What is the Bible: Abortion Edition
WHAT IS THE BIBLE?
It all depends on how you read it.
The definition that makes the most sense to me is that the Bible is humankind’s best attempt at explaining who God is and what it means to be his people in light of the events and experiences occurring around them.
I often use the example of Jonah here. The book of Nahum describes the wrath of God being poured out on the Ninevites for taking the people of Israel captive. But in Jonah God forgives the Ninevites and refuses to destroy them. So was God lying in the book of Nahum? No! The people believed God was for them during their captivity, and that God would one day destroy their enemy. But, when God didn’t, they concluded it must be that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in love.”
Thus the parable of Jonah is used to teach us something about who God is and what it means to be his people (if God is gracious and merciful toward our enemies, we should be too).
THE BIBLE AND THE EVOLUTION OF CONSCIOUSNESS
There is no singular stance on most any issue in scripture.
In the Bible God is both a loving Father to approach boldly (Hebrews 4:16) and a bloodthirsty monster who murders on a whim (Deuteronomy 28, Numbers 16).
Sometimes heaven exists in the Bible (Revelation 7) and sometimes it doesn’t (Genesis 3:19, 1 Kings 2:10, 1 Kings 11:43).
Sometimes God commands his people to commit genocide (1 Samuel 15:3) and other times we’re told that God abhors violence (Psalm 11:5).
Women are both empowered leaders (Esther) and treated like property (Deuteronomy 22:23-24)
Children can be stoned to death for disobeying their parents (Deuteronomy 21:18) and they are held up by Jesus as the model for what life in the Kingdom of God is like (Matthew 19:14).
Details vary in places like the creation poem versus the creation narrative in Genesis 1 and 2, the resurrection accounts in the gospels, how many animals Noah brought on the ark (was it 2 of each or 7?), and so on.
The reason for these discrepancies is not that the Bible is false or intentionally misleading. The reason is that the writers and editors of scripture were figuring it out as they went along according to what they knew of the world at the time.
If you’re not familiar with Spiral Dynamics, it’s worth your time to learn. It helps us understand the way in which human consciousness has evolved. Each evolutionary step is assigned a color, a system, and a motivation.It looks like this:
BEIGE: Loose bands of people motivated by survival (Job, Genesis)
PURPLE: Tribes motivated by magic and safety (Exodus, wandering years)
RED: Empires motivated by power and dominance (Joshua-2 Chronicles)
BLUE: Pyramid systems motivated by right and wrong (The prophets)
ORANGE: Delegated systems motivated by autonomy and achievement (Intertestamental period)
GREEN: Egalitarian systems motivated by approval, equality, and community (Gospels through ~500 AD)
YELLOW: Interactive systems motivated by adaptability and integration (~500 AD - Enlightenment)
TURQUOISE: Global systems motivated by compassion and harmony (Enlightenment - Present Day)
As history moved forward and civilizations developed, God developed along with them.
But it’s not just history - we develop in these ways too. We pass through varying stages of consciousness as we grow and mature, and, therefore, so does our faith.
One practical way to understand this is to read a story from the Old Testament and ask, “If this happened today, what would I think?” For example, if the president sent the military into Canada to kill every man, woman, child - complete annihilation - and said it was because God told him to do it, what would you think?
You would probably be horrified.
Yet in some parts of the Bible this was a noble act of faith by the people of God. Yes, killing children. But today we call that genocide and it would most likely trigger a global war.
We like to think the Bible is universal and that it was written outside the constraints of time and culture. But the stories of the Bible are told according to the culture and time period in which they occurred in order to make sense of who God is and what it means to be his people at that moment in history.
And we do the same thing today.
WHAT DOES THE BIBLE SAY ABOUT ABORTION?
Abortion is once again at the heart of our political division. A few states have recently passed laws that all but ban abortion, and pro-choice advocates are fighting against them.
The vast majority of Christians - especially conservative evangelical Christians - are pro-life and believe abortion should be illegal. The foundation of this is usually rooted in the belief that God formed us in the womb and is therefore set against the murder of unborn children.
But what does the Bible say about abortion?
Surprisingly, it speaks to the issue of the life of the mother versus the life of the unborn child. Take a second to read this command in the book of Exodus.
This law instructed the Israelites what to do in the event that two people were fighting and one accidentally hit a pregnant woman. If the woman miscarried the baby, but the woman herself was okay, then the person who hit her and caused the miscarriage had to pay a fine to the husband. But, if the woman miscarried and then she herself became gravely ill or died as a result, then the person who hit her had to return “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, life for a life.” The mother’s life required a greater payment than the unborn child’s.
Also, in the book of Numbers, God commands the priests to force an abortion if it is found that the baby was conceived in an act of adultery. Read this command in the book of Numbers.
If a man suspected that his wife became pregnant through adultery with another man, he was to send her to the priest. The priest took some holy water in a jar, mixed it with dust from the Temple floor, and had the woman drink it. As she did, the priest pronounced a curse over her so that if the baby was conceived in adultery, her womb would swell and the baby would die. The woman would then be thrown out of the community. But, if the baby was conceived by her husband, no harm would come.
According to these stories the Bible seems to say that the loss of a baby in the womb sometimes happens by accident, and sometimes by the will of God himself.
If you are pro-life, you are no doubt familiar with other passages like Psalm 139 (“you knit me together in my mother’s womb…I am fearfully and wonderfully made”) and Jeremiah 1 (“Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you”).
These latter two get a lot more at-bats than the Exodus and Numbers passages in the abortion debate, though, because they paint a picture of a God who cares for life from even before the moment of conception, whereas in the other passages God seems to value the life of the mother - and faithfulness in marriage - over the life of an unborn child.
WHY DON’T WE TALK ABOUT THE EXODUS AND NUMBERS STORIES?
The reason we almost never hear about the Exodus and Numbers passages is because we simply don’t believe God is like that - at least not anymore.
Just like every civilization before us, our understanding of God is not solely based on what we read in scripture, but on what we value as a society in the 21st century, which we then read into scripture.
The same thing happened with slavery a century ago. Civilizations evolved and raised the value of every human life to the point that slavery became inherently evil. Basically everyone today agrees that slavery is one of the worst atrocities in human history. But if you want to use scripture to prove that slavery is bad, you’re going to lose that debate.
When it comes to abortion, we have taken what we hold to be of greatest value in our modern civilized culture (the sanctity of life) and we have found scriptures to advocate for it. And we know that any position is exponentially stronger when we can convince everyone that it’s not just our opinion, but it’s the very will of God.
We leave out the stories in Exodus and Numbers because they paint a different picture of God than the one we currently want to be true. And we do this not because we’re being dishonest or have poor exegetical skills, we do this because that’s what the people of God through the Bible have always done. We are trying to answer who God is and what it means to be his people at this point in history.
WHAT DO YOU WANT THE BIBLE TO SAY?
If we’re going to use scripture to uphold our social and political positions, then we have to be honest about what we’re doing.
Instead of asking, “What does the Bible say?” a more honest question is:
“What am I trying to make the Bible say, and why do I want it to say that?”
Please don’t assume I’m talking about other people who just read what they want to read and hear what they want to hear. I’m talking about you! And I’m talking about me! No matter how much you sincerely believe that you read the Bible with no bias, with no agenda, with no cultural input, it’s just not true.
As I’ve written about previously, it is neurologically impossible to just read the Bible and do what it says.
Currently, I read the Bible to find a God who cares for the outcast and upholds those on the margins of society. I read it to take comfort in a God of justice who executes his judgment against those who would exploit the vulnerable and use their power and privilege to hold down the powerless. I do this because my experience of being among people for whom life is a constant struggle has made me take stock of my own wealth and privilege, and ask what God would have me to do with that.
I also read the Bible to find the cracks and inconsistencies in order to remind myself that I do not have it figured out and that what we know of God in the Bible is a microscopic fragment of the deep and mysterious Love that formed the universe. I read the Bible to be filled with wonder and awe, and to experience a deep sense of connectedness with creation.
So when I read the Bible, I put the most weight on passages that are consistent with how I understand the world to work best, and because of who I believe God to be at this point on the path.
WHAT IS THE BIBLE FOR?
When we’re honest about what we want to read in the Bible, whole worlds open up.
Instead of a database for facts and evidence to destroy our rivals, the Bible becomes a map of sorts, a trail guide on our path toward maturity in our faith and in our attempts at living right now in communal spaces in which Christ is the gravitational force holding us together.
Scripture does not offer the final answer to all of our questions; it gives us an idea of where we are on the path toward a life of wisdom and love.
The Bible is not always consistent with what it says and how it portrays God because it has evolved along with humanity. That’s not a cause for alarm! It simply shows us that we are no different from all the people who have gone before us: we are maturing in our understanding of who God is and what it means to be his people. We are yet another point in history trying to make sense of things with the perspective available to us.
We can give ourselves (and especially those around us) some grace for not having it all figured out. The Bible models how we use our evolving consciousness and experience to know who God is and what it means to be his people. Just like scripture, we’re not always consistent, yet we make our way forward toward deeper trust, greater hope, and more inclusive love.
If we see the Bible as a map showing us where we are in our journey toward wisdom and maturity, we don’t have to worry so much about being “right,” or about conclusively proving our theological position, because we were never meant to stay put. The thing you hold to be of Absolute Truth today may not matter so much a year or a decade from now. And that’s exactly how it’s supposed to work! Rigid certainty and the need for verifiable confirmation of our faith causes us to stop moving. And when we stop moving we stop growing. And when we stop growing we’re as good as dead spiritually.
So what do you think the Bible says about who God is and what it means to be his people?
Because it all depends on how you read it.