Does the Bible justify abortion?

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Next up, abortion and the Bible.

Some abortion advocates have found a novel argument to try to bolster their side.

Where’d they find it? In the Bible, oddly enough, a specific translation of it: the New International Version, 2011 edition.

The troubling translation comes from the book of Numbers. Flip to Chapter 5, and find verse 27.

EICHER: And there you will read what a man in ancient Israel should do if he suspects his wife has committed adultery, but he lacks proof: Bring the woman to the priest, who will prepare a mixture of water and dust for her to drink.

Then the translation goes on to explain that the drink will cause her abdomen to swell and … crucially, it says … her womb will miscarry. Abortion supporters point to that passage as God-ordained miscarriage.

REICHARD: But there’s more than one problem with that argument, including the interpretation of the original Hebrew passage.

WORLD reporter Leah Hickman dug into the translation dispute and wrote about it in the latest issue of WORLD Magazine. She joins us now to explain what she found. Good morning, Leah!

LEAH HICKMAN, REPORTER: Good morning, Mary.

REICHARD: Well, let’s just start with the passage itself. If listeners were to pick up their own Bibles and look up this passage, they’ll likely find it doesn’t sound exactly like what they just heard. So tell us where this passage is translated using the word miscarry and where it’s not.

HICKMAN: So a literal translation of the original Hebrew would say that a woman’s abdomen will swell and her thigh will waste away, and most English translations, including ESV and the NASB, stick to this interpretation pretty closely. The ESV says her thigh shall fall away, and the NASB says her thigh will triple. But actually, even the 1984 edition of  NIV also stuck with a translation very similar to this, but somewhere between 1984 and 2011 the translation committee chose to make the switch to translating the passage as a miscarriage. And that same year, the common English Bible also came out with a take that interpreted the event as a miscarriage, too.

REICHARD: Well, you interviewed four different scholars about the Hebrew text and its interpretation. So start with those who say the term miscarry is accurate.

HICKMAN: I spoke with Bruce Waltke. He’s a member of the NIV translation team. He was on the team around the time of the switch. And he said he really liked the change because until he saw it as a miscarriage the passage just made no sense to him. So he said the change was built on research that came up between the 1984 and the 2011 versions, including a new Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon, which is actually today’s leading lexicon in Hebrew, and also studies and commentaries that describe the drink as having abortive effects. So when I asked him if he had heard of abortion advocates using this verse to argue for abortion, he said he hadn’t, and he was actually shocked that they would use this to say abortion is okay. But to him, the miscarriage interpretation was still helpful for understanding this passage, which is pretty confusing.

I also talked with Mervyn Richardson. He’s the editor of English version of that leading lexicon I just mentioned, and he said, he should have said abortion, not miscarriage, when translating that lexicon from the original German into English. But he said still that the translation of miscarriage is speculative when it comes to this particular passage because original Hebrew is so obscure, and he did admit that maybe you should have stuck to a literal translation and just said that the meaning was uncertain. But he still said he wouldn’t use the verse to justify abortion. Because saying this event is a miscarriage is only one view of the very unusual verse.

REICHARD: Other scholars note that Hebrew actually has two other terms for the word miscarry and neither of them are used here. So what did they tell you about the interpretation of this passage?

HICKMAN: I spoke with Vern Poythress. He’s a member of the ESV Oversight Committee, and also Wayne Grudem, who’s general editor of the ESV Study Bible. And they told me that this particular Hebrew phrase doesn’t appear elsewhere in the Bible. So interpreting it as a miscarriage is purely postulation. And it really just involves assuming that this unusual Hebrew phrase is a euphemism. What he said, though, they pointed out that when the Bible does refer to a miscarriage, it uses two other expressions that are more obviously talking about miscarriage. So if it really were a miscarriage, why didn’t they use that word in the original Hebrew? But yeah, both Poythress and Grudem said that NIV’s interpretation just rules out other possible explanations of what actually is happening here.

REICHARD: One final question here, Leah, what do we know about this particular 2011 translation of the NIV? And then some of the other less common translations that use the word miscarry and interpret it that way is is this a case of imposing a belief onto scripture?

HICKMAN: Well, they’re definitely imposing the belief that this passage is talking about a miscarriage, but it didn’t seem to me like the NIV team was trying to push a pro-abortion narrative. We do know that the common English Bible which also uses this translation of miscarriage, that’s backed by some pretty liberal denominations and it’s definitely a case of pro abortion groups imposing a pro-abortion perspective on scripture. They often cherry picked verses like this without paying attention to the pro-life stance of the whole entire rest of the Bible. And it’s just one way they attempt to attack the arguments of pro-lifers who are often Christians.

RICHARD: Leah Hickman is a reporter for World Magazine and World Digital and we’ll put a link to her story in today’s transcript. Thank you so much, Leah.

HICKMAN: Thanks for having me, Mary!


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