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Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg and pro-abortion Baptist “minister” Katey Zeh argue that opposition to abortion is based on “a single word being mistranslated more than 2,000 years ago.” The Christian responses to the claim made by these two pro-abortion women are OK, but they do not go far enough in pointing out their very bad exegetical work.

I’ve run across additional twisted exegesis and history similar to that of Ruttenberg and Zeh in an article written by Jacob Shelton for the website Weird History. He claims that the translation of Exodus 21:22–25 was altered to support the GOP and the Christian Right because of their anti-abortion stance:

In the 1975 version of the New American Standard Bible, the verse read: “And if men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is not further injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him; and he shall pay as the judges decide.”

In 1995, the verse was changed to read: “If men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she gives birth prematurely, yet there is no injury…

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The words were changed in the 1995 version in order to make it so the fetus doesn’t die in the verse, thus supporting the Christian Right’s pro-life message that killing a fetus is the same as killing a human, and the Bible says so.

Shelton may be “a know it all when it comes to horror movies, serial killers, government conspiracies, comic books, and movies about comic books,” as he describes himself, but he does not know much about the Bible, Bible translations, or the history of the translation of Exodus 21 as it relates to abortion.

The goal of translating the Bible into another language is to make it as accurate, readable, and as accessible as possible for people who can’t read the original languages. Every translation has gone through revisions. Every translation is an attempt to make the original languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek accurate. Some translations try to do this by smoothing out the original language to get the essence of the meaning while others try to be as literal as possible without being wooden. That’s why you will see in some translations (e.g., KJV and NASB) words printed in italic to indicate that they are not in the original language. They are added to make a passage more understandable.

Ruttenberg and Zeh claim that pro-life legislation based on the Bible relies on a translation mistake. The following is how they translate and explain Exodus 21:22–23:

“When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other harm ensues, the one responsible shall be fined when the woman’s husband demands compensation; the payment will be determined by judges. But if other harm ensues, the penalty shall be life for life.”

In other words, if a miscarriage is caused, the offender is fined for damages, but there is no other punishment as the fetus is not, in the Hebrew Bible, regarded as a person. If there is “other harm” — that is, if the pregnant person dies — the offender is seen as having committed manslaughter and punished accordingly. This is how these verses are understood in Judaism, from the Rabbinic era of the Mishnah and Talmud through Jewish law today, where abortion is permitted and, if needed to save the life of the pregnant person, sometimes required.

Let’s put the claims to the test that the NASB editors changed its translation of Exodus 21:22 for political reasons as well as the supposed translation mistake argued by Ruttenberg and Zeh and the use of “miscarriage.”

Biblical Case Law: Lex Talionis

First, Exodus 21:22–25 deals with a judicial case where two men struggle (fight) with each other. We are not told why they are fighting. A pregnant woman is standing near enough to them that the altercation affects her. She goes into premature labor. This case law covers all the “cases,” everything from no harm to the mother and her prematurely born children (plural) to harm resulting in death to the mother and one or more of her unborn children.

Second, the woman is not deciding to have an abortion. At one level, it’s an accident that she goes into labor. There is no premeditation on her part. At another level, however, the men should not have been fighting, so there is some liability on their part. The woman could be the wife of one of the men who is trying to break up the fight.

Even if there is a distinction in terms of harm to the mother and the unborn child in what is ostensibly an accidental act, this is a far cry from permitting women intentionally to kill their unborn children up until the end-point of a normal pregnancy. David Mill writes the following in his article “Abortion and Exodus 21”:

Notice that this Mosaic regulation had to do with injury inflicted indirectly and accidentally: “The phrasing of the case suggests that we are dealing with an instance of unintentional battery involving culpability” (Michael Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 92). Abortion, on the other hand, is a deliberatepurposeful, intentional termination of a child’s life. If God dealt severely with the accidental death of a pre-born infant, how do you suppose He feels about the deliberate murder of the unborn by an abortion doctor in collusion with the mother? The Bible states explicitly how He feels: “[D]o not kill the innocent and righteous. For I will not justify the wicked” (Exodus 23:7). As a matter of fact, one of the things that God hates is “hands that shed innocent blood” (Proverbs 6:17; cf. 2 Kings 8:12; 15:16; Hosea 13:16; Amos 1:13). Abortion is a serious matter with God. We absolutely must base our views on God’s will—not the will of men. The very heart and soul of this great nation is being ripped out by unethical actions like abortion. We must return to the Bible as our standard of behavior—before it is everlastingly too late.[1]

Third, the text is clear, she is pregnant with at least one child: “And if men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child…” (Ex. 21:22). The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew-English Lexicon defines hareh as a pregnant woman with a child (e.g., Gen. 16:11; 38:24–25; 1 Sam. 4:19; 2 Sam. 11:5; 2 Kings 8:12; Isa. 7:14; Jer. 31:8). It’s clear she is not carrying around a mass of undefined tissue that becomes a human being when “it” exits the sanctuary of the womb.

Fourth, the Bible attributes self-consciousness to unborn babies, something modern medicine has studied and acknowledged. Jacob and Esau “struggled together within” their mother’s womb (Gen. 25:22). The New Testament offers a similar glimpse into prenatal consciousness: “And it came about that when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb” (Luke 1:41). “Struggling” and “leaping” are the result of consciousness. Jacob and Esau fighting inside the womb are indicative of their continued fighting outside the womb. John leaps in reaction to Mary’s pregnancy.

Fifth, some commentators claim that in Exodus 21:22 the death of a “fetus,” either accidentally or on purpose, is nothing more than a property crime rather than the killing of a human being. The Bible teaches otherwise. The original Hebrew reads: “And if men struggle with each other and strike a pregnant woman so that her children [yeled] come out….” Notice that the text uses the word “children,” not “products of conception.” The Hebrew word for “children” in this verse is used in other contexts to designate a child already born. For example, in Exodus 2:6 we read: “When Pharaoh’s daughter opened [the basket], she saw the child [yeled], and behold, the boy was crying. And she had pity on him and said, ‘This is one of the Hebrews’ children [yeled].’” Since in the Exodus case these are “children that come out,” they are persons, not body parts like an appendix or a kidney.

Sixth, if there is no injury to these individuals—the mother and her prematurely delivered child or children—then there is no penalty. If there is injury, then the judges must decide on an appropriate penalty based on the extent of the injury either to the mother and/or her child because both are persons in terms of biblical law.

Seventh, some translations have “so that she has a miscarriage.” Ruttenberg and Zeh repeat this translation mistake as I will show. As Shelton points out, the 1977 edition of the New American Standard Bible of those working on the passage in question used “miscarriage.” The 1995 translation is better (“she gives birth prematurely”), but it still does not capture the literal rendering of the Hebrew. In a marginal note, the NASB translators recognize that the literal meaning of the text is “her children come out.”

It’s frustrating to read translations that include marginal notes telling us what a word or phrase means literally. Translate it literally, and then use the margin to explain if needed. Other translations have a more word-for-word translation. Here’s one example from the Holman Christian Standard Bible:

“When men get in a fight and hit a pregnant woman so that her children are born [prematurely] but there is no injury, the one who hit her must be fined as the woman’s husband demands from him, and he must pay according to judicial assessment.”

Notice that it’s “so that her children are born.” Here’s another from Young’s Literal Translation (1898):

“And when men strive, and have smitten a pregnant woman, and her children have come out, and there is no mischief, he is certainly fined, as the husband of the woman doth lay upon him, and he hath given through the judges.”

Note the date (1898), long before there was a Christian Right, long before abortion became a national moral tragedy when the Supreme Court legalized abortion in 1973.

Eighth, two Hebrew words fit the circumstances of miscarriage or premature birth: “There shall be no one miscarrying [shakal] or barren in your land” (Ex. 23:26; also, Hosea 9:14). The Hebrew word for “miscarriage” was available to Moses in Exodus 21 since it appears just two chapters later. Another example is found in Job: “Or like a miscarriage [nefel] which is discarded, I would not be” (Job 3:16). Meredith G. Kline offers a helpful summary of the passage:

This law found in Exodus 21:22–25 turns out to be perhaps the most decisive positive evidence in scripture that the fetus is to be regarded as a living person…. No matter whether one interprets the first or second penalty to have reference to a miscarriage, there is no difference in the treatments according to the fetus and the woman. Either way the fetus is regarded as a living person, so that to be criminally responsible for the destruction of the fetus is to forfeit one’s life…. The fetus, at any stage of development, is, in the eyes of this law, a living being, for life (nephesh) is attributed to it…. Consistently in the relevant data of Scripture a continuum of identity is evident between the fetus and the person subsequently born and Exodus 21:22–25 makes it clear that this prenatal human being is to be regarded as a separate and distinct human life.[2]

There are additional points to be made about Shelton’s arguments as well as those of Ruttenberg and Zeh. I’ll tackle them in Thursday’s article (October 28, 2021).

Thinking Straight in a Crooked World

Thinking Straight in a Crooked World

Gary DeMar shows the power of biblical thinking and the desperate need for it in the church today. Thinking Straight in a Crooked World is designed to identify the bends in the road of ideas and repair them with biblical, straight thinking.

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Author: Gary DeMar

Gary—who served as President of American Vision for thirty-five years—is a graduate of Western Michigan University (1973) and earned his M.Div. at Reformed Theological Seminary in 1979. Author of countless essays, news articles, and more than 27 book titles, he has been featured by nearly every major news media outlet. Gary also has hosted The Gary DeMar Show, History Unwrapped, and the Gary DeMar’s Vantage Point Webshow and is a regular contributor to AmericanVision.org. Gary has lived in the Atlanta area since 1979 with his wife, Carol. They have two married sons and are enjoying being grandparents. Gary and Carol are members of Midway Presbyterian Church (PCA).