In this post I want to deal with Numbers 5:11-31:
A Test for Adultery
"11And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 12"Speak to the people of Israel, If any man’s wife goes astray and breaks faith with him, 13if a man(A) lies with her sexually, and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband, and she is undetected though she has defiled herself, and there is no witness against her,(B) since she was not taken in the act, 14and if the spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife who has defiled herself, or if the spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife, though she has not defiled herself, 15then the man shall bring his wife to the priest and bring the offering required of her, a tenth of an ephah[a] of barley flour.(C) He shall pour no oil on it and put no frankincense on it, for it is a grain offering of jealousy, a grain offering of remembrance,(D) bringing iniquity to remembrance.
16"And the priest shall bring her near and set her before the LORD. 17And the priest shall take holy water in an earthenware vessel and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water. 18And the priest shall set the woman before the LORD and(E) unbind the hair of the woman’s head and place in her hands the grain offering of remembrance, which is the grain offering of jealousy. And in his hand the priest shall have the water of bitterness that brings the curse. 19Then 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. 20But 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, 21then' (let the priest make the woman take the oath of the curse, and say to the woman)(F) 'the LORD make you a curse and an oath among your people, when the LORD makes your thigh fall away and your body swell. 22May this water that brings the curse(G) pass into your bowels and make your womb swell and your thigh fall away.' And the woman shall say,(H) 'Amen, Amen.'
23"Then the priest shall write these curses in a book and wash them off into the water of bitterness. 24And he shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that brings the curse, and the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain. 25And the priest shall take the grain offering of jealousy out of the woman’s hand(I) and shall wave the grain offering before the LORD and bring it to the altar. 26And the priest(J) shall take a handful of the grain offering, as its memorial portion, and burn it on the altar, and afterward shall make the woman drink the water. 27And when he has made her drink the water, then, if she has defiled herself and has broken faith with her husband, the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain, and her womb shall swell, and her thigh shall fall away, and the woman(K) shall become a curse among her people. 28But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be free and shall conceive children.
29"This is the law in cases of jealousy, when a wife,(L) though under her husband’s authority, goes astray and defiles herself, 30or when the spirit of jealousy comes over a man and he is jealous of his wife. Then he shall set the woman before the LORD, and the priest shall carry out for her all this law. 31The man shall be free from iniquity, but the woman(M) shall bear her iniquity."
This passage is another one, aside from Exodus 21:22-25, that pro-choicers like to parade about as biblical support for abortion. One major piece is missing from this passage to be used as a support for abortion though; the woman is not pregnant. There is no fetus to abort. There is nothing in this passage that explicitly mentions a fetus either before or after the procedure.
There are some, more clever, pro-choice commentators who suggest inference or a logical conclusion of the existence of a fetus. I would like to explore those suggestions.
The NRSV says in verse 21b "when the Lord makes your uterus drop, your womb discharge;" This has been used to suggest that the discharge must be that of a baby. Other translations say "when the LORD makes your thigh fall away and your body swell."
In Hebrew the passage reads "Yahovah nathan yarek naphal beten tsabeh" Yarek can be translated thigh or loins, the root of the word means soft. It can refer to your side, it is even translated breast once. In this context, "loins" seems most fitting. Naphal is a primitive root meaning to fall. It is used contextually in other passages alongside death or a defeat. The idea here being that the loins have failed and died. Beten is translated womb, belly, figuratively as bosom, or body. and Tsabeh simply means to swell.
Naphal is the word in question here. I am frankly at a loss as to how the NRSV gets discharge from Naphal. I cannot find any place where Naphal is ever translated discharge. I can only guess that by implication of fall, they take that to mean that the loins fall which might look like a discharge, I'm not an expert in Hebrew by any stretch of the imagination but I can't see the association. Even further, to take from that weak association that a miscarriage has taken place is even harder to substantiate. A better case would be made to say that the loins have been completely discharged from the body because Naphal here refers back to Yarek, not to a baby, or fetus.
So the case cannot be made that the scripture explicitly reflects a miscarried pregnancy. The next attempt is made by suggesting that a pregnancy could be the result of the adultery, theoretically, and making the woman barren at that point would also kill the fetus. While I enjoy hearing absolute statements being made solely on theoretical arguments, This one fails to take a few things into account.
1) God is the author of life, If he knew he was going to make a woman barren, he could just as easy, theoretically, keep her from becoming pregnant.
2) Assuming she were pregnant, God is also within His rights to dictate death. The bible records times when God used death as a punishment for another's sin. David suffered the loss of his child because of his adultery, Egypt suffered the loss of many children because of their disobedience. One can't make the case that, because God gets to do it, we get to do it too. You would also have to conclude that murder is supported by God because he punitively took the lives of adults who disobeyed as well. One person died because he tried to steady the Ark of the Covenant. Two people died when they misreported their tithing. Imagine the influx of tithes we could expect in the church today if we could cast similar punishment.
Some will say that the potion given to the woman is an abortifacent. The potion is made up of water used by priests to cleanse themselves, tabernacle dust off of the floor, and ink from the book in which the oath was written. Ink was composed of powdered charcoal or soot mixed with water. I have ingested much worse things as a teenager. Clearly this concoction would not be enough to render a woman barren or to cause a miscarriage.
Even if this were a recipe for an abortifacent, one then has to acknowledge that it would make all women barren who drank it. This passage clearly exonerates the innocent. How could the innocent be free from punishment if this abortifacent had to be drunk by any woman who was accused and brought before the priest?
Also how could the husband ever be sure that this abortifacent would not kill his own child? What father would take that risk if a miscarriage was always the result of this trial? Surely this cannot be a simple medical procedure that has been romanticized by Hebrews in their attempt to justify God's existence.
Other cultures had interesting variations on this test. In the Code of Hammurabi (c. 1720 BC.), women who were suspected of this type of infidelity were required to throw themselves into the Euphrates river--if they drown, they were guilty; if not, they were innocent! I am reminded of Monty Python's test for witches.
The passage is describing a supernatural trial that takes place in the natural. A jealous man can take his wife before the priest and have an instant answer to his question of her faithfulness. Likewise the wife has a sure way of proving her fidelity to her husband and squelching any spirit of jealousy that would seek to tear this marriage apart. The elements used are symbolic. The test itself is of divine revelation.
There simply is not any justification within this passage to suggest that God supports abortion. There is not even a pregnancy to abort here. Even if there was it would not change the fact the God is the one casting judgement. A miscarriage is not an elective abortion. Life and death are His alone to command.