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.”