What's going on in Numbers 5?


So I was reading a blog post about abortion and the pro-life movement and stuff, and somebody mentioned Numbers 5. I didn’t know what was in Numbers 5, so I looked it up.


Now, let me say that I looked up 5 different English versions (the CPDV, the GNBDK, the NIV, the ESV, and the KJV). Three of those say that the adulterous woman’s “thigh will rot” or something along those lines, whatever that means. The GNBDK says that her genitals will shrink.

The NIV says that she will miscarry.

I am not sure what to make of it. Is it really saying that if a woman committed adultery, God would then kill her child to make the point? Why? Is the translation wrong? What does it mean when it says her thigh will rot? It sounds like they’re supposed to give her poison. I’m sure there must be a good reason for all of this, but all in all it’s just very surprising and confusing.

You can assume that I don’t know very much about Numbers or the old testament laws in general. I’ve read most of it, but I haven’t reviewed it lately, and I probably didn’t understand it that well in the first place. Anyways, I want to know what’s going on with Numbers 5, verses 11-31.

The NIV passage can be found here.


As you noted, the NIV is practically alone in translating this verse as describing a forced miscarriage. Here are some other examples:

Numbers 5:21-22

The phrase in question (again as you noted) is most often translated literally as “her thigh will rot”. Looking at several commentaries, no one knows exactly what this means. In the Scriptures, the word “thigh” is used euphemistically for the sexual organs or the womb.** Note that nowhere in this passage is it said implicitly or explicitly that the woman is pregnant. **So really, the most one can safely say is that, as a result of this trial, the woman’s stomach (“bowels”) will swell and her sexual organs/womb will dry up. Unpleasant enough, to be sure, but not an abortion.


I think it is a somewhat clever solution to the problem of men who suspect their wife of cheating. Any wife goes through this and he has to give up his imaginings. It is a somewhat harmless procedure (swallow a little ink and dirt dissolved in water), and if she does it, he must accept any children that show up in a number of months, which is good for the children. Also, fear of the procedure might induce a guilty party to confess, which might be viewed as beneficial as well.

In regard to your particular question about the thigh or womb or odd translation, perhaps you might want to look at the last line, to compare the effects between being guilty or not guilty.

Numbers 5:28 But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be immune and be able to conceive children.


The phrase “Thigh will rot” is a euphamism for a condition known as uterine prolapse or pelvic organ prolapse. Pelvic organ prolapse is a common condition in third world countries, in areas with poor nutrition, where women have many children and where women often perform strenuous manual labor. It was very common in the ancient world where women were expected to work hard and bear many sons. It is still a common occurence today. Women do kegel exercises when they are pregnant to prevent it.


Uterine prolapse (or Pelvic organ prolapse) occurs when the female pelvic organs fall from their normal position, into or through the vagina. Occurring in women of all ages, it is more common as women age, particularly in those who have delivered large babies or had exceedingly long pushing phases of labor. Smoking, obesity, connective tissue disorders, upper respiratory disorders‚ and repetitive strain injuries can all increase prolapse risk.
From en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prolapse*

Jews would not mention the names of the genitalia but would use an evasive synonym such as thigh or foot instead.

*So the servant put his hand under the thigh of his master Abraham and swore to him in this undertaking. (Genesis 24:9)

Then Zippo’rah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it, and said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” (Exodus 4:25)*

Abraham’s servant actually swore an oath with his hands on his master’s testicles but the writer used the evasive synonym thigh instead. Zipporah actually touched her son’s foreskin to Mose’s penis but the writer used the evasive synonym foot instead. Jewish writers used foot, thigh, leg, etc., as evasive synonyms in order to not have to write the actual names of the genitals.

As anyone could imagine, a woman with weak pelvic muscles and pelvic prolapse would be more likely to miscarry. Pelvic prolapse also sometimes results in a distended belly. The RSV translation gets it right.

And when he has made her drink the water, then, if she has defiled herself and has acted unfaithfully against her husband, the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain, and her body shall swell, and her thigh shall fall away, and the woman shall become an execration among her people. But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be free and shall conceive children. (Numbers 5:27-28)

This has nothing to do with abortion and the writer was simply using the word thigh as an evasive synonym for the word vagina. What the writer is describing is uterine prolapse.

The NIV is an extremely poor translation.



Thanks everybody! I’m just going to assume it’s a translation error in the NIV, and that miscarriage isn’t implied. I used the NIV almost exclusively back when I was Protestant, so I kind of freaked out about the wording in that version. :blush:

I feel a lot better now that I know the passage isn’t commanding people to induce an abortion. :slight_smile:


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.