February 12

Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible

Reading schedule

Matthew 13:24-35; Acts 19:23-41; Psalm 36; Exodus 21:12-36

This section of Exodus 21 elaborates on the prohibition on murder that starts the second half of the Ten Commandments. Principles still central to modern judicial systems are introduced. A distinction is made between premeditated murder and unintentionally causing death. A place of refuge is to be set up to prevent hasty revenge killings (Exodus 21:13, elaborated on in Numbers 35:6-34). Those who cause injuries to others are to pay for their treatment and compensate them for loss of wages (Exodus 21:18-19). When an animal kills someone, the punishment depends on whether the owner should have foreseen the danger (vv. 28-32).

Further laws on slavery are introduced which raise similar issues to those discussed yesterday. Those who beat their slaves to death are to be punished, a significant improvement on owners being allowed to kill their slaves for any reason. But then if the slave recovers after a day or two, no punishment results (vv. 20-21). Beating of slaves is apparently accepted on the basis that slaves are the property of their owners. On the other hand, if the slave loses an eye (a relatively serious injury) or a tooth (a relatively minor injury), he or she is to be set free (vv. 26-27). Without banning slave beatings, the Bible introduces consequences that should cause anyone to pause before hitting a slave. The reminder that the slave is their property could protect the slave if the owner remembers that the debt which the slave is working off will be wiped out if the slave goes free because of his injuries. The inclusion of the same protection for male and female slaves should be noted as a significant movement towards gender equality, even with the gender differences accepted earlier in Exodus.

While these laws fall far short of currently acceptable standards, Webb’s redemptive movement approach introduced yesterday provides a way of seeing that these laws show movement in the right direction. Jesus’ discussion again affirms the idea of gradual progress in the kingdom with the parables of the weeds, the mustard seed and the yeast (Matthew 13:31-33). As the good seed grows, so too do weeds. The workers want to pull up the weeds, but Jesus warns that removing them up will also negatively impact the good crops. Simply eliminating the bad is not always feasible because good and bad are intertwined in our fallen world. But as the good crop grows and develops, it becomes more visible and a provision for others (Matthew 13:32). All evil will be destroyed, but at some point in the future (Matthew 13:41).

Exodus 21:22-25 is frequently discussed when the biblical view of abortion is considered. However, the passage is notoriously difficult to interpret and raises more questions than it answers. Some aspects are clear. Men are fighting, and a pregnant woman is hit leading to her going into labour. Exactly what happens is unclear, partly because the Hebrew terms can mean different things. Based on different injuries, different punishments are pronounced based on the lex talionis (the ‘eye-for-an-eye’ formula). Exactly how that was applied in practice is debated, and discussed further at one of its other instances (Leviticus 24:17-21). The injury to a pregnant woman passage is discussed in detail elsewhere (Legal Attitudes Towards the Fetus in the Bible), with a brief summary provided here.

Two general interpretations exist, one reflected in the NASB’s translation that the injury leads to a “miscarriage.” If no injury occurs (“further” is not in the Hebrew), a fine is involved, suggesting that the woman is not injured, only the foetus. If injuries occur (presumably to the woman), the lex talionis is invoked. The implication taken from this is that the foetus is of lesser value than a person. Killing a foetus is not the same as killing a person, and therefore abortion is ethical, at least in some situations.

In contrast, the NIV states that hitting the woman results in a premature birth. If no injury occurs, this suggests that neither woman nor child are injured, and a fine results. The range of possible injuries and resulting punishments applies more obviously to the child and woman, suggesting that they are of equal value. This would support the equal rights of woman and foetus and not permit abortion. Opposing this interpretation is the claim that any blow sufficient to induce labour would injure the foetus so much that it would have been almost impossible for it to survive given the state of medicine at that time. Also, other cultures at that time had similar laws, some of which are identical of those in Exodus 20-22. The ones similar to this passage clearly refer to miscarriages.

This passage is not about abortion as currently practiced. The pregnant woman does not intentionally cause an abortion, but is a casualty of men fighting. At most, the passage reflects a biblical attitude towards pregnancy and unborn life. The accidental killing of the unborn with or without injuring a pregnant woman is punished. This remains the case today even when abortion is legal. At the same time, the passage cannot be taken to support the view that the unborn is less than fully human. In other ancient Near Eastern law codes, different punishments reflected different social standings, not worth as humans. In the Bible, different monetary values are placed on various groups of people without any suggestion that this reflected different moral standing as human beings (Leviticus 27:1-8).

What this passage shows is the importance of being careful around pregnant women so as not to even accidentally hinder the unborn coming to birth safely. Coupled with other deeply held Jewish views, such as the duty to procreate, respect for life, and abhorrence of unnecessary bloodshed, intentionally causing an abortion conflicts with biblical ethics.

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