Q & A

Does Numbers 5 Refer to Abortion?


How does the Church refute the statement that Numbers 5:11-31 is a reference to abortion being acceptable?


A little background is in order first, because this is a rather unusual passage. It is a problem in which a husband suspects his wife is an adulterer but has no evidence. He could then bring her before a religious tribunal, and she would drink a concoction that would either prove or disprove the charge of adultery.

There are no other such trial/ordeals in the Old Testament. While there is the occasional drawing of lots to determine guilt, this is the only time that someone must undergo some kind of trial where the results are believed to reveal the truth. Such practices were more common among non-Jews in the ancient Mid-East. Many scholars think that this practice was adopted to prevent women from becoming victims of jealous husbands and misogynist judges. We have to recall that ancient Judaism had a deep distrust of human judgment and human justice. In situations where they felt a judgment must be rendered and it did not have sufficient “checks and balances” on human prejudices, they would turn to ways of perceiving divine judgment.

To condemn someone for adultery, there had to be two witnesses, and the perpetrators had to have been warned in advance. But in circumstances where a husband was “sure” that his wife had committed adultery but could not prove it, it would create such a strain on the marriage and the local community that they felt something had to be done to bring closure and resolution to the matter.

Given the Jewish distrust of human notions of judgment and justice, having a group of men make the judgment probably seemed like a bad idea to them. It happens that they adopted, in this one instance, a sort of ordeal/test for the wife to go through if she insisted on her innocence. Given that it’s generally accepted that the concoction is not actually a threat to health, the only way a bad reaction would occur would be because of psychological reaction due to a guilty conscience.

As strange as this matter is in the Old Testament, it also has no real attestation from the biblical period. It is never mentioned again in the Bible, and it’s mentioned by only a few historical figures and writings—but always as something that they have heard about, never about an actual case they witnessed. Some of the recollections of the procedure also differ from the biblical method. And the Mishnah states the routine was stopped. So there is some question of whether this was ever actually used.

But it is in the Bible, so what would occur if she was guilty? It literally says that her abdomen will swell and her thigh will rot. So what does that mean? Well, that depends on your translation.  Some translations refer to a miscarriage, but most translate it as referring to infertility.

If the passage wanted to refer to a miscarriage, it would most likely mention it explicitly, since those are mentioned explicitly elsewhere in the Old Testament without the need for euphemisms. So that seems to be a very unlikely interpretation or translation, particularly when only a few translations use the word miscarriage.

It is much more likely that the threatened punishments were intentionally vague and threatening as a scare tactic to elicit a confession from a guilty party. In ancient Jewish culture, to call God down as your witness/judge when you knew you were lying was a very scary thing to do. Hearing the priest pronounce these potential punishments from God and being required to assent “Amen” and then drink the concoction would have been quite intimidating


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