An article written by Elissa Strauss for Salon in January, 2014, has been making the rounds again. I remember it at the time (I didn’t have a blog then), and wanted to address it. It presumes to tackle supposed biblical prohibitions of contraception and abortion by demonstrating the opposite, that the Bible actually portrays women using contraceptives and even abortion!
Shock and horror!
Yet, thankfully, the article is but ideologically motivated sophistry and irresponsible handling of the Bible. So let’s take a look at a few of these claims and see how they measure up to critical scrutiny.
The article states, citing a critical study by Athalya Brenner, that many of the fruits and spices described in the Song of Songs and featured in the lovemaking therein were in fact used as contraceptives:
A number of the plants mentioned in the Song of Songs were used by women in the ancient Mediterranean world as contraception and abortifacients. These include pomegranates, wine, myrrh, spikenard and cinnamon.
It is an interesting claim, since scholarship has long understood these things to be aphrodisiacs, yet no mention is made of this more common use. Of course, in a pre-scientific age, different cultures might use the same things for different reasons, so it is imprudent to ascribe a contraceptive use to something without more direct evidence. In the case of the Song of Songs, the context lends toward them being aphrodisiacs, as they are poetically used to enhance the erotic imagery. I highly doubt that contraceptives would be used in this way, any more than you would expect contraceptives to have erotic connotations today.
In the case of Onan’s sin described in Genesis 38, it is claimed by Strauss that,
However, many biblical commentators have noted that God’s anger is because Onan failed to live up to his legal obligation to impregnate his brother’s widow, and not because he wasted his sperm.
This is true to some extent, i.e. that God’s anger is aroused because Onan did not fulfill the command of levirate marriage. Yet, two things must be noted, first, that spilling of semen likely would have been met with censure anyway, and second, such a statement erroneously assumes that any normal use of the pull-out method of contraception would have been “hunky dory” in Bronze Age Palestine. Indeed, we find the opposite to be true, where the spilling of semen was considered taboo (hence the ritual impurity contracted by nocturnal emissions) and any attempt to prevent pregnancy with one’s lawful wife would have been almost unheard of in a society where having children was absolutely necessarily for survival and obtaining social status.
Does the Bible clearly, in its own historical context, condone contraception? Absolutely not.
The famous (or infamous) biblical ordeal involving a suspected adulteress in Numbers 5 is offered as evidence that abortion was practiced in ancient Israel. Some readers might remember this ordeal as having been levied upon the recently pregnant Virgin Mary in the Protoevangelium of James. An entire tractate, Sota, is devoted to this ordeal in the Mishnah, and the Tosefta and Babylonian Talmud deal with it as well. If a woman is suspected of adultery and no solid proof can be found (assuming no visible pregnancy has occurred), then a jealous husband may bring his wife to a priest, who will make her drink a concoction called מי המרים המאררים mē hammārīm hammǝˀārǝrīm “the bitter water that brings a curse.” (The consonance, repetition of consonant sounds, is indication of its use in a ritual context.) If the woman has not committed adultery, she will be well, but if she has, וצבתה בטנה ונפלה ירכה wǝṣāḇǝṯā biṭnāh wniflā yǝrēḥāh “her belly will swell and her thigh will fall.” Strauss maintains:
In other words, she will abort her fetus. If not, this means she is empty of womb and ready to conceive her husband’s child.
Scholars are unsure about the meaning of these terms, both of the bitter water and the “falling of the thy.” Tikva Frymer-Kensky (may her memory be for a blessing), with whom I once studied briefly at the University of Chicago, indicated in a 1984 article† about this section the various options for interpreting the bit about the thigh.
Of course, it is well established that the “thigh” in Biblical Hebrew is often used as a euphemism for the genitalia, usually male. There is no known usage for it to refer directly to a foetus indicating that we ought to focus upon some effect suffered by the female genitalia, not the foetus itself. Scholars differ as to what is intended by the notion of the falling of the thigh, though proposals include dropsy (Josephus), pseudo-cyesis or hysterical pregnancy (Brichto), thrombophlebitis, which can cause swelling of the belly and genitals and edema of the leg (Sasson), and abortion (G.R. Driver and H.W. Robinson). Frymer-Kensky herself believed it to indicate “a particular reproductive failure, probably a prolapsed uterus” (20).
The term “fall” used as a noun נפל néfel is used on three different occasions to refer to a still-born child, Psalm 58:9(ET 8), Job 3:16, and Eccl. 6:3. In none of these cases, however, does the term describe an intentional abortion.
The notion of the “swelling of the belly” is taken from the LXX, which uses πρήθω “swell,” though the term occurs only in this context in the Hebrew Bible, lending to efforts to find other meanings for the word. One meaning taken from an Akkadian cognate might indicate a “flooding” of the belly, i.e. by the bitter waters. Thus, the belly would fill with the waters, and the reproductive organs would cease working due to some malady.
Now, let’s assume for the sake of argument the worst-case scenario, that the Bible here does indicate an abortion of the foetus. What does this actually say in regard to our modern notion of abortion? First of all, we must remember the ritual context. The bitter waters of cursing are not to be seen as an abortifacient, for water mixed with dust from the floor would hardly cause an abortion, as indicated by Numbers 5:17, “The priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel, and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water.” The waters are meant to carry some divine power (cursing) to cause a malady to a real adulteress but pass without harm through an innocent woman.
Secondly, even if “the falling of the thigh” is indicative of an aborted foetus, the abortion would not be caused by willful intervention on the part of a person who does not want the child, but by God who is punishing the adulterous couple. It would be similar to the way that God took the life of the first child by David and Bathsheeba conceived in their adulterous affair.
Thirdly, such an “abortion” may not have been seen as an “abortion” with the connotations that we have today, but as a “still birth” due to the belief that a child conceived via adultery was automatically cursed by God and doomed to die in still birth or early in life. So even if an abortion is intended by the sota ordeal, it would not have been understood in the same way as abortion in the modern world.
What to Take Away
- Selective presentation of the evidence can be deceptive, and one should always investigate the matter thoroughly before allowing oneself to become convinced one way or the other.
- The sota ordeal was a feature of a very primitive stage of Israelite religion and therefore cannot be prescriptive today. Even by the time of the writing of the Babylonian Talmud, the sota ordeal was not practiced, because the exact ritual procedure of making the bitter water had been forgotten (b Sota 2c).
- We must avoid “flattening out” the Bible. Just because something is in the Bible does not mean that it is prescriptively authoritative today for Christians.
- We must be responsible with the historical and linguistic context of the Bible. Making assumptions about the Bible from the a modern perspective is very dangerous indeed, because…
- There is no place in Scripture where sexual intercourse is condoned with the explicit intent to prevent pregnancy. The Song of Songs indeed does not mention procreation, but neither does it exclude it. Procreation was extremely important in the ancient world and especially for Israelites and later the Jews, being the very first commandment given by God to Adam and Eve. It would be almost unthinkable for a married couple in the ancient world to go about their sexual activities with the intent of remaining childless. Childlessness was considered to be a curse and caused by sin. It would have caused enormous social denigration and embarrassment, as numerous verses from Scripture will bear out.
Therefore, Strauss’ article is ludicrous in almost every context, even the most academic and historically critical. It is important for us, even us Orthodox Christians, to have some facility or recourse to critical methods of biblical scholarship so that “we may be ready to give an account” to the world who proceeds to deceive us with our own sacred texts. Yet truth can and will prevail to the glory of our Great God and Savior Jesus Christ.
†Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. “The Strange Case of the Suspected Sotah (Numbers V 11-31),” Vetus Testamentum 34 (1984) 11-26.