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Abortion

Abortion [N]

Humankind as God's Unique Image-Bearer. Although only a handful of Old Testament texts, all in Genesis, explicitly portray humankind as God's image-bearer, this handful can hardly be described as insignificant. Key Hebrew terms in this connection include tselem [,l,x] (image, likeness Genesis 1:26 Genesis 1:27 a, b; 9:6 ) and demut [tWm.D] (form, shape, likeness Gen 1:26 ; 5:1 ). These terms designate humanity, over and against the rest of creation, as somehow modeled after God.

Attempts to articulate precisely the way in which humankind reflects God's image have yielded a bewildering array of proposals, keying on human qualities such as reason, volition, moral responsibility, sexual duality ( Gen 1:27 b), physical form, and capacity to govern ( Gen 1:28 ) or enter into relationships ( Gen 1:26 ; 2:18 ). But pinpointing the location of this image may be neither possible nor helpful. As James Barr has shown, the writer's choice of selem [,l,x] is, in part, a choice to reject several other more loaded terms that would carry overtones of idolatry or introduce unacceptable ideas about God. Most likely, the declaration of divine-human resemblance in Genesis 1 is generic, serving to set humanity not only apart from other creatures but also over them. There is a fundamental discontinuity between humankind and the animal realm ( Gen 1:24-28 ; 2:7 ; 2:19 ), a discontinuity reiterated when, after the flood, God affirms the killing and eating of animals but prohibits murder ( Gen 9:6 ).

Many point out that the Old Testament characteristically views people as a whole, without separating them into physical and spiritual components. Accordingly, an understanding of the divine image that is limited to certain spiritual or psychological qualities, divorced from the physical dimension, is too confining. Rather, this likeness belongs to people as people; it is intrinsic to being human. To locate human life is to locate a divine likeness. Nothing in Genesis suggests that human disobedience has eradicated the image ( Gen 9:6 ; cf. 1 Col 11:7 ; James 3:9 ); neither does Scripture support equating the divine-human resemblance with capacities not present until later stages of human development. Typically, developmental models find the image of God fully manifest only in rational, self-conscious persons, but this requires importing foreign categories and concepts. Personhood, however defined, may be a useful category, but it is not a biblical one.

The psalmist's portrait of humanity, as distinguished from the rest of creation, employs language of dignity, honor, and lofty position, rather than of divine image ( Psalm 8:3-8 ). Whether humankind is made a little lower than God ( 8:5 NASB) or the heavenly beings (NIV cf. LXX Hebrews 2:7 Hebrews 2:9 ), the point remains the same: Among earth's creatures humankind is unique, and over earth's creatures humankind is supreme. At the same time, the psalms carefully preserve the infinite distance between humanity and its Creator; divine likeness is never confused with divinity ( 8:4 ; 113:1-9 ; 144:3-4 ).

On several occasions, in widely diverget contexts, New Testament authors endorse this depiction of human dignity and God-likeness. In 1 Corinthians 11:7, Paul weaves together strands from Genesis 1, Psalm 8, and Exodus 34 to establish that men, in corporate worship, should not cover their heads, because man is the image of God. Acts 17:28 finds Paul enlisting Stoic support to establish essential links between God and humankind, in order to demonstrate the absurdity of likening God to inanimate objects. James 3:9 underlines the tongue's hypocrisy when it praises God while cursing God's image-bearers. Elsewhere, Christ is the quintessential divine image-bearer according to whose pattern redeemed humanity is being recreated ( Col 1:15 ; 3:10 ; Heb 2:6-10 ; cf. Rom 8:29 ; 2 Cor 3:18 ; 4:4 ).

A predictable corollary of Scripture's portrayal of humankind's dignity and God-likeness is the prohibition of murder. It underlies God's curse of Cain ( Gen 4:10-11 ), is explained in God's covenant with Noah ( Gen 9:5-6 ), is exemplified in the lives of Jacob ( Gen 27:41-42 ; 32:11-12 ), Joseph ( Genesis 37:21 Genesis 37:22 Genesis 37:27 ; 42:22 ), and Moses ( Exod 2:12-14 ), and finally is encoded as the sixth commandment ( Exod 20:13 ; Deut 5:17 ). Numerous laws explain how it was to be understood and enforced and how to distinguish murder from accidental killing. But with this prohibition of murder came also mandatory capital punishment ( Gen 9:5-6 ), even for such offenses as cursing one's parents ( Exod 21:17 ) or committing adultery ( Deu 22:22 ). And God himself, on many occasions, intervened to destroy human lives. Thus, although Mosaic law would not tolerate the cheapening of human life, it was not because human beings have infinite value and therefore must live, but because human life is a gracious gift from God, images God, and therefore deserves high honor. Strictly speaking, there was (and is) no right to life; only when I accept that my own life is neither required nor indispensable, and that I live only by God's mercy, can I gain the perspective needed to show mercy to others and to offer them protection.

Conception as a Sign of God's Blessing Numerous narrative texts, especially in Genesis, depict God's active role in conception and childbirth. Two themes emerge. First, conception and childbirth are gifts from God. Genesis 1:28 is less a set of divinely imposed obligationsto populate and to rulethan it is a revelation of God-given privileges: "God blessed them and said to them, Be fruitful and increase in number.'" This manifestation of divine blessing in the form of posterity is echoed in God's judgment upon the serpent ( Gen 3:15 ), and continues as the heart of God's commitments to Abraham ( Genesis 17:6 Genesis 17:16 ; 21:1-2 ), Isaac ( Genesis 26:3-4 Genesis 26:24 ), Jacob ( 28:14 ; Genesis 30:18 Genesis 30:20 ; 33:5 ) and Israel ( Deu 7:13 ); as the reward to Shiphrah and Puah, the Hebrew midwives, for their refusal to commit infanticide ( Exod 1:20-21 ); and as an assurance to wives who, being falsely accused of unfaithfulness, pass the ritual test for impurity ( Nu 5:28 ). Job's restoration is marked by the blessing of offspring ( 42:12-17 ); and the psalmist depicts the blessing, particularly of sons, in terms of inheritance and divine reward, legal protection, and prestige ( 127:3-5 ; cf. 113:9 ; 128:3-4 ). In the New Testament, Luke portrays Elizabeth's remarkable conception of John the Baptist as a sign of the Lord's magnified mercy toward her ( Luke 1:25 Luke 1:28 ), and in the angel's words to Mary foretelling the conception of "the Son of the Most High, " blessings of the Messiah's arrival and of promised fertility stand together ( Luke 1:28-38 ). In our own age, characterized as it is by overpopulation, birth control, and increasingly fragmented families, the biblical portrait of the child as divine blessing may appear quaint to some and even oppressive to others. Nevertheless, it would be unwise to dismiss outright so consistent a testimony; pregnancy is never seen as a curse, nor children as divine punishment for sexual promiscuity.

A second, related theme, most prominent once again in the Genesis narratives, portrays God directly involved in both causing and preventing fertility. More than once, God's merciful intervention stands out against a backdrop of barrenness and despair. Most striking are the accounts of the three mothers of the Jewish nation, Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel, each of whom saw barrenness give way to fruitfulness as God set out to fulfill his promises to Abraham. Sometimes, the Lord's intervention is noted in passing, without explanation ( Gen 4:1 ; Ruth 4:13 ), but other times God's bestowal of fertility or infertility is in direct response to obedience or disobedience ( Exod 23:26 ; Lev 20:20-21 ; Deut 7:13-14 ; Deuteronomy 30:5 Deuteronomy 30:9 ; Hosea 9:11 ). Biblical evidence stops short of suggesting that every conception is a direct act of divine causation; neither is barrenness infallibly linked with divine displeasure. Nevertheless God's initiative, causing or preventing conception or stillbirth, surely establishes this domain as one in which God is intensely interested and over which God is ultimately sovereign.

The silence of the Old Testament on abortion is indeed perplexing. But within a cultural context that valued childbirth and children so highly as a tangible sign of God's blessing it is more likely that, for the Jewish family, the intentional termination of pregnancy was unknown, distasteful, or even unconscionable than that their stance was casual, tolerant, or positive toward the practice. Clearly, many elements of the Mosaic code targeted directly Israel's inclination to adopt immoral practices deeply ingrained in Canaanite culture, including the abhorrent ritual of child sacrifice. Thus, while Old Testament law addressed explicitly offensive cultic practices that posed an obvious threat, abortion was not pervasive or popular enough to qualify. Subsequent Jewish literature abundantly confirms Israel's widespread rejection of both exposure and induced abortion.

The New Testament silence on abortion is also curious, since abortion was well known in the first-century Greco-Roman world. The mystery is not solved by appealing to condemnations of sorcery (pharmakeia Gal 5:20 ; Rev 9:21 ; 18:23 ; 21:8 ; 22:15 ); this evidence is neither clear nor convincing. Neither do texts on infanticide settle the question ( Matt 2:16-18 ; Acts 7:17-19 ). As in the Old Testament, the answer probably has more to do with the occasional nature of New Testament documents and the moral framework the church inherited from Judaism. Although many pagan practices made their way into the early church, some were considered idolatrous or so morally repugnant that they remained outside. For these, no teaching was required. In the second and third centuries, as the church's Jewish heritage was matched or surpassed by Roman and pagan influences, explicit condemnations of abortion became necessary.

The Unborn as God's Handiwork Another important biblical theme, most prominent in Old Testament poetic and prophetic literature, relates to God's direct interest in the development of the fetus during pregnancy. Within the body of Mosaic legislation, the most explicit discussion of the unborn child occurs in Exodus 21:22-25, which describes premature delivery caused by a blow, almost certainly accidental, to a pregnant woman. The gap between this scenario and an act of premeditated abortion is a wide one, but it does provide important clues regarding the nature and extent of Israel's concern for the fetus. Unfortunately, certain textual ambiguities threaten to obscure whatever contribution it might offer. First, is the premature delivery a miscarriage or a live birth? The crucial phrase, weyasu yeladö ah (lit. "and her children come forth"), is rendered by the RSV "so that she has a miscarriage" (cf. NASB, tev) whereas the NIV has "and she gives birth prematurely." Both renderings are necessarily interpretive. Although the versatile yasa (go out, come out, come forth) routinely describes normal, live birth ( Gen 25:25-26 ; 38:28-30 ; Job 1:21 ; 3:11 ; Eccl 5:15 ; Jer 1:5 ; 20:18 ; cf. Deut 28:57 ; Job 38:8 Job 38:29 ), it may on occasion refer to stillbirth ( Nu 12:12 ); the flexibility of the term allows for both. But given that yasa is linked with yeled [d, ly, ], the common Hebrew word for child, and that another word, sekol [l/k.v], is available if the writer wants to point clearly to the bereavement of miscarriage, live birth seems slightly more likely.

A second ambiguity builds upon the first and concerns the harm or injury envisioned in verses 22-23. Versions like the NASB that speak of "any further injury" imply that the fetus is already dead, and that only harm done to the mother is in view. According to this reading, maternal injury or death requires parallel retribution while fetal death incurs only a fine. The alternative is reflected in the NIV, according to which the harm may be suffered by mother or child, ranging from minor trauma to death. In this case, fetal and maternal death are treated equally, implying that fetus and mother have the same legal status. Supporters of this view point out that the opposition in the text is, technically, between premature delivery and harm, not between fetal death and further harm. Moreover, the author could have added "to her" if the harm in view was only the mother's. While neither view is without problems, this second alternative seems more natural. But even if Exodus 21 is taken to grant the mother more protection than her unborn child, it also establishes that causing the death of the unborn, even accidentally, is morally culpable. Plainly, no authority to perform abortion is granted.

In biblical poetry, descriptions of life in the womb occur in a variety of settings. Job, with powerful rhetorical flourish, laments his present plight by cursing the day of his birth (3:1-19; 10:18-19; cf. jer 20:14-18). Better, it would seem, to be stillborn than to live and endure such suffering; quality of life, not quantity, is paramount. Obviously, these bitter lamentations of the lead character do not represent the perspectives of God or the author. Circumstances have obscured his vision. The reader knows the end of the story and feels compelled to challenge Job's quality of life argument, as do other passages, which confirm that God's people will not and cannot escape suffering in this life. Prior to the final restoration, various degrees of imperfect, painful existence are inevitable.

The psalmist sometimes recalls God's shelter and provision during the earliest stages of life when making requests for God's ongoing protection and guidance ( 22:9-10 ; 71:6 ; 119:73 ). Since there is substantial continuity between fetal and adult life ( 51:5 ; 139:13 ; cf. Jer 1:5 ), God's care for the former assures his continued care for the latter. In other contexts, God's interest in prenatal development demonstrates his greatness and inscrutability ( 139:13-16 ; cf. Eccl. 11:5 ). Not only is God involved in forming the unborn child ( 139:13-14 ), but God's knowledge of every detail of the child's form (v. 15) and lifespan (v. 16) knows no limits. Various elements here do not pretend to be reasoned descriptions of cosmic or biological reality, but have instead a primarily rhetorical or emotive function, proclaiming forcefully that the infinite God cares profoundly for human individuals, whenever, wherever, and however they may be found. Accordingly, when human formation is said first to occur in the womb (v. 13) and then in the depths of the earth (v. 15 cf. Gen 2:7 ), the crucial pointthat God's creative power is working from the earliest pointsis only strengthened. And when verse 16 pushes back to the very earliest, unformed stages of life (golem [,lOG], embryo, formless thing), and perhaps even earlier, it is to celebrate God's limitless foreknowledge and providential involvement with each individual. Even before God Acts to create, God knows and cares for his creatures.

When Isaiah considers the early stages of Israel's history and his own commission as a prophet, he takes up images of life in the womb, declaring powerfully that, like the unborn child, God's people at all stages rest solidly within the realm of God's watchful care and concern ( Isaiah 44:2 Isaiah 44:21 Isaiah 44:24 ; 46:3 ; 49:1-5 ). And Jeremiah's prophetic commission originates before birtheven before conception ( 1:4-5 ).

Both Testaments refer to the fetus in terms routinely applied to the young child ( Gen 25:22 ; 38:27-30 ; Job 1:21 ; Job 3:3 Job 3:11-16 ; 10:18-19 ; 31:15 ; Psalm 51:5 ; Isa 49:5 ; Jer 20:14-18 ; Hosea 12:3 ; Luke 1:15 Luke 1:41 Luke 1:44 ; Rom 9:10-11 ), implying continuity between the two and distinct individuality for the fetus. Alongside birth, conception and gestation stand as important parts of one's personal history. Nowhere is this more clearly shown than in the prebirth rivalry between Jacob and Esau, and in the encounter between John and Jesus recorded in Luke's birth narrative. Jacob's struggle with Esau in the womb prophetically anticipated events later in life ( Gen 25:21-26 ), and when John the Baptist, as a fetus of six months, leapt in the presence of the newly conceived Jesus, he inaugurated his witness to the One who is to come ( Luke 1:39-45 ). Finally, there is evidence from the incarnation itself. As the Word become flesh ( John 1:14 ) and the last Adam ( 1 Col 15:45 ; cf. v. 22 Rom 5:14 ), Jesus fully embraced humanity to redeem it. But unlike the first Adam who emerged fully formed from the earth, Jesus' entrance into humanity was as a zygote in Mary's womb. The incarnation took place not in a Bethlehem stable but nine months earlier in Nazareth, as the Holy Spirit caused a virgin to conceive.

All of this strongly affirms the humanity of the unborn and portrays a God hard at work forming and protecting preborn life. Attempts to thwart this divine process would clearly be attempts to usurp God's role by destroying the human life God has begun to create and hence morally wrong.

God as Defender of the Defenseless Another useful line of investigation concerns biblical attitudes toward the weak, defenseless members of society. Clearly, the central participants in a crisis pregnancymother and fetuswould belong to such a group. In the Old Testament, both orphan (or fatherless; yatom [/t"y) and widow (almana [h"n'm.l]) were singled out for special care, due to their unique needs and intense vulnerability. God takes up their cause and warns of dire consequences for their oppressors. Laws established to ensure their well-being ( Deut 14:29 ; 24:17-21 ; 26:12-13 ; 16:11 16:14 ) were echoed by prophets whose demands for social justice showed they considered orphans, widows, and the like particularly defenseless. Job contended strenuously, against the charges of Eliphaz ( 22:9 ), that his conduct toward orphans and widows had been exemplary ( 29:12-13 ; 31:16-23 ). Further testimony to this profound interest in society's least protected is heard from texts that single out the destruction of pregnant women and children among the atrocities perpetrated by enemy troops ( 2 Kings 8:12 ; 15:16 ; Hosea 10:14-15 ; Nahum 3:10 ; cf. Matt 2:16 ). More inhumane Acts could scarcely be imagined.

The New Testament echoes many of the same themes, but perhaps in a higher key for, alongside unambiguous texts like jas 1:27 and 1 Timothy 5:3-16, several Synoptic sayings move well beyond concern for children's needs; the child becomes the paradigm for entrance into, and life within, the kingdom ( Matt 18:1-6 ; and Matt 19:13-15 and parallels ). In Jesus' rejection of human standards of greatness, he not only turns on its head the conventional wisdom of the day, but also affords children unprecedented worth and dignity.

In all of this it is hard to ignore the persistent call for profound compassion and practical concern for the most vulnerable and least influential members of the community. A just society will shape its laws to protect, in particular, pregnant women and unborn children, and will provide refuge for both in times of crisis.

Bruce N. Fisk

Bibliography. J. Barr, Bulletin of the John Rylands UNIVersity Library of Manchester 51 (1968-69): 11-26; M. Belz, Suffer the Little Children: Christians, Abortion, and Civil Disobedience; G. Bray, TB 42/2 (1991): 195-225; H. O. J. Brown, Death Before Birth; J. J. Davis, Abortion and the Christian; P. B. Fowler, Abortion: Toward an Evangelical Consensus; J. Frame, Thou Shalt Not Kill; M. J. Gorman, Abortion and the Early Church: Christian, Jewish and Pagan Attitudes in the Greco-Roman World; G. Grisez, Abortion: The Myths, the Realities, and the Arguments; J. K. Hoffmeier, ed., Abortion: A Christian Understanding and Response; H. W. House, WTJ 41 (1978): 108-23; B. S. Jackson, VT 23 (1973): 273-304; D. G. Jones, Brave New People: Ethical Issues at the Commencement of Life; O. O'Donovan, Begotten or Made; J. B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament; P. Ramsey, The Ethics of Fetal Research; F. A. Schaeffer, A Christian Manifesto; R. J. Sider, Completely Pro-Life: Building a Consistent Stance on Abortion, the Family, Nuclear Weapons, the Poor; J. Stott, Decisive Issues Facing Christians Today; R. N. Wennberg, Life in the Balance: Exploring the Abortion Controversy; C. Young, The Least of These.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible

Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Abortion'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.