The First Word: Jeremiah's wish

The only word used in connection with abortion in the Bible was 'killing' and never 'murder.'

pregnant woman (photo credit: )
pregnant woman
(photo credit: )
The Bible plays different roles in the ways that people formulate their views on different issues. On homosexuality or capital punishment, there are passages of law that rule on aspects of it, and there are stories that may involve it. So - even though I still suspect that most people's views of these things are more visceral and cultural - it is possible that the Bible genuinely influences some people's decisions about such matters. On abortion, however, the passages are few and questionable. After all, it was a revolution in technology that made the procedure safe enough and common enough to turn it into the issue that it is now, and the biblical texts were a couple of millennia too early for this. So people have been moved to rely on passages like the two men - or is it two people? - fighting in Exodus 21 who cause a miscarriage - or is it a premature labor? - resulting in injury to the pregnant woman - or is it to the baby? - or is it a miscarried fetus? (See William Propp's detailed treatment of this law's many uncertainties in the new Volume II of his brilliant Anchor Bible Exodus commentary to see why no one should rely on this enigmatic passage to form a view on abortion.) Or people have relied on the Decalogue commandment against murder, without feeling compelled to defend the assumption that abortion is analogous to what is understood there as murder. The commandment refers to taking a human life with malice. It doesn't refer to human sacrifice, even though that would be reckoned as murder in most societies today. Human sacrifice is powerfully forbidden in the Torah, but by way of its own commandment, not by the Ten Commandments. The Decalogue commandment also apparently does not refer to mercy killing, execution, killing in war or in self defense, killing an animal, or manslaughter. As in most law codes, ancient and modern, murder is distinguished from manslaughter. So if one regards abortion as a violation of this commandment, one must bring arguments and evidence to support that claim. Therefore it comes as a surprise - at first - that the only explicit reference to abortion in the Bible is rarely cited in debates. Also surprisingly, it occurs in the book of a prophet, not in a story or law. In Jeremiah 20, the prophet, in anguish, wishes that he had been aborted. Jeremiah, the saddest, most depressed, most anguished, most unbelieved of prophets, despite a good record of fulfilled predictions, finally outdoes even Moses, Elijah and Jonah, each of whom wishes for death at some point. The text: Cursed be the day in which I was born. The day that my mother bore me, let it not be blessed. Cursed be the man who informed my father, saying, "A male child's been born to you," making him glad! And let that man be like the cities that the Lord overturned and didn't regret. And let him hear crying in the morning and wailing at noontime. Because he didn't kill me from the womb, And my mother would be my tomb And her womb an eternal pregnancy. Why is this that I came out from the womb? To see suffering and agony And my days consumed in shame. THE MASORETIC text is clear and horrid. The Septuagint, in place of "from the womb," reads, "Because he didn't kill me in the womb" - which makes the fact of abortion even more vivid. Now, the passage likely is extreme hyperbole, and it is poetry, so one would be well advised to use caution when factoring it into any contemporary position on abortion. Moreover, the fact that Jeremiah wishes he had been killed in the womb doesn't mean that he is favoring abortion any more than, when Moses and Elijah and Jonah wish for death, they are coming out in favor of death! Further, this wish may apply solely to Jeremiah himself, and not be a position on whether all human lives - or any other human lives - would be better off aborted. But, even if kulanu hahamim, kulanu nevonim - we are all wise and understanding - and we're therefore cautious about using this passage as approving or disapproving of abortion, it has significant implications. First, a passage that is cited in abortion arguments is also from Jeremiah. God's first words to Jeremiah are: "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you" (1:5). Abortion opponents take this to mean that one exists as a person already in the womb. Now if ever there was a passage of poetry that needed to be taken with a wheelbarrowful of caution, it's this one. One cannot know if it is meant metaphorically or literally - or if it is meant to apply to Jeremiah alone as an extraordinary case or to all human beings. One cannot know if it implies that an abortion could undermine a divine plan, or if it rather means precisely that Jeremiah's destiny was already divinely protected at conception from any possible harm in his infancy - in which case the passage has nothing to do with abortion at all. What we can know is Jeremiah's own response to this revelation, which is the passage that we have been considering in Jeremiah 20. God says, "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you." Jeremiah looks back at that and says: "I wish someone had killed me in that womb! I wish my mother had been my tomb!" The inaugural revelation's already limited value in abortion debates is all but nullified by Jeremiah 20. SECOND, Jeremiah's wish may shed light on that classic question of murder versus killing in the Decalogue. When Jeremiah talks about abortion, he uses the term motetani, the po'lel of m-w-t. That verb never means murder in the Bible. It is used for David's killing of Goliath in battle (1 Sam. 17:51; and see 14:13). It is used by the Amalekite who claims to David that he killed Saul at the king's own request (2 Sam. 1:9,10,16; and see Judges 9:54). In Psalm 34 - timotet rasha ra'a - it refers to the just killing of the wicked (v. 22). Only in Psalm 109:16 does it refer to the ill-willed taking of life, and the nature of the act of killing is not identified there. That is, the word that Jeremiah uses for abortion, the only word used in connection with abortion in the Bible, always refers to killing, never to murder. The larger question remains: whether Jeremiah's wish that he had never been born applies only to Jeremiah himself or if it sheds light on the nature and value of human life generally - and what that implies for views of abortion. As it stands, it certainly is a personal expression. But related passages in the Bible may broaden its implication. Visibly similar to Jeremiah, Job's first words are: Let the day in which I was born perish, And the night one said, 'A boy is conceived.' He curses that night, saying: Because it didn't close the doors of my womb. And, very close to Jeremiah, he says: Why didn't I die from the womb, Come out from the womb and expire! To add the last piece of the parallel to Jeremiah, Job speaks of that never-been state thus: Like a concealed nepel, I wouldn't be, Like children who didn't see light. "Nepel" may mean an aborted fetus or a stillborn, so Jeremiah 20 remains the sole certain reference to abortion, but this passage that introduces the whole of Job's words provides another biblical picture of a human - an exceptional human - who judges the preemption of a life to be better than to have lived it. In the cases of Moses, Elijah and Jonah, one could say that each seeks to die after having lived and functioned for some time. But the cases of Jeremiah and Job say that it would have been better to forgo the whole thing. A life could be too painful to have lived it. I advise students and friends, "Live your life so that when it comes to an end you can answer the question, 'Was the world better because you were here, or was it worse, or did it make no difference?'" The second and the third possible answers are each fearful in a different way. And the Bible gives us two of its most powerful figures being left with the answer that it would have been preferable not to have been here at all. THE DEPICTION of a second biblical figure who expresses this view raises the possibility that the implications of Jeremiah's wish may be understood as more than idiosyncratic. And it is the speaker in Ecclesiastes who connects this rejection of life to the human condition broadly, not just to an individual. Kohelet says (4:1-3): I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun... And I praised the dead who've already died more than the living who are still alive, And better than both of them is one who has not yet been Who hasn't seen the bad thing that is done under the sun. And then, giving the case of a long-lived and many-childed man who still ends unfulfilled and unburied, Kohelet says, "Better than he is a napel!" (6:3). The cautions still apply: Just because Kohelet says it is better to be a nepel, that does not mean that the author advocates causing a nepel by abortion. After all, this author also says that the day of death is better than the day of birth (7:1), but that doesn't mean he favors causing deaths by murder. But the implications of these Kohelet passages, together with the other passages we've considered, are significant. If an individual human's life is such that it is better to die before birth and not to live it, then what does this imply for views on abortion? I submit that opposition to abortion is grounded in a belief - or a desire to believe - that a human life has value and has some meaning. The cases of Jeremiah and Job, broadened by the wisdom of Kohelet, question that belief. They still don't make it acceptable to take a human life, because we have an explicit commandment against that. But we have no explicit commandment prohibiting abortion. These passages taken collectively, therefore, challenge the belief that every life has some inherent value that cannot be prevented from coming into existence. I am not arguing that abortion is moral, or that it should be legal. What I conclude is that one cannot base opposition to it on the Bible. And, second, on the basis of the principles we have considered here, I would have to say that the weight of the biblical evidence is in the direction that abortion is permissible. The writer is author of Who Wrote the Bible? and Commentary on the Torah.