If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely but there is no serious injury, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows. But if there is serious injury, you are to take 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 (NIV)

The common response made to this passage is that the “giving birth prematurely” should rather be translated as “having a miscarriage”. The purpose of this response is to remove the abortive character of the “miscarriage” from the class of “serious” injuries. Hence, what follows (life for life, et cetera) would be considered as applying to the woman only.

Calvin makes several interesting comments on this passage in his Harmony of the Last Four Books of the Pentateuch (Calvin’s Commentaries), as follows:

If men strive, and hurt a woman. This passage at first sight is 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, (homo,) 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 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. But, 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 moneypayment, at their discretion, in compensation for his loss…

Calvin correctly notes that the foetus is “already a human being” – a point that should be admitted at least in part by anyone with even a cursory knowledge of biology. It cannot be denied that the foetus is human (it is comprised, at least, of definitely human cells), but many would argue that is is not necessarily a human “being”, as if the foetus is only a piece of a human being – like a piece of skin. How one handles this issue will essentially define how they view the subject of abortion. This will be discussed more completely at a later time.

The grounds for Calvin’s interpretation of the term “if death should follow” to include both the mother and the child is admittedly the belief of the foetus’ status as a human being. This brings up an important point: if the foetus is to be considered a human being, the passage in question must refer to the death of either or, not just the mother, for if the foetus is a human being, to kill the foetus is no different than to kill a full-grown man, or woman. This is further brought out in Calvin’s comments on the retribution pay. If the passage in question refers to a miscarriage, then the retribution pay would seem to refer to a compensation for the life of the foetus, and the value of this life would be negotiable – the choice of the father (roughly equivalent to the currently promoted belief that value of the life of the child is subject to the choice of the mother). If, on the other hand, the passage refers simply to a premature birth, the pay would seem to refer to a retribution accorded in response to the “weakening” effect of its prematurity.

A few things to consider concerning this passage:

First, any ambiguity concerning the translation of the nature of the birth and the object of the serious injuries would seem to point towards an interpretation that should favor the inclusion of both the mother and the child as the objects of injury. This is perhaps an argument from silence, but in this case it seems that the ambiguity should connote a wider application of the law than a definite reference to the object of the injuries would.

Second, if the object of the life for life, et cetera, reference were the mother only, the relevance of the context would be removed. If the foetus is not included as an object of harm, a simple, “If men who are fighting hit a pregnant woman and she gives birth prematurely, the offender must be fined whatever the woman’s husband demands and the court allows”, would suffice. The rest of the passage could be handled as it is in Leviticus 24:17-20. The fact that these are mentioned in connection with the preceding verse concerning the premature birth should suggest that the inclusion of the rights of the foetus is in view.

Lastly, if any ambiguity remains in this passage, the light brought to it by other passages of Scripture that bear upon the same subject will conclusively determine its proper interpretation. Some of these passages will be addressed in future entries.