ordeal of the bitter waters, part four

mother and baby

I stared at what I’d typed into Google. The blinking cursor was silent, patient, waiting for me to hit enter.

Verses in the Bible about abortion.

Blink. Blink. Blink.

I didn’t know what I was about to face. I knew I was about to wade chest-deep into pretty intense pro-life territory, a place where I would be jumping at shadows, wondering how much of what they said would be misrepresentations or merely misconceptions. But, I wasn’t looking for their argument– I only wanted to know where I needed to go looking. Finally, I hit enter, and started digging through the websites, writing down every single reference I could find. Eventually I closed out of the screen, shut down my computer, and started reading.

Over the next few days, I had sorted everything into patterns. First, the Bible seemed to be silent about abortion, which wasn’t initially a problem. The Bible isn’t comprehensive, and it’s not unusual for it not to talk about issues that seem vitally important today. Arguments were made from a variety of ideas:

Human beings are made in the image of God (Genesis 1, James 3, Acts 17). This is an important idea for the pro-life movement, because it’s the primary motivation for being pro-life. The imago dei is what makes human life sacred. The imago dei, not sentience, is what separates man from beast and makes humanity special. We are the children of God, made in his likeness. And while the doctrine of imago dei is one of the doctrines of Christianity that I cling to tenaciously– it is one of the most beautiful ideas in my entire religion– it doesn’t necessarily answer the question I had about conception.

Children are to be valued (Psalm 127, Matthew 18, Ephesians 6). I was familiar with this argument primarily from my research into Natural Family Planning; their stance toward anti-contraception is born in this concept. They value the lives of children and believe fervently, earnestly, that children are a gift, a blessing . . . but again, all of this is merely a rhetorical connection– and a fragile one at that. It doesn’t answer the question when does life begin?

There is life, even in the womb (Psalm 139, Psalm 22). These were the verses I was intimately familiar with. David, the psalmist, uses the image of himself in his mother’s womb in his poetry. But, as a student of literature, I had to ask the question: is a metaphor used in a poem enough? And what did these verses actually say? They were usually a testament to God’s fore-knowledge, in a similar sense that David also uses the metaphor of “the foundations of the earth.” And, again, I wasn’t denying that there is life, whatever it is, in the womb.

And none of these verses talked about identity, or personhood, or being-ness, but about what God knows. I realized that the fact David had chosen this metaphor was significant. He chose something so deeply mystery, a miracle beyond the comprehension of ancient civilization, to talk about what God understands, but he did not. The miracle of life being created in the womb has been one of the constant images in ancient religion; it was a process held as sacred and enshrined in idols, altars . . . He didn’t understand it anymore than I did, and that was why the metaphor was so poignant, why it mattered. It was beautiful, this metaphor, because of the not-knowing; David was trusting God with what he knew he couldn’t understand.

It took me a few days to grapple with all of these things, and I was left with just as much confusion as when I’d started. Months went by, and I was ready to give up entirely, when this showed up in my facebook feed in July:

In other words, this potion of “bitter water” will have no effect if the woman has been faithful, but if she’s cheated on her husband and gotten pregnant, it will rot her body and cause her to have a miscarriage. Whether or not you believe in this sort of black magic, the people who wrote it clearly did, and that tells us something about their worldview.

I couldn’t sleep that night.

At first, I didn’t even know what the hell the author, Adam Lee, was talking about. The concept that there was a passage in the Bible that not only allowed but mandated abortion was so utterly foreign to me I couldn’t- couldn’t— wrap my brain around it. And it wasn’t because I’d never read this passage before– I’ve read the Bible all the way through at least a dozen times, thanks to my fundamentalist upbringing. I’d never heard a sermon preached on Numbers 5, that was true, but I had to have been aware that this passage existed.

How did I miss this?

So, I went back and read the verse he cited in the version I would have read it in before:

And when he hath made her to drink the water, then it shall come to pass, that if she be defiled, and have done trespass against her husband, that the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter, and her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall rot: and the woman shall be a curse among her people.

That was a really big difference from the version Adam Lee had cited, which used the word “miscarry” instead of “thigh shall rot.”

So why did some versions translate this miscarry? How accurate of a translation was this? Was this passage talking about a woman becoming barren and diseased (which . . . still problematic), or was it talking about God– or the “bitter waters”– causing an abortion?

The first thing I did was write letters to all of the organizations that had decided to translate it miscarry, asking what their linguistic support was. The only organization that responded at all was Biblica, and they didn’t offer any evidence or support for their decision.

It was obvious I was going to have to look for answers on my own. But, I was going to have to do it with the handicap of knowing next to nothing about Hebrew (outside of a single semester in college and sleeping on Strong’s Concordance every night as a child). It didn’t take me long, however, to find that the words that were going to be my primary focus were יָרֵך נָפַל  (yarak naphal), שָׁכֹל (shakol), and יָצָא יֶלֶד (yeled yatsa). And the question I was going to have to answer was: Why did the man who wrote Numbers use yarak naphal in Numbers, when supposedly the same writer used yeled yatsa in Exodus? Or why hadn’t he used shakol, the word used in Hosea? Why yarak naphal? And what does yarak naphal actually mean? Does it mean “miscarriage”?

There was also a question I didn’t want to ask. But it was there, pressing, throbbing at the back of my mind, beating in my heart. If it does turns out that this passage is talking about God causing an abortion– what am I supposed to think about God? If an unborn baby is a fully human person, and God is willing to kill that baby just to prove a woman is adulterous . . .

I had a lot to lose.

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  • Jo

    Many thanks for the stimulating posts. Forgive me if this is something that you intend to discuss in a future part of this series, or if my non-US context has caused me to misunderstand something that would otherwise be obvious. I have to say that I was not familiar with the ‘bitter waters’ verses in Numbers 5, possibly because of the translation issues you mention, and that I have no idea what the arguments behind the varying translations might be. I’m interested to find out in your future posts. But, nevertheless, I’m curious why the idea of God causing a miscarriage or abortion in a case of ‘adultery’ would be potentially game changing to your view of God, given that I imagine that you’re familiar with the story about the death of David and Bathsheba’s first child. The David story seems pretty clearly to be an example of God killing a fully human (and innocent) person to show his displeasure with David and Bathsheba’s adultery. So if the Numbers passage is talking about abortion, I would be tempted to file it as an example of the same displeasure, not as a separate and worse category. Both examples are potentially problematic for Christians to understand, but I would struggle to see one as being more problematic than the other.

  • UrsulaL

    The difference between the story of David and Bathsheba and the law in Numbers is that in the D&B story, god was acting unilaterally, which makes it pretty much god’s business. Plus, prior to modern medicine, you had pretty much 50% child mortality – 25% of babies born alive died in the first year, and another 25% before age ten. So it is, in that context, not necessarily a unique and horrible punishment, but rather something that many, if not most families experienced. A very common experience, the death of a child, with David’s possible feelings of guilt coloring the narrative.

    Plus, in the context of the story of David, it is one more case of someone who is inconvenient to David dying in circumstances where David had plausible deniability, and David making a very public show of mourning loudly. (For example, the death of Jonathan, and others.) In this case, a child who was conceived while Bathsheba was still married to someone else, and therefore a firstborn to her marriage to David of questionable legitimacy, dies, so that her next child, unambiguously David’s, was her oldest surviving child born during that marriage. Looking at the larger story of David as a historian, you see a very power-hungry and ruthless warrior-politician, with evidence that he is a skilled and subtle assassin.

    In Numbers, god is tellingpeople what to do, which is to act in a way that will terminate a pregnancy in certain circumstances. Which goes directly to whether or not it can be appropriate for people to choose to end pregnancies, in a way that the D&B story doesn’t.

    • Jo

      Hi UrsulaL, I was interested to hear what you think.

      I’ve gone away and read Numbers 5 in full in the meantime, and I’m afraid I don’t find myself agreeing about the differences you bring out between this and the David story. I think the ordeal of the bitter waters still relies on God deciding to act in the situation – either to have the water cause the curse, or not, depending on the knowledge that only God (and the woman) can have about whether there was actually unfaithfulness. I also don’t see that it is clear cut that the woman is necessarily pregnant at the time of the ordeal, as someone mentions below, which could mean that the curse is talking about future barrenness – perhaps a bit like what happened to Michal, again in David’s story.

      On the other hand, what you say about child mortality could also be applicable here. A large number of pregnancies naturally result in miscarriage – in this case the woman concerned would presumably have the added burden of guilt, as Bathsheba must have done over the death of her child.

      So although a process is laid out for the jealous husband and accused wife to follow, I don’t think that the process would “work” correctly without God’s involvement. It’s a kind of trial by ordeal that wouldn’t necessarily result in the curse being applied. And I think that the focus of the passage is punishment of unfaithfulness, and bringing unfaithfulness into the open in the context of the ‘purity of the camp.’ So I still end up with the opinion that it is very similar to the David and Bathsheba story, rather than being a legitimisation for choosing to end a pregnancy in the way that we would want to talk about that in modern society.

  • I’m only familiar with the “thigh rot” translation. I was surprised it was translated into miscarry, but since the abdomen swells up, miscarry makes more sense than a rotting thigh. I thought that the Numbers 5 passage to which you referred was the one in Exodus, in which an induced miscarriage only resulted in a fine. Until we had ultrasound to see into the womb, human development was a complete mystery. There was a time when quickening was considered the time at which a fetus became a human. Since abortion pits those who believe a fetus has full human rights at conception against those who don’t believe that, the subject remains a tense issue. Looking forward to your next post in this series.

  • Carol

    I don’t think that we can deny that people have often mistaken the “promptings” of their own subconscious desires for the “promptings” of the Spirit of God. Even after over 40 years as a person of faith, I still cannot distinguish the difference apart from much prayer and reflection and even then there is always some doubt, so I still tend to put thought into action gradually and pay attention to the results before I commit entirely to an agenda. I trust unconditionally in the merciful goodness and wisdom of God’s ways, in my own understanding, not so much.

    As for abortion being always evil, well if it is, it is sometimes the lesser evil. Perhaps it is more of a tragedy due to highly unfavorable circumstances or human immaturity/shallowness than an evil.

    Whatever the cause, we all die after experiencing some degree of temporal suffering as well as joy. Perhaps skipping the earthly experience may not be as much of a tragedy as we assume. It might be more of a mercy than being unwanted and unloved rather than welcomed by one’s parents and rejected by one’s society. Suicides are increasing among children in our Western societies. Why are we more concerned with abortion than with the juvenile suicide issue?

  • While I was brought up a Christian (British Quaker – pretty far from US evangelical), I’ve been an atheist since I was 18 or 19, and I’ve been pro-choice for as long as I understood the issues – since my early teens, I think.

    I appreciate these blogs you’re writing very much.

    For me the issue was never “is the foetus a unique human life?” Yes, of course: I think at some point in the foetus’s development in uterus, s/he goes from being “a potential human being” to a “fetal human being”, and I think the person who gets to decide exactly when that point is, is the woman who’s pregnant: I’m never going to argue with a woman’s choice of language to describe her own pregnancy.

    Every child born is a unique human life, and she doesn’t stop being a unique human being with a beating heart and fully-developed fingernails and so on when she’s old enough to get pregnant.

    I think the single thing I find most grindingly annoying about the way prolifers talk is that they ignore pregnant women. I correct prolifers when they want to talk about “it’s a baby from the moment of conception!” because that dismisses and trivialises the necessary, hugely-involving work that a woman’s body does through pregnancy in creating a baby from a conceptus. They tell me “oh you’re trying to dehumanise the baby by using ‘foetus'” but i am not: I am acknowledging and honouring the labour of pregnant women, and it seems to me that prolifers use “baby” even for a conceptus, because in that way they can dehumanise and dismiss women and women’s labour,

    I am prochoice because it seems to me the only ethical position anyone can take for other people’s pregnancies. (And I’ve never been pregnant myself.) Any prolife position always amounts to “You, the pregnant woman, the person who is actually using her blood and her whole body in pregnancy, are not permitted to make your own decisions about whether you will continue to labour to create a baby or whether you will quit because it’s more than you can bear.”

    Anyone who says that abortion has to remain legal and accessible because it’s the pregnant woman’s decision whether or not to abort, is prochoice. Prolife is the position of saying abortion must be illegal / inaccessible because you don’t trust a pregnant woman to make the right decision.

    I may disagree with some reasons for having an abortion, in the abstract. I recognise that many prochoicers think abortion is never a good choice (also a position I disagree with). But finally, the woman who’s pregnant is the one who gets to decide, and she should have all possible options available to her. Any other position is pro-force.

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  • krwordgazer

    Have you ever heard of the book Broken Words: the Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics? Jonathan Dudley, the author, is a Christian, raised evangelical, who talks about political issues such as abortion in evangelicalism. He makes a compelling case that evangelicals did NOT believe life began at conception until around 1970! Before that, evangelicals were not against abortion in the first trimester.

    With regards to the ordeal of the bitter waters, it always seemed to me like it was a sort of psychosomatic thing. Here are elements that don’t seem especially toxic on their own; perhaps a woman would only get really sick from them if she believed she would. Compared to the idea that God would actively save you from something really poisonous if you were innocent, the idea that the drink would only hurt you if you were guilty doesn’t seem that bad.

    I frankly doubt if that passage is talking about miscarriage, because it’s not pregnancy, but suspected unfaithfulness, that is the subject of the passage. To only punish those who got pregnant from their unfaithfulness (and who might actually still be carrying their husband’s child) doesn’t seem to fit what I understand of the ancient Hebrew way of thinking.

  • Jeff

    Have you read Gorman’s “Abortion and the Early Church”? It’s the primary source for Rodney Stark’s treatment of the subject in “The Rise of Christianity”, and the basic idea appears to be that abortion was known and normative among the pagan population in the Greco-Roman world, but the early Christians opposed it, for the primary reason that it ended a human life.