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Abortion in the Bible

Part 1 of two parts:

Passages from the Pentateuch: the
first five books in the Hebrew Scriptures:

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It is mainly from the Hebrew Scriptures that the modern-day Jewish people obtain their spiritual insight. In Judaism, a fetus is regarded as a pre-human, as not fully a human person. It is considered to become fully human only after it has half-emerged from the birth canal during the process of being born.

Christians primarily use the Christian Scriptures for guidance. However, the Hebrew Scriptures also contain passages that some feel may deal with abortion.


Genesis 2:7:
This passage describes how God made Adam's body out of the dust of the earth. Later, the "man became a living soul" only after God "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life."

Some theologians have suggested that this passage states clearly that Adam's personhood started when he took his first breath. Following this reasoning, a newborn would become a human person only after she or he starts breathing. This would imply that a fetus is only potentially human. Thus, an abortion would not terminate the life of a human person. The most important word in the Hebrew Scriptures that was used to describe a person was "nephesh;" it appears 755 times in the Old Testament. It is translated as "living soul" in the above passage. One scholar, H.W. Wolff, 1believes that the word's root means "to breath." He argues that during Old Testament times:

"Living creatures are in this way exactly defined in Hebrew as creatures that breathe."

An alternate interpretation is that Adam and Eve were unique creations. They did not start as a fetus, and were not born. They were fully formed as adults. If this approach is taken, then It is not valid to compare a newborn who has not yet breathed to Eve and Adam when they were first created as fully formed adults who had not yet breathed.


Genesis 25:21-23

"...Rebekah, his, wife conceived. And the children struggled together within her; and she said, If it be so, why am I thus? And she went to inquire of the LORD. And the LORD said unto her, Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger."

The passage refers to the twin fetuses of Rebekah as being "nations." They are clearly not nations at that stage of development; the word has to be interpreted symbolically. They are rather two fetuses who were later born. The Bible refers to their descendents as nations. The passage also refers to the twin fetuses as "banim:" a Hebrew word which almost always means "newborns" or "infants," or "children." The ancient Hebrews did not have a separate word to describe "fetuses." So they used the same word to describe fetuses that they also used to refer to children.

Some suggest that since the ancient Hebrews used "banim" to refer to fetuses, newborns, infants and children, that they regarded all four as simply stages of human personhood.

English translations of the Bible generally use the term "children" here; this would more accurately be translated as "fetuses" except that the latter primarily a medical term. Again, the passage does not address the main question: were the fetuses full persons, or are they just potential persons at the time?

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bullet Genesis 38:24:
Tamar's pregnancy was discovered three months after conception, presumably because it was visible at that time. This was positive proof that she had been sexually active. Because she was a widow, without a husband, she was assumed to be a prostitute. Her father-in-law Judah ordered that she be burned alive for her crime. If Tamar's twin fetuses had been considered to be human beings, one would have expected her execution would have been delayed until after their birth. There was no condemnation on Judah for deciding to take this action. (Judah later changed his mind when he found out that he was the male responsible for Tamar's pregnancy.)

If the fetuses that she was carrying are not to be regarded as living human beings at the end of her first trimester of pregnancy, then causing their death would not be a great moral concern.

However, if the twin fetuses are to be considered as human persons, then it seems strange that they would be considered of such little value as to allow them to be killed for the alleged sin of the woman carrying them. In this case, this passage may be expressing a theme that runs through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation: that it is acceptable to kill or otherwise punish innocent person or persons for the sins or crimes of others -- the pregnant woman in this case.

An alternate interpretation is that innocent persons were often punished for the sins of one member of the family. See Joshua 7:21, Daniel 3:28-19, and Daniel 6:24). So it might be normal to give little concern to the fetuses.


Exodus 13:1-2:

"The Lord said to Moses, 'Consecrate to me every firstborn male. The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites belongs to me, whether [hu]man or animal.'"

Throughout much of the very ancient Middle East, the firstborn son in each family was ritually murdered as a sacrifice to the Gods.  However if the first son was preceded either by the birth of a girl or a miscarriage, then the ceremony was not performed, as the son was not the first offering of the womb. In later years, this practice evolved into a substitute animal sacrifice, a monetary donation to the temple, or a dedication of the child to their deity.

The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible states:

"...the ancestors of the Israelites probably at one time actually sacrificed their first born children, as Genesis 22:1-14 implies." 2 

These passages relate to infanticide, not abortion, because the infant would be killed after birth. But it shows the low regard for newborn humans during that era. Other references of human sacrifices in the Hebrew Scriptures are found at:

  • Judges 11:29-40: Jephthah promises God that he will make a human sacrifice of the first person who comes to greet him when he returns home after a successful battle. He later ritually sacrifices his only daughter.

  • I Kings 16:34: This passage may refer to the killing by Hiel of his two children during the reconstruction of Jericho. Archeological excavations there have uncovered the remains of persons who appear to have been sacrificed "to obtain divine favor."

  • II Kings 16:3: Ahaz, king of Judah, murdered his son as a human sacrifice.

  • II Kings 17:17: The people of Judah abandoned worship at the temple in Jerusalem. They were said to have burned their children as human sacrifices to Baal.

  • II Kings 21:6: Manasseh burned his son as a human sacrifice to Baal.

  • Isaiah 57:5: Isaiah, speaking for the Lord, comments on the practice of the people of Israel in sacrificing their children, "down in the valleys, under overhanging rocks."

  • Jeremiah 7:31: Jeremiah, speaking for the Lord, criticizes the people of Judah for burning "their sons and daughters in the fire."

  • etc.

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Exodus 20:13:

"You shall not murder."

This verse is often mistranslated "Thou shalt not kill." Murder actually refers only to the killing of a human person.

Since the Jewish religion has traditionally interpreted the Torah as implying that a fetus as achieving full personhood only when it is half emerged from the birth canal, this verse would not apply to abortion.

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This topic continues in the next essay.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Hans Walter Wolff, "Anthropology of the Old Testament," Fortress Press, Philadelphia PA, (1974), Pages 14 & 59.
  2. C.M. Laymon, Ed., "The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible," Abingdon, (1991), P. 46.
  3. D.W. Cloud, "Birth Control and the Christian," at:
  4. B.E. McKinley, "Why Abortion is Biblical,"  at:

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Copyright © 1997 to 2016 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Last update and review: 2016-SEP-03

Author: B.A. Robinson

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