If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman's husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. (NIV)
If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart [from her], and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman's husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges [determine]. 23. And if [any] mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25. burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (King James Version)
Some Christians try to use this scripture to defend abortion, saying that it means that causing a miscarriage isn't the same as causing the death of a human being. The person who strikes the pregnant woman, they claim, is only liable if the premature expulsion of the fetus also injures or kills the mother. The death of the fetus, they claim, is a minor offense and only requires restitution, as would be appropriate for damaging a man's property. Which group was interpreting this passage appropriately? I turned to About.com's Christian Humor Guide, Greg Hartman, for help. Here's what he had to say:
The King James renders it "her fruit depart from her"; the NKJV gives it as "gives birth prematurely." What does the term mean? We think of premature birth and miscarriage as two different things; miscarriage being a natural abortion and premature birth being a live baby.
There are several nearly irrefutable arguments against this passage referring to the death of the baby:
1. The word translated "serious injury" (ason in Hebrew) is never used to refer to death in the Bible. Whether the term "serious injury" refers to injury to the mother or the child (or both) can be determined as a consequence of the survival or death of the baby. We can already see from the passage that death of the mother is not an issue here; on the possible death of the baby:
2. This verse is in the section of Assault Laws, not the section of Homicide Laws (v 12-17). Therefore it doesn't refer to death at all, either of the baby or the mother.
3. The statement "eye for eye, tooth for tooth, burn for burn" etc. is a formula statement known the "lex talionis" (i.e., Law of Retribution). It is used in many other places in the Law in the same pattern, and it does not include death.
Notice, for instance, that the lex talionis covers various types of permanent injury -- dismemberment, loss of an eye or tooth, burns, etc. -- but not death. Murder and/or what we call involuntary manslaughter are covered separately. For instance, Leviticus 24:20 includes the lex talionis, but death is covered separately in the next verse (see also Numbers 35:11).
Since the lex talionis appears here with no specific reference to death, death is almost certainly not considered here at all. Therefore, the death of mother or fetus would be judged under the murder or accidental death laws cited above.
4. The phrase translated "premature birth" (yeled yatsa in Hebrew; literally "her children came out") does not favor the idea that the death of the baby is described here. The phrase yeled yatsa is never used in passages referring to miscarriage; the word that is used for miscarriage (Hebrew sakal) is not used here. Sakal is used some 23 times in the Old Testament; sometimes it is rendered as "miscarry" in the NIV but always -- invariably -- it refers
Bottom line: This phrase refers to a premature birth, caused by the fight, which the baby survives. If there is no other injury beyond the premature birth, the guilty party is fined according the judges' decision based upon the husband's demands. If there is any other injury -- and we have determined that the baby is alive here -- the lex talionis would apply to
the mother and the baby equally, meaning that the guilty party would suffer the same retributive punishment determined by the injury of the victim. And in this case, the victim could be either the baby or the mother.
Therefore the "value status" of the fetus, according to this passage, is equal to that of the mother.
When I looked online for commentaries on this passage, I also found other points being reinforced. One is that this verse underscores is that we are responsible not only for wrongs we deliberately inflict on others, but also even for harm we cause unintentionally, through our carelessness.
Another point was that pregnant women were singled out for particular care. The passage doesn't specify penalties for harming bystanders in general during a conflict, but specifically protects the expectant mother and her unborn child. The miraculous process of gestation, of bringing fruition to a new life, is given special attention.