What would you do if you discovered that a pivotal bible verse, one that has shaped, among other things, both Jewish and Catholic doctrine on abortion, has been, for thousands of years, mistranslated by Christians and Jews alike?
In my case, I’d write about it, because the very possibility of building core law on a mistranslation is pretty mind-blowing to me, as a person who takes the text of the Torah seriously.
Here’s the text, in the King James translation:
If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief (ason) follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. (Ex. 21:22)
Now let me allow the great Rabbi Sacks to show what this verse has meant to Jews and Christians:
The text deals not with abortion per se, but with a fight between two people in which a bystander – a pregnant woman – is hit, with the result that she miscarries. What is the punishment in such a case? Here is the text:
“If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she has a miscarriage but there is no other fatal damage [ason], the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is fatal damage [ason], you are to take life for life…” (Exodus 21: 22-23).
The meaning of the law about fighting men, then, is this: If the woman miscarries but suffers no other injury, the person responsible must pay compensation for the loss of the unborn child, but suffers no other penalty. If, however, the woman dies, he is guilty of a much more serious offense. (The sages, in Sanhedrin 79a [The Talmud], disagreed as to whether this means that he is liable for capital punishment.)
One thing, however, is clear. Causing a woman to miscarry – being responsible for the death of a fetus – is not a capital offense. Until birth, the fetus does not have the legal status of a person.
That, in a nutshell is what Jewish Law takes from this verse. Yet, as I will show, it is clearly incorrect!
But before we go there, we should also understand what this very same verse means for Christians. Sacks tells us as follows:
At the same time that the Sages in Israel were teaching this law, there was a significant Jewish community in Alexandria, Egypt. A passage in the Talmud describes the great splendor of the synagogue there. The Alexandrian Jewish community – whose most famous member was the first century philosopher Philo – was highly Hellenized. It developed its own traditions, at times quite different from those of the rabbinic mainstream. In one of his works, Philo, explaining the main principles of Jewish law to a non-Hebrew-reading public, turns to the biblical passage under review, and paraphrases it in these words:
But if anyone has a contest with a woman who is pregnant, and strike her a blow on her belly, and she miscarry, if the child which was conceived within her is still unfashioned and unformed, he shall be punished by a fine, both for the assault which he has committed and also because he has prevented nature, who was fashioning and preparing that most excellent of all creatures, a human being, from bringing him into existence. But if the child which was conceived had assumed a distinct shape in all its parts, having received all its proper connective and distinctive qualities, he shall die; for such a creature as that, is a man, whom he has slain while still in the workshop of nature, who had not thought it as yet a proper time to produce him to the light, but had kept him like a statue lying in a sculptor’s workshop, requiring nothing more than to be released and sent out into the world. (The Special Laws, III: XIX)
Philo understands the word ason to mean not “calamity,” but rather “form.” The meaning of the two verses is now completely different. In both cases, they are talking about damage to the fetus only. The first case, “there is no ason,” means that the fetus was “unformed,” i.e., at an early stage of development. The second verse speaks of a fetus “that has form,” i.e., at a later stage of pregnancy. Philo puts this rather finely when he compares the developed fetus to a sculpture that has been finished but has not yet left the sculptor’s workshop. On this view, feticide – and hence abortion – can be a capital crime, an act of murder.
Note that the entire interpretation pivots on the meaning of one word: ason. More on this later, but first, what Philo meant to Christian understandings of abortion, again by Sacks:
Philo’s interpretation – and the views of the Alexandrian Jewish community generally – were to play a significant part in the religious history of the West. This was not because they had an impact on Jews, for they did not. Rather, they had an impact on Christianity. The decisive victory of the Pauline Church over the Jerusalem Church, headed by Jesus’s brother James, meant that Christianity spread among gentiles rather than Jews. The first Christian texts were written in Greek rather than Hebrew. They were, at the same time, intensely dependent on the Hebrew Bible. In fact, the one serious attempt to divorce Christianity completely from the Hebrew Bible – made by the 2nd century Gnostic Marcion – was deemed to be a heresy.
Christians were therefore dependent on Greek translations of and commentaries to Tanach [Torah], and these were to be found among Alexandrian Jewry. The result was that early Christian teaching on abortion followed Philo rather than the Sages. The key distinction was, as Augustine put it, between embryo informatus and embryo formatus – an unformed or formed fetus. If the fetus was formed, i.e., more than 40 or 80 days had passed since conception (there was an argument over the precise period) then causing its death was murder. So taught Tertullian in the second century. So, the law remained until 1588 when Pope Sixtus V ordained that abortion at any stage was murder. This ruling was overturned three years later by Pope Gregory XIV, but reintroduced by Pope Pius IX in 1869.
This is not to say that Jewish and Catholic views on abortion are completely different. In practice, they are quite close, especially when compared to the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome, or the secular West today, where abortion is widespread and not seen as a moral evil at all. Judaism permits abortion only to save the life of the mother or to protect her from life-threatening illness. A fetus may not be a person in Jewish law, but it is a potential person, and must therefore be protected. However, the theoretical difference is real. In Judaism, abortion is not murder. In Catholicism, it is.
It is fascinating to see how this difference arose – over a difference in interpretation of a single word, ason.
I found Sack’s work fascinating and compelling when I first read it, years ago. But what I now understand now turns BOTH understandings on their head. The verse has been mistranslated from the beginning! This is because the word ason does not mean what either Philo or the sages thought it meant!
Sacks, Philo and I all agree that the meaning of the verse rides on this one word: Ason. But we do not have to try to translate this word in a vaccum, because the Torah tells us what it means, by the way the word is used earlier in the text!
וְאֶת־בִּנְיָמִין֙ אֲחִ֣י יוֹסֵ֔ף לֹא־שָׁלַ֥ח יַעֲקֹ֖ב אֶת־אֶחָ֑יו כִּ֣י אָמַ֔ר פֶּן־יִקְרָאֶ֖נּוּ אָסֽוֹן׃
For Jacob did not send Joseph’s brother Benjamin with his brothers, since he feared that he might meet with ason. (Gen. 42:4
וַיֹּ֕אמֶר לֹֽא־יֵרֵ֥ד בְּנִ֖י עִמָּכֶ֑ם כִּֽי־אָחִ֨יו מֵ֜ת וְה֧וּא לְבַדּ֣וֹ נִשְׁאָ֗ר וּקְרָאָ֤הוּ אָסוֹן֙ בַּדֶּ֙רֶךְ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר תֵּֽלְכוּ־בָ֔הּ וְהוֹרַדְתֶּ֧ם אֶת־שֵׂיבָתִ֛י בְּיָג֖וֹן שְׁאֽוֹלָה׃
But he said, “My son must not go down with you, for his brother is dead and he alone is left. If he meets with ason on the journey you are taking, you will send my white head down to Sheol in grief.” (Gen. 42:38)
וּלְקַחְתֶּ֧ם גַּם־אֶת־זֶ֛ה מֵעִ֥ם פָּנַ֖י וְקָרָ֣הוּ אָס֑וֹן וְהֽוֹרַדְתֶּ֧ם אֶת־שֵׂיבָתִ֛י בְּרָעָ֖ה שְׁאֹֽלָה׃
If you take this one from me, too, [in addition to Joseph] and he meets with ason, you will send my white head down to Sheol in sorrow.’ (Gen. 44:29)
These are the ONLY other uses of this word besides in the verses that we use to apply to abortion, in Ex. 21:22-23. The context gives us the meaning, which is counter to both normal Jewish and Christian interpretations.
Ason clearly does NOT mean what Philo thought it meant: “formed.” Nor does it quite mean what the Jewish sages translate it as: “damage.” We have other words for damage, but ason is only used these few times in the text; its meaning is special, and obvious from Jacob’s use of it. Ason means “the irrevocable loss of a child.”
With this, we can – and must – look at the verse again, because there is another key mistranslation: there is no miscarriage:
The text is as follows (my translation):
וְכִֽי־יִנָּצ֣וּ אֲנָשִׁ֗ים וְנָ֨גְפ֜וּ אִשָּׁ֤ה הָרָה֙ וְיָצְא֣וּ יְלָדֶ֔יהָ וְלֹ֥א יִהְיֶ֖ה אָס֑וֹן עָנ֣וֹשׁ יֵעָנֵ֗שׁ כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֨ר יָשִׁ֤ית עָלָיו֙ בַּ֣עַל הָֽאִשָּׁ֔ה וְנָתַ֖ן בִּפְלִלִֽים׃
When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and the child emerges, but there is no ason, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may place on him, the payment to be based on reckoning.
The clear translation is NOT a miscarriage, but instead a premature labor and delivery of the baby! Indeed, if you look up alternative translations on Biblehub, you’ll see that many of the newer translations agree with me, and contradict both the King James and the normative Jewish translation! There is no miscarriage. The baby is born alive, albeit prematurely as a result of the trauma of the conflict.
Ason, losing a prematurely born child, would be just like Jacob losing Benjamin – the text tells us so. And the fact that the Torah compares the death of a prematurely-born baby to Jacob losing fully-grown Benjamin actually makes a much stronger argument that the Torah really views a forced abortion to be much more like murder than Rabbis Sacks and normative Jewish law suggest. Philo’s translation may have been entirely incorrect, but the resulting conclusion does not change much, if at all. Indeed, the more faithful reading of the text leads us closer to the idea that the death of an unborn baby is indeed to be compared to the death of Jacob’s beloved Benjamin: murder most foul.
[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith, @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter work]
P.S. There is another clue in this same verse: the father of the prematurely born child places a fine on the perpetrator. The word for “places,” is only found two other places in the Torah:
I Myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I Myself will also bring you back; and Joseph shall place his hands on your eyes. (Gen: 46:4)
When Joseph saw that his father was placing his right hand on Ephraim’s head, he thought it wrong; so he took hold of his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s. (Gen. 48:17)
The word for “placing” is connected to intergenerational blessing and continuity! Which means that the father of the prematurely-born infant can place a fine because his own intergenerational connection to the next generation has been put in risk because of the health risks to a child who is born through trauma-induced labor. But if the baby is lost, like Benjamin could have been, then the “like for like” penalties apply.