It’s important to realize that the pro-abortionists who mishandle the passage in order to weaken the Bible’s teaching on the sanctity of prenatal life are the same folks who are otherwise utterly dismissive of the authority of Scripture. But it is much more important to understand that the passage is actually a clear and dramatic proof of the sanctity of human life even in its earliest stages.
The opportunity for pro-abortionists to misinterpret the passage came from poor translations. For instance, the original Wycliffe translation and the Douay-Rheims version of 1899 insert words that are not at all in (or in keeping with) the Hebrew text. And, in both cases, their presumptions create a false impression that the lives of children in the womb are not as valuable as the life of the mother. I print those poor translations below.
Wycliffe — “If men chide, and a man smiteth a woman with child, and soothly he maketh the child dead-born, but the woman liveth over that smiting, he shall be subject to the harm (he shall be subject to a fine), as much as the woman’s husband asketh (for), and as the judges deem (appropriate). Soothly if the death of her followeth (And if her death followeth), he shall yield life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, sore for sore.”
Douay-Rheims 1899 – “If men quarrel, and one strike a woman with child, and she miscarry indeed, but live herself: he shall be answerable for so much damage as the woman’s husband shall require, and as arbiters shall award. But if her death ensue thereupon, he shall render life for life. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, Burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”
You can easily see how these versions suggest that the preborn baby’s life isn’t measured by the same standard as the mother’s for they imply that if the child is harmed in a premature delivery caused by the men’s fighting, it is merely a cause for a fine. Only if the mother is harmed does the strict law of retribution kick in. Does such a conclusion fit in with other Scriptures that deal with the sanctity of prenatal life like Psalm 139:13-16, Jeremiah 1:5, Luke 1:21, Isaiah 49:15, Job 31:15, Psalm 22:10, and so on? No, they don’t. Not even close. So, what is going on in Exodus 21:22-25?
As I suggested, the problem arises out of these poor translations and, of course, the desire of certain people to excuse or, at least, minimize the seriousness of abortion. Indeed, these people have sought to use this passage to claim that the Mosaic law doesn’t consider preborn boys and girls worthy of the same protection (thus, value) as adults. But more authentic, more responsible translations present a much different case. Here, for example is the passage taken from Young’s Literal Translation: “And when men strive, and have smitten a pregnant woman, and her children have come out, and there is no mischief, he is certainly fined, as the husband of the woman doth lay upon him, and he hath given through the judges; and if there is mischief, then thou hast given life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”
Let’s note a couple of important Hebrew words that are necessary for a full understanding of the passage. In the first case, the word translated “mischief” in Young’s version above is the Hebrew word “ason.” It means harm, hurt, injury. It is only used three other times in the Old Testament (Genesis 4:24, 38 and 44:29) where the word is used each time to describe Jacob’s fear that physical harm (including death) would befall his beloved son Benjamin. The second important word is one that isn’t here. That’s “lah,” the Hebrew word for woman. If God through Moses wanted to specify that only the woman’s life and health were to be protected by the law of retribution, He would certainly have used it. But He didn’t. Rather, the statement is left open, meaning that lasting damage inflicted upon any innocent person must be paid by the law of retribution. An eye for an eye.
Thus, the natural application of the Hebrew text would be that if a premature birth occurs as the result of a pregnant woman getting between two fighting men — but there follows no “ason” to either the mother or her children (the Hebrew here is a plural noun, broadening the application to twins or more) — then the penalty is a financial one. However, if there is “ason” (again, fatality or injury) to any innocent party, then the law of strict retribution is applied. Rather than being a passage that undermines the value of life in the womb, a careful look at the authentic Hebrew text proves the opposite.
Let’s allow the Amplified Bible (another literally-based translation) to also weigh in here: “If men fight with each other and injure a pregnant woman so that she gives birth prematurely and the baby lives, yet there is no further injury, the one who hurt her must be punished with a fine paid to the woman’s husband, as much as the judges decide. But if there is any further injury, then you shall require as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”
But what’s the deal with the law requiring a financial penalty of the fight’s instigator – even if the premature birth doesn’t seriously harm either the mother or her baby? The commentary by reformer John Calvin states the obvious answer. “Since it could not fail but that premature confinement would weaken both the mother and her offspring, the husband is allowed to demand before the judges a money-payment, at their discretion, in compensation for his loss.”
But let’s not stop there. Let’s hear a bit more of what Calvin said about this passage. It’s a good way to dismiss further the attempted twisting of the Scripture by pro-abortion liberals. Calvin writes that Exodus 21:22-25 might “at first sight seem ambiguous, for if the word death only applies to the pregnant woman, it would not have been a capital crime to put an end to the foetus, which would be a great absurdity; for the foetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being, and it is almost a monstrous crime to rob it of the life which it has not yet begun to enjoy. If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man’s house is his place of most secure refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy a foetus in the womb before it has come to light.”
“On these grounds,” Calvin continued, “I am led to conclude, without hesitation, that the words, ‘if death should follow,’ must be applied to the foetus as well as to the mother. Besides, it would be by no means reasonable that a father should sell for a set sum the life of his son or daughter. Wherefore this, in my opinion, is the meaning of the law, that it would be a crime punishable with death, not only when the mother died from the effects of the abortion, but also if the infant should be killed; whether it should die from the wound abortively, or soon after its birth.”
I hope this brief exposition helps those of you who may have (or someday will) come across folks who try to pervert the true meaning of Exodus 21:22-25.