Monday, August 25, 2008

Abortion and the Breath of Life

Does Genesis 2:7 mean abortion is acceptable to God?

In the comments on my post on the modified pro-choice position someone argued:
The Bible says, “The LORD God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Gen 2:7, emphasis added).

Even after God created the cells and DNA, Adam was not a being until God breathed into him. Therefore we know there is more to being a “human” than just cells.
So God does not recognize an unborn child as fully human until it inhales, it was argued, thus abortion is not immoral.

I’d never heard this argument before, and honestly I didn’t take it very seriously. Then my brother-in-law mentioned someone trying the same argument with him. A quick web search later I realized that this line of reasoning is either growing in popularity or is more common than I’d thought, so I decided to devote a post to addressing it.

I have four major objections to this line of reasoning.

1. It assumes that Adam’s creation tells us something about everyone else’s.

Prior to receiving the breath of life, was Adam’s body recognizable as human but not yet functional, or was it a lump of inanimate earth that only roughly resembled a human body? We have no way of knowing from the text. But this argument assumes that Adam’s body was not only recognizably human but fully functional – it just lacked some special spark that we call “life.” That is more than can be drawn from the text as well.

We do know is that Adam’s origin was unique. Even Eve’s origin was not the same as Adam’s.

Most importantly, though, is that no human since then has been created like Adam. He was a special creation (whether the passage is describing his physical creation or his spiritual creation), and no descendant of Adam and Eve went through that process. Therefore you can’t ascribe everything in Adam’s creation to us.

The Bible is pretty clear that in creating “man” in God’s image, what was true of Adam was to be true of us all. We were not all fashioned out of the dust of the ground; in the same way we cannot say based on this passage that a human body can be fully formed and functional and yet waits upon a “breath of life” to make it fully human.

2. It assumes that the “breath of life” was oxygen.

On the internet this verse is used to argue that an unborn – and even born – human does not have full human rights until it breathes in air (clearly the fetus’ breathing of amniotic fluid is not considered valid), and at least one nut argued that if you can prevent a baby from breathing after birth, you can kill it with impunity.

The problem with this argument is that nothing in Gen 2 requires the “breath of life” to be oxygen. The text makes it just as likely that the “breath” was a metaphysical phenomenon.

Some point to passages like Ezekiel 37, Joshua 10:40, and 1 Kings 15:29 to show that breathing air is required to be “alive,” but I think the metaphors are getting mixed here.

Ez 37 contains the famous dry bones passage. It says, “…the bones came together… and tendons and flesh appeared on them and skin covered them, but there was no breath in them” (37:7-8).

In this passage, as well as the ones from Joshua and 1 Kings, breathing is used as a metaphor for life. The bodies reassembled, but they weren’t alive yet; Joshua was commanded to kill everything that breathed – everything that was alive. But turning that into a rule saying that breathing is necessary to be “alive” is biblically unjustified.

Figures of speech abound in the Bible – breath is life; the heart is the seat of wisdom; the heavens sing. Figures of speech occur a lot in the Bible. Both sides can be guilty of taking figures of speech literally, but this seems almost willful.

I’m sure the pro-choice crowd is glad the Bible doesn’t use a heartbeat as a metaphor for life. It does however say that life is in the blood (Lev 17). I’ll let someone else employ that.

3. You’d better not stop breathing.

If breathing is necessary to be fully human, what happens if you stop breathing due to some natural circumstance? If you choke on a grape and stop breathing, are you a human in need of medical assistance or a lump of organic tissue that I should step over and ignore?

We all know that a person who stops breathing – be it due to choking or heart attack or drowning – remains a valuable human being who has a fundamental right to life until God Almighty says otherwise. If this is not intuitively obvious to you, stay out of the medical field, and by all means chew your food carefully.

4. It ignores other passages that imply God is concerned about unborn children.

I’ll admit that the biblical case against abortion isn’t as open and shut as the case, say, against adultery. It’s more like the case against slavery – if you consider A, B, and C then you should conclude D. I’m sure we’re all familiar with the usual passages raised against abortion; among them: Psalm 22:10, 51:5, 139, Jeremiah 1, Luke 1 (esp v41, cf 18:15).

The point is, there are usual passages, and your case must deal with them, especially if your argument is based on a rather unusual usage of 1 verse. Personally I refuse to hold any biblical position based on just one verse, and I refuse to be dogmatic about anything without quite a few passages supporting it.

5. While we’re on the topic, I guess I should stop and mention the other big “pro-abortion” bible passage – Numbers 5:11ff. This is the test for an unfaithful wife. If a man suspects (without proof) his wife has been unfaithful, he takes her to the priest who gives her “bitter water” to drink. If she has been faithful, no harm will come to her; if not, God will cause “her abdomen to swell and her thigh to waste away” so that she cannot have children.

Despite liberal assurances to the contrary, nothing in this passage suggests she’ll miscarry. It’s talking about future childbearing. What would happen if she was pregnant in all of this? The Bible is silent. What the Bible is clear about is that the water does not cause this punishment, and the choice is not any human’s. God is solely responsible.

5.1. Again, here’s Greg Koukl’s article on Ex 21:22.

The notion that the product of two human beings is not a human being until such time as it inhales is not justifiable biblically or logically (or biologically). What it does is demonstrate how desperately people want to find a loophole to make it ok to kill an innocent, unborn human being. And frankly that’s just a bit disturbing.


Nancy said...


Vinny said...

I have never really looked for proof texts on the abortion issue so I was not familiar with that passage in Numbers, but it seems to me that it creates a lot of problems for your argument. Isn’t it logical to assume that some of the women whose adultery is revealed by this process would be pregnant? How can we conclude anything other than that those women would miscarry as a result of this process? In fact, the footnotes to the NIV give “causes you to have a miscarrying womb and barrenness” as a possible alternative translation to “causes your thigh to waste away and your abdomen to swell.” It seems pretty clear that the bitter water will abort any pregnancy.

Jeremy Pierce said...

Vinny, the passage doesn't say it will happen immediately. Also, the issue is whether it's ok for a human being to deliberately abort a fetus. The Bible is clear that God can abort anyone's life without it being immoral, even if the person is innocent. God is clearly the agent in this passage. Why would we have different standards for this sort of case than we have for David and Bathsheba's first child?

Vinny said...


The passage says the woman will be able to have children if she is innocent. Doesn't it logically follow that she won't be able to have children if she's guilty? Moreover, if the alternative translation is correct, the term "miscarrying womb" is superfluous if it does not apply to an existing pregnancy.

The difference between the story of David and Bathsheeba is that God is not dealing with a specific situation here. He is laying down a procedure for his people to follow in all such situations that will result in the termination of a pregnancy when one exists.

As Chris notes, the Biblical position on abortion is not nearly as explicit as either side would like it to be. You have to infer God's attitude towards the unborn. In Numbers, you have God promulgating a rule for dealing with situations where unborn children will frequently be present.

Jeremy Pierce said...

The passage says the woman will be able to have children if she is innocent. Doesn't it logically follow that she won't be able to have children if she's guilty?

Actually, it doesn't follow logically. You've just committed the logical fallacy of denying the antecedent. It may carry the conversational implicature that she won't be able to have children, but it certainly doesn't logically imply that.

Nitpicking aside, it's technically possible that the curse of not being able to bear children can take effect later on. It doesn't say when her stomach would swell. You might expect it to be immediate, but it doesn't exactly say that. Keep in mind that it can't be about the issue of being childless, since women who already have children would be immune. It has to be about becoming unmarriageable once divorced out of the inability to have future children. That's compatible with contracting the condition much later, since obviously the water itself doesn't cause the condition. God does.

More likely, since God isn't exactly trapped by an inability to know what people will do in the future, he could simply prevent conception in the cases that he would judge in this way. Or he could do what he did with David and Bathsheba's first child. I don't see how your response to that touches my point. It's true that it's an individual case, but it's a case that shows that God obviously would be willing to do something like that, which means the biblical authors don't take it to be immoral for God to do it. That doesn't mean it would be ok for us to do it. It wouldn't be ok for us to kill someone for lying about how much they gave to the church, for instance.

As for this showing God's attitude toward the unborn, that may well be. But keep in mind that Aaron's two eldest sons, Uzzah, David and Bathsheba's oldest child, and Ananias and Sapphira demonstrate just as fully what God's attitude to adult human beings is. That doesn't give us permission to murder adult human beings. So why should Numbers 5 tell us anything about the moral status of the fetus as compared with the moral status of adults?

ChrisB said...


Assuming this procedure was ever carried out, I'm sure some of the women involved would have had a pregnancy the husband doubted was his. If this procedure made the woman miscarry, it would be the hand of God doing so (hence my point above), not the hand of man. We believe God is responsible (in some way or another) for all deaths and all miscarriages, so this is just more of Him running the universe as He sees fit.

The point is, the human agent delivers the same substance to every woman. It is NOT, then, an abortifacient, so it does not provide biblical support for abortion.

(And don't spend too much energy worrying about the alternate translation. I can't find another that says that including the JPS.)

Jeremy, I love your last point about the "attitude toward adults." And thanks for linking to my piece.

Vinny said...


It may be obvious from our twenty-first century perspective that there must have been some supernatural intervention in order for the bitter water to cause suffering in only guilty women, but I don’t think that the ancient Israelites would have understood it this way. I think they would have understood it as God directing them to follow a procedure that terminates pregnancies got through adultery.

Jeremy Pierce said...

Vinny, I'd be more inclined to expect pre-moderns to expect the opposite. They would have seen this procedure as a way to access God's supernatural intervention to answer the question. Remember that the pre-modern view in the Greco-Roman world included assuming any case of the symptoms of epilepsy meant the gods had produced these effects in the person directly. It wasn't until a later disciple of Hippocrates that an alternative view arose.

Most scholars just assume from the gospel accounts that any such symptoms in Israel were taken to be the result of demons, and even if the biblical authors treat some of those as actually being the result of demons in some sense, the pre-modern assumption did seem to be supernatural causes for unexplained phenomena. All the Catholic miracle stories for justifying canonization work the same way, assuming a supernatural miracle every time there's no natural explanation.

Vinny said...


I don't think that I disagree with you. However, it seems to me that Chris is trying to draw a distinction between the priest using the bitter water as an abortifacient to produce the miscarriage as well as the subsequent barrenness and God producing the same result through supernatural intervention. I don't think that the Israelites would have recognized that distinction.

Jeremy Pierce said...

I don't think that's Chris's point at all. He says that the passage is clear that God is the agent, and it doesn't actually matter if God does it through either method or if the reader or hearer didn't see the distinction between the two methods. The point is that God is the agent, and they would have gotten that. This is a procedure given at God's command, and the result is something God is ultimately responsible for, with humans responsible only for doing as he commands.

That means it isn't a case of deciding on your own to kill someone or to have an abortion. It's more like the case of Jehu being commanded to take out the family of Ahab than David reasoning his way to the conclusion that Solomon will eventually have to kill Joab and explaining to him why. It's a case of following a direct command of God, with God ultimately responsible for the results, so it's more like cases where God administers justice directly than like cases where we have to reason through a case based on the relevant moral principles that apply to us as humans.

Vinny said...


You keep comparing this to specific situations where God caused or directed a specific response or result, but that is not what you have here. In Acts 5, Ananias and Sapphira are struck dead for withholding money from the apostles. That was a specific response to a specific situation that may only provide limited insight into how God wants the church to deal with believers who renege on pledges. However, you would have a very different case if Peter were to pronounce a general rule along the lines of “thus says the Lord, anyone who fails to honor a pledge to the church shall be put to death.” That would tell you much more about God’s priorities on the question.

Here you have a general rule to be applied whenever a husband suspects his wife of adultery but lacks proof. (I assume she gets stoned to death if he has the proof.) In such cases, a procedure is to be followed that will result in the termination of any existing pregnancies. There is big difference between God directing a single action in one specific situation and God directing the same action in all similar situations. The latter implies a general principle at work while the former may not.

Anonymous said...

"The life of the flesh is in the blood." Babies have their own blood supply, their own heartbeat and brain functions. They also "breathe" the amniotic fluid before they are born.

Excellent study!

gumby said...


It's clear the god is the agent in the miscarriage/abortion, we just need a man to suspect his wife of an affair, then get a priest involved to create a concoction for her to drink, then god does all his sole agency bit by preventing future pregnancies (and likely inducing a miscarriage/abortion).

That crazy god - so agentful and powerful to manage all that on his own, without the need to rely on humans!

ChrisB said...


God also plays the part of nothing happening if the woman was faithful.

Why all of this drama and ceremony? How else would you know what has happened? Unless you knew it was God getting involved and punishing adultery, it would have no deterrent value.

Anonymous said...

None of the arguments presented here give clear views on a biblical view on abortion. I contest that there are 'loopholes' to find if - anyone is trying to find them. As far as i can see it is simply that both views are based on individual moral values and not actually on any knowledge of God's wishes, simply assumptions that God is probably in line of what we (in both cases) think/ feel is true.