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Wielding Scripture against the unborn?

Pro-abortion clergy attempt to use a Biblical text to undermine the Christian view of the sanctity of life

iStock/Vladimir Zapletin

Wielding Scripture against the unborn?

In a recent Washington Post op-ed, two guest writers—a Jewish rabbi and a Baptist minister—claimed that the Christians who believe in the sanctity of unborn human life mistranslate or ignore a Hebrew passage in the book of Exodus. Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg and the Rev. Katey Zeh presented what they consider the correct translation of Exodus 21:22-23—verses describing the criminal punishment for someone who hits a pregnant woman.

According to the translation of the passage that Ruttenberg and Zeh chose from an online database of Jewish texts, the perpetrator receives a fine if the encounter causes a “miscarriage” but a “life for life” punishment if “other harm” (likely the death of the pregnant mother) results. The implication is that the life of the unborn child does not have the same value as the mother’s life.

“In discussions regarding scripture and abortion among conservative Christian theologians and ethicists, this particular verse is rarely cited or explored,” Ruttenberg and Zeh assert. “Most people sitting in the pews of Christian churches likely have never encountered this verse from Exodus in a Sunday morning sermon or a Bible study. And so the assumption among them that sacred texts uphold a staunchly anti-abortion position prevails.”

But for pro-life Christians, this verse and the debate around it are nothing new. 

“Ethicists have known for a long time that the verse is relevant to the abortion question,” said Dr. Vern Poythress, a professor at Westminster Theological Seminary who helped oversee the translation of the English Standard Version Bible. “It is often used in pro-life ethics.”

A search of the websites of a few prominent pro-life organizations further demonstrates Poythress’ point. The National Right to Life Committee and Focus on the Family both have published blog posts refuting the pro-abortion application of the verse. The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention also mentions the verse in articles about abortion.

A close examination of the original Hebrew text exposes the flaw in the pro-abortion interpretation of the passage.

Christian theologian Wayne Grudem called the Washington Post authors’ chosen translation “inconsistent with the actual words used.” He directed me to his 2018 book Christian Ethics: An Introduction to Biblical Moral Reasoning, where he spends almost two pages discussing the pro-life implications of the Exodus passage. In a lengthy footnote, he explains the translation. “There are two Hebrew words for a ‘miscarriage’ … but neither is used here,” he writes. “The word that is used, yātsā’, is ordinarily used to refer to the live birth of a child.” That means the fine punishes the attacker for sending the woman into labor and giving birth to a living child, not for causing a miscarriage.

This translation appears in the English Standard Version of the Bible, where the passage reads as follows:

“When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”

As Grudem explains in his book, “The penalty for harming the unborn child is just as great as for harming the mother. Both are treated as persons who deserve the full protection of the law.”

The translation of Exodus 21:22-23 Ruttenberg and Zeh cited states: “When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other harm ensues, the one responsible shall be fined when the woman’s husband demands compensation; the payment will be determined by judges. But if other harm ensues, the penalty shall be life for life.”

Leah Savas

Leah reports on pro-life topics for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Digital. She is a World Journalism Institute and Hillsdale College graduate. Leah resides in Grand Rapids, Mich., with her husband, Stephen.



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Janet B

Thank you for this article. It is always good to understand the original meaning.
Good info for a rebuttal to a pro-aborter.


I appreciate this article.


Great job on explaining the meaning of this text in light of the abortion issue. The other story behind this story is that the left is actively going after the Christian positions on many fronts to tear away Christians from the political and moral battle. If the middle states don’t hold to a biblical view, they can tear away more voters to their side. Abortion, homosexuality, transgenderism, wokeness, elimination of borders, anti-Western civilization perspectives, anti-capitalist perspectives, communism, re-writing history and dictionaries and so much more are the ways the left is attacking the church. This attack is much larger than “left” and is ultimately the attack of Satan on the church. We need younger people to see this battle and go into the fields where these battles are waging and confront them. Unfortunately, many Christians seem blind to the battle before them in large part due to the propaganda battle that is being waged against us.


Yes, there are many attacks on the Church, just as Jesus predicted. However, anti-Western civilization and anti-capitalism activities are attacks on Western civilization and capitalism rather than attacks on the Church. Sometimes traditional American cutural values, such as valuing life, are the same as biblical values. However, more often than we Americans like to believe, they aren't the same.


Yes, attacking Western Civilization with it’s Christian roots is an attack on Christianity. I would challenge you to read Francis Schaefer’s book, “How Should We Then Live? The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture”. The roots of capitalism are definitely seen in scripture and are esteemed. There are abuses that can happen in capitalism and the tempering by Christians makes it most beneficial for the church where ordinary folks can prosper and give to their churches!


True, there are many Judeo-Christian foundations to Western culture. However, I believe the Church is much bigger than capitalism and Western civilization. The Church is growing significantly in places where there is no capitalism, and it can thrive outside the context of Western culture. That is why I say attacks on those parts of American life do not equal attacks on the Church. I would more likely agree with saying that attacks on the Church and her biblical standards will destroy Western civilization.


I would challenge you here where I don’t think you have a Christian world view. I want you to listen to this guy and then tell me what I find wanting in your post:


I will follow up in a couple days when I have more time to more thoroughly reply.


Hi Salty,
My friend told me long ago, "Don't read the comments!" I need to learn to heed her advice! Neither you or I has to continue this discussion. May God enable us both to know His truth and to share it with those around us.


I am sorry LDor for maybe I was a little strong in saying you don’t have a Christian worldview. You probably are a strong Christian but I would challenge you to think this through.

Let us say there was a country called Jaki and there was a great revival there spurred on because of godly missionaries. They come to you and ask what is the best economic system they should use as Christians? What would you tell them?

If they asked you what perspective in education should be taught would you recommend a Western Civilization class or what? I would definitely choose a Western Civilization class from a very Christian perspective. I would never recommend a Christian “woke” teaching which flagellates itself for every little injustice committed in history. A Christian perspective includes the notion of the fallen nature of mankind, as seen in the Old Testament, but it tries best to keep things in balance. What perspective would you recommend to be taught in Jaki?


Thank you, Salty, I appreciate your apology. The example you give is quite apt, since I serve the families of cross-cultural workers. In the situation you describe, assuming I had a strong background in the language and culture, I would say, "Let's pray and study the Bible (preferably in the Jaki language) and see what it says about economics and government." After that, I might suggest a study of different systems of economics and government, how they compare to what the Bible says, and their outcomes. In the end, they would, hopefully, have a well-rounded perspective from which to make decisions within their own cultural context.


In general, I would agree with you but I would say they would choose a capitalist economic system as scripture recommends. It would not matter what Jaki’s cultural background is for the capitalist system is most productive and is indirectly recommended by scripture. Concerning the schools, I would recommend teaching a Western Civilization class free from modern bigotry and intolerance.

Bob Hinkley

Thank you, Leah – for this article (which deals with Exodus 21:22-23) and for your April 10, 2021 article (which dealt with a mistranslation of Numbers 5:27). WORLD helps me keep on my toes.