Do Exodus and Numbers Justify Abortion? (Exodus 21 and Numbers 5)

This article is part of the Tough Passages series.

Read the Passage

22 “When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
—Exodus 21:22–25

Does Exodus 21 Justify Abortion?

Some abortion advocates appeal directly to Scripture to make their case for elective abortion. Exodus 21:22–25 is one of their favorite references. The passage presents a situation where two men fighting accidentally injure (harm) a pregnant woman.

Abortion-choice advocates argue that this Scripture passage proves that the unborn are not fully human because the penalty for accidentally killing a fetus is less than that for killing its mother. But this argument is flawed on several counts.

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First, assuming that the pro-abortion interpretation of this passage is correct—that the unborn’s death is treated differently than the mother’s—it doesn’t follow that the unborn are not fully human. The preceding verses (Ex. 21:20–21) present a situation where a master unintentionally kills his slave and escapes with no penalty at all (the lack of intent being proven by the interval between the blow and the death); yet it hardly follows that Scripture considers the slave less than human.

Second, this passage does not even remotely suggest that a woman can willfully kill her unborn child through elective abortion. Nothing in the context supports this claim. At best the text assigns a lesser penalty for accidentally killing a fetus than for accidentally killing his mother. It simply doesn’t follow that a woman may deliberately abort her own offspring.

Third, the pro-abortion interpretation of this passage (that a lesser penalty applies for accidental fetal death) is highly suspect. When read in the original Hebrew, the passage seems to convey that both the mother and the child are covered by lex talionis, the law of retribution. According to Hebrew scholar Gleason Archer, “There is no second class status attached to the fetus under this rule. The fetus is just as valuable as the mother.”1 Furthermore, we should not presume that the child in question is dead, as in the case of elective abortion. Millard Erickson, citing the work of Jack Cottrell, writes that the passage can be reasonably translated “the child comes forth,” and if he or she is not injured, the penalty is merely a fine.2 But if he or she is harmed, the penalty is life for life, tooth for tooth, and so on. (Note also that the text calls the expelled fetus a “child,” a fact that abortion-choice advocates cannot easily get around.)

Read the Passage

19 Then the priest shall make her take an oath, saying, ‘If no man has lain with you, and if you have not turned aside to uncleanness while you were under your husband’s authority, be free from this water of bitterness that brings the curse. 20 But if you have gone astray, though you are under your husband’s authority, and if you have defiled yourself, and some man other than your husband has lain with you, 21 then’ (let the priest make the woman take the oath of the curse, and say to the woman) ‘the LORD make you a curse and an oath among your people, when the LORD makes your thigh fall away and your body swell. 22 May this water that brings the curse pass into your bowels and make your womb swell and your thigh fall away.’ And the woman shall say, ‘Amen, Amen.’
Numbers 5:19–22

Does Numbers 5:11–31 Justify Abortion?

In Old Testament law, Numbers 5:11–31 presents a situation in which a husband suspects his wife of adultery, but he can’t prove it. He takes her to a priest who performs a ritual designed to prove her guilt or innocence. The ritual involves a grain offering during which the wife is put under oath.

After swearing her innocence, the wife drinks a cocktail of holy water and tabernacle dust. If she is innocent, nothing will happen. But should she be guilty (the priest tells her), then “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” (Num. 5:21–22 NIV). In the Revised English Bible (the updated version of the New English Bible), the phrasing is “may the Lord make an example of you among your people . . . by bringing upon you miscarriage and untimely birth.”

Abortion-choice advocates often cite the passage from these contemporary Scripture versions to prove two things: that a planned abortion is affirmed in the Mosaic law, and that the unborn are not human. There are several problems with both points.

First, the passage is dealing with infidelity, not a planned abortion. Second, the NIV and REB translations of the passage are suspect. Indeed, most translations say nothing of miscarriage, only disfigurement of the wife’s body. This makes sense, given that the vast majority of adulterous affairs do not result in pregnancy (and how could miscarriage be the “curse” for an act of adultery if the woman isn’t pregnant?). Here’s how other major English-language Bible versions translate the relevant phrases from verses 21 and 22:

English Standard Version (ESV): “when the Lord makes your thigh fall away and your body swell . . . and make your womb swell and your thigh fall away.”

New American Standard Bible (NASB 1995): “making your thigh waste away and your abdomen swell.”

New King James Version (NKJV): “when the Lord makes your thigh rot and your belly swell.”

King James Version (KJV): “when the Lord doth make thy thigh to rot, and thy belly to swell.”

These translations suggest that if the wife commits adultery and lies about it under oath, her sexual organs will become useless. In other words, the curse applies to the guilty wife. It is her thigh that rots and her belly that swells. For the passage to condone abortion, we need a clear connection in the text between the disfigurement of her body and a preborn human. In most translations, it’s not there. Moreover, in translations of these verses that include the word womb, the term is translated from the Hebrew yarek, which can mean “thigh, loin, side, or base.” It can be used to describe both males and females.3 In short, it’s more likely the passage is dealing with bodily disfigurement, not miscarriage.

Second, even if we grant the “miscarriage” interpretation here, the passage does nothing to justify abortion performed by human agents. Note that it’s the Lord—not the actions of the parents or the priest—who ends any future pregnancies. After all, even if the wife were currently pregnant from the adulterous affair, drinking water and temple dust does not in itself trigger miscarriage.

Third, nothing in the passage suggests that the unborn are not fully human. If execution by God makes you nonhuman, the people of Sodom and Gomorrah as well as those who died in the flood of Noah’s day were not human.4 Nathan Apodaca adds:

Ironically, even if talking about abortion, this passage also proves too much for the pro-choice advocate, because it’s the husband who has full say in the matter. The wife has no choice in what happens whatsoever. So unless pro-choice advocates are okay with saying Scripture allows men to have direct control over their wives’ bodies (and conversely, women don’t get to have a say), they need to find a new argument.5

Conclusion: The Bible Is Pro-Life

Taken together, the exegetical, philosophical, and scientific considerations show that the theological case for elective abortion is seriously flawed. Nothing in the Hebrew culture of the Old Testament supports the practice. And given the consensus against abortion by early Jewish Christians, there is no reason to suppose that the New Testament authors approved of it either.

Moreover, the facts of science make clear that from the earliest stages of development, the unborn are members of the human family. As such, they bear the image of their Maker, and that alone gives them inestimable value.


  1. Cited in John Ankerberg and John Weldon, When Does Life Begin? (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1989), 195–96. See also Meredith Kline, “Lex Talionis & the Human Fetus,” Simon Greenleaf Law Review 5 (1985–1986), 73–89.
  2. Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1999), 572. See also Jack Cottrell, “Abortion and the Mosaic Law,” Christianity Today, March 16, 1973.
  3. Kyle Butt, “Bitter Water That Causes a Curse: Does Numbers 5:11–22 Condone Abortion?,” Apologetics Press, March 2019,
  4. Francis Beckwith, Politically Correct Death: Answering Arguments for Abortion Rights(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1993), 144.
  5. Private correspondence with author.

This article is adapted from The Case for Life: Equipping Christians to Engage the Culture by Scott Klusendorf.

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