I’ve got an old New American Standard Bible (NASB) that is just about ready to fall apart. I used it from the time I became a Christian in the early 1970s until it got so fragile that just reading it ran the risk of having pages fall out. Nevertheless I’ve saved it and from time to refer to it as much for nostalgia as to see another translation. As it happens last week I was going through Exodus in the dear old book and came to this passage:
“And if men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she has a miscarriage, yet there is not further injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him; and he shall pay as the judges decide. But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint 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.” Exodus 21:22-25. (Bold face mine.)
It sort of startled me as it refers directly to a miscarriage in a larger passage that includes penalties for other outcomes of the “struggle” including death when a person is killed. I was a bit shocked. Does Exodus say clearly that a forced miscarriage is not the same as a killing? How does this reconcile with the idea that “abortion is murder?”
I started doing research on other translations and found that many do not agree with the NASB. Most notably, the 1995 update to the NASB translates the passage this way:
“If men struggle with each other and strike a woman with child so that she gives birth prematurely, yet there is no injury, he shall surely be fined as the woman’s husband may demand of him, and he shall pay as the judges decide. But if there is any further injury, then you shall appoint 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.”
Most of the modern translations respected by my fellow evangelicals read the same way. But I also noted that some of the “liberal” translations I’ve been warned about stuck with the earlier NASB, a translation I was always taught was hyper-literal. Puzzled I called upon good old King James to resolve this for me and he says:
“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.”
Hmmm. Sort of leaves you unsure, doesn’t it? I did some more research of translations thanks to The Bible Gateway and earlier translations mostly lined up on the miscarriage side. So what is happening here? It does seem that after the 1970s, when the abortion battle got really going, more evangelical Bible translators were sure that this passage could not possibly mean that a forced miscarriage is somehow less than murder. Is the growing number of evangelical translators tipping toward the “premature” reading the result of breakthrough new scholarship? Or is it a sinister plot to cover up an inconvenient passage through deliberate mistranslation?
I suspect that the answer is neither. Bible translators are no less human than you and I and, hence, no less prone to reading their personal views into the text. They mean well but they allow their convictions to let them read “her fruit depart from her” (in the original language of course) in a way that jives with what they already believe. By the way, Jewish scholars, who you might think know Hebrew pretty well, also use “miscarriage.”
This does not make me doubt the Bible, or even the sincere work of translators. It does make me more sure that when I am tempted to say “the Bible clearly says” that I need to be cautious. There is no need to toss out my 1971 NASB; no need to reject the 1995 rewrite. There is a need for us to be willing to read multiple translations, particularly on controversial verses. And, yes, we should even read translations that we’ve been told are too liberal. I’m pretty sure that adding yet another translation to my study won’t make me lose my salvation.