Exodus 21:22–23—Does this passage show that unborn children are of less value than adults?

Problem: According to some translations of the Bible, this text teaches that when fighting men cause a woman to have a “miscarriage” they “shall be fined” (v. 22, rsv). But, if the fighting men caused the death of the woman, the penalty was capital punishment (v. 23). Doesn’t this prove that the unborn was not considered a human being, as the mother was?

Solution: First of all, this is a mistranslation of the verse. The great Hebrew scholar, Umberto Cassuto, translated the verse correctly as follows:

When men strive together and they hurt unintentionally a woman with child, and her children come forth but no mischief happens—that is, the woman and the children do not die—the one who hurts her shall surely be punished by a fine. But if any mischief happens, that is, if the woman dies or the children, then you shall give life for life. (Commentary on the Book of Exodus, Magnes Press, 1967)

This makes the meaning very clear. It is a strong passage against abortion, affirming that the unborn are of equal value to adult human beings.

Second, the Hebrew word (yatsa), mistranslated “miscarriage,” actually means to “come forth” or to “give birth” (as nkjv, niv). It is the Hebrew word regularly used for live birth in the OT. In fact, it is never used for a miscarriage, though it is used of a still birth. But, in this passage, as in virtually all OT texts, it refers to a live, though premature, birth.

Third, there is another Hebrew word for miscarriage (shakol), and it is not used here. Since this word for miscarriage was available and was not used, but the word for live birth was used, there is no reason to suppose it means anything else than a live birth of a fully human being.

Fourth, the word used for the mother’s offspring here is yeled which means “child.” It is the same word used of babies and young children in the Bible (Gen. 21:8; Ex. 2:3). Hence, the unborn is considered just as much a human as a young child is.

Fifth, if any harm happened to either the mother or the child, the same punishment was given, “life for life” (v. 23). This demonstrates that the unborn was considered of equal value with the mother.

Sixth, other OT passages teach the full humanity of an unborn child (see comments on Ps. 51:5 and 139:13ff). The NT affirms the same view (cf. Matt. 1:20; Luke 1:41, 44).

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