Does Numbers 5:11–31 show the Hebrews how to perform an abortion?
The above tweet from (ahem) Jesus F****** Christ received almost 170,000 ‘likes’ and over 30,000 re-tweets. In this tweet, the person quotes two passages which s/he claims supports the idea that life begins at birth (not conception) and that Number 5, in that strange ‘ordeal by bitter water’ (also known as the Sotah) passage, even shows the Bible prescribing an SOP to perform an abortion.
I won’t discuss the Genesis passage here, just my (obviously over-simplified) view of Numbers 5:11–31. You can quickly read up on the passage, but TLDR:
Women suspected of adultery were required to drink some ‘magic’ water prepared by the priest. If she’s innocent, nothing happens; if guilty, she gets a tummy ache or (maybe) failed uterus.
Is this passage about God producing abortions in pregnant women? Simple answer: Hell no.
In fact, the passage is about PROTECTING women from wagging tongues accusing them of adultery. Why?
1. This ritual takes away the punishment from human hands and places them in the ‘hands of God’; no judge or executor can touch her (cf. Lev 20:10–12 where marital infidelity merits capital punishment)
2. There is ZERO indication that the ‘bitter water’ is chemically capable of destroying uteruses (translated: nothing will likely happen!)
3. A woman who knows full well that she is INNOCENT only has to a) drink the stuff b) go home. That’s about it! End of ritual! End of story!
What about a woman who knows she is GUILTY? Well, it’s the same thing with an added psychological fear/ordeal that she may not be able to conceive.
On the other hand, simply imagine the likelihood of some strange drink producing pregnancy problems ONLY in women who’ve committed adultery. At the end of the day, what do you think will likely happen?
That’s right. Absolutely nothing.
So both innocent AND guilty ladies will have their lives proceed as normal. The innocent ones had nothing to fear at all, whilst guilty ladies are hardly going to complain (duh).
4. Nothing suggests that the woman was pregnant during the ritual; so saying that this is about how to ‘perform an abortion’ is flat out false.
5. Many translations simply note that the punishment will be a swelling tummy aka stomach disorder (and nothing to do with an uterus, miscarriage, etc.)
6. Even if the verse does associate the penalty with a prolapsed uterus (which is debatable), the point is that God will reward adultery with the inability to conceive. Note again that this point is made almost exclusively via the ritual, not in ‘real life’.
7. To reiterate, this entire ‘ordeal’ is about protecting women from insecure husbands who accuse them of accusations without basis. Of course, it also uses an elaborate ritual to grandiosely remind the entire community of the importance of their marriage vows — and that’s always a good thing, right?
Britt, B. (2011). Male jealousy and the suspected sotah: Toward a counter-reading of Numbers 5: 11–31. The Bible and Critical Theory, 3(1).
Frymer-Kensky, T. (1984). The Strange Case of the Suspected Sotah (Numbers V 11–31). Vetus Testamentum, 34(1), 11–26. https://doi.org/10.2307/1518200
Milgrom, J. (1996). A husband’s pride, a mob’s prejudice. Bible review, 12(4), 21–21. (I can’t find this article online but it’s like crazy famous for this passage)