interminable arguments over what a particular passage means will be seen as weakness. Christian argumentation over moral issues should be broad, multi-stranded. Indeed it often is. And it should embody wisdom, something common folk respect but cannot find in the secular Left.
    John Snowden

  8. As a note for you all, the Hebrew is really quite simple and most six graders would be able to read this and understand it correctly. I think we make this out way too difficult than it really is.

    Since my mother-tongue is Hebrew growing up in Israel, it’s easy to read when you read it in the flow of the language. It simply says that if the child comes out and there is no “disaster” then the person is fined. If there is a “disaster” than render a life for a life. etc. In context, it’s not hard to figure out what a “disaster” means.

    Considering the rest of the verse about taking the life of the person who caused a life to be taken, it would be kind of silly for anyone that is “pro-choice” to use such a verses.

    Yaakov Kurtz

  9. Proverbs 8:36
    But he that sinneth against me wrongeth his own soul: all they that hate me love death.
    Mario Del Giudice

  10. I am a Christian who needs a bit of help. an atheist has challenged me to Exodus 21:21. He is saying is you can beat your slave half to death as long as they don’t die immediately and there is really no punishment, other than the loss of the slave and your money. I already know he is going to ask me if I feel if that is right or fair. Dear brother can you help me so I can help him. thank you, God is great Amen.
    Michael Eagles

  11. Thanks Michael

    A few quick replies:
    -compared to other nations in the Ancient Near East, Jewish treatment of indentured servants was very civilised indeed.
    -Verse 20 also needs to be read here, where punishment is given to the one who inflicts deadly force on a slave.
    -Christianity of course is about Christ and the New Testament.
    -Jesus and the NT paved the way for the undoing of slavery.
    -It was Christians like Finney and Wilberforce who worked hard to abolish slavery. It certainly was not atheists who fought for the slaves.
    -Finally, the laws found here deal with personal injury, and the issue of abortion arises, which is why I penned this article. Again, compared to the surrounding cultures, these were quite humane laws indeed.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  12. It’s true what Bill wrote about comparing Jewish laws with other cultures of that time.

    To add, we need to remember (sad as it may be) that all the way into the 19th century, slaves were considered property. However, from the 20th century onward, slavery has been outlawed. So no one should be holding you accountable to laws that were applicable to the nation of Israel 3000 years ago.

    Furthermore, as Christians, we don’t apply the judicial laws (nor dietary ones) of the First Testament in today’s application. What may have been right or fair in the conquering of the land of Israel, is not our measuring staff today.

    Those Christians who owned slaves through the 19th century, did so when it was culturally accepted. However, they were accountable to God for how they treated those slaves just like we are accountable to God today for how we treat others — especially our brothers and sisters. In both cases, I would not want to stand before God and be ashamed of my behavior.

    Yaakov Kurtz

  13. In regards to Exodus 21:20-21 I also have read on other Christian sites that the word slavery translated to Hebrew means (Ebed). what about the word punished, some say it means capital punishment (executed) or the shedding of blood or avenged or (ESV) the verb (naqam) involves the death penalty. Which one of these are right and where did they get that information from? Thank you, God is great, Amen forever!
    Michael Eagles

  14. Thanks again Michael

    The common Hebrew word ebed can mean worker, employee, servant, or slave. As I said, “indentured servant” might be best used here. We must not think of such servanthood back then as the same as, say, slavery in America’s south of more recent times. If a person, even an Israelite, got into financial trouble, he could voluntarily work for another person for a time until the debt was paid off.

    The law here prohibits excessive force so that no death or permanent injury occurs. If death does happen, this was then considered to be a case of murder and treated as such.

    Again, the treatment of servants under Mosaic law was far more humane and civilised than found in most other places back then.

    Any decent Bible dictionary, lexicon, commentary, and so on can be used to look up the various words, terminology etc.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  15. First of all, it should be noted that the word “eved” does not mean worker or employee. That word is “oved”. While the root is the same (meaning to labor) “eved” is a servant and “oved” is an employee that is simply paid for his work. As such, servants can be “slaves” or people can become “servants” as Bill mentioned in his latest message on Aug. 16th.

    That exact word is used six times in the Hebrew First Testament and is always translated “servant.”

    It is very important to understand the context of Exodus. The people had been living in bondage in Egypt for 400 years and they had no laws of their own. They were under the laws of the Egyptians. They were “avadim” or “slaves.” When God gave them the laws in the book of Exodus it was meant to create a platform for civilian government which did not exist for them prior to the exodus.

    Again, judicial laws written for a culture 3000 years ago might not apply today. So this is totally irrelevant to someone discussing the existence of God today. Judicial laws created a governing body and guidelines where there were none beforehand.

    As far as word translated “punished” in both verses 20 & 21, it indeed is the word for “revenge”. This indicates a sense of the kind of punishment to be meted out to the person who did the murder.

    An argument can be made that this indicates capital punishment because in V.22 the word translated “punished” is not the same word. In V.22 it is the Hebrew word for punishment (onesh) as opposed to the 20&21 Hebrew word of “revenge.”

    Again, if someone wants to argue against God, it really doesn’t matter what anyone explains. Darkness will never like the light. (John 3:20)

    Hope this helps.
    Yaakov Kurtz

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