Though abortion is inconsistent with the Christian worldview, some people point to a Bible passage they believe ordains abortion. Numbers 5:11–31 cites an unusual test for adultery. If a husband suspects his wife is unfaithful, he’s to bring her before a priest, where a ritual takes place to determine her guilt or innocence. The woman takes an oath and drinks bitter water—a concoction of holy water and dust from the tabernacle floor. Verse 27 describes one possible outcome.
If 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.
This procedure employs a providential sign from God to indicate infidelity. If the woman is guilty, “her abdomen will swell and her womb will miscarry,” a curse that some suggest amounts to an “intentional miscarriage.” If so, they claim, this demonstrates that God ordained abortion.
There are several reasons, however, why they’re mistaken and that the passage probably isn’t referring to a type of miscarriage, let alone an abortion.
First, even if the original Hebrew suggests a miscarriage (the child dies), it still wouldn’t support the abortion-choice position. If a child dies in this scenario, it’s because of God’s judgment, not a woman’s private decision. Even if the passage indicates an intentional miscarriage, it doesn’t justify abortion any more than God killing David’s son (2 Sam. 12:14, 18) justifies infanticide. God is the author and sustainer of life. If anyone has the right to take life, He does. In this ritual, there’s nothing in the potion itself that can reveal the woman’s guilt or innocence. The potion is merely symbolic. The curse comes from God and not any human being. There is no parallel here with elective abortion.
But does this text even mention miscarriage? The NIV is one of the few popular translations that renders the passage, “Her womb will miscarry.” Note, though, the NIV is a “dynamic equivalent” translation and not a precise word-for-word translation. The NASB, on the other hand, is more precise, rendering the passage “her thigh will waste away.” The popular ESV doesn’t refer to a pregnancy, miscarriage, or child either. The NIV’s rendering, therefore, is imprecise. If you don’t have access to the original language, stick with a word-for-word translation like the NASB, my own go-to translation when doing careful Bible study.
What, then, is meant by “her thigh will waste away”? When the meaning of the original language is ambiguous, it’s important to turn to a key interpretive principle: Never read a Bible verse. Never try to understand the meaning of a text in isolation from its context. Read as much as you can before and after the passage in question to help you determine what it means. In this case, the context indicates an entirely different meaning than what abortion-choice advocates suggest.
Look at what the verse immediately following the curse says:
If she has defiled herself and has been unfaithful to her husband, then the water which brings a curse will go into her and cause bitterness, and her abdomen will swell and her thigh will waste away, and the woman will become a curse among her people. But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, she will then be free and conceive children.” [NASB, emphasis mine.]
Notice how the blessing is contrasted with the curse. If the woman is guilty, “her abdomen will swell and her thigh will waste away.” If she is innocent, “she will then be free and conceive children.” Two things stand out when you read the blessing with the curse. One, the blessing of future fertility suggests that the curse is bareness, not miscarriage—and certainly not abortion. Children were a blessing from the Lord, and barrenness was a curse, so the contrast between the curse in verse 27 and the promise in verse 28 makes perfect sense. Two, the woman would “conceive children,” suggesting that a child had not yet been conceived. Rather, conception would be a future blessing based on her innocence.
This understanding is consistent with the rest of scripture and Christian theology. The Bible teaches it’s wrong to kill innocent human beings and routinely assumes pre-born humans are fully human, with a full human nature (Isa. 49:1; Jer. 1:5; Luke 1:41; etc.). Since we also know from science that the unborn are true human beings, killing the unborn would be killing a human being. According to Scripture, that’s wrong. Our understanding of Numbers 5:11–31 is consistent with that view.