And the woman shall say, "Amen. Amen."
November 9, 2006 10:33 AM   Subscribe

It was always my understanding that Numbers 5:11 in the Hebrew Bible refers to an abortive procedure. However...

When I brought it up in my OT ex class the other day, several of my classmates were shocked by this and adamantly denied this possibility. I guess I had always assumed that the "bitter water that carries the curse" was an abortive. Here is the passage as it is found in the NRSV.

I should add, as this is incredibly important, that the NIV (my least preferred edition) translates "uterus drop and womb discharge," to "abdomen swell and thigh waste away" (whatever the hell that's supposed to mean) and I pointed out in class that this might be the source of some of the confusion. However, even provided with a more accurate translation, another student suggested that a body of evidence exists that this is, in fact, not sanctioned abortion - but rather some other form of poison that generates a prolapsed uterus.

I think this is ridiculous - given the Israelites probable desire to maintain their patrilineal descent patterns it would seem most logical that a man, upon returning from afar, and suspecting his wife of being pregnant, would immediately demand an abortion to prove that she had cheated on him. There would be no reason to keep the child when there was no way the man could have been thought to be its father, rather, the abortion would provide excellent proof of the woman's infidelity.

My question (finally!) is whether or not this "body of evidence" actually exists regarding this disturbing chapter in the OT and if there have been books written on this topic.
posted by Baby_Balrog to Writing & Language (17 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I found this, but it pretty much totally fails to deal with whether or not this is an abortion.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 10:41 AM on November 9, 2006

The majority opinion among the scholars is that Numbers 5 is indeed refering to a process that ends in miscarriage. Having said that, I don't think it's proper to consider this a pharmacological intervention, as the concoction the priest prepares (holy water plus dust from the tablernacle floor) couldn't possibly induce an abortion. I think the idea her is that by ingesting such a potent drink (consecrated water and dust from the consecrated tabernacle) her system will be forced to expell any embryo that has resulted from an unholy union. A child conceived by her husband would presumably survive. Think about this in term of ancient mysticism, not modern medicine.

Further support for interpreting this as a miscarriage of an illegitmate fetus is found in verse 28: But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be immune and be able to conceive children. Adultery leads to miscarriage; faithful marriage leads to kids.

Sidenote: In my opinion, you are generally much better off trusting the NRSV over the NIV, as the NIV is notoriously wimpy, and will go out of its way to choose a less likely translation if it creates less controversy. I see that over and over.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 11:18 AM on November 9, 2006

P.S. I don't know of any books written just about this topic, but I'll look around. There are some articles that link this text to other ancient Near Eastern trials by ordeal, though.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 11:25 AM on November 9, 2006

As I think about it more: (this is a complicated question!)

I'll stick with my early comment that the majority of OT scholars see this as an induced miscarriage. However, that doesn't mean that there isn't a case to be made that this is something like a prolapsed uterus. See, for example, Tikva Frymer-Kensey "The strange case of the suspected sotah (Numbers 5:11-31)" Vetus testamentum 34 no 1 Ja 1984, p 11-26. She points out, rightly, that there is no reason to assume the woman in question is pregnant. The presenting issue is "has she committed adultery or not?" The interpretation that assumes this is a miscarriage doesn't acount for situations where adultery has been committed by no child has been produced. By Frymer-Kensey's reading, an adulteress would suffer a prolapsed uterus, and therefore become sterile, but a faithful woman would maintain her fertility. To be honest, after looking through that article, I've started to think that there might be a stronger case for that interpretation than I initially thought.

Now I'm intrigued. This will probably blow the rest of my afternoon. I'll post again if I see something particularly helpful.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 11:49 AM on November 9, 2006

Best answer: Okay: here's my last word (I think).

What does your classmate think would happen to a woman's fetus (and pregnancy is certainly a possibilty if she committed adultery), if her uterus swells up and drops out of her vagina? Whether abortion is is the intended consequence of a side effect of a prolapsed uterus, it will be the sure result of this procedure if adultery has been committed. The only question now is whether it leaves the woman permanently sterile, and that seems to be open to debate.

What is not debatable is that this procedure, however interpreted, will end pregnancies.

Maybe I'm not searching well, but I am finding very few little written about this. (I'm searching the American Theological Libraries Association Serials index, ATLAS). For more research, I think your best bet would be some good Numbers commentaries.

One source:

"The physical or somatic consequences of a guilty verdict are described as the swelling of the womb (or belly) and the sagging and falling of the "thigh," probably euphemisms for the uterus and vagina, respectively. For the most part, ancient interpreters diagnosed these symptoms as dropsy, a hydrophilic condition. More recently it has been suggested that these symptoms refer to a condition known as a pelvic prolapse, one wherein the uterus protrudes from the enlarged vagina....It turns out that this condition was known to the ancient Egyptians, and after them to the Greeks, who had even devised mechanical methods of containing it....Some modern scholars have understood the symptoms as descriptive of an abortion or miscarriage, leaving open the question of whether the threatened damage was viewed as permanent....

"However we interpret the is reasonable to conclude that at times, if not quite often, pregnancy was material in the implementation of the ordeal. If this conclusion is correct, a pregnant woman who was "found out" by the ordeal would in fact lose her fetus: the ordeal would terminate her pregnancy."

Baruch Levine, Numbers, The Anchor Bible, (New York, Doubleday: 1993), p. 201, 203
posted by Pater Aletheias at 12:20 PM on November 9, 2006

Response by poster: Thank you father truth! :) Maybe I should begin more thorough work on this.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 12:56 PM on November 9, 2006

hi there. first mefi post ever. :)

i think this is an interesting discussion... i've never read this passage before.

but, one point i think we're missing is this - christianity believes only God has the *authority* to give or take life.

thus, i don't think it is correct to term this "abortion".

when i think of abortion, it is *people* deciding to cease the pregnancy, not *God*. and that is an important distinction we need to make.

i'm definitely staying tuned to this one. :)
posted by gknight7176 at 1:31 PM on November 9, 2006 [1 favorite]

While I don't read ancient Hebrew, I do know my way around an interlinear.

The word "Yarek" can mean loins (procreative power), but usually means thigh.

The word "Beten" is translated either as "womb" or "belly" with a slight preference for "womb", though it's a secondary meaning.

Any combination of translated words doesn't come across as an abortion, though. The point was to curse the woman and make her an example and outcast in the community, or to clear her reputation with her husband (at which point the community shouldn't know). That's from the context.

While the process may lead to the premature death of the foetus, you seem to be adding your philosophy to the text. Your best bet is to read the passage (not just one verse) in many translations with the goal of understanding what it says, rather than validating your own world view. It's a hard thing to do.

Further, when seeking understanding of any work, one reads everything they can from that author. This was written by Moses, so read other books written by Moses and see if they lend any better understanding by parallel principles.

Good luck on your search and thanks for a great question!
posted by kc0dxh at 2:40 PM on November 9, 2006

gknight7176 writes "thus, i don't think it is correct to term this 'abortion'.

"when i think of abortion, it is *people* deciding to cease the pregnancy, not *God*. and that is an important distinction we need to make."

From the point of view of medical terminology at least, this isn't so. "Spontaneous abortion" is the medical term for a miscarriage.
posted by mr_roboto at 4:29 PM on November 9, 2006

Response by poster:
Further, when seeking understanding of any work, one reads everything they can from that author. This was written by Moses, so read other books written by Moses and see if they lend any better understanding by parallel principles.

You can't seriously believe this, can you? The pentateuch was almost certainly written by a large number of different authors.

I've never understood where this bizarre tradition of attributing the torah to Moses comes from.

Also, what are you getting at? What do you think Moses wrote other than attributing the torah to him?
posted by Baby_Balrog at 5:51 PM on November 9, 2006

Response by poster: And what the hell interlinear are you using? That isn't even the correct Hebrew for the verse. Yarek isn't even a word in Hebrew.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 6:03 PM on November 9, 2006

Wow, what a great topic.

I looked around and found nothing that supports the pro-life arguments. I'm skeptical that any exist, not counting some bizarre logical contortions. I found this page:
Fortunately, we have an excellent idea on what the law on abortion might have been. As Rabbi Balfour Brickner, National Director of the Commission on Interfaith Activities, says:

"Jewish law is quite clear in its statement that an embryo is not reckoned a viable living thing (in Hebrew, bar kayama) until thirty days after its birth. One is not allowed to observe the Laws of Mourning for an expelled fetus. As a matter of fact, these Laws are not applicable for a child who does not survive until his thirtieth day."
So it seems pretty clear that abortion was A-OK with the Jews, and they wrote the book. Heck, it appears to be institutionalized. Why aren't modern pastors offering this service when there is doubt about a wife's fidelity?
posted by mullingitover at 7:06 PM on November 9, 2006

wow... wow what an interesting question. the only interpretation i've found that hasn't been raised above is in the notes to an 1899 Douay-Rheims, of all places. the gloss there is: "This ordinance was designed to clear the innocent, and to prevent jealous husbands from doing mischeif to their wives; as likewise to give all a horror of adultery, by punishing it in so remarkable a manner."

this gloss was written circa 1750 and i wouldn't expect the author to get anywhere near the topic of a trial by abortive. still, the first half of that reading (preventing jealous husbands from falsely or maliciously accusing their wives) is not out of line with your original suggestion that a man returning home might test his wife's fidelity.

in addition, the Interpeter's 1-Vol mentions, in connection with this passage, that there are no other OT references to trial by ordeal, which one might loosely argue as supporting evidence that this procedure had a very present and corporeal purpose.

see, mom, that degree in religion was totally useful, and worth every penny!
posted by sonofslim at 8:49 PM on November 9, 2006

Baby_Balrog, trying to discredit someone by his romanization practices is pretty cheap.

Here's the original:
בְּתֵת יְהוָה אֶת-יְרֵכֵךְ נֹפֶלֶת, וְאֶת-בִּטְנֵךְ צָבָה
'When the LORD shall cause your yᵊrēk to fall ...' Granted, I myself would not romanize it as yarek; but it's at least as good as all the conventional Bible names that romanize schwa as e.
posted by eritain at 9:04 PM on November 9, 2006

From the point of view of medical terminology at least, this isn't so. "Spontaneous abortion" is the medical term for a miscarriage.

First off, your link doesn't work.

Secondly, regardless of the medical terminology, gknight7176's point remains:

christianity believes only God has the *authority* to give or take life...when i think of abortion, it is *people* deciding to cease the pregnancy, not *God*.

We can debate what to call it all we want, but the underlying principle is that if God wants to abort a pregnancy, or any other human at any other stage of life, He certainly has the right to do so (as demonstrated all over the Bible). Humans on the other hand, do not.

Clearly demonstrated here.

Not warm and fuzzy, but just.
posted by allkindsoftime at 10:11 AM on November 10, 2006

allkindsoftime writes "Humans on the other hand, do not."

Say wha? We're discussing a verse in Numbers 5 which describes humans ending pregnancies and everything's kosher with that. There's nothing equating ending a pregnancy with ending a human life anywhere that I can find. If you can find something proscribing abortion (the procedure sanctioned by the verse we're discussing) please enlighten us.
posted by mullingitover at 11:08 AM on November 10, 2006

The NSV is the closest English translation to the original Hebrew and Greek texts.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 9:26 PM on November 16, 2006

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