October 19, 2008

That Pesky Commandment

When I arrived at church this morning there was some mail from yesterday, including a packet from a group calling themselves "The Judeo-Christian View" which consisted of an all-out video (two DVDs were enclosed) and paper attack on Senator Obama. Not only is the claim to represent the Judeo-Christian view overly ambitious, but these folks also scandalously misrepresent Obama's views on the two things they say are of "paramount importance" in the upcoming election: same-sex marriage (which they put in scare-quotes) and "child sacrifice" -- which is how they see abortion -- apparently all abortion, but with special emphasis on partial birth abortion, which they claim Obama "supports."

Perhaps these folks are just so hot under the collar that they can't distinguish between "supports it" and "does not support criminalizing it." Maybe they are so ignorant of the Christian tradition that they don't know that the idea that all abortion -- from conception on -- is to be considered the equivalent of murder is a relatively recent Christian development, and is not part of the Jewish legal tradition. After all Numbers 5 describes a procedure to induce an abortion in a woman suspected of adultery. And Mishnah Oholot 7.6 describes something not unlike partial birth abortion:

If a woman is in difficult labor, the child must be cut up while it is in the womb and brought out limb by limb, since the life of the mother has priority; but if the greater part has emerged, it may not be touched, since the claim of one life cannot override the claim of another life.

So there is no real "Judeo-Christian" view on the subject of abortion -- in fact there is a very wide range of positions in these traditions, and to suggest that Obama is "pro-abortion" because he is "pro-choice" is little short of mendacity and false witness. In the debate last week, Obama articulated a very pastoral and comprehensible view of the tragedy of abortion, taking a position identical to that of the Episcopal Church. John McCain literally sneered at the concept of concern for the "health" of the mother because it is so elastic a term.

There can be no elasticity for the absolute position of no abortion at any time for any reason whatsoever, even in the case of rape or incest. Obviously if you think a zygote is fully human and should have all the rights of a human being, you will see abortion as the equivalent of murder. That's a position anyone is free to adopt -- but to call it the Judeo-Christian position is a misrepresentation, since not all Jews and Christians -- as attested in Scripture and the tradition -- support this position. And to claim that Obama favors abortion is a deliberate lie.

The colorful document from the self-styled JDV also goes on to say that if the US supports same-sex marriage (which Obama doesn't, though he supports civil unions) the US will just be giving more ammunition to those crazy Muslim terrorists to attack us as infidels. There are also images of idols (with a "cute" suggestion that Obama is the latest) and further intemperate analyses. The second DVD was about the threat Islam poses to civilization as we know it, and I confess I did not pop it into the DVD player.

This packet apparently went out to parishes far and wide -- I can't imagine I am the only priest to have received a copy. But my copy, including the DVDs, when straight to where I deposit all rubbish. I am all for an intelligent discussion of the difficult issues of abortion and same-sex marriage -- or even the engagement of Islam with the rest of the world -- but this document does not represent that kind of intelligence, but rather fear, slander, and falsehood. Those who violate the commandment not to bear false witness have no place wrapping themselves in the mantle of "Judeo-Christian" values. Even giving them the benefit of the doubt that they just don't understand Obama (or the real Judeo-Christian tradition, or rather, range of traditions; or Islam for that matter) they are dangerously misleading others. Please join me in rejecting this slander and falsehood, which adds nothing to a legitimate debate on difficult issues.

Tobias Haller BSG


Rev. Kurt Huber said...

I got that same packet, gave it to my senior warden with a smile and said I had a present for her.

I think it was going in the circular file. A waste of money; who funds this stuff?

Anonymous said...

I've been enjoying your posts and must admit that, until recently, I've been guilty of assuming religiously orthodox and the like to mean politically conservative. So your posts are not only a breath of fresh air but they are also quite educational. (On this note, I've just been assigned Amy Sullivan's "The Party Faithful" for class and am finding it to be an excellent resource). Again, thanks for your insights!

Brother David said...

The Numbers 5 reading sounds to be Hebrew Magik to cause an unfaithful woman to become barren.

Sort of like medieval Christian Magik; throw a woman into the pond and if she floats she is a witch, so fish her out and burn her at the stake, if she drowns she was innocent, and gone home to the Lord.

The Mishnah Oholot 7.6 is certainly a "late term" abortion, although to save the life of the mother.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Dahveed, Num 5 is surely some kind of trial by ordeal, and with all the hocus pocus might even have been an exercise in psychological testing. I'm thinking of the woman having to hold the handsful of grain while being examined by the priest -- perhaps he would look for her to spill some grain by nervous shaking (note that the priest doesn't put oil on the grain, so it remains loose), and then put something in the water that would cause the uterus to prolapse and expel any fetus -- note that he doesn't actually prepare the water until after this examination. So it may have served as a kind of primitive lie detector. Chemical (or herbal) abortifacients were known in the ancient world, so it is not unlikely that this may represent a ritual relic of such a use. So there may be more than magical stuff at work. I accept that many ancient priests/shamans made use of the technologies available to them to "work wonders" and many of them must have been very shrewd practicioners. So this may have been more sophisticated than the witch-drowning kind of trial by ordeal.

By the way, you will find a number of conservative websites that try to read around this text, and claim that no abortion is referenced. That seems at odds with the text, and doesn't take full account of the fact that the word used for "thigh" (or in the NRSV "uterus") is also used in later texts as a Hebrew euphemism for "fetus." Jewish law did not consider a fetus to be a "person" until born; the halakah says that until it is born (the forehead emerged in a normal birth or the "larger part of the body" in a breach delivery) the fetus is "part of her body, like the thigh."

My point in all this is that there is no clear "Judeo-Christian" teaching on abortion -- even late term abortion -- except for those individual Jews or Christians who may agree on any particular set of options from a very rich and varied tradition. And even if there were, it is a misrepresentation of Obama that I am concerned about; and the offense I take at religious leaders engaging in duplicity.

rick allen said...

"By the way, you will find a number of conservative websites that try to read around this text, and claim that no abortion is referenced."

I don't think it's just conservative web sites. If you look at, say, the JPS translation, or just about any mainstream translation, it is apparent that the consequence for an adulteress is barrenness, not miscarriage.

"That seems at odds with the text, and doesn't take full account of the fact that the word used for "thigh" (or in the NRSV "uterus") is also used in later texts as a Hebrew euphemism for "fetus.""

That is, IIRC, the term "yarakh"? I don't find that usage in biblical Hebrew, but I really don't know. Do you have an example with a citation?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

The JPS gives a literal translation -- I don't have the JPS Torah commentary for Numbers, so I don't know what else they may say in this regard. As to "mainstream" I would say most of the major versions use terms that are explicit as to miscarriage: even the NIV, though it translates the verse literally in the text, offers as a footnote, "a miscarrying womb." The New English Bible and the Revised English Bible refer to "misscarriage and untimely birth" (the latter with a note showing a literal translation). And even the Jerome Bible Commentary says this is "perhaps a euphemism for miscarriage." And even the Vulgate has "utero tumescente." So I think the division is between those who wish to translate literally and those who choose to explain the meaning of the euphemism within the body of the translation; but in either cdase it is obviously more than a swelling stomach and thin or sagging thigh.

The rabbis held that the effect of the curse was immediate, and what is described sounds so -- very much the effect of an oral abortifacient. If it was simply "barrenness" it would take considerable time to see if the curse "worked" -- which hardly makes sense of the passage. Clearly a trial by ordeal requires some kind of dramatic outcome if it is to be effective; and a prolapse of the uterus (if this is what is meant by "a swelling belly and a sagging thigh" as a literal reading would have it) would certainly expel any embryo or fetus were one present. So the argument that this is simply "barrenness" doesn't fit the context of what is described.

As I said, the euphemism for fetus is not biblical, but comes up in the rabbinic description. The word itself can range in meaning from a literal "thigh" to the sexual organs. The other word, "beten" = belly, womb is more specific. The negative form, mbeten, implies either lack of ability to conceive or inability to carry a child to birth, that is, to have miscarriages.

June Butler said...

The Roman Catholic Church permits abortion today, in the instance of an ectopic pregnancy. Yes, I know, I know. The principle of the twofold effect is operative, but the end result is the death of the fetus.

I wouldn't want to see it any other way, but I'm just sayin'.

rick allen said...

Toby, if you don't mind, I'd quibble a little more with you.

This idea that the draught is supposed to be an oral abotifacient is directly contradicted by the text, which says the woman is given water mixed with earth and the "writing" somehow washed off in the potion. We can speculate that some abortifacient is added, but that's speculation, not what the ritual presribes.

You say that "The rabbis held that the effect of the curse was immediate." Do you know of any abortifacients, whether in folk medicine or modern medicine, that immediately induce miscarriage?

You say, "Clearly a trial by ordeal requires some kind of dramatic outcome if it is to be effective." Perhaps. But I'm not sure that "trial by ordeal" is really what's going on here. If we're looking for analogies, this looks to me much more like what in English law was called purgation by oath. "May lightning strike me if what I say is not true." A harmless, if bitter, potion is given to the woman. The priest hands it to her with the charge that, if she is guilty, she will suffer the consequence. She accepts the terms: "Amen, amen." If she has forsworn, God will provide that she pay the consequence. But the jealousy of the husband is thereby satisfied.

The notion that the consequence is barrenness is fully bourne out by verse 28; one who is innocent will continue to be able to conceive.

If the "punishment" were miscarriage, only those pregnant from adultery would suffer.

And it's not as if the Torah were unable to talk about miscarriage directly. Look at Exodus 21:22. It is easy to express directly; a woman is accidentally struck, and "her child comes out."

I know it's always tempting to speculate about something else "really" going in these kind of passages. But I think the passage taken in its own terms makes more sense.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...


You seem to me to be straining here to avoid an interpretation that is widely held in the "mainstream" -- as in the sources I cite: that the bitter water has some kind of immediate (I don't necessarily mean instantaneous) effect. This is what the text says: the belly shall swell and the thigh sag / rot. As the Interpreter's Bible (1953, and hardly a "liberal" publication) says, this "probably refers to miscarriage." Many modern translations have simply adopted this view (NRSV, NEB, REB). Other choose to translate literally, but even some such as the NIV acknowledge the possibility this refers to an induced miscarriage in a footnote, as does the RC commentary.

It is of course possible that what is described was, as you suggest, merely a face-saving gesture. But that is certainly not what the text says! And I would suggest it a far more cynical reading into the text than what I have suggested.

Sticking with the text, the notion that "barrenness" is the punishment is not borne out by verse 28. Fertility is proof of innocence, not barrenness alone of guilt. The swelling of the belly and fall / rotting of the "thigh" is far more dramatic than simply at some later unspecified time being unable to conceive. I think you are trying to ignore the text in this, and you are very far from "taking it on its own terms."

You also appear not to take into account the fact that the ancient Hebrews did not have a sophisticated or accurate understanding of the mechanism of pregnancy. It was assumed, for instance, that if a man planted his seed (in this case in an adulterous way) pregnancy would be the normal result. Thus the "punishment" would be the prolapse of the uterus and an attendant miscarriage -- at least that is what would be expected.

Another example is Talmudic: pregnant women are to use birth control, because (as believed, wrongly) if a pregnant women started another pregnancy it might harm the first fetus. We know that can't happen, but the assumption was that seed, if planted, would grow.

As you say, it is tempting to speculate about what a passage such as this in Numbers means; but it remains at least possible, and very likely probable, that what is referred to is prolapse of the uterus, with attendant miscarriage and sterility. (I admit the idea that the priest administered an abortifacient in addition to the dust and ink is speculative, and I am not aware of any scholar who has made such a suggestion -- but then again, we don't know of what the ink consisted, and since the scroll is written _after_ that initial examination with the barley, I think it quite likely the priest would have several inks to choose from. It is certainly an odd and peculiar detail of the rite to mix ink with the water. (Making guilty people drink dust is not so unusual) But the fact is that the Mediterranean world knew about oral abortifacients -- in fact, "pharmakeia" was used for abortions. So the idea that this was a kind of primeval lie detector seems to me more likely, and more in keeping with the intent, than a mere gesture to make the jealous husband happy.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

As a follow-up to my last comment. I'm now at home and have access to my library. As you may know the topic of the Suspected Adulteress gave rise to a whole section of the Mishnah and Talmud, "Sotah." I admit I'd never read even the whole of the Mishnah on this, but have just done so, and find further evidence to support my view that the text assumes more than mere "barrenness."

As to the immediateness of the effect of the bitter water (3.4-5): "Hardly has she finished drinking before her face turns yellow and her eyes bulge and her veins swell, and they say, 'take her away!'... but if she had any merit this holds her punishment in suspense... Rabbi Simeon says: Merit does not hold in suspense the punishment of the bitter water; [this] makes the water of little effect for all the women that drink... and brings an evil name against all undefiled women that have drunk, for it will be said 'they are in truth defiled; their merit has held their punishment in suspense.' Rabbi Judah disagrees... etc.

Further evidence for miscarriage or facilitated abortion being at issue is shown by the groups of women who do not drink the bitter water: a woman who is known to be pregnant from a former husband who has married her new husband before giving birth to the child from the former marriage. Also "a sterile woman, an aged woman, and one that is not like to bear children do not drink." (4.3) "The wife of a eunuch must drink... as must any woman suspected of incest, save only with a minor or with anything that is not human." (4.4) Thus only women who might be pregnant are put to the test.

There is also an extended discussion of the ink and the water itself. It is very important that the writing be capable of being washed off into the water. The ink is not to be copperas (indelible iron sulfate) or fixed with gum, but must be water soluble (2.4) This indicates some alchemical knowledge.

There is also much in this tractate that wanders off far from the subject (as is common in the Mishnah). Only Rabbi Judah's opinion would support an invisible outcome (barrenness) to become evident at a later date. Which just goes to show there has always been disagreement when it comes to scriptural interpretation, including of this text.

Марко Фризия said...

Fr. Tobias, this posting is sane, intelligent, and humane. Thanks so much for sharing it!

rick allen said...

Then R. Allen said:

The witness of Tractate Sotah in the Mishnah seems to me to further confirm we are talking about barrenness.

In 3.4 and 3.5 there is a discussion of whether a woman's merit might hold the punishment in suspense for one year, or two years, or three years. But how can miscarriage be held in suspense for that period of time?

And again, as with the passage in Numbers, there is no express mention of miscarriage anywhere in Tractate Sotah. It's not as if the Mishnah shuns the subject; it's discussed extensively, for example, in Tractate Niddah.

"You also appear not to take into account the fact that the ancient Hebrews did not have a sophisticated or accurate understanding of the mechanism of pregnancy. It was assumed, for instance, that if a man planted his seed (in this case in an adulterous way) pregnancy would be the normal result."

Anyone who doesn't notice that pregnancy doesn't always result from sexual intercourse is, I think, a little more than "unsophisticated."

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...


Obviously barrenness will result from a prolapsed uterus. But you seem to be unwilling to acknowledge that if a woman is pregnant and drinks something and then "her belly swells up and her thigh sags/rots" (accepting that thigh is a euphemism here) that will also cause a miscarriage. As I note, this has long been a standard reading of the passage.

You note that there is an opinion in the Mishnah that merit will defer the punishment -- but that makes no sense if "barrenness" IS the punishment -- since how do you "defer" a condition that only becomes evident in relation to other circumstances? As Simeon pointed out, this undercuts the plain meaning of the text, and renders the law meaningless.

The "punishment" as described is explicit: "swollen belly and rotting thigh." You seem to be unwilling to address the fact that there are simple ways of saying "she shall become barren" -- and there is no indication of that in the penalty clauses, only in the innocent verdict, in reverse. It is offered as an assurance rather than as a comment on the penalty.

You also fail to address why the wife of a eunuch must drink: obviously if she were made barren no "punishment" would ever become evident. Only the dramatic prolapse with or without miscarriage would indicate guilt. If barrenness is the "punishment," she would continue to appear faithful to her eunuch husband, and only appear guilty if the penalty didn't "take" and she became pregnant! A fine legal paradox if it is a penalty that only proves the guilty innocent.

Really Rick, you are straining out camels here in an effort to avoid the obvious implications of this text, and how it has been understood in the tradition.

And yes, the ancients' understanding of sex and its mechanisms were rather unsophisticated.

Anonymous said...


Tobias, you obviously miss the fact that, in Rick-World, if the Bishop of Rome would disagree w/ you, ergo you MUST be wrong.


[Once again, Tobias, I stand in awe: actor, composer, iconographer, first-rate Biblical scholar. That you couldn't play Center in the NBA is only fair! ;-)]

Brother David said...

That you couldn't play Center in the NBA is only fair!

I get the impression Tobias is a bit short. I know that there have been successful short basketballers, but we have many a successful small footballer!

rick allen said...

Just to tie up one loose end. The JPS' "Torah: A Modern Commentary" notes that the consequence of the sotah ritual is not entirely clear, and suggests it was sterility; miscarriage is not mentioned in the discussion.

Doesn't prove anything, other than that that position isn't entirely the preserve of the crabbedly conservative or pope-ridden. Which was my original point.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Point taken, although that is not the point I understood you to be making earlier, which seemed to me to be an attempt to portray the notion that miscarriage is an issue is not "mainstream." My suggestion about "conservative websites" was about those that seek to eliminate the possibility of miscarriage. The JPS commentary, as your report, is silent on the subject. I was referring to conservative anti-abortion sites that seek to "claim that no abortion is referenced." That is the position I was addressing, and I consider it to be unreasonable to deny the possibility.