Bitter Water that Causes a Curse: Does Numbers 5:11-22 Condone Abortion?
Numbers 5:11-22 presents a curious and somewhat difficult Bible passage. The text says:
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him so that another man has sexual relations with her, and this is hidden from her husband and her impurity is undetected (since there is no witness against her and she has not been caught in the act), and if feelings of jealousy come over her husband and he suspects his wife and she is impure—or if he is jealous and suspects her even though she is not impure—then he is to take his wife to the priest. He must also take an offering of a tenth of an ephah of barley flour on her behalf. He must not pour olive oil on it or put incense on it, because it is a grain offering for jealousy, a reminder-offering to draw attention to wrongdoing. The priest shall bring her and have her stand before the Lord. Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water. After the priest has had the woman stand before the Lord, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the reminder-offering, the grain offering for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse. Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has had sexual relations with you and you have not gone astray and become impure while married to your husband, may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you.But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have made yourself impure by having sexual relations with a man other than your husband”—here the priest is to put the woman under this curse—“may the Lord cause you to become a curse among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell. May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries.” Then the woman is to say, “Amen. So be it”’” (NIV).
Skeptics claim that these verses prove that the God of the Old Testament condones abortion. As Atheist John Hamill wrote: “The verses appear to describe explicit divine support for abortion. In fact, the context in which it seems that Yahweh approves of abortion, is when a husband wishes to force his wife to terminate a pregnancy (even against her will) if he suspects he may not be the biological father.”1 Do these verses condone abortion?2
First, it is important to ask why the skeptic believes this passage discusses abortion. The bulk of the passage has to do with adultery and nowhere even mentions pregnancy. The accusation of condoning abortion is based primarily, if not entirely, on the final verses that say of the woman “your womb miscarry” and “may this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells and your womb miscarries.” In truth, the NIV in this case provides an unfortunate and inaccurate translation of the terms in the passage. Compare how these terms from verses 21 and 22 are translated in other versions.
NKJV: “when the Lord makes your thigh rot and your belly swell…and make your belly swell and your thigh rot.”
KJV: “when the Lord doth make thy thigh to rot, and thy belly to swell…to make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to rot.”
ESV: “when the Lord makes your thigh fall away and your body swell…and make your womb swell and your thigh fall away.”
ASV: “doth make thy thigh fall away, and thy body to swell…and make thy body to swell, and thy thigh fall away.”
Notice that other translations say nothing about a miscarriage or miscarrying. The term that the NIV translates “womb” is yarek. This word actually means “thigh, loin, side, or base.”3 It can be used to describe both males and females. It is used in Genesis 32:25 to describe the area that God wounded on Jacob when they wrestled, described as “the socket of his hip” (NKJV). It obviously could not have been Jacob’s “womb.” Judges 3:16 contains the word, describing Ehud’s dagger that he fastened “on his right thigh.” Furthermore, the term translated “miscarry” is the Hebrew word naphal, which means, “to fall, waste away, rot.”4 It can be used as broadly as an animal falling into a pit (as in Exodus 21:33), a sword falling from one’s hand (Ezekiel 30:22), or a violent or untimely death (Judges 5:27). The word could possibly be used to describe the death of an unborn infant, but is not in any way confined to the idea of a miscarriage and should only be translated as such when there is a very clear connection to a baby. When the word describes what happens to “the thigh” (yarek), there is no verbal connection to any type of pregnancy or child and should not be translated as miscarriage, which is why the other major translations say, “thigh fall away,” “thigh rot,” etc. Furthermore, it should be noted that the curse is directed at the woman. It is her thigh that shall rot off if she is found guilty of adultery. It is her belly, abdomen, or middle section that will swell. In order to accuse God or the Israelites of condoning abortion, there must be a clear statement or connection to an unborn baby in the text. Needless to say, that connection does not exist. Thus, we can dismiss the accusation that this passage proves that God was instructing the Israelites to perform abortion.
Let us then move on to what the passage actually discusses. In the context, if a man believes his wife has committed adultery, he takes her to the Tabernacle where she is instructed to drink “holy water” that has some dust from the tabernacle floor and some type of parchment or paper fragments that are scraped into the water (Numbers 5:23). If the woman is innocent, then nothing adverse happens to her (Numbers 5:28). If she committed adultery, then her thigh would rot, her belly would swell, and she would “become a curse among her people.” Notice that this entire procedure implies the fact that divine judgment is directly at work in this case. There is no secret formula in the water that somehow is able to detect whether or not the woman has committed adultery. No special chemicals are concocted to cause sickness if adultery has occurred, but that are harmless if she has been faithful. The entire ordeal is designed to make a public example to show that God was working personally in the lives of the Israelites.
When we look more closely, we notice that the text mentions that there were no witnesses to the supposed adultery and the woman was not caught (Numbers 5:13). Some have argued that the Bible writers are showing favoritism here because no man is accused with the woman. The point is, however, that the husband suspects the wife of adultery, but has no physical evidence of her suspected accomplice. There is no favoritism toward the man in this instance, since the Old Testament clearly states that if a man and woman are caught in adultery, and there are witnesses, then both of them were to be punished equally (Deuteronomy 22:22). In this case, the woman is suspected of adultery and only God knows (besides the potentially guilty parties) whether or not she is guilty. If she is guilty, then it is God who sees and knows and will punish her. There is nothing inherent in the water that makes her sick in the case of adultery, but does nothing in the case of innocence. [As an aside, when God did act in such cases, and the woman fell ill and was cursed, there is no reason to think that God would let the guilty man go unpunished. Moses’ admonition to the men of the tribes of Reuben and Gad, when he stated, “be sure your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23), would surely apply in this case. The stories of David’s adultery and the sin of Achan illustrate God’s ability and willingness to be directly involved in the reparation of sin.]
The skeptic’s accusation that Numbers 5:21-22 shows that God or the Israelites condoned abortion is groundless. The text never mentions a pregnancy, and the NIV translation of the terms “miscarry” or “miscarries” is unfounded. The punishment for any adultery that took place is directed at the woman. And God’s involvement in the ceremony is necessary for it to have any significance. There was nothing in the water that would or could cause an abortion, cause sickness, or differentiate between a guilty or innocent person. Only the all-knowing God could manifest the woman’s guilt or innocence.
1 John Hamill (2018), “What Does the Bible Say About Abortion?” Atheist Ireland, https://atheist.ie/2018/04/what-does-the-bible-say-about-abortion/.
2 For an in-depth look at the biblical position on abortion, see Eric Lyons (2010), “Abortion and the Ungodly Irrationality Surrounding Unwanted Infants,” Reason & Revelation, 30:41-47. Also Dave Miller (2003), “Abortion & the Bible,” http://apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=7&article=445&topic=25.
3 “Yarek,” Strong’s Concordance, https://biblehub.com/hebrew/3409.htm.
4 “Naphal,” https://www.studylight.org/lexicons/hebrew/5307.html.