The Interpretation of Exodus 21:22-25 (“Lex Talionis”) and Abortion -- By: Joe M. Sprinkle

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 55:2 (Fall 1993)
Article: The Interpretation of Exodus 21:22-25 (“Lex Talionis”) and Abortion
Author: Joe M. Sprinkle


The Interpretation of Exodus 21:22-25 (“Lex Talionis”) and Abortion*

Joe M. Sprinkle

* An earlier draft of this paper was presented at the Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, Kansas City, November 1991. I appreciate the following for reading the paper and making helpful suggestions: Daniel Evearitt and Donald Williams of Toccoa Falls College, and Michael A. Grisanti of Central Baptist Seminary. I also appreciate the fine editorial work of Moisés Silva.

I. Introduction

W. C. Kaiser, in defending the use of OT law for formulating Christian ethics, argues that many ethical questions of interest to the modern Christian are not addressed in the NT, but only in the Old. “Where,” he asks, “will we obtain authoritative materials on the abortion question if the OT is not consulted?”1

The passage most directly relevant to the abortion question according to Kaiser is Exod 21:22–25, the case of a pregnant woman struck during a brawl.2 Key to finding direct relevance in this passage to the abortion question is the interpretation that, contrary to the view exemplified by most commentators and translators,3 premature birth rather than miscarriage is involved in the first half of this passage where there is no serious injury (אסון). Only in the second case with serious injury is the death of the fetus and/or mother contemplated, and there the lex talionis, the “law of retaliation,” is applied “life for life,” implying that the killing of the fetus was regarded as taking a human “life” (נפש). This interpretation, which is reflected in the NIV translation, implies that deliberate induced abortion of a human fetus is murder.

Many anti-abortion Christian theologians and ethicists adopt this interpretation to bolster their case against abortion.4 However, this line of interpretation is subject to

criticism on exegetical grounds. It will be my purpose to reexamine the interpretation of this passage and reassess its relevance to the issue of abortion.

II. Exegetical Problems in Exod 21:22-25

Any interpreter of Exod 21:22–25 should begin by confessing that this passage is extremely difficult due to the large number of exegetical cruxes it contains. The variety of ways in which scholars have resolved these cruxes has resul...

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