The occasion for this particular study, conducted in late 2001, was an extended series of discussions over the appropriateness of a move to pass legislation in the United States that would allow murder charges against anyone who injures a pregnant woman severely enough to induce a miscarriage. Since support for this idea was based on the conviction, held by many, that it is based on the Bible, I thought it would be good to see what the Bible says in the very passage where the circumstance in question is addressed.
When Men Strive: A Brief Compilation of Translations and Comments on Exodus 21: 22-25
1. Various translations, given in the order of the date of the translation.
King James (Authorized) Version, translated in 1611 AD.
The KJV translators, working with the best manuscripts then available, did their best to maintain a literal rendering of the text, showing by means of italics those words that were added to the English version by the translators.
22 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,
24 Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot,
25 Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
Logos International Study Bible, copyright 1972 using the 1901 text of the American Standard Version, which was an American version of the English Revised Version, published in England in 1880-85.
22 And if men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart, and yet no harm follow; he shall be surely fined, according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 But if any harm follow, then thou shalt give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
Revised Standard Version, copyright 1952.
22 When men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her shall be fined, according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
The New American Bible published 1970 by the Catholic Biblical Association of America, sponsored by The Bishop’s Committee of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine. This is an official Catholic translation of the Bible which received the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur.
22 When men have a fight and hurt a pregnant woman, so that she suffers a miscarriage, but no further injury, the guilty one shall be fined as much as the woman’s husband demands of him, and he shall pay in the presence of the judges. 23 But if injury ensues, you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
The New English Bible, published 1970
When, in the course of a brawl, a man knocks against a pregnant woman so that she has a miscarriage but suffers no further hurt, then the offender must pay whatever fine the woman’s husband demands after assessment.
Wherever hurt is done, you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, bruise for bruise, wound for wound.
The Living Bible, copyright 1971 Tyndale House Publishers.
22 “If two men are fighting, and in the process hurt a pregnant woman so that she has a miscarriage, but she lives, then the man who injured her shall be fined whatever amount the woman’s husband shall demand, and as the judges approve. 23 But if any harm comes to the woman and she dies, he shall be executed.
24 “If her eye is injured, injure his; if her tooth is knocked out, knock out his; and so on—hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, lash for lash.
Good News Bible (The Bible in Today’s English Version) copyright 1976 by the American Bible Society
22 “If some men are fighting and hurt a pregnant woman so that she loses her child, but she is not injured in any other way, the one who hurt her is to be fined whatever amount the woman’s husband demands, subject to the approval of the judges. 23 But if the woman herself is injured, the punishment shall be life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
New International Version, copyright 1973, 1978, 1984 by the Intenational Bible Society:
22 If men who are fighting hit a pregant woman and she gives birth prematurely [footnote: Or she has a miscarriage] but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. 23 But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
New King James Version, copyright 1979, 1980, 1982 by Tyndale House Publishers. A revision of the 1611 King James version which basically leaves it unchanged except for English words that are no longer in use or have changed their meaning.
22 “If men fight, and hurt a woman with child, so that she gives birth prematurely, yet no harm follows, he shall surely be punished accordingly as the woman’s husband imposes on him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 But if any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.
Revised English Bible, 1989:
22 When, in the course of a brawl, a man knocks against a pregnant woman so that she has a miscarriage but suffers no further injury, then the offender must pay whatever fine the woman’s husband demands after assessment. 23 But where injury ensues, you are to give life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, bruise for bruise, wound for wound.
Holy Bible, Contemporary English Version, copyright 1995 by the American Bible Society. (This is the version the Promise Keepers used for distributing New Testaments at the Stand in the Gap event in Washington, DC.)
22 Suppose a pregnant woman suffers a miscarriage [footnote: Or “gives birth before her time”] as the result of an injury caused by someone who is fighting. If she isn’t badly hurt, the one who injured her must pay whatever fine her husband demands and the judges approve. 23 But if she is seriously injured, the payment will be life for life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, cut for cut, and bruise for bruise.
The above shows all the translations of the Bible into English that I can readily get my hands on. Looking up specific words in Strong’s Concordance was in this case not very helpful: the word translated “mischief” “injury” “serious harm” etc seems to appear only in this one passage of the Bible. It is easy to see that although some of these versions allow for some ambiguity, all allow, and most assume, that the injury referenced in the law of retaliation (eye for eye, tooth for tooth, etc) is injury, or perhaps serious permanent injury, to the pregnant woman. At the very least, it is difficult to see why God through Moses would specifically provide for the unlikely possibility of a premature child losing a tooth! Perhaps this context influenced a majority of the scholars in how they chose to translate the passage as a whole. Only the New International version, the New King James version, and the Contemporary English Bible, all produced recently enough to have been, perhaps, influenced by modern controversies, suggest that the injured party might be the child rather than the mother.
3. Now to the commentaries:
What remarks, specifically, have Christian scholars who are able to read the original languages made about this passage across the years? Again, I am using the resources that happen to be on my shelves.
NIV Matthew Henry Commentary In One Volume. One of the most widely read and respected conservative commentators, Matthew Henry wrote in the late 17th and early 18th century. His commentary has been revised for the modern reader and published by Tyndale House in 1992. The older 6-volume edition is only slightly shortened in this particular place. These comments are on verses 22-36:
The particular care which the law took of women with child, that no harm should be done them which might occasion their miscarrying. On this occasion comes in that general law of retaliation which our Saviour refers to, Matt. 5.38, Eye for eye. Now,
The execution of this law is not thus put into the hands of private persons. The tradition of the elders seems to have made this corrupt interpretation of it, in opposition to which our Saviour commands us to forgive injuries, and not to meditate revenge, Matt. 5.39.
God often executes it in the course of his providence, making the punishment, in many cases, correspond to the sin, as Judges 1.7; Isa. 33:1; Hab. 2:13; Matt. 26.52.
Magistrates ought to have an eye to this rule in punishing offenders, and doing right to those who are injured. Consideration must be had of the nature, quality, and degree of the wrong done, that reparation may be made to the party injured, and others deterred from doing the like.
The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, copyright 1962 by the Moody Bible Institute of Chicago. Comments here are on verses 18-32.
Bodily Injuries, Whether Inflicted by Man or Beast. Here again the value of an individual in the sight of God is stressed. These also are more in the nature of admonitions than ordinances: injury as the result of a quarrel (vv. 18, 19); injury to a slave (vv. 20,21); injury to a pregnant woman (vv. 22-25). 22. No mischief follow; i.e., in addition to the loss of her child, no permanent injury to the mother ensues. Verses 23-25 state the lex talionis (law of retaliation) so often quoted as typical of the harsh OT laws. It should be noted first that this ordinance is restricted to matters of bodily harm only. Second, its purpose was not to enforce the rule but to check the passionate vengeance that for a slight injury often retaliated with death and destruction. Slaves were to be freed in retribution for a permanent injury (vv.26, 27). When men suffered injury from animals, the owners were to be held responsible (vv. 28-32).
Of the other commentaries on my shelf, neither Harper’s Bible Commentary nor the Abingdon Bible Commentary has anything specific to say about these verses. Abingdon does, however, say:
21:23-25 contains what has been called the lex talionis, or law of retaliation. Since the law is general, and refers to injuries which might be inflicted in a variety of ways, it is clear that it is not here in its proper place. The first part of 21:23 may have originally been followed by words defining the penalty in that case. The more general law may originally have followed 21:18,19. compare Deut. 19:16-21 and Lev. 24:19-20.
Some Further Observations on the Law of Retaliation
Since this is the main place in the Old Testament where the “eye for “eye” principle is expressed, no doubt Jesus was well aware of it when he commented on that principle in the Sermon on the mount, Matthew 5:38, as follows:
38 You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. 39 But I tell you not to resist an evil person….
Several general observations can be made here. The first is that in this biblical passage, an aborted unborn child is to be assigned a monetary value by the father subject to the approval of a court, and no further punishment is indicated for the death of that child. The mother of the child, however, is fully protected; her life is assessed as of equal value with the life of her (male) assailant. Her tooth is worth one of his teeth, her eye is of equal value to his eye, and he must pay in wounds for the injuries done to her. The lex talionis is in the first instance a declaration of a woman’s rights as a human being, equal to the rights of a man; even though as a wife she was commonly regarded as chattel (property) and as such may even be a slave, or the captured spoils of war. No matter; her full humanity is asserted, and though the loss of her child is compensated to her husband by a legally-established monetary payment, the damage (“mischief”) done to her in addition to this is required in full from the assailant. Thus the moral status of the child must be debated on other grounds, but that of the mother is beyond question.
Secondly, it should be remembered that in the circumstance under discussion, both mother and baby are victims. The question of what consequence might be appropriate for a mother who intentionally aborts her child, or someone who assists in that with her consent, is not addressed at all in this passage.
However, we are faced with another uncomfortable question as we look at this entire passage in light of the fact that Jesus himself had something to say about it. Namely, when we are advocating what should be the law of our land, do we promote the Old Testament standard (of which we “have heard that it was said” that this is how things should be done), or do we try to enact into law the Christian standard, that is, the standard given by Jesus (“But I tell you…”)? If we decide, for whatever reason, that the majority of translators cited above are wrong about who the injured party is with regard to life for life, eye for eye, etc. in Exodus 21:23-25, and that the passage applies exactly to the person who in the course of a violent act against a woman injures or kills her baby, how should we respond? Do we hold ourselves to that Old Testament standard, or to the Christian standard of non-resistance?
Or can it be that good Christianity and good law are not necessarily the same?
What would Jesus do?