Abortion in the Bible

Abortion in the Bible: An Analysis of the “Sotah” Ritual in the Book of Numbers and Its Possible Origin in Pre-Israelite Cultures

Originally posted on the Quran and Bible Blog

بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمٰنِ الرَّحِيْم

“The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart.”

– Psalm 19:7-8 (NIV)

            One of the most contentious debates in many western countries revolves around the issue of abortion “rights”. On one side is the “pro-choice” camp, made up of secular (and sometimes religious) liberals who believe that it is the choice of a woman to terminate a pregnancy for any reason. On the other side is the “pro-life” camp, made up mostly of religious conservatives. In the United States, the most vocal “pro-life” supporters tend to be evangelicals, although that seems to be changing.[1] But is there a Biblical reason for opposing abortion “rights”?[2] Certainly, some passages from the Bible can be used to support a “pro-life” view,[3] but it may surprise some “pro-life” Christians that the Bible prescribed a ritual that could induce an abortion in an adulteress who had lied under oath that she had not committed adultery. The chapter of interest is Numbers 5. In this article, it will be demonstrated that the “Sotah”[4] ritual allowed for the possibility of a pregnancy being terminated. The article will also refute attempts by Christian apologists to deny this interpretation, insha’Allah. Finally, we will discuss the parallels between the Biblical test and similar rituals in the ancient near eastern (ANE) pagan cultures, as well as pre-Israelite Yahwistic traditions.

The Sotah Ritual in Numbers 5

            The gist of the ritual is that if a husband suspects that his wife has been unfaithful, but he does not have witnesses or she was not caught in the act, he can bring her before the priest who will make her take a test:

“[i]f a man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him so that another man has sexual relations with her, and this is hidden from her husband and her impurity is undetected (since there is no witness against her and she has not been caught in the act), and if feelings of jealousy come over her husband and he suspects his wife and she is impure—or if he is jealous and suspects her even though she is not impure—then he is to take his wife to the priest.”[5]

The ritual includes taking an oath and drinking “holy water” mixed with “dust from the tabernacle floor”. Nissim Amzallag and Shamir Yona argue based on a linguistic study of the Hebrew word “`aphar”, usually translated as “dust”, also meant “ore”. In the case of Numbers 5, the “dust” was actually “finely crushed copper ore”.[6] In addition, the priest would write the “curse” on a scroll and then wash it off into the water. By doing this, it became “bitter water”. Here are the relevant passages:

“[t]hen he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water. After the priest has had the woman stand before the Lord, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the reminder-offering, the grain offering for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse.”[7]

“The priest is to write these curses on a scroll and then wash them off into the bitter water. He shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and this water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering will enter her.”[8]

            But what type of “bitter suffering” will the woman invite on herself if she lies? The answer, according to the NIV translation, is that (emphasis ours):

“[i]f she has made herself impure and been unfaithful to her husband, this will be the result: When she is made to drink the water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering, it will enter her, her abdomen will swell and her womb will miscarry, and she will become a curse. If, however, the woman has not made herself impure, but is clean, she will be cleared of guilt and will be able to have children.”[9]

So, if the woman was pregnant (the text does not say if she knew she was pregnant or not or showed any signs), and was lying about the adulterous affair, the “bitter water” would miraculously cause her to suffer a miscarriage (i.e., an abortion).[10] Thus, according to the “perfect” law of God, an adulterous woman who is accused by her husband can be forced to suffer an abortion, so long as she does not admit her guilt.

            This should come as a shock to most people, especially those Christian conservatives who have always taken it for granted that abortion is evil and forbidden in the Bible (as it is practiced in secular nations, it is, of course, completely evil). Naturally, some Christians will take offense at the above interpretation (though, as we will see, it is not an “interpretation” as much as an honest translation of the Hebrew text in context). In the next section, we will analyze some Christian apologetic arguments and refute them using classical Jewish commentaries as well as some modern commentaries from Jews and Christians.

Analysis of an Apologetic Argument

            One apologetic response from the Christian website carm.org makes the following claim:

“[w]hat happens if the woman is guilty is a direct punishment from God on her for her sin. But is that punishment a miscarriage? This seems highly unlikely. The two aspects of the curse literally translate that her innards will swell and that her thigh will fall. There is, of course, room for debate as to exactly what physical symptoms are being described here, but a miscarriage hardly seems the obvious choice. It appears to be a highly unlikely option!”[11]

So, this argument proposes that since the “literal” translation of the Hebrew text refers to the woman’s “innards” and her “thigh”, it cannot be referring to a “miscarriage” as the NIV translation claims. Thus, let us analyze the etymology of the word translated as either “womb” or “thigh”.

            The word of interest is “yarek” which, according to different lexicons and dictionaries, can variously mean “thigh, side, loin, [or] base”. The Outline of Biblical Usage defines it this way.[12] Similarly, Strong’s Definitions defines the word as “the thigh” but also states that it can mean “body, loins, shaft, side, [or] thigh”.[13] Finally, Gesenius’ Hebrew-Chaldee Lexicon defines the word as “thigh” but also that it “differs from…the loins”.[14]

Yarek - Numbers 5,27 - Strong's Definitions

Gesenius - yarek

So, it seems that “thigh” may be the correct translation. Or is it? It is actually not so clear cut. Let us now examine some commentaries which will dispel the confusion. According to the classical Chizkuni commentary, the meaning of the word “yarek” (usually meaning “thigh”) is actually a “synonym” for the uterus (i.e., the womb). The commentary for Numbers 5:21, where the word first appears, states (emphasis ours):

“ירכך, “your thigh;” this is a synonym for “your womb.” Compare Genesis 24,2 where Avraham asks his servant to select a suitable wife for his son Yitzchok, by placing his hand under his thigh, i.e. תחת ירכי; then we have the expression: יוצאי ירך יעקב, “the descendants of Yaakov stemming from his thigh,” in Exodus 1,5. In the Talmud Megillah, folio 13, we hear that a woman’s jealousy is usually concerned with the offspring of other women, where the word for “offspring” used is the word.ירך”[15]

So, according to Chizkuni, the context shows that the word actually refers to the womb. Further proof can be seen from the word “naphal”, which means “to fall, lie, be cast down, [or[ fail”.[16] Chizkuni explains that this word means (emphasis ours):

“נופלת, “falling,” an expression describing the loss of something. Compare Job 12,3: לא נופל אנכי מכם, “I am no less than you.” Applied to our situation this means: “you are no longer capable of engaging in carnal relations as the waters will damage the organs designed for this. Your womb will be ruined.””[17]

            Interestingly, in his commentary, Rashbam does not refer to “yarek” as “thigh” but rather to the “hips”, which would correspond to the region of the uterus:

“[t]he swelling of the Sotah’s belly and the collapse of her hips are signs of such a curse.”[18]

Thus, it is clear from the Jewish classical sources that the “bitter water” would have affected the woman’s reproductive organs, specifically her womb. Amzallag and Yona similarly note that “yarek”:

“…generally means ‘thigh’, but it is also used in the Bible as a euphemism for male and female genitalia (Gen. 46.26; Judg. 8.30 and Song 7.2, respectively).”[19]

This interpretation is also shared by several Christian commentaries. The NASB Study Bible commentary on Numbers 5:21, despite translating “yarek” as “thigh”, states that (emphasis ours):

“[t]he figurative language here (and in vv. 22,27) speaks of the loss of the capacity for childbearing (and, if pregnant, the miscarriage of the child).”[20]

Similarly, Roy E. Gane states in his commentary that:

“[i]f a woman is guilty, the punishment will fit the crime by afflicting her sexual organs and making her sterile…”[21]

Finally, the NABRE Catholic Bible renders verse 21 as follows:

“…may the Lord make you a curse and malediction among your people by causing your uterus to fall and your belly to swell!”[22]

Thus, it is clear from the text and both Jewish and Christian commentaries that the ritual would have affected the woman’s reproductive organs if she lied under oath.

            In fact, to interpret the word literally as “thigh” would make little sense, given the context. What does the thigh have to do with illegal sexual intercourse? Also, verse 28 states that if the woman were telling the truth, she would “be able to have children”. Hence, in the case where the woman is guilty, it makes sense that her uterus would be affected, not her thigh.

            Additionally, even if the Hebrew word “yarek” could only mean “thigh”, the apologists have another problem. The Hebrew word normally translated as “belly”, “abdomen”, or “stomach” also can mean “womb”![23] This word is “beten”:

Beten - Numbers 5,21 womb

Why is it that the Hebrew text uses two words in succession which both have dual meanings (thigh/womb and belly/womb), one of which refers to the reproductive system of females? Further, why is it that these words just happen to be used in the context of prosecuting a suspicion of adultery (i.e., a sexual offense)? It seems the apologists still have a lot of explaining to do if they want to avoid the abortion interpretation.

            Regarding the abortion interpretation, the CARM article, while appealing to the Mishnah (Christian apologists do not regard the Mishnah as “inspired” but will use it when it suits their purpose), made the following claim:

“[a]ccording to the ancient Jewish tradition recorded in the Mishnah, a woman who was pregnant or was nursing a child was not to undergo the ordeal at all! Thus, while one could perhaps read the passage to imply the curse of a barren womb, a miscarriage or abortion seems out of the question.”[24]

The source for this claim is Sotah 4:3 in the Mishnah. But it seems the CARM author misunderstood what the Mishnah actually says. Here is the relevant passage:

“[A wife] who was pregnant by a former husband or was nursing a child by a former husband does not drink and does not receive the ketubah, the words of Rabbi Meir.”[25]

The commentary on this chapter explains the reasoning behind this rule (emphasis ours):

A woman who was pregnant with the child of another man at the time of her marriage and a woman who was nursing the child of another man at the time of her marriage neither drink the bitter water nor collect payment of their marriage contracts. This is because by rabbinic law they may not marry for twenty-four months after the baby’s birth, and therefore these also constitute prohibited marriages. This is the statement of Rabbi Meir. And the Rabbis say: He can separate from her, and remarry her after the time of twenty-four months has elapsed, and therefore these are considered permitted marriages, and the women can drink the bitter water.”

It further explains that (emphasis ours):

“…a woman who was pregnant with the child of another man at the time of her marriage and a woman who was nursing the child of another man at the time of her marriage neither drink the bitter water nor collect payment of their marriage contracts, as their marriages were prohibited by rabbinic law. This is the statement of Rabbi Meir.”[26]

Finally, the Babylonian Talmud further clarifies this issue and clearly states that a pregnant woman can undergo the test even if it puts the fetus at risk! In Sotah 26a, it states regarding the wife of a man who has warned her not to seclude herself with another man (emphasis ours):

“[i]f his own pregnant or nursing wife becomes a sota, then despite the concern that the bitter water may harm the fetus, she either drinks the bitter water or does not collect payment of her marriage contract.”[27]

So, in reality, the Mishnah was only referring to a specific case where a woman was pregnant and not all cases of pregnancy. In this case, since the woman was already pregnant from a previous marriage and did not wait for at least 24 months before remarrying, she could not be forced to drink the water since the marriage was illegal in the first place. Thus, under different circumstances, a pregnant woman could still be forced to undergo the ritual. Furthermore, as is obvious, Numbers 5 does not say if the woman is pregnant or not, and the CARM article is hypocritically appealing to the Mishnah in this case, whereas under normal circumstances, the Jewish interpretations would usually be rejected as “uninspired”.

            In addition, a woman could be pregnant and yet not necessarily show any physical signs of the pregnancy, as would happen during the first trimester.

first trimester diagram

Figure 2 – The 1st trimester of pregnancy compared to the 2nd and 3rd trimesters (https://sexinfo.soc.ucsb.edu/article/pregnancy-trimester)

Even if she had exhibited the biological signs (missing the monthly period, nausea, etc.), these signs could have been easily misinterpreted. The point is that the woman could be pregnant and not know it yet, and since conservative “pro-life” activists’ most emphatic slogan is “life begins at conception”, then they should rightly be concerned about the adultery test. One has to wonder how this supposed law could have come from God, especially since, according to Psalm 19:7-8, the laws of God are “perfect” and “trustworthy”. A law that may have put an unborn child at risk is not “perfect” or “trustworthy”.

            Next, the CARM article appealed to the Septuagint version of the passage. Referring specifically to Numbers 5:22, for example, the article provides the translation of the Septuagint as follows:

“[a]nd this water that brings the curse shall enter your belly, to swell the belly [koilia] and make your thigh [mēros] fall to pieces…”[28]

The Greek word translated as “thigh” is “mēros”, while the word translated as “belly” is “koilia”.[29] Indeed, both the Outline of Biblical Usage and Strong’s Definitions define “mēros” as “thigh”:

Septuagint - meros

But that does not help the apologists, because the Greek word “koilia” is defined variously as “womb” and “belly”.[30] Thayer’s Greek Lexicon also defines it as either “womb” or “belly”:

Septuagint - koilia Gesenius

Thus, appealing to the Septuagint does not help the apologists to escape the abortion interpretation.

            Next, the article claimed that:

“[t]he ancient Jewish readers certainly did not understand the passage to imply an abortion.”[31]

But the only evidence presented was the account of Josephus. Other Jewish sources from the 1st century CE, such as Philo of Alexandria, clearly associated the negative effects of the ritual with the womb. In his Special Laws, Philo wrote (emphasis ours):

“[b]ut if she is guilty then a great weight and bulk, form her belly swelling and becoming full, will come upon her, and a terribly evil condition of her womb will afflict her, since she did not choose to keep it pure for her husband, who had married her according to the laws of her nation.”[32]

So, this approach at denying the association with the womb and reproduction also fails.

            Next, the article appealed to the Targum Pseudo-Jonathan and noted that it not only does not refer to the woman’s womb but also indicates that she would die as a result of the ritual (if she was lying), though the CARM article admits that the Hebrew text in the Bible says nothing about death. However, even if this were the case, this would only mean that the death of the developing baby in the woman’s womb (assuming she was pregnant at the time) was also guaranteed. If the mother dies, then so does the fetus. Furthermore, as Marcus Jastrow noted in his Dictionary of the Targumim, and as we have already seen above, the Hebrew word “beten” can mean both “belly” and “womb”.[33]

            Finally, the article appealed to “ancient heretical offshoots of Christianity” which claimed that both Mary and Joseph were subjected to the ritual and came away unscathed. However, this appeal offers very little weight of evidence as the author himself admits that (emphasis his):

“[s]uch stories are obviously later inventions and not historical episodes from the actual life of Jesus…”[34]

Furthermore, the author’s reasoning that the test had nothing to do with abortion since Joseph was also subjected to the test (according to the Protoevangelium of James) is strange. Obviously, the idea was that if Joseph was lying, the bitter water would affect his own body differently, possibly causing sterility. The effect on Mary would have been different. However, this episode could not have happened anyway, since the ritual in Numbers 5 was only applied to women, not men. It is unlikely that the high priest would have conducted the ritual differently from the Bible.

            Finally, Amzallag and Yona argue persuasively that since the “dust” was most likely finely-ground copper ore (see note #6), the effect of drinking the mixture would bring about an abortion in a woman (assuming she was pregnant).[35] They explain that this interpretation is preferable to assuming that the ritual would result in “sterility” since that would take months to confirm, whereas:

“…abortion is a very rapid and clear-cut response, reached within hours or a few days following the drinking of the potion. Abortion is, therefore, a better fit than sterility in the context of the Sotah prescription.”[36]

In their final assessment of the Sotah ritual, they conclude that:

“[t]he potion has no magic power and it is unable to reveal adultery per se. It was used to stimulate abortion in a woman suspected of adultery, at a stage where pregnancy is not yet discernible, that is, at the stage where a moderate dose of copper salts may efficiently provoke miscarriage without endangering the mother’s life.”[37]

            In conclusion, the evidence has shown that the NIV translation is accurate. A “miscarriage” would occur even if the woman was supposed to die from the ordeal (which is not what the text says anyway). The linguistic analysis using Jewish and Christian lexicons and sources shows that both words of contention (“yarek” and “beten”) have an additional meaning: “womb”. Furthermore, since the “dust” was most likely copper ore, the rapid effects of copper toxicity on the woman’s reproductive system imply the termination of the pregnancy.

In the next section, we will see evidence that the Sotah ritual in Numbers 5 may have had its origin in ANE culture which predates the Bible. Most importantly, it will be shown that the ritual in Numbers 5 shares strong parallels with a ritual involving an oath of pagan gods.

“Water Rituals” in Ancient Near Eastern Culture

            There is strong evidence that the editors of the Bible may have been influenced by the surrounding cultures, whether pagan or otherwise, to add the adultery test to the Bible. In this section, we will discuss some candidates:

The Code of Hammurabi

            “Water rituals” to ascertain guilt for a crime, especially for a sexual crime such as adultery, were quite common in pagan societies of the time. One example comes from the Code of Hammurabi:

“[i]f the “finger is pointed” at a man’s wife about another man, but she is not caught sleeping with the other man, she shall jump into the river for her husband.”[38]

Notice that in this code, a married woman was accused of adultery but was not caught in the act. Numbers 5:13 similarly stipulates that the woman was “not caught in the act”:

“…this is hidden from her husband and her impurity is undetected (since there is no witness against her and she has not been caught in the act)…”

One obvious difference between the Code of Hammurabi and Sotah ritual in Numbers 5 is that the accusation is brought by people other than the husband in the former.[39] The other difference is that instead of drinking a cup of holy water, the woman is forced to jump into a sacred river. The act of jumping into the river was seen as submitting “to the divine River god for her husband.”[40] Despite these, some scholars have concluded that the Sotah law was adapted from the Code of Hammurabi, though others have suggested that it was an “original text.”[41] However, Amzallag and Yona state that even if it was even “a genuine Yahwistic tradition”, it did not have “an Israelite origin” (see further below).[42]     

            But this sort of “water ordeal” goes back even further to Sumerian times (2300 BCE).[43] As Lesly F. Massey explains:

“[i]n a culture virtually surrounded by flowing water, rivers were seen as sacred, inhabited by a divine presence. If the wife was indeed guilty, it was assumed that the gods would simply allow her to drown. If she survived, it was then assumed the gods intervened and gave her strength to swim.”[44]

The Mari Letters –

            There is another example of a “water ordeal” from the ANE cultures that has a stronger parallel with the Biblical test than the Code of Hammurabi and could be the true origin of it. Let us let Martti Nissinen set the stage:

“[t]here is one letter from Mari [an ancient city in Syria]…suggesting that prophetic inspiration could have been triggered by means of drinking a liquid of some kind…”[45]

In a letter describing one such ritual, Queen Sibtu wrote to King Zimri-Lim telling him how she “gave drink” to some men and women “to inquire about signs”. In one trial, the result was that the “oracle” was “extremely favorable” to the king. In another trial with different people, the oracle was “unfavorable”.[46] Of course, this ritual is not the same as the one in Numbers 5, nor is the “drink” specifically identified in the letter from the queen to the king.



Figure 3 – The ruins of Mari (Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mari,_Syria)

            This brings us to another letter sent by Queen Sibtu to the king (emphasis ours):

Door-jamb dirt from the gate of Mari was brought and dissolved in water. The gods and goddesses drank it and Ea said to the gods: ‘Stand up, those of you who intend harm to the brickwork of Mari or to the protective guardian [of Mari]!’ The gods and goddesses [said]: ‘We intend no harm to the brickwork of Mari or to the protective guardian of Mari!’”[47]

In this letter, we can see a remarkable parallel with the Sotah ritual. In both examples, water was mixed with dirt or dust and then consumed as part of an oath. In the Mari myth, it is the gods and goddesses who take part in the ritual at Ea’s behest.[48] They are made to drink the mixture of water and dirt and then take an oath that they intend no harm to the city of Mari. Of course, this has nothing to do with adultery and there are other differences as well, but the concept is similar. This raises the question as to whether the Biblical test for adultery (which is unique in the Bible and is curiously never applied to other crimes lacking witnesses) was based on the older pagan myth from Mari specifically or on the ANE cultural beliefs regarding “water ordeals” in general.

The Kenites –

            While the strong parallel between the Sotah ritual and the Mari myth of Ea and the lesser deities is impressive, another possible origin for the ritual has been theorized by Amzallag and Yona, namely, the metallurgy activities of the Kenites, who were “Canaanite metalworkers”.[49] According to the Compact Bible Dictionary, the Kenites were:

“…a wandering tribe of people who were associated with the Midianites…and, later, with the Amalekites…”[50]

Among the most prominent Kenites mentioned in the Bible was Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law (Judges 1:16).[51]

            Based on their thorough linguistic analysis of the word “`aphar” (see above), usually translated as “dust” in most translations but translated as “ore” by Amzallag and Yona, and the strong link between the Kenites and copper metallurgy, Amzallag and Yona concluded that the Sotah ritual was a “Kenite Yahwistic tradition, probably of pre-Israelite origin, which is integrated into the book of Numbers.”[52] This ritual, they argue, was “inserted” by a later editor.[53]


            This article has analyzed the adultery test in Numbers 5 and the possibility of an abortion if a pregnant woman was forced to drink the “bitter water”. Linguistic analysis has shown that an effect on the woman’s reproductive system is implied in the text. Indeed, both words used in the text (“yarek” and “beten”), while having the meanings of “thigh” and “belly”, respectively, also have the dual meaning of “womb” (i.e., the uterus). Moreover, the text does not say whether a pregnant woman accused of adultery was to take the test or not. The only evidence that the Christian apologetic website CARM could provide that it was not required for a pregnant woman was from the Mishnah, and even then, it only referred to a specific case (when the woman was pregnant from a previous marriage and remarried to her present husband without the required waiting period). Moreover, since conservative “pro-life” activists emphatically state that “life begins at conception”, and since a woman accused of adultery may not necessarily show signs of pregnancy (depending on the stage of pregnancy she is in), the possibility of an inadvertent abortion (i.e., miscarriage) increases. Furthermore, the proposal by Amzallag and Yona to translate the word “`aphar” as “[copper] ore” showed that copper toxicity on the reproductive system was the intended goal of the ritual. The result would be the termination of pregnancy. Finally, we saw evidence of similar “water ordeals” in the other ANE pagan societies, which predated the Bible by hundreds and even thousands of years. The strongest link was to the Mari myth of Ea and the lesser deities, though Amzallag and Yona have proposed a Kenite origin instead. Taken together, these revelations cast serious doubt on the supposed “inspired” nature of the Sotah ritual. We should ask why would God have instituted a ritual which mimicked the superstitions of the older, pagan societies, and most importantly, which would have put the life of an unborn fetus at risk? The answer is obvious: He would not have instituted such an unjust law. And Allah (Glorified and Exalted be He) knows best!

[1] A recent poll in the USA suggests that “less than half of evangelicals identify as ‘pro-life’” (https://www.christianpost.com/news/less-than-half-of-us-evangelicals-identify-as-pro-life-new-poll-suggests.html).

[2] This article will not discuss the Islamic view on abortion. However, most scholars of Islam are of the view that abortions can be allowed only in certain situations (e.g., if the mother’s life is at risk or the fetus shows undeniable signs of major birth defects) and within a strict time limit (120 days; https://islamqa.info/en/answers/12118/abortion-of-physically-deformed-foetus).

[3] For example, see Jeremiah 1:5, which indicates that God “knew” Jeremiah even before he was “formed…in the womb”.

[4] The word “sotah” denotes a woman accused of adultery (https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/sotah).

[5] Numbers 5:12-15.

[6] Nissim Amzallag and Shamir Yona, “The Kenite Origin of the Sotah Prescription (Numbers 5.11-31)”, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 41, no. 4 (2017): pp. 390,  https://www.academia.edu/36495549/The_Kenite_Origin_of_the_Sotah_Prescription_Numbers_5_11-31_.)

For the full linguistic analysis, see pp. 389-391.

[7] Numbers 5:17-18.

[8] Numbers 5:23-24.

[9] Numbers 5:27-28.

[10] As discussed later, some scholars argue that the “dust” mixed into the water is the actual cause of the physiological effects on the woman’s body. Thus, the result of the ritual was not “miraculous” bur rather the inevitable result of toxicity caused by the “dust” (which is not just dust but a harmful dose of copper).

[11] https://carm.org/does-numbers-5-11-31-proscribe-abortion-drugs-in-cases-of-adultery

[12] https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H3409&t=KJV

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] https://www.sefaria.org/Numbers.5.21?lang=bi&with=Commentary&lang2=en

[16] https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H5307&t=KJV

[17] https://www.sefaria.org/Numbers.5.21?lang=bi&with=Commentary&lang2=en

[18] Ibid.

[19] Amzallag and Yona, op. cit., p. 393.

[20] NASB Study Bible, ed. Kenneth Baker (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1999), p. 185.

 [21] Roy E. Gane, “Numbers”, in The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary, eds. Gary M. Burge and Andrew E. Hill (Grand Rapids, Michigan: BakerBooks, 2012), p. 122.

The “sterility” interpretation is challenged by Amzallag and Yona, as we will see later.

[22] The New American Bible Revised Edition (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division, 2012), p. 187.

[23] https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H990&t=KJV

[24] https://carm.org/does-numbers-5-11-31-proscribe-abortion-drugs-in-cases-of-adultery

[25] https://www.sefaria.org/Mishnah_Sotah.4.3?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en

[26] Ibid.

[27] https://www.sefaria.org/Sotah.26a.4?lang=bi

[28] https://carm.org/does-numbers-5-11-31-proscribe-abortion-drugs-in-cases-of-adultery

[29] https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G2836&t=LXX; https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G3382&t=LXX

[30] https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G2836&t=LXX

[31] https://carm.org/does-numbers-5-11-31-proscribe-abortion-drugs-in-cases-of-adultery

[32] Philo of Alexandria, Special Laws, Book 3, 10:6, http://earlyjewishwritings.com/text/philo/book29.html.

[33] https://www.sefaria.org/Targum_Jonathan_on_Numbers.5.21?lang=bi&with=Jastrow&lang2=en

[34] https://carm.org/does-numbers-5-11-31-proscribe-abortion-drugs-in-cases-of-adultery

This is an ironic comment to make, given that even the “canonical” Gospels contain “stories” that are “obviously later inventions and not historical episodes from the actual life of Jesus” (e.g., Matthew’s claim that the dead rose from their graves and walked into Jerusalem after the crucifixion; Matthew 27:51-53).

[35] Citing medical studies, the authors state that a “sublethal” concentration would “have a toxic effect on the reproductive system…” and would induce an abortion in the “early stages of pregnancy” (Amzallag and Yona, op. cit., p. 396).

The authors also note that the “toxic effect on reproduction was acknowledge by Greek physicians…” (Ibid., p. 401).

[36] Ibid., p. 394.

The authors provide several other reasons for the “abortion” interpretation (Ibid., pp. 394-396), such as the unbinding of the woman’s hair before the mixture is consumed. They cite Leviticus 10:6 to show that this action was associated with mourning (i.e., if she was lying and was pregnant at the time, drinking the potion would result in the death of the fetus; thus, the mourning would be for the aborted fetus).

[37] Ibid., p. 401.

[38] The Code of Hammurabi, Code 132, trans. L.W. King, https://avalon.law.yale.edu/ancient/hamframe.asp.

[39] Code 131 specifically deals with an accusation from the husband:

“[i]f a man bring a charge against one’s wife, but she is not surprised with another man, she must take an oath and then may return to her house” (Ibid.).

However, the Bible shares similarities with the Code of Hammurabi in other ways. For example, the Code of Hammurabi also calls for an “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” system of justice (Code #196 and #200; cf. Exodus 21:23-24). The Quran also states that this law was given to the Children of Israel (see Surah Al-Maeda, 5:45). Based on these similarities, it could be argued that the Sotah law was not adopted from the surrounding pagan cultures but was simply a common law in many cultures of the time. While this could certainly be argued for the “eye for an eye” law, the same cannot be said about the Sotah law. The reason is that it is the only example in the Bible of a “water ritual” and contradicts the law of adultery in Leviticus and Deuteronomy (i.e., it seems out of place in the Bible; see note #52). Furthermore, as will be demonstrated shortly, if the origin of the Biblical ritual was in the earlier pagan cultures, then there is another source which is more likely to be that origin than the Code of Hammurabi.

[40] Marten Stol, Women in the Ancient Near East, trans. Helen Richardson and Mervyn Richardson (Boston: Walter de Gruyter Inc., 2016), p. 247.

[41] Amzallag and Yona, op. cit., p. 385.

[42] Ibid., p. 402.

[43] Lesly F. Massey, Daughters of God, Subordinates of Men: Women and the Roots of Patriarchy in the New Testament (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2015), p. 37.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Martti Nissinen, “Sacred Springs and Liminal Rivers”, in Thinking of Water in the Early Second Temple Period, eds. Ben Zvi and Christoph Levin (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter GmbH, 2014), p. 39.

[46] Ibid.

[47] Ibid., p. 40.

[48] Ea was the patron god of Mari to whom the “lesser gods” were required to give “a ceremonial oath of allegiance” (K.L. Noll, Canaan and Israel in Antiquity, 2nd Edition [London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2013], p. 204).

Interestingly, Noll notes another parallel between the Bible and ANE pagan mythology. He quotes Psalm 24:7-9:

“Lift up your heads, you gates; be lifted up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory? The Lord strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, you gates; lift them up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.”

While to the casual observer, the verses might seem to be of no significance since they merely refer to the gates of Jerusalem metaphorically opening for God, Noll exposes the true meaning (emphasis ours):

“[t]his text is not what it seems at first glance, because city gates in the ancient Near East were not the type that lifted up, like a medieval gate that was raised or lowered with pulleys. Ancient gates swung open and shut on hinges, much like an ordinary door in a modern home. Psalm 24’s singers were not addressing inanimate gates and asking them to open. They were addressing the gods who protected the gates, much like a poem from ancient Ugarit…” (Ibid.).

[49] Amzallag and Yona, op. cit., p. 402.

[50] Ronald F. Youngblood, F.F. Bruce, and R.K. Harrison, Compact Bible Dictionary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2004), p. 349).

[51] Ibid.

[52] Amzallag and Yona, op. cit., p. 403.

The authors point to the fact that metallurgists and miners, as the Kenites would have been, would have been expected to be away from their homes (and wives) for long periods of time, which could entice a woman to seek other men for sexual pleasure. They point to Proverbs 7:18-20, where the “adulteress” attempts to seduce an unsuspecting man by assuring him that her husband is away from home “on a long journey” (Ibid., p. 404).

Other reasons for suspecting a Kenite origin for the Sotah ritual are the “substantial differences between the Sotah prescription and the other biblical sources dealing with adultery”, such as the fact that adultery was punishable by death in Leviticus and Deuteronomy (Ibid., p. 404), whereas there is no indication that the ritual would result in death.

[53] Ibid., p. 405.


Categories: Abortion, Bible, Biblical Hebrew, Christianity, God, Hebrew, History, Jews, Judaism, Science

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18 replies

  1. How can Christians claim to be “pro-life” in the abortion debate and yet believe that God sent a law that could have placed an unborn child at risk in order to punish a woman suspected of adultery?

    Of course, I am not arguing that Christians should support the secularist agenda and become “pro-choice”, but it is rather hypocritical to be pro-life and yet believe that God ordered his soldiers to kill babies and sent a law which would have caused a miscarriage in a pregnant woman.

    • “In the case of Numbers 5, the “dust” was actually “finely crushed copper ore”.”

      More nonsense.

      Moreover if the woman was innocent she would be protected by God from harm. In the unlikely event that the dust would contain anything harmful to the body.

      • 🤣 More proof that Iggy is willfully ignorant and didn’t read the article in full and just glanced through it.

        A “sublethal” dose, i.e. that will not kill a person, of copper can cause a miscarriage but will NOT harm the woman. She will survive! Get it? This is a bit above your pay grade. It requires scientific competency, which you lack.

        There is good evidence that the word “dust” can be translated as “ore”.

    • Interesting topic and interesting discussion in Amzallag and Yona.

      I too think it does not likely refer to ore specifically in Numbers 5. Or at the very least such an understanding is quite problematic. Not so much if considering the lexeme “dust” in isolation, which is probably within the realm of the possible. This is because dust or Hebrew “afar” עפר might mean ore, at least when “qualified” by a mineral, as has been suggested by previous scholarship (though not in Num. 5:17). Rather, while Amzallag and Yona’s treatment is clearly, creative, intriguing and thought provoking, it is also rather speculative, hypothetical and beset with a number of problems. I will describe just three of them below.

      In order to make plausible their hypothetical reconstruction, Amzallag and Yona’s argue for and rely on the assumption that Numbers 5:11-31 is a foreign unit, imported “as is” into the book of Numbers.

      Num. 5:17 speaks literally of “of the dust that will be” in the imperfect tense (וּמִן-הֶעָפָר אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה, umin heafar asher yihiyeh). Thus, the authors argue this is devoid of meaning if it meant the dust of the sanctuary floor, but instead supports their contention that the text talks about a situation that currently does not obtain but did so in the past and so was imported “as is”. Presumably, a different structural formulation and/or syntax should have been employed (a perfect or nominal clause?) if it had meant the dust of the sanctuary floor and not an (copper) ore. Or as they put it on p. 390:

      “This singularity [“the dust that will be”] is obviously meaningless if עפר designates the dusty clay layer permanently covering the floor of the sanctuary. It makes sense, however, if the author intends to specify that the material necessary for preparation of the potion is not currently present in the Israelite sanctuary, but that it was in the past and/or it should be in the future”.

      (1) The Hebrew verb “hayah” (sometimes rendered as “to be”) can be difficult to translate because occasionally it may be rendered into English both as present or future tense. Perhaps the most famous example in the Hebrew Bible is Ex. 3:14: אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה in Hebrew “eheye asher eheyeh” often translated as “I Am who I Am” though the verb hayah is in the imperfect. Thus, it might also be translated as “I will be who I will be”. For this reason, many translations construe Num. 5:17 nominally or in the present tense (i.e., “is”) e.g., the NIV: “Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water”. And the KJV: “And the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel; and of the dust that is in the floor of the tabernacle the priest shall take, and put it into the water.” Thus, if one opts for this understanding, then contrary to what the authors state it would “specify that the material necessary for preparation of the potion” is in fact currently present in the Israelite sanctuary.

      (2) Still, the fact that the imperfect is used can also be taken to mean that it talks specifically about the future, at a certain time. Milgrom, in his commentary to Numbers 5:17, p. 39, states that “Hebrew yihiyeh should be rendered ‘will be’. Since the Tabernacle is constantly on the move, the earthen floor is never the same.” Perhaps we may also understand it simply that the prescription refers to a situation, in the narrative future, namely when the Temple with Tabernacle is built and in function. However, in the future Temple and Tabernacle, this reality also does not obtain, as there is no evidence of ores on the floor of the sanctuary. Thus it is hard to see how this supports the hypothesis advanced, namely that “the author intends to specify that the material necessary for preparation of the potion is not currently present in the Israelite sanctuary, but that it was in the past and/or it should be in the future”. Also, had the text meant to indicate a (copper) ore, one would have expected a formulation closer to that of Job 28:2, 6.

      (3) However, the assertion that the imperfect verb somehow assumes or implies that such a situation obtained in the past but not in the present, is not supported by any evidence, and Amzallag and Yona do not present any. In fact, the examples they provide all talk of “evoking future situations.” Not the analogous situation where it does not apply in the present but did or should apply in the past/future. Indeed, it is hard to think of any such uses of “that will be” (“asher yihiyeh”, אֲשֶׁר יִהְיֶה) in the Hebrew Bible.

      In other words, the description and the language employed, makes it unlikely, that such a situation ever obtained in an Israelite sanctuary and thus הֶעָפָר, “heafar”, “the dust”, in the text does not refer to a (copper) ore. More, specifically Amzallag and Yona’s understanding of the imperfect verb to mean it obtained in the past and should obtain in the future, but not in the present, is not supported by any evidence.

      Another issue is that in order for their hypothetical reconstruction to work, Amzallag and Yona, contrary to some scholars as they acknowledge, have to argue that this specific prescription was foreign to ancient Israel, imported “as is”

      One problem with this suggestion is that the language employed, as Knohl has observed, is very characteristic of P or the Priestly Torah, which classical source criticism usually ascribes as responsible for this section of the Torah. Thus, Knohl is explicitly skeptical of the “foreign origin theory” and objects to it, one reason being that this section: “corresponds to the style of PT which is the dominant style of the entire passage” (p. 88).

      Had it been imported “as is” from a foreign cult, as the authors maintain, one might have expected foreign words or phrases or language that differed considerably from P’s diction. However, on the level of language and lexicography, there is nothing that signals this is not part of the so called Pristly Torah. In addition, the text seems to talk about a prescription that takes place within the reigning priestly establishment. It is a priest, who officiates within the sacred precincts (i.e., the Tabernacle and presumably later Temple).

      And this leads to a third problem: In classical source theory the so-called Midianite-Kenite hypothesis is relatively well established in one variation or another, see Blenkinsopp for a recent overview.

      The E source is thought to have the closest links to Midian possibly even tracing Moses’ origins to Midian itself. In contrast, the priestly circles, that produced the P material according to classical source criticism, in which the “sotah” section is set, are thought to be very hostile to Midianites, as Amzallag and Yona themselves note. For example, the P source is thought to have composed the stories in Numbers 25 and 31 in which the Midianites are negatively portrayed, to say the least. Thus, to posit, that the Priestly circles would have allowed the insertion of ritualistic material of Midianite-Kenite origin in their Torah and in the sacred precincts does not seem likely, and at the very least would be in need of an explanation. Especially since they assume it was “as is” and was of little relevance to Israelite norms and customs. Instead, to explain this situation, we are offered a hypothetical Sitz im Leben in which a more tolerant Midianite-Kenite tradition, of which there is no direct evidence, was inserted to the Priestly Torah to reform Israelite cultic practices (p. 405).

      In the end, the case rests on a number of unproven assumptions that Num. 5:11-31 (a) was originally a Kenite prescription of which there is no textual evidence (b) the text was inserted more or less “as is” into the Priestly Torah, again of which there is little indication (c) a hypothetically reconstructed Sitz im Leben in which Kenites had a more “liberal” or “tolerant” approach to adultery (p. 404), of which again there is little direct evidence nor were any possible parallels from the ancient near east provided.

      The treatment of Amzallag and Yona is rather creative and interesting and it is certainly a welcome contribution to the countless studies that have grappled with this crux interpretum. But given the many problems, the hypothetical and speculative nature of their theory, it doesn’t seem to me prudent to build much upon it. In my opinion, one should carefully take note of this contribution to the ongoing discussion and that’s about as far as it goes.

      We really have no satisfactory explanation for this very enigmatic text.

      J. Blenkinsopp: “The Midianite-Kenite Hypothesis Revisited and the Origins of Judah”, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, 33:2008, pp. 131-53.

      I. Knohl: The Sanctuary of Silence: The Priestly Torah and the Holiness School. Fortress 1994.

      J. Milgrom: The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers. JPS, 1989.

      • I agree that the Kenite theory is far from perfect. I personally favor a foreign origin of the ritual itself, but to the pagan rituals in the ANE, especially given the similarity to the water rituals in the Mari letters.

        As for the meaning of “ore”, even if we discount this, the abortion interpretation remains as the words usually translated as “thigh” and “belly” both also refer euphemistically to the womb. And even if this could also be explained away, the problem still remains that if a woman who is unknowingly pregnant were to perform the ritual, then the chances of a miscarriage occurring are still present even if the effect was not on the womb.

        The only enigma that remains is how exactly the miscarriage could have occurred after simply drinking a water/dust mixture.

      • It remains a possibility that the prescription was foreign in origin. The problem is that the ANE parallels are not very close (cf. also the discussion in Milgrom, and the motif of drinking a mixture of finely ground “dust” mixed with water in Ex. 32:20). As Carmichael states on p. 26 in his introductory remarks to the issue:

        “The Near Eastern parallels that critics have produced for proceedings against the suspected adulteress are rather thin, one expert bluntly stating, ‘This ordeal of bitter waters has no analogy in the ancient East’. As for the vocation of the nazirite, we are equally lacking much illumination from Near Eastern sources. It points to “a fascinating, albeit elusive, aspect of Israelite religion”

        The “abortion interpretation” also remains a possibility. However, the discussions in the literature point out a number of linguistic and contextual problems. To mention a few: the “distended belly” is not a sign of miscarriage (but rather of pregnancy, cf. Frymer-Kensky’s discussion), but could possibly be construed as unable to have children or “flooded uterus” on the basis of the Akkadian cognate ṣabu. The sagging thigh might be translated as “sag “or “shrivel” (see discussion of the various possibilities in Milgrom) could possibly be understood as miscarriage. However, since the parallelism of inability to bear children would make some sense, and since as Friedman notes, “..a distended ‘belly’ and sagging thighs are not a description of miscarriage even metaphorically;…” and the procedure “requires an outcome that cannot be counted upon to occur” (pp. 379 and 378 respectively) many scholars are not sure what exactly we can understand, hence the numerous treatments trying to clarify the issue.

        “The only enigma that remains is how exactly the miscarriage could have occurred after simply drinking a water/dust mixture”.

        For the above reason, there is very little, in my opinion, we can be very certain about in this text and I don’t think we should base much upon it. I think we would do well to take note of Friedman’s characterization on p. 371:

        “If one has any doubt that the law of the suspected adulteress, the sotah (Num 5:11–31), is a particularly perplexing case in biblical law, he or she has only to look at the variety of the scholarly literature. The remarkable range of utterly different explanations of what is going on in the procedure is striking even in our field, which is not exactly known for consensus. Also remarkable is how certain scholars, from ancient to contemporary times, have each been that their understanding was correct”.

        C., Calum. The Book of Numbers: A Critique of Genesis. Yale University Press, 2012

        R. E. Friedman, The Sotah: Why Is This Case Different From All Other Cases, in Provan, Iain W.; Boda, Mark J., eds. (2012). Let us go up to Zion: essays in Honour of H. G. M. Williamson on the occasion of his sixty-fifth birthday. SVT. Leiden; Boston: Brill. Pp. 371-382.

        T. Frymer-Kensky, The Strange Case of the Suspected Sotah (Numbers V 11-31). Vetus Testamentum, 34(1), 11-26.

      • One would have to be willfully blind to not see the obvious similarities between the Sotah ritual and other ANE rituals. Of course, they are not the same rituals, but is it just a coincidence that they involved making an oath while drinking water mixed with dirt from a holy place? Given the obvious influence of ANE mythology on the Bible in other places (Daniel 7, Leviathan, etc.), it is not surprising at all that the Sotah ritual was also influenced by that same mythology.

        Regarding the abortion interpretation, yes there are different interpretations about the exact meaning of the words. But as I pointed out in the article, even if we can somehow ignore the linguistic evidence, the chances of a miscarriage occurring in a pregnant woman are high if she were to suffer traumatic injuries such as a rotting thigh.

      • ANE. As I said previously, It is possible the sotah prescription was foreign in origin, but the parallels are not very close, but rather general. For this reason, scholarly treatments of the Sotah episode will sometimes include discussion of the ANE material, but can’t go much beyond the general background (cf. Milgrom). In the end, this prescription is rather enigmatic and unique, whether or not it originated within Ancient Israel or not, cf. Calum Carmichael cited above. More importantly, at least if one can forget the apologetic angle, the ANE material, unfortunately, has done little to clarify the text of the sotah.

        It is not simply, that there are different interpretations, but that these have come about precisely because there are so many uncertainties as the text is so difficult to understand. I don’t know where in the article “rotting thigh” refers to but in any case, I would agree with you that our text may possibly refer to abortion. However, the linguistic as well as the contextual difficulties suggest, to most scholars, that it does not talk about abortion, but rather of reproductional inability.

        Amzallag and Yona do argue it refers to abortion, but most other scholars, including those listed in their bibliography, who have dealt with the issue, are skeptical about what we can now and/or do not believe the evidence points to abortion.

        With a text this difficult to understand and with so many uncertainties resulting in so many different interpretations, it seems to me one should be cautious in basing much upon it.

      • Again, we have two stories, one from the pagan ANE and one from the Bible. Both refer to a water ritual in which a party takes an oath and drinks a mixture of water and dirt. Saying this is a “general” parallel and therefore it’s”unique” is again being willfully blind. The concept is the same, even if the contexts are different.

        As for the abortion interpretation, as I said, even if we cast all the other evidence aside and settle on the sterility interpretation, the fact remains that the effects of the ritual supposedly would cause severe and traumatic injuries. The word “yarek” is usually translated as “thigh”. According to the text, the thigh would “fall”, indicating that it would literally “rot”. Such an injury to a pregnant woman could easily result in a miscarriage.

      • Not sure what you mean. Who interpreted it to mean that the thigh will rot?

      • I said it means to fall. Some translations interpret that as “rotting” (e.g., the KJV). Most others translate it as “fall” or “waste away”. And it doesn’t matter any way. Whatever happens to the “thigh”, it’s meant to be a traumatic injury. I cannot envision a situation where something so injurious occurs without causing a miscarriage.

  2. You don’t seem to realize that ore comes from under the ground, not above it, lol.

  3. Faiz, I am disappointed.

    Here I am giving you the chance to humiliate me and you don’t take it.

    • Iggy, I already humiliated you. Your laziness and incompetence have already showed what a joke you are. You really need a different hobby. Christianity is doomed if you’re the best it has to offer. 🤣

  4. The overarching point of Numbers 5:12-15 has been missed here and by the CARM argument.
    If she had been caught in adultery or attested to be guilty by witnesses, she and the adulterous man would be put to death, whether or not she was pregnant. Deuteronomy 22:22, Leviticus 20:10.
    The death of the unborn child, in Numbers 5 is undeniable, but he or she would likely have died in the womb by stoning, certainly by burning in the case of a Levite’s woman. Leviticus 21:9.
    The hard lesson communicated in Numbers 5 is that God hates adultery more thanfruit of it.

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