Does Numbers 5 refer to an abortion?

I just saw read a woman who referenced Numbers Chapter 5 Verses 11 - 31 as being an example of God sanctioning an abortion. Now I know that is not correct but can you give me some context on this section of the OT? Thank you and God bless

A little background is in order first because this is a rather unusual passage. It is situation in which a husband suspects his wife is an adulterer but has no evidence. He could then bring her before a religious tribunal and she would drink a concoction that would either prove or disprove the charge of adultery. There are no other such trial/ordeals in the Old Testament. While there is the occasional drawing of lots to determine guilt, this is the only time that someone must undergo some kind of trial where the results are believed to reveal the truth. Such practices were more common among non-Jews in the ancient Mid-East. Many scholars think that this practice was adopted to prevent woman from becoming victims of jealous husbands and misogynist judges. We need to remember that ancient Judaism had a deep distrust of human judgment and human justice. In situations where they felt a judgment *must *be rendered and it did not have sufficient “checks and balances” on human prejudices then they would turn to ways of perceiving divine judgment.

To condemn someone for adultery there had to be 2 witnesses and the perpetrators had to have been warned in advance. But in situations where a husband was “sure” that his wife had committed adultery but could not prove it, it would create such a strain on the marriage and the local community that they felt *something *had to be done to bring closure and resolution to the matter. Given the Jewish distrust of human notions of judgment and justice, having a group of men make the judgment probably seemed like a bad idea to them. It appears that they adopted, in this one instance, a sort of ordeal/test for the wife to go through if she insisted on her innocence.

Given that its generally assumed that the concoction is not actually a threat to health, the only way a bad reaction would occur would be because of psychological reaction due to a guilty conscience.

As strange as this matter is in the Old Testament, it also has no real attestation from the Biblical period. Its never mentioned again in the Bible and its only mentioned by a few historical figures and writings but always as something that they have heard about, never about an actual case they witnessed. Some of the recollections of the procedure also differ from the Biblical method. And the Mishnah states the practice was stopped. So there is some question of whether this was *ever *actually used.

But it is in the Bible, so what would happen if she was guilty? Well, that depends on your translation:

Once he has had her drink the water, if she has defiled herself and been unfaithful to her husband, the water that brings a curse will enter into her to her bitter hurt, and her belly will swell and her uterus will fall, so that she will become a curse among her people. If, however, the woman has not defiled herself, but is still pure, she will be immune and will still be fertile. - NAB

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. 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. - NIV

If she has defiled herself by being unfaithful to her husband, the water that brings on the curse will cause bitter suffering. Her abdomen will swell and her womb will shrink, and her name will become a curse among her people. But if she has not defiled herself and is pure, then she will be unharmed and will still be able to have children. - NLT

And when he has made her drink the water, then, if she has defiled herself and has broken faith with her husband, the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain, and her womb shall swell, and her thigh shall fall away, and the woman shall become a curse among her people. But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be free and shall conceive children. - ESV

When he has made her drink the water, then it shall come about, if she has defiled herself and has been unfaithful to her husband, that 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

Only one major translation uses the word “miscarriage.” All the others refers to the woman’s womb or belly swelling and her “thigh” to shrink or rot.

Obviously “thigh” is some kind of euphemism but it seems hard to justify it means miscarriage. For starters there’s no mention of possible pregnancy until the very end and it is used as a future event. So it could simply be saying that if she is guilty she will become infertile, as a punishment for calling God to be her witness when she is lying. Rabbis state that the final line about the innocent woman conceiving means that because she was unjustly humiliated that even if she was previous infertile she will now be fertile.

Continued in next reply…

1 Like

If the passage wanted to refer to a miscarriage or even infertility it would most likely mention it explicitly since such things are mentioned explicitly elsewhere in the Old Testament. So that seems to be a very unlikely interpretation or translation, especially when only one English translation uses the word “miscarriage” as a translation for a “thigh” rotting or shrinking.

Its much more likely that the threatened punishments were intentionally vague and threatening as a scare tactic to elicit confession from a guilty party. In ancient Jewish culture, to call God down as your witness/judge when you knew you were lying was a very scary thing to do. Hearing the priest pronounce these potential punishments from God and being required to assent “Amen” and then drink the concoction would have been quite intimidating.

1 Like
DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in these forums do not necessarily reflect those of Catholic Answers. For official apologetics resources please visit www.catholic.com.