Some abortion advocates point to a passage in the New International Version as Biblical justification for abortion. But the NIV’s speculative translation clouds rather than clarifies
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A young man dressed in pink holding a Planned Parenthood sign picked Michele Hendrickson out of the thousands in front of the Supreme Court building during the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C. “Are you a Christian?” he asked abruptly.
Hendrickson, then a regional coordinator for Students for Life, responded yes. The man shot back, “Well then, what do you have to say when your God supports abortion?” Then he quoted a psalm and Numbers 5:27. “He had them memorized,” says Hendrickson.
She had heard the Numbers passage before. It describes what a man in ancient Israel should do if he suspects his wife has committed adultery but has no proof: Bring her to the priest, who will mix into water dust from the Tabernacle floor and tell her to drink the concoction. The man quoted what Hendrickson thinks was the 2011 New International Version (NIV) translation of the verse, which says if the woman has been unfaithful, the drink “will enter her, her abdomen will swell and her womb will miscarry.”
Hendrickson knew scholars contested an interpretation that pegs the event as a miscarriage, but the protester presented it as an example of God mandating abortion. Since then, college students have repeated the claim to her. On a recent Zoom meeting with Christian students, one asked her how pro-lifers should respond to their opponents on campus who sometimes use the verse to challenge a Biblical view of life.
“‘Miscarry’ may not at all be what’s meant in the Scripture,” Hendrickson told me, explaining her general response to these kinds of questions. “The text is to talk about a situation of adultery. There’s not even confirmation that she’s pregnant.”
The 2011 NIV is one of only two English translations (out of 39 WORLD checked) that describe the event as a miscarriage—and that was a change from the 1984 NIV. So, why take this interpretation? Can it justify a pro-abortion position?
To get to the root, I talked to four scholars and asked about the Hebrew text, different interpretations, and how one ended up in the NIV. I wanted to know what significance, if any, the passage should have on debates about abortion. I learned that even those who support the NIV’s language as legitimate expressed surprise that it was being used to defend abortion.
BIBLICAL SCHOLAR BRUCE WALTKE is a member of the NIV Committee on Bible Translation. He’s been on the committee since the 1970s and helped with the 1984 edition of the NIV. In that version, the Numbers 5 passage sticks to a literal translation of the original Hebrew, which makes no explicit mention of a miscarriage: “If she has defiled herself and been unfaithful to her husband, then when she is made to drink the water that brings a curse, it will go into her and cause bitter suffering; her abdomen will swell and her thigh waste away.” (Footnotes in the 1984 and earlier editions do list “miscarrying womb” as an optional translation.)
Waltke, 90, is now writing a commentary on the Psalms for the Gospel Coalition and works from a home office in his daughter’s house near Seattle.
During our phone conversation, Waltke read word-for-word from the original Hebrew: “‘And her belly will swell up and her thigh will fall.’ … That’s what it says literally.” He opened the old lexicon that he and the NIV translation committee primarily relied on while working on the early editions of the NIV: a lexicon first published in 1906 known as Brown–Driver–Briggs (or BDB). He said it offers little commentary on the Numbers passage.
“Back then, we didn’t have a lot,” said Waltke. “We didn’t have the research that we now have.”
The 1984 NIV hit bookshelves a decade before today’s leading Hebrew lexicon, the Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (HALOT), came out in English. HALOT translates the event in the passage as a miscarriage, even though the original German version of the lexicon did not. But other studies and commentaries, some dating back to the early 1900s, also provided this interpretation. Some even described the drink as having abortive effects. The NIV translation team adopted the miscarriage language in the 2011 NIV update.
Waltke said he found the 2011 NIV change helpful: “I never really understood the passage until I began to realize it could refer to a miscarriage.” Waltke pointed to a 1975 study that explains the phenomenon as a false, hysterical pregnancy, in which the woman shows all the signs of pregnancy but does not have a baby. Such cases, Waltke explained, are a modern psychological reality and could have happened then too: If the woman is under duress and guilty of adultery, her mind will trouble her and her body will act like it’s pregnant. If she’s innocent, her mind won’t trouble her.
Citing this explanation, Waltke said the miscarriage described in verse 27 is not an actual miscarriage but the end of a false pregnancy. What about using the translation to justify abortion? He replied, “A person [who] wants to believe that is going to believe it. It’s very difficult for me to get that out of this passage. Because obviously she becomes swollen not due to sexuality but due to the drinking of the water.”
Waltke admitted, “Maybe ‘miscarry’ isn’t the best translation. But I think it carries the intention of the passage: there will be no baby.” Because of that, he called the translation “sensible.” I emailed him for his further thoughts on the pro-abortion use. He replied, “Never heard of it until you called. Using it to justify abortion shocked me.”
I SPOKE WITH the editor of the English HALOT, Mervyn E. J. Richardson, a former professor at the University of Manchester in England. He still works as an honorary researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
Richardson stood by the introduction of “miscarriage” to the English version of HALOT. In fact, he almost took it a step further. “Perhaps I should have said ‘abortion’ and not ‘miscarriage,’” he said when we spoke via Zoom. The only hesitation? “That raises an ethical issue.”
He admits interpreting the event as a miscarriage or abortion is “speculative” since the language is obscure in the original Hebrew. But he thinks it’s “pretty obvious” and “not taking too much for granted.” Even then, he emphasized he wouldn’t want to use this verse to argue a pro-abortion or pro-life position.
“It’s something I hadn’t thought of until talking with you. I haven’t realized it would be so crucial,” Richardson said. “The focus of the whole thing is punishment much more than producing an abortion or a miscarriage. … Even though I have used ‘miscarriage’—and I’m saying I could have used ‘abortion’ and so on—it’s only one view of this unusual expression.”
He concedes it may have been better to stick with the literal translation that the “thigh will collapse” in the English HALOT entry and simply note that the meaning was uncertain. But at the time, he felt his approach was adequate and didn’t want to expand HALOT’s original German text unnecessarily.
THE 2011 NIV is an outlier among translations of the Numbers passage. When we asked for interviews with the NIV translation team through Biblica, the NIV copyright holder, it sent us a statement pointing to examples of God’s judgment affecting children, including the death of David’s child in 2 Samuel 12 and the children of Achan in Joshua 7.
The English Standard Version (ESV) on the other hand, like most other translations and the 1984 NIV, sticks to a more word-for-word translation: “her womb shall swell, and her thigh shall fall away.”
Vern Poythress, a member of the ESV Oversight Committee, explained the reasoning to me in a phone call from his book-filled home office in a Philadelphia suburb, about a half mile from where he normally would be teaching classes at Westminster Theological Seminary. He’s skeptical of the NIV’s miscarriage interpretation.
“It’s not as if the editors of the NIV are trying to be manipulative. They honestly think that this is a euphemism,” he said, referring to the description of a falling thigh in the original Hebrew. But that translation is based purely on postulation, he said: Other Biblical passages that describe a miscarriage use more direct expressions to make the meaning obvious. The particular Hebrew phrase that appears here doesn’t appear anywhere else in the Bible, leaving little guidance for interpretation.
Either way, “it’s not really parallel to someone using modern abortifacients,” Poythress said. The water’s effect is supernatural, Poythress argues, because it varies depending on whether the woman is guilty or innocent, not on whether she is pregnant.
“Another factor is this special role that God has here: that He Himself is doing a supernatural judgment,” Poythress added: “That doesn’t authorize human beings in general to bring a judgment on other people. … What Christians could say is we believe in protecting the life of the unborn child, but God has a right to take life whenever He wants, and of course He does.”
Dr. Wayne Grudem, general editor of the ESV Study Bible and a research professor at Phoenix Seminary, called the NIV’s version of Numbers 5:27 a “doubtful translation” that rules out “other possible understandings of the verse.”
Grudem talked to me from the landline of his house in Arizona after consulting resources in his home office. He had not heard of using the verse as justification for abortion until I questioned him.
“The problem is that there are two Hebrew words for miscarriage, and neither of them is used here,” Grudem said. “If it meant miscarriage, why not use the common words for miscarriage?” He said the NIV is continuing a pattern that committee has already set: When a passage has several possible meanings, translators select one they think is the most likely. Although it makes the passage seem clearer, it prevents the reader from recognizing the other possible interpretations of the verses.
“It’s a strange expression. So what ‘falls’? Is it the unborn child?” Grudem said. “Who knows what’s going on. It’s all interpretation, and that’s why most translations have gone with just literally saying ‘her thigh shall fall’ and let the reader decide what it means.”
THOUGH THE NIV committee may not have intended to give fuel to pro-abortion arguments in choosing this translation, it’s not just pink-clad protesters flinging the verse at pro-lifers.
In a white-walled room of the South Carolina House of Representatives office building in February, a Democratic opponent of the state’s heartbeat bill quoted the verse during a House Judiciary Committee meeting. Sitting with the other legislators around an oblong, red-brown desk, Rep. Justin T. Bamberg urged others to set aside their personal beliefs when voting on the legislation.
“There are those who say … abortion shouldn’t happen because the Bible doesn’t allow them,” he said. “Well, it depends on which version of the Bible you read.” He pointed to Numbers 5:27 in the 2011 edition of the NIV and its miscarriage description.
In her own discussion with the pro-abortion protester in front of the Supreme Court, Michele Hendrickson noticed something “reckless” about this application of the verse: “It’s telling people we can pull a verse out of context, without research, without consideration of the Bible as a body of work, and without consideration to God’s character and everything we know is constant and true about Him across Scripture.”
—WORLD has updated this story from its original posting to correct the description of Vern Poythress’ role on the ESV Oversight Committee.
Pro-abortion bible verses?
Those who profess faith in Christ while supporting abortion have rightly been on the defensive for almost 2,000 years—but as Leah Hickman shows, abortion advocates are weaponizing the New International Version’s translation of one mysterious Old Testament passage.
The 2011 NIV translation breaks with earlier NIVs as well as at least 37 other translations in making three obscure verses—Numbers 5:21, 5:22, and 5:27—suggest that God forces an adulterous woman to “miscarry.” Most of those 37 are like the 2015 New American Standard Bible’s translation: “her abdomen will swell and her thigh will waste away.” Nothing about miscarriage or abortion.
The NIV has a history of fashionable translation. As Daniel Vaca writes in his scholarly Evangelicals Incorporated, in 1997 WORLD exposed “the Stealth Bible,” a previously unpublicized NIV retranslation that bowed to feminist pressure. Under pressure, translators backed off. The NIV’s reputation took a hit and the version lost “market share,” but the NIV is still the best-selling English translation.
The only other translation WORLD found that inserts the word “miscarry” is the relatively little-used Common English Bible, also published in 2011. Four of the five denominations responsible for the CEB—the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church USA, and the United Methodist Church—were abortion proponents. The fifth, Disciples of Christ, wanted abortion to be legal but rare.
The Bible’s many clear pro-life verses include Luke 1:44 and Psalms 51:5 and 139:13, where David says of God, “You knitted me together in my mother’s womb.” Some abortion proponents have tried to turn this into special cases—yes, God knit David and John the Baptist, but not others. Even if that were not such a stretch, it runs up against passages such as Isaiah 44:2, addressed to everyone in Israel: “Thus says the Lord who made you, who formed you from the womb.” —Marvin Olasky
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