Abortion, the Bible, and Us: The Evangelical About-Face on Abortion

An anti-abortion protest in California's Bay Area from 1986
A 1986 anti-abortion protest in the Bay Area
(Photo by Nancy Wong, CC by SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons)
To recap what I’ve covered in this series so far:

All of this is hard to square with the tenor of contemporary abortion politics, where absolute opposition to abortion, grounded in a belief that life begins at the moment of fertilization, is often held to be the defining political commitment of the religious (read: Christian) right. Within this conservative coalition, evangelicals in particular tend to justify their anti-abortion stance in originalist and biblicist terms. 

Take, for example, resources developed by Focus on the Family that assert that the Bible says life begins at conception, or megachurch pastor Rick Warren’s comment that “the reason I believe that life begins at conception is because the Bible says it.”

The Bible, of course, says no such thing.

And you have to work pretty hard to get the Bible to imply it.

 If it isn’t in the Bible, then—and it isn’t—where does it come from? Is it simply a constant element of Christian belief? Again, the answer is no.

The Evangelical About-Face

From the outset, we have to distinguish between different kinds of Christians, since different denominations do not have the same historical relationship with abortion. Officially, the Roman Catholic Church has long opposed abortion and, since the mid-20th century, contraception (individual Catholics have various opinions, of course, and tend to access contraception and abortion at roughly the same rates as everyone else in the United States.

Evangelical Christians, however, who are now at least as closely identified with anti-abortion politics as Catholics, have not always been politically motivated by abortion—or even united in opposition to it.

In the era before Roe v. Wade, many evangelical leaders argued that abortion was permissible in many circumstances. For example, the influential evangelical theologian and apologist Norman Geisler, in the 1971 and 1975 editions of his Christian Ethics, wrote the following, which I will quote at length:

The one clear thing which the Scriptures indicate about abortion is that it is not the same as murder. … Murder is a man-initiated activity of taking an actual human life. Artificial abortion is a humanly initiated process which results in the taking of a potential human life. Such abortion is not murder, because the embryo is not fully human — it is an undeveloped person.

When it is a clear-cut case of either taking the life of the unborn baby or letting the mother die, then abortion is called for. An actual life (the mother) is of more intrinsic value than a potential life (the unborn). The mother is a fully developed human; the baby is an undeveloped human. And an actually developed human is better than one which has the potential for full humanity but has not yet developed. Being fully human is a higher value than the mere possibility of becoming fully human. For what is has more value than what may be. …

Birth is not morally necessitated without consent. No woman should be forced to carry a child if she did not consent to intercourse. A violent intrusion into a woman’s womb does not bring with it a moral birthright for the embryo. The mother has a right to refuse that her body be used as an object of sexual intrusion. The violation of her honor and personhood was enough evil without compounding her plight by forcing an unwanted child on her besides. … the right of the potential life (the embryo) is overshadowed by the right of the actual life of the mother. The rights to life, health, and self-determination — 
i.e., the rights to personhood — of the fully human mother take precedence over that of the potentially human embryo.

Fifty years later, such a position from a notable conservative evangelical would be almost unthinkable. Indeed, Geisler himself did not remain supportive of abortion. Long before his death in 2019, he had become an ardent opponent of abortion in any form, arguing explicitly that it should supersede all other issues in determining Christians’ voting priorities. This change was already apparent in the 1989 2nd edition of his Christian ethics, where he asserted (as part of a much longer discussion):

Scripture texts leave no doubt that an unborn child is just as much a person in God’s image as a little child or an adult is. They are  created  in  God’s  image  from  the  very  moment  of  conception,  and  their  prenatal  life  is  precious  in  God’s  eyes  and  protected  by  his  prohibition  against  murder.

In 18 years, the Bible had managed to shift from being crystal clear in one direction to being crystal clear in the opposite and contradictory direction, something which Geisler scarcely hints at (and only in the preface)..

But Geisler’s permissive position was far from anomalous in the evangelical circles of the mid-20th century. Bruce Waltke, a professor at the famously conservative Dallas Theological Seminary, wrote in Christianity Today in 1968 “God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed.”

In 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted an official resolution that affirmed the value of fetal life but added “We call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”

At the time, 70% of Southern baptist pastors approved of abortion to support the mental or physical health of the mother. Support was 64% for “fetal deformity” and 71% in cases of rape. 

Similarly, the evangelical response to Roe was not immediate or uniformly negative. While Christianity Today criticized the decision in 1973, many influential conservative pastors voiced their support. W. A. Criswell, pastor of the largest Southern Baptist church in the US, said “I have always felt that it was only after a child was born and had life separate from its mother, that it became an individual person.” He went on “it has always, therefore, seemed to me that what is best for the mother and the future should be allowed.”

The Baptist Press actually hailed the decision as a win: “religious liberty, human equality and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court abortion decision.”

Neither was this a case of leaders who were out of touch with the theological leanings of their congregations, as rank-and-file evangelicals were not exercised by the decision and proved hard for activist groups to mobilize. In 1980, the evangelical magazine Moody Monthly lamented that “Evangelicalism as a whole has uttered no real outcry. We’ve organized no protest. … The Catholics have called abortion ‘The Silent Holocaust.’ The deeper horror is the silence of the evangelical.”

This sentiment was echoed by other members of the new religious right at the time, including Heritage Foundation founder and John Birch Society member Paul Weyrich,  Moral Majority board member Ed Dobson, and the anti-abortion activist group the Christian Action Council.

Eventually, though, activist efforts to mobilize evangelicals against abortion did come to fruition. Harold O. J. Brown, the Christianity Today editor who wrote the original criticism of Roe v. Wade, founded the Human Life Review in 1975 and the Christian Action Council in 1976. Jerry Falwell preached his first sermon against abortion in 1978, and Francis Schaeffer and C. Everett Koop published their influential Whatever Happened to the Human Race? in 1979. Together, these and other activists worked to bring abortion to prominence among evangelicals. 

By 1984, the landscape had changed. That year, the book Brave New People argued the once common evangelical view that abortion was ethically complicated and often permissible, but this time it provoked such a strong backlash that the publisher, Zondervan, conducted the first recall in its history.

Since then, staunch opposition to abortion has been the almost unquestioned position of the Christian right, evangelicals included.

What happened?

At this point, the facts are pretty clear. Abortion for evangelicals was not an important issue or an issue of unanimous agreement in the middle of the 20th century. Since Jonathan Dudley made this point in an influential op-ed for CNN, however, there has been a war over the narrative. Why exactly did evangelicals perform this about-face on abortion?

When evangelicals themselves tell the story, it becomes a story of heroes rousing morally sluggish congregations to realign with clear biblical truth. In other words, the problem was general ignorance of the Bible’s clear teachings and the remedy was deeper, more diligent Bible study.

These retellings rightly emphasize the significance of highly motivated activists, but their Bible-centrism falls flat. As I’ve argued throughout this series of posts, biblical texts stake out no clear position on abortion or fetal personhood, and neither do they suggest it was an issue of moral significance to the communities by and for whom biblical texts were written. The Bible could not have been the sole driver of this revolution in evangelical politics, which means that other motivations must be identified.

For Dudley, it was a story of the political tail wagging the theological dog. That is, adherence to political conservatism did not result from the belief that life begins at conception; rather, political conservatism motivated many Christians to interpret biblical texts to mean that life begins at conception.

Religious historian Randall Balmer puts a finer point on it. In his book Bad Faith and these articles for Politico Magazine, Balmer argues that political mobilization around abortion was actually kicked off by conservative evangelical resistance to government-mandated desegregation of religious schools. 

Balmer is not arguing for anything as simple as an “Aha! It was really just racism all along!” gotcha. This is America, and at some level it’s racism all the way down. The anti-abortion movement has had troubling connections with white supremacist and eugenics movements throughout its long history, but the pro-choice and birth control movements have a few racist and eugenicist skeletons in their closets as well.

What these reconstructions show, however, is that anti-abortion politics did not arise directly from diligent Bible reading and that abortion did not function as an independent political issue. Rather, it interacted with a slew of other issues that all revolved around the social and cultural changes of the 1960s and ‘70s.

The civil rights movement, anti-Vietnam movement, sexual revolution, and second wave of feminism co-occurred in ways that profoundly destabilized the traditional hierarchies of American society and, working together, motivated the political resurgence of the religious right.

While the rhetoric of the abortion debate focuses intensely on the figures of the fetus and the mother, the ethics and politics of abortion have implications that connect very strongly to these traditional hierarchies. I have more research to do here, but I have a hunch that opposition to abortion has proved so powerful a galvanizing force because its intense focus on the fetus—usually portrayed as a baby no matter the gestational age being discussed—easily obscures its connections with less palatable and less popular conservative political priorities. For decades now, the mantra “abortion is murder” has acted as a powerful Trump card and a nearly insurmountable barrier to defecting from the Republican Party, as Bradley Onishi wrote in this powerful essay. No matter how many harmful and destructive policies they espouse, no matter how promiscuously they flirt with authoritarianism, how can any other issue compete with the murder of a million babies a year? This question keeps many people voting for candidates they disagree with on almost everything because the prevalence of abortion weighs too heavily to bear.

I understand this earnest belief. I understand this discomfort. At some point, though, I had to acknowledge that the Bible’s clarity on prenatal personhood and on abortion were illusory. 

This doesn’t mean that people who read and believe in the Bible can’t believe that life begins at conception or that abortion is always wrong. However, these beliefs must be understood also as reflections of social, historical, and political forces outside of the Bible. The attempt to locate fetal personhood and anti-abortion ethics in the original message of the Bible is an attempt to remove them from historical and cultural contingency and to sink them deep in the unchanging bedrock of eternal truth. However, theological priorities are influenced by contingent and contextual forces for evangelicals as much as for anyone else. 

In short, categorical opposition to abortion is neither a necessary element of true Christian faith nor an ethical issue so clear and settled that it should supersede all others in social and political reasoning.

I can’t tell you exactly what to think about abortion (I’ll share my own positions in the next post), but I can tell you this: if it were left to the Bible, we’d spend a lot less time policing it.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Most of these sources are linked above and repeated here for ease of reference. 

Balmer, Randall. Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right. Eerdmans, 2021.

—. “The Real Origins of the Religious Right.” Politico Magazine, May 27, 2022.

—. “The Religious Right and the Abortion Myth.” Politico magazine, May 10, 2022.

Dibranco, Alex. “The Long History of the Anti-Abortion Movement’s Ties to White Supremacists.” The Nation, Feb 3, 2020.

Dudley, Jonathan. “When Evangelicals were Pro-Choice.” CNN Belief Blog, 2012.

—. “How Evangelicals Decided that Life Begins at Conception.“ HuffPost Religion, Nov. 5, 2012.

Farley, Audrey Clare. “The Eugenics Roots of Evangelical Family Values.” Religion and Politics, 2021.

Onishi, Bradley. “Pro-born: A Former Evangelical on the Single-Issue Politics of White Christians.” Religion Dispatches, March 18, 2018.

Tisby, Jemar. The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism

 

Further Reading

Griffith, R. Marie. Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics. Basic Books, 2017..

Parker, Willie. Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice. 37 Inc., 2018.

Pittman, Ashton. “To Rule History with God: The Christian Dominionist War on Abortion.” Mississippi Free Press, Jan 26, 2022 (Part one of a three-part series).

Schenk, Rob. Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope, and Love. Harper COllins, 2019.

Abortion, the Bible, and Us: On Personhood

Photograph of an angry bull in a pasture. It's not a goring ox like the laws mention but hey, close enough.

(Photo Wikimedia Creative Commons 2.0)

As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the major ethical questions surrounding abortion is that of when life begins, or better, when a developing embryo or fetus acquires the right to life. In the last one, I showed how biblical descriptions of pregnancy—metaphorical though they are—tend to frame the formation of a new child as a process rather than an instantaneous event. But does this processual understanding extend to ethical considerations and the right to life as well?

There aren’t many relevant biblical texts to consult—again, there’s no biblical passage that comes right out with a direct statement on fetal personhood—but what little evidence there is suggests that it was also treated as something that develops over time.

 For this discussion, I’m indebted to the work of Tracy Lemos in her recent book Violence and Personhood in Ancient Israel and Comparative Contexts. Lemos examines the practice and punishment of violence as it relates to the social status of individuals. In particular, who is viewed as a person and who a non-person? To her, being recognized as a person in society means being recognized “as having value, not as a commodity but as a participant in social relations.” Importantly for this post, personhood is characterized by “the attribution of agency, rights, or protections—particularly protection from physical harm—and/or by public rituals that convey or reaffirm that individual’s value.” In other words, being seen as a person protects an individual from violence or makes violence a more serious crime.

Lemos conducts a holistic study, dealing in turn with personhood as it relates to gender, nationality, enslavement, and childhood. You can (and should!) read the whole chapter on children, “Visiting the Iniquity of the Father on the Son: Violence and the Personhood of Children in Ancient Israel,” at her academia.edu page. It deals mostly with children post birth, but discusses also the status of fetuses in Israelite society.

We can learn a lot by comparing legal penalties for violent acts, because these often link life and health directly with monetary payments and/or other punishments. The most relevant law relating to fetal personhood (and the most relevant biblical text, period) comes from a legal collection in Exodus 20–23 known as the Covenant Collection. Before we get to it , though, I’ll illustrate the point with reference to a few other laws. Since the Bible contains multiple collections of laws that don’t always agree with one another, choosing laws from the same collection has benefits as well as drawbacks. It allows us to expect some degree of internal consistency that does not characterize the Bible as a whole, but it also limits the discussion to just one of the Bible’s many and varied voices. We also know that the Covenant collection was not wholly a native Israelite creation, since it seems to have been based in large part upon the Code of Hammurabi for its overall structure and the content of many of its laws (there is A good book by my dissertation advisor on just that topic!).

Personhood and the Valuation of Life in the Covenant Collection

The Covenant Collection contains laws on a lot of different topics. It’s far from comprehensive, but its laws touch on altars, sacrifice, property, enslavement, liability, legal procedure, sexuality, and violence.

Often it presents illuminating variations on a legal scenario. Consider the Ten Commandments’ prohibition against murder:

You shall not murder. (Exodus 20:13)

Sweet. Good start. But what does that mean in practice. A little bit later, we get more legal detail:

Someone who strikes a man so that he dies shall be put to death. (Exodus 21:12)

This sets the standard penalty for taking a life as losing your own, according to the talionic principle (that is, an eye for an eye, etc.). But this doesn’t apply to every case. What if the killing wasn’t on purpose? What if it was in self defense or defense of property?

In the case of accidental manslaughter, the killer can flee to a place of refuge to avoid punishment (Ex. 21:13). Similarly, if someone beats a thief to death during a break-in, they incur no guilt or legal penalty (Ex. 22:1).

Punishments can also vary based on the identity of the victim. So, for example, if someone killed a person they had enslaved. If the victim died immediately from the wounds, the law prescribes that נקום ינקם “it shall be punished” (Ex. 21:20). This is different wording from the original law regarding murder: מות יומת “he shall be put to death.” Though of course punishment could be imagined to refer to the death penalty, that does not seem to be the intent. If the purpose of writing a separate law for the murder of enslaved people was to underscore that the punishment was identical to the murder of a free citizen, why choose a looser and more general word? More likely, laws concerning violence against enslaved people were written separately because they were conceived of differently.

The difference is even clearer when the enslaved person lives a few days after the attack, and then dies. In this case, the attacker incurs no penalty, because כספו הוא “he (the enslaved) was his (the enslaver’s) property” (Ex. 21:21).

Thus, it seems that an individual’s personhood could be mitigated by their enslavement, and that a crime against an enslaved person was not viewed in the same way as a crime against a free citizen.

This distinction between the free and the enslaved appears throughout the Covenant Collection. For example, the owner of a habitually aggressive ox that gores a free person—no matter their age or gender—is put to death (Ex. 21:29–31). If that same ox, with the same negligent owner, kills someone who has been enslaved, the owner must only pay a fine to the victim’s owner—remuneration for lost property rather than for lost life )Ex. 21:32).

In the same way, the law of “an eye for an eye” only applies to free citizens. If an enslaver puts out the eye or tooth of someone they enslave, they are not subject to the loss of their own eyes or teeth. Rather, they have to free their victim from slavery. 

This case is especially striking. In the case of free-on-free violence, the appropriate restitution for one harm is an equivalent harm enacted upon the perpetrator. In free-on-enslaved violence, the injustice is rectified by conveying a benefit upon—or, more accurately, removing an oppression from—the victim.

While enslaved people were not treated as complete non-persons in all biblical texts, as Lemos argues elsewhere, it is clear from these laws and others that they were not treated as persons in the same way or as consistently as free people. Their position allowed for mitigation of their rights in ways that were truly brutal and dehumanizing. Morally abhorrent as they are, these laws illustrate the principle that levels of personhood can be embedded in legal discourse, particularly in the permissibility and punishment of violence. This sets us up for the main event:

The Case of Collateral Miscarriage

After all that intro, here it is at last: the closest thing we get to a biblical pronouncement on fetal personhood, in the context of a law about collateral damage during a brawl.

“When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine.

If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Exodus 21:22–25)

Here we have two variations on a common scenario: in both cases the brawl causes the end of a pregnancy, but the penalties differ based on whether “harm” (Hebrew אסון) occurs or not. There has been some debate over the nature of this harm and who experiences it, but the general consensus is that the pregnancy is terminated and the fetus is lost, and the harm that may or may not occur refers to the mother. In this case, the first variation imagines a situation where the blow causes a miscarriage but the woman remains healthy. The second a scenario in which the pregnant woman experiences physical harm beyond the loss of her pregnancy.

A minority position holds that the additional harm is done to the infant—that is, that the scenario describes an early birth rather than a miscarriage, and the additional penalties result from further injury to the child. The earliest Greek translation actually misunderstood the term for “harm” entirely and translated it “if the fetus is not fully formed” vs. “if the fetus is fully formed.” Due to our better understanding of biblical Hebrew and our knowledge of Hammurabi, however, most scholars find the first interpretation much more likely. 

In the first scenario, where the pregnancy is terminated but the woman is unhurt, the penalty characterizes it as a property crime against the father. As such, it does not seem that the fetus was understood to be a person with social and legal standing of its own. Further, it characterizes the loss of the potential child primarily as a loss of the father rather than the expectant mother.

As Lemos writes, “In Exod 21:22–5, a hierarchy is thus established in which a fetus has much lower standing than its mother, harms against whom require talionic pun­ishment rather than monetary compensation, but who also has less legal standing than her husband.19 If we examine these different sections of Exodus 21 together, then, children’s standing appears to be higher than that of either slaves or fetuses… While slaves are offered some legal protections, the fetus occupies an extremely subordinated position and has no apparent legal standing separate from its father.” Fellow biblical scholar Naomi Steinberg states it plainly: “The fetus is a nonperson.””

This is scant evidence, and perhaps it is unwarranted to discover a universal cultural belief about fetal non-personhood in one group of laws among several within a literary anthology of many voices and perspectives, but this conclusion does align with the processual view of fetal development implied in pregnancy texts and with the subordination of fetal and maternal rights under the father in texts I will discuss later.

And again, there is the question for those who see opposition to abortion as an eternal, God-given absolute: if an omniscient deity were using a sacred text to communicate abhorrence for abortion, why would this be all we get?

Abortion, the Bible, and Us: How Ancient babies were Made

A bunch of plump green grapes ripening with great fertility on the vine.
Photo credit Lynn Greyling, Public Domain license
This is the third in my series on the Bible and abortion. Here are Part One and Part Two. This one’s a long one, so settle in!
***
“Remember that you fashioned me like clay,
and will you turn me to dust again?
Did you not pour me out like milk
and curdle me like cheese?
You clothed me with skin and flesh
and knit me together with bones and sinews.”
Job 10:10 (NRSVUE)
In my last post, I wrote about the things biblical writers and readers could not have known about the process of conception. But what did they know and how did they think and talk about not only conception but pregnancy and birth?
This is a tough question to answer. There’s no biblical text that offers a treatise on human reproduction. Most of the time, what mention we do get is euphemistic, metaphorical, or just too brief to tell us much of anything. It’s like asking whether the saying “a bun in the oven” tells us anything meaningful about 21st century American ideas about pregnancy, or if telling my kids that someone has a baby in her tummy means I don’t know what a uterus is or how it differs from a stomach. At some point, the sayings don’t tell us much about the underlying biological model.
Sometimes, we can get more information from the nations and societies that surrounded ancient Israel, including Assyria, Babylonia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. These all differed from Israel and one another in important ways, but they shared common cultural elements and shared ideas through trade, contact, and conquest.

How did Pregnancies Begin?

All societies, ancient and modern, understand that pregnancy cannot occur without specific types of sexual intercourse. Scholars like to quote an ancient Sumerian proverb here: “Has she become pregnant without intercourse? Has she become fat without eating?”🗡 But honestly, do we really need textual support for this point? Just to be clear, though, biblical texts also often precede accounts of pregnancy with statements that a man “knew,” “went in to,” or “lay with” a woman—all of these implying sexual intercourse.
Yet it’s also clear that sex doesn’t always cause pregnancy. In the Bible, there seems to be an idea that God must “open the womb” of a young woman to allow for pregnancy to occur. As we shall see, this reflects a general theme that the deity plays an active role in pregnancy and gestation at every stage.
We find more descriptions and metaphors once we move on to prenatal development. The passage from Job at the top of this post contains three distinct metaphors that work together.

Metaphor One: babies are Sculptures

In the first line of the quote above, Job describes his formation as an act of fashioning from clay. This calls back to the second biblical  creation story (Genesis 2:7), where God sculpts the first human—presumably as an adult—literally from a clod of earth. In that story, the sculpting was completed before the earthen form was given life. It only became a living being when the “breath of life” was breathed in to it. Note that in both Job and the creation story (genesis 3:19) death is also described as a return to dust. Thus, the idea that humans were basically earthen creatures may have been deeper than a mere figure of speech.
The most striking feature of this metaphor is that it casts God as the only active agent in the process of development. Clearly this sculpting is happening within the mother’s womb, but the active role in shaping belongs only to the deity.

Metaphor Two: Babies are Cheese

This is a weird one to modern ears, but it was not uncommon and it was actually developed in more detail in later texts. For example, the following discussion occurs in Leviticus Rabbah, a homiletic midrash on the book of Leviticus from around the fifth century CE (=AD):
“A woman’s womb is full of blood, some of which goes out by way of her menstrual flow, and by the favor of the Holy One, blessed be He, a drop of white matter goes and falls into it and immediately the fetus begins to form. It may be compared to milk in a basin; if one puts rennet into it, it congeals and becomes consistent; if not, it continues to ‘tremble.’” — Leviticus Rabbah 14:9
Here we have the relevant parts of the analogy drawn out in terms of their relationship to the process as it was understood by one particular rabbi. Like the milk that forms the base material for cheese, it is the menstrual blood that forms the material basis for a developing child. The white matter (a clear reference to semen) is characterized as a catalyst or reagent that begins the process of fetal coagulation. 
This metaphor complements the prior one, as it relates to the production of the material from which a baby is created but does not specify how individual features are determined or developed.

Metaphor Three: Babies are Textiles

Job also says that God clothed him in skin and flesh and knit his bones and sinews together. This is reminiscent of perhaps the most famous biblical text on prenatal development, from Psalm 139:
For it was you who formed my inward parts
You knit me together in my mother’s womb
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
(Psalm 139: 13–15, NRSVUE)
Again, forming a fetus is compared to an act of artisanship., and God is the one doing the forming. The mother provides the cave (the “depths of the Earth”—i.e., the womb), but God weaves the tapestry that is a new human being.
That covers the metaphors in the above selection from Job, but there is another one that plays a central role throughout the Bible:

Metaphor Four: Babies are Fruit

Right from the beginning, the Hebrew Bible employs agricultural language for human reproduction. In the first creation story, God commands the newly created people to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the Earth.” The horticultural resonance of “fruitful” is not just a product of translation, but appears in the Hebrew as well, where the verb used in the command (פרו) comes from the same root as the noun for “fruit” (פרי). 
Plant metaphors far predate the Hebrew Bible, and  are probably the oldest reproductive metaphors in written history. 
“Farmer, plow my field!” says one woman to her partner in an early Sumerian erotic Poem.‡ As this suggests, the man is usually characterized as farmer or plow, the woman as field, and the child as the fruit or crop that results from successful cultivation.
For this reason, it is not surprising that semen is often referred to as a man’s “seed” (Hebrew זרע), as in the famous case of Onan’s coitus interruptus in Genesis 38. It is also continued in later texts, such as a Dead Sea Scroll known as the Genesis Apocryphon, a rewriting of certain narrative parts of the book of Genesis, When Noah’s father, Lamech, doubts that he is truly the wondrous child’s father, his wife Bitenosh tells him “this seed is from you, and this pregnancy is from you, and the planting of this fruit is from you” ((column ii, line 15).
Yet the woman is not always the passive recipient of seed. Leviticus 12:2 begins “A woman who brings forth seed and gives birth…” Though the first verb is often translated “conceives” (see NRSV, etc.), the Hebrew word is not the usual one for a woman getting pregnant (הרה), but the same verb in the same form as is used for plants that bring forth seed in the creation story of Genesis 1 (תזריע = Hifil of זרע).  suggesting that (for some biblical writers at least)  men are not the only ones whose seed contributes to the formation of a child. 
This debate shows up in different ways all over the ancient world. Is it only the male who provides the “seed” that generates a new child, or do both the mother and father provide genetic material? In the 5th century BCE(=BC), Aristotle argued forcefully that only the male provides seed, since each person can produce only semen or menstrual blood, not both. The Hippocratic medical writings (3rd century BCE) and the famous Roman Physician Galen (1st century CE) take the position that both male and female provide seed. 
The Hebrew Bible is more ambiguous and may not be all of the same mind on the topic. Some texts imply male seed, others imply male and female seed. It is worth asking as well just what the seed does in this context. Does it, as we consider genetic material today, contribute the plan for specific characteristics of appearance and personality? In this case, many biblical texts also make these the responsibility of active divine formation throughout the course of the pregnancy. Is it, like a plant seed, an object that grows by drawing in matter and nutrients from its surroundings? Or is it, like the cheesy metaphor above implies, some kind of catalyst or reagent?

So what?

As I hope I’ve shown, many details of the ancient Israelites’ understanding of pregnancy and birth have been lost and will likely remain uncertain and mysterious forever. The texts are fascinating in their own right, but at this point it’s worth asking what we can glean from these metaphors. Are there any common threads that might be useful for understanding biblical views on reproduction and abortion?
First, and importantly, we have to acknowledge that the Bible is not clear or straightforward. Beyond that, its various descriptions and metaphors suggest that different models may be at play in different books and different texts. There may not be one biblical view on the mechanics of reproduction at all.
In terms of commonalities, all of the descriptions communicate an active role for the deity at every stage of development. From the opening of the womb through the formation of the developing fetus, biblical texts situate God right there in the mix, curdling, shaping, knitting and stitching the fetus together. It’s important not to gloss over just how different this is from our scientific modern view of pregnancy. Many people, of course, still understand God to have an active role in maintaining the health of both the mother and the fetus during pregnancy, but we now know that individual characteristics are largely determined by genetics, which are more or less fixed from the moment of recombination. We do not believe that the fashioning of physical traits or features is an open-ended process that depends on moment-by-moment choices made by God during the course of the pregnancy.
Speaking of which, this focus on process is also common among the texts. None of them compares a developing fetus to an object that gains all of its final attributes or qualities in an instant. Milk does not become cheese the instant a culture is added. A lump of clay is not immediately a sculpture. A line of knitting or single woven thread is not a garment. And of course, a seed does not become a crop until it has grown and fruited.
All of these things take time. They change and transform across the span of the process, and none of them is the same at the end as it was at the beginning. Thus, biblical texts do not lend themselves easily to the interpretation that fetuses at every stage of development are morally equivalent to an adult, a child, or a fully developed, birthed baby.
I will develop this more in the next post, on development and personhood.

Footnotes

🗡 Lambert, W. G. Babylonian Wisdom Literature. Oxford: Clarendon, 1960. 241, lines 40–42.
‡ Sjöberg, Å. W. “Miscellaneous Sumerian Texts.” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 27 (1977), 24.

Further Reading

 

This is a long post but it could have been so much longer, because there is a lot more to read on this. If you are interested, here are a few places to look for further reading.

 

Henriksen-Garroway, Kristine. Growing Up in Ancient Israel: Children and Material Culture in Biblical Texts. SBL Press, 2018.
Quick, Laura. “Bitenosh’s Orgasm, Galen’s Two Seeds, and Conception Theory in the Hebrew Bible.” Dead Sea Discoveries 28 (2021).
Stol, Martin. :Embryology in Babylonia and the Bible.” Pages 137–156 in Imagining the Fetus: The Unborn in Myth, Religion, and Culture. 2008. This book also contains chapters on early Christianity and rabbinic Judaism.

Abortion, the Bible, and Us: Concepts of Conception

Human sperm and egg uniting to form a zygote, the single-cell first stepp in the process of human development.
As I mentioned last time, I’m going to be writing a series of posts on abortion ethics as they do (and do not) relate to the Bible. I’ll be publishing posts as I get to them, which means they probably won’t be punctual or regular. Regardless, I welcome your comments and discussion!
***
Perhaps the most significant question in the abortion ethics debate has to do with when life begins. This may not be the best phrasing of the question, since in some sense life is continuous—every step of the process of reproduction involves living cells, from the parents’ gametes to the newborn baby, with no break or period where the tissue in question is not alive.

The question, rather, is when a new person begins, and within that are several other questions. Is the beginning of a new person’s life determined by natural laws or determined by societies and cultures? Does full personhood appear in an instant, or does it accumulate gradually? Does personhood bring with it all of the rights of a full, adult member of society? How do the rights of this new full or in-process person stack up against other people’s rights (particularly those of the person who is pregnant?

Those who hold strong anti-abortion beliefs often answer that “life begins at conception.” In other words, personhood is attained at the earliest possible moment, and with it the unmitigated right to life.

Yet even within this formulation there is uncertainty. The American College of Pediatricians (an unabashedly conservative and anti-abortion organization that should not be confused with the mainstream American Academy of Pediatrics) admits that conception is a process that takes nearly 24 hours and that there is disagreement about when in the process life begins: when the sperm enters the egg, when genetic recombination is complete, or when the first DNA replication leading to cell division occurs. Others have tried to push “conception” even further forward in time, making it synonymous with an embryo’s implantation in the uterine lining.

These debates are interesting, but they are difficult to square with the idea that the Bible (or any biblical text) affirms the sanctity of life from the moment of conception. None of the fine biological distinctions or the logic that underlies them would have meant anything to anyone living in, around, or for at least 1500 years after the times when biblical texts were being written. Ancient medical practitioners were keen observers and knew a good deal about the process of reproduction, but there is only so much they could learn without access to ultrasounds, microscopes, and arthroscopic cameras. The uterus was something of a black box, and the earliest phases of gestation were the most unknowable. Presumably some information about later stages of fetal development could be gained from miscarriages and still births, but there was little concrete knowledge about early pregnancy.

I’ll get into some evidence about what various ancient writers did know or theorize about reproduction in the next post, but for now I just want to underscore the vast chasm that separates our own understanding of conception from the one(s) held by the composers of biblical texts and their peers. Honestly, I think that “conceive” may be an unintentionally misleading translation in modern Bibles, because those of us educated in the medicalized modern world reflexively link the word itself to precise and imperceptible biological events and processes. I usually opt for the translation “be/get pregnant” instead, because it feels more vague and informal and focuses more on the change in the woman than on the product of conception.

***

Recognizing this difference in views of conception raises several questions: How could a crucial ethical distinction be based on an event no one knew was happening? How could a text (divinely inspired or not) communicate that distinction to an audience who had no context for it? 

To be clear, these questions don’t inform the ethics of abortion directly (I’ll get to that in later posts). They do, however, present problems for those who seek to base their opposition to abortion directly in the Bible (and especially in an inerrantist or other originalist reading of the Bible), and I don’t see these problems addressed or even acknowledged often enough. 

That’s it for today! Stay tuned for next time: ancient writing on sex and pregnancy!

Thoughts on Abortion: Satire and Seriousness

I wrote a piece of satire that was published today, and I felt it was worth writing some serious thoughts on it as well. Abortion is an issue of critical importance to a lot of people I know and care about, and it’s not a topic I take lightly. My beliefs and positions have changed substantially over years of thought, reading, and discussion, and I’m going to start sharing that process and where I’ve ended up.

Though the McSweeney’s piece is satire, I stand behind the serious point that it makes. Essentially, I find that Christian pro-life arguments often assume three things that cannot all be true at the same time.

1. God is a good communicator

2. God inspired the Bible to communicate (among other things) deep and enduring ethical concerns

3. God cares deeply about abortion and opposes it entirely

In other words, if God is a good communicator who wanted to convey the sanctity of fetal life and the absolute impermissibility of abortion, then God would have had to create a text quite different from the Bible.

On the flip side, if God wrote (or inspired) the Bible as we have it to express (again, among other things) prohibition of abortion, then God is not a very good communicator. So the silly thought that inspired this piece was “how would a God who wrote this Bible to express opposition to abortion justify those writing decisions?”

This disconnection between anti-abortion ethics and the text of the Bible may come as a surprise; it was certainly a surprise to my students this year. Anti-abortion organizations claim that the Bible is crystal clear on the topic of abortion so often and so forcefully that it is generally believed to be true. That is certainly the understanding I grew up with and operated under before I became a Bible scholar and looked into it systematically.

After the draft Supreme Court opinion overturning Roe vs. Wade leaked this Spring, the students in my  “Bible, Politics, and the Internet” course insisted that I expand our one class session on abortion into a week. I’m glad I did, because we all got a lot out of the experience.

For the first session, I gathered every biblical text that I could find quoted or cited on either side of the abortion debate. There were quite a few but not an absurd number, so I asked them to read through them all before class. I had also assigned articles on contraception and abortion in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, so they knew that both were known and commonly practiced throughout the societies from which the Bible emerged.

In class, the students broke up into small groups and answered two questions: which of these texts pertain to abortion directly? Which of them pertain to other ethical issues that influence the debate over abortion?

In the general discussion that followed, most students agreed that none of the verses or passages we read had anything at all to do with abortion. Some were indirectly relevant (the accidental miscarriage laws in Exodus 21:22–25, for example), but most were either shoehorned into the debate in a wholly inappropriate way (creation verses in Genesis 1:26–28 and 2:7) or were only relevant if you had already made your mind up that abortion was murder in advance (Exodus 20:13, Proverbs 24:11 and 31:8).

Their reaction echoes the position of many biblical scholars, such as John J. Collins. I take a slightly different stance, since I understand the ritual in Numbers 5:11–31 to describe the induction of an abortion for failing a divinely abetted paternity test. However, even if this one text literally prescribes an abortion, it does so in a way that helps neither side of the contemporary debate (as Rhiannon Graybill has helpfully explained. 

My students, to a person, were shocked. All of them had assumed it was in there somewhere—a clear and unambiguous prohibition of abortion. How could it not be, when abortion took up so much space in political discourse, especially among Bible-believing communities?

The fact is, the clarity of the Bible on abortion is largely an invention. More sophisticated anti-abortion advocates know this and so focus on natural law and Christian tradition over biblical precedent, but the broad assumption that the Bible prohibits abortion continues to be widespread and common.

So, what does it mean that the Bible does not present a clear position on abortion? What does it mean that the Bible does not seem to care about abortion enough to mention it almost at all, especially considering the prevalence of contraceptive and abortifacient practices throughout the ancient Middle East and Mediterranean? It’s a complicated question, since no religion has ever derived all of its doctrine and ritual from the Bible, and all types of Christianity have added, adapted, and sidelined biblical texts liberally for all manner of culturally and historically contingent reasons. It’s complicated further still by the Bible’s nature as a composite anthology with numerous different (and often disagreeing voices) represented within its pages. It is not a single text, with a single meaning and a single way of reading it. Rather, I see biblical texts as a generative base from which all manner of interpretations grow. It is certainly possible (as simple observation makes abundantly clear) to hold the Bible sacred and arrive at a pro-life, anti-abortion ethic, It is also possible to hold the Bible sacred and hold fast also to choice and reproductive justice. Neither derives necessarily from any Bible and no Bible alone can definitively adjudicate between the two for us.

As a historical Bible scholar, though, I also try to work out how these texts emerged and fit into the world in which they were written and spread. So in posts that follow this one, I’m going to discuss the place of abortion in antiquity, how the Bible’s various texts fit into it, the relevance of Bibles and biblical texts to the current debate over abortion policy, as well as my own thoughts and positions as they have developed over the past few decades. Maybe take it with a grain of salt since I’m not capable of getting pregnant, but I hope you’ll stick around and join in the conversation!

Best Books of 2021: The Mess We’re In

It’s no secret that we’re in a mess right now, politically, economically, and societally. In this third batch of favorite reads from 2021 (see 1, 2, and my full reading list), I’m sharing a few books that have helped me think through the present moment and how we get somewhere better together.

Front cover to Ill Fares the Land

Ill Fares the land, by Tony Judt

In this book, Judt tells the story of how the United States developed a faith in social democracy in the mid-20th century, then lost it in favor of a fetish for privatization and a devotion to free market solutions. The result is what he calls the ”eviscerated society,” characterized by private wealth and public squalor. Inequality has reached unsustainable and destructive levels through the consistent workings of unregulated capital markets (or more accurately, capital markets whose regulations are set by the most powerful interested players). His analysis is based on a life’s work as a historian of the post-war period, and his argumentation is lucid and eminently quotable. That said, it is not a perfect book—Judt is more statist than I am always comfortable with, and he falters on topics of race and identity as determinants of American economics and politics (see the forward to the 2020 edition by Ta-Nehisi Coates). On these, the next two books (and especially Heather McGhee’s The Sum of Us) do much better.

Front cover of the 9.9 Percent

The 9.9%: The New Aristocracy that is Entrenching Inequality and Warping our Culture, by Matthew Stewart

This is another entry on the theme of inequality. However, Stewart takes a broader approach, examining a wide array of socio-cultural phenomena in addition to economics and politics. He argues that it is not only the 1% or the .1% of America’s wealthiest who are hoarding undue wealth and unraveling the fabric of society, but the 9.9%—the top decile in terms of net worth excluding the ultra-rich of the .1%. 

As inequality has grown, the upper decile has observed the shrinking chances of upward mobility and the increasing precarity of remaining in their place in the hierarchy. Stewart makes the case that this has led to a pervasive and corrosive anxiety that is spreading throughout every part of our lives and our institutions. To ensure their continued position near the top, 9.9 percenters (and those who wish to become 9.9 percenters) have imported ultra-competitive and anti-social logics into their child-rearing, education, marriages, living situations, health and fitness practices, etc., etc.

The tone can be a bit glib and some evidence and analysis could be disputed (his interpretation of ancient texts and archaeology made this scholar of the ancient Near East’s eyes twitch a little, for example), but Stewart’s overall case is strong. I learned a lot from this book, and it gave me a lot more to think about. Definitely worth a read.

For further reading in this vein, see Richard V. Reeves’ excellent Dream Hoarders (which was one of my top picks in 2017) and Elizabeth Currid-Halkett’s The Sum of Small things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class.

Front cover to The Sum of Us

The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can prosper Together, by Heather McGhee

In this book, Heather McGhee gives not only a clear and convincing analysis of how racism has and continues to increase and entrench inequality in the United States, but also a compelling path forward.

She shows that the only way to an economy that does not tilt entirely in the ultra-wealthy’s favor is by building multiracial coalitions that work on behalf of everyone. She also provides communication strategies for getting past places where conversations on race in the US tend to stall or backfire.

The key is dismantling the myth of zero-sum racial progress. There is a common perception (particularly among white Americans) that any improvement in the economic wellbeing of black and brown people must be accompanied by a corresponding decrease for whites. This, as McGhee shows with much data and many examples, is entirely false. It is in those very places where legal and cultural oppression of black and brown Americans was most severe that we find also the poorest conditions for working class white people. In effect, capitalists and business owners exacerbated and exploited the social divisions and resentments between racial groups to preempt solidarity and thus, to keep wages low and benefits minimal. In places where racial division has been intentionally overcome in the creation of multi-racial labor and political organization, Mcghee identifies what she calls a “solidarity dividend”—economic benefit to the communities of color involved, certainly, but also to the white population and to the region as a whole. As one organizer she quotes put it:  “as long as we’re divided, we’re conquered. The only way we succeed is together.”

This book would pair well with Jonathan Metzl’s Dying of Whiteness.

Front cover of Becoming Abolitionists

Becoming Abolitionists: Police, Protests, and the Pursuit of Freedom, by Derecka Purnell

Uprisings in the wake of George Floyd’s murder last summer brought police abolition and PIC abolition (i.e., abolition of the prison-industrial complex) into the public conversation in a way it had never been before. I have spent a lot of time reading and learning about what abolition means in theory and practice over the past year, and I have come to resonate with it as an ideal and a horizon toward which our society and our politics should always be oriented. I also understand that it can seem opaque, unclear, foolhardy, or destructive. Questions about public safety and protection are valid and deserve answers. In many cases, though, conversations and publications on abolition were being conducted by small groups of like-minded scholars and activists who shared common presumptions and language, and they were hard for curious newcomers to break into.

 Luckily, this year has seen the publication of several books that aim to make abolition more accessible and understandable to people who are curious but perhaps skeptical or uncertain about whether it can work in reality. I particularly like this book by Derecka Purnell, which conveys abolition theory through her own personal journey. Purnell is honest about the reservations she had toward abolition as her experience and consciousness have shifted over time and makes a compelling case for the insufficiency of reform and the need for an entirely new paradigm. I also enjoyed Mariame Kaba’s essay collection We Do This ’Til We Free Us and highly recommend Angela Y. Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete?

Front cover of You are Here

You Are here: A Field guide for navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and our Polluted Media Landscape, by Whitney Phillips and Ryan Milner.

When we talk about this mess we’re in, the role of the internet in getting us here inevitably makes its way into the conversation. Many problems with the internet and social media cannot be solved by individuals making individual choices, but each of us who lives some part of our life online needs to know how it works, how it goes wrong, and how it can lead us astray. Phillips and Milner have written a short, clear, and very illuminating guide for internet users who want to consume, share, and publish information responsibly and productively. This is going to be required reading in my spring course on “The Bible, Politics, and the Internet,” so it’s fair to say I think it has something worthwhile to say!

 

And now some runners up in the education department:

Slaying Goliath: The Passionate Resistance to Privatization and the Fight to Save America’s Public Schools, by Diane Ravitch

Public schools are wonderful. Charter schools are vicious parasites that suck public dollars into wasteful, undemocratic, and often corrupt private ventures, impoverishing us all in the process. Read this book, support your local teachers’ union, and vote to fund public education.

Learning in Public: Lessons for a Racially Divided America from my Daughter’s School, by Courtney Martin 

A mom’s journey to make good educational choices for her daughter in Oakland, CA, where good means good for society too, not just for her own family. Good for anyone feeling squeamish about sending their kids to “bad” or “low performing” public schools.

Scholar Strike 3: Race in Biblical Interpretation

As I wrote in my post yesterday, race was not a concept that influenced the composition of biblical texts.

It has, however, deeply influenced their reception and use. Over the past 500 years it has been inextricably bound up in the practice of biblical translation, interpretation, and application. Biblical scholarship—both historical and theological—has been conducted in a world where racial concepts, hierarchies, and structures permeate life at every level, and biblical studies have not been immune to their influence.

The vast majority of biblical scholarship in these centuries was conducted by white, Christian men who sat at or near the top of racial, gender, religious, and class hierarchies, and their interpretations inevitably bear the marks of those social positions. Many read race into these texts where it was not originally present, and the character of these readings have skewed white supremacist (in the broader sense)—not universally and not always explicitly, but often enough and strongly enough to be undeniable.

A number of scholars—particularly scholars of color—are working to untangle the white supremacy that has become so deeply enmeshed with biblical interpretation, and I admit freely that this is not my area of expertise. So I’ll offer one illustration and then point to some work by other scholars that will provide a more comprehensive and detailed representation of the issues.

Early in my graduate studies, I sat in on a seminar session on Old Testament ethics. The professor was white, and if I remember correctly, all of the students were too. The topic of this particular session was slavery in the Old Testament.

In a pre-circulated paper, the professor had outlined his thoughts on the nature and ethics of the topic. To be fair, the limited Hebrew vocabulary for slaves and slavery (עבד [masculine], אמה and שפחה [feminine]) do refer to many different social arrangements and situations with what seem to be quite variable parameters. They apply to Israelites sold into debt bondage (e.g., Leviticus 25:44) and enslaved prisoners of war (Deuteronomy 10:16, 20:10–15), as well as high-ranking officials in the royal court (Exodus 10:7, 1 Samuel 22:14), and there is legitimate work to be done exploring the details and particulars of individual instances and the essential commonalities that bind them together.

The seminar paper, however, admitted to little of the diversity or ambiguity, and generally presented Israelite practices in the most sympathetic light possible. In fact, the professor suggested that the relevant Hebrew words should be translated “servant” in every case, and followed that practice throughout the paper. This was done in part to distance the practices of biblical servitude from modern race-based chattel slavery. While perhaps imperfect, biblical slavery was cast as a basically ethical arrangement, nothing like the fundamentally corrupt trans-Atlantic system.

One section of the paper was titled “The Advantages of Servanthood,” and it defended the pleasant ness and even desirability of Israelite servitude with a quote from a Chinese domestic servant in early 20th-century San Francisco:

I don’t know where being a servant came into disrepute. It is the refuge of a philosopher, the food of the lazy, and, properly carried out, it is a position of power, even of love…. A good servant has absolute security, not because of his master’s kindness, but because of habit and indolence…. My master will defend me, protect me. You have to work and worry. I work less and worry less.

As the professor admitted, though, this quote came from a work of fiction. It was spoken by the character Lee in John Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden. In effect, one white man was defending ancient servitude with words that another white man had placed in the mouth of a fictional non-white servant to defend modern servitude.

I should not have to point out that this is not legitimate evidence. There is no necessary connection between a real experience of subordination and the idea of it that exists in the master’s imagination.

Consider a rosy depiction from another era, in which servants are described as

hapy, contented…Lightly tasked, well clothed, well fed—far better than the free laborers of any country in the world,… their lives and persons protected by the law, all their sufferings alleviated by the kindest and most interested care..

Here we know that reality bore no resemblance to the pretty picture. The servants, in this case, were enslaved Black Americans, and the speaker was James Henry Hammond, who said this on the floor of the House of Representatives in 1836, as part of a two-hour speech defending race-based chattel slavery as a positive social good.

First-person narratives of race-based chattel slavery in the United States, of course, attest overwhelmingly to its brutality and inhumanity. The disconnect between reality and representations by Hammond and other  apologists could not be starker. Perhaps this should not be surprising, since most of them had a vested financial interest in its continuation, and thus in its moral justifiability.

Likewise, John Steinbeck grew up in a household with maids and servants, and so had experienced servitude largely from the master’s point of view. I do not know the professor’s history or situation, but in his treatment of the topic of Israelite slavery, he showed a naive and uncritical willingness to accept the master’s point of view that was undoubtedly conditioned by his position at the top of a racial hierarchy in a society where that position aligned him more often with masters than with servants.

Just as he accepted Steinbeck’s portrayal of servanthood as ethical a desirable, so he accepted and propagated an ethical and desirable framing of biblical servitude.

In this way, I don’t think he is unique. Sympathetic presentations of biblical slavery are common, even from those who would flatly condemn its counterpart in the last century. I don’t mean to condemn this particular professor as an especially bad actor, but rather to present this paper as a glaring example of a common interpretive orientation. All of us were born into this racial caste system, and our thinking and engagement with ideas and institutions have been shaped by aspects of our identity that we did not choose. As we grow and learn, however, we can gain a critical understanding of these received structures and work to change them.

It’s difficult to admit, but at the time of this seminar I wanted to believe this framing. I wanted to believe that biblical slavery was different in kind from all other kinds of slavery, because the Bible was different in kind from all other books. Unlearning this unconscious desire to gloss over the oppressive and unjust parts of the text required reading the work of scholars whose experience was informed by the other side of the arrangement—scholars whose family stories were of discrimination and oppression, whose ethics were formed in subjugated communities burning to live free. It took scholars who would not gloss over inconvenient facts in a rush to apologize for a broken and unjust system, even if it came from their sacred Scriptures.

Some slaves in biblical texts may have been treated well and prospered, but the laws regulating the practice also left ample room for abuse and degradation. Too often, the whiteness of academic biblical studies has obscured biblical slavery’s harsher realities and mischaracterized it as a gentle and humane social arrangement. This does a disservice to African American readers of the text, for whom the fundamental illegitimacy of forced labor is immediately apparent. This is one reason why it is necessary to broaden the engagement of historically underrepresented groups in academic biblical studies and to read and teach their insights alongside the work of white scholars.

Further Resources

This post covered just one small way in which white supremacy has influenced biblical interpretation. Its reach is not limited to issues of slavery, though. If you are interested in learning more, I would point you toward the following scholars, among other.

Dr. Wilda C. Gafney has made this short Scholar Strike video surveying the many faces of white supremacy in biblical interpretation. Go ahead and watch it right now:

She has also written two books, both of which are filled with interrogations of white supremacist readings and proposed alternatives. Go buy, Daughters of Miriam and Womanist Midrash.

In regard to specifically Christian uses of the Bible in support of racist policies and practices, I recommend Jemar Tisby’s must-read The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism and the accompanying video series on Amazon Prime (linked on the book page).

See also Dr. Nyasha Junior’s Reimagining Hagar: Blackness and BibleIntroduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation, and (with Jeremy Schipper) Black Samson: The Untold Story of an American Icon.

Please feel free to drop more resources in the comments!

Scholar Strike 2: Race in Biblical Texts

This afternoon, I’ll turn to my academic specialization: the Hebrew Bible.

What is there to say about race in the Bible? I’ll make two points:

1. There is no race in the Bible.

2. Thus, there is no racism in the Bible.

Class dismissed. Thank you for your time.

Ok, of course I can’t let you go without saying more. So let’s dig in a little deeper. What does it mean that there is no race—and thus no racism—in the Bible?

Obviously, people in antiquity had different skin colors, and the writers of biblical texts knew this. So we get verses like jeremiah 13:23: “Can Ethiopians change their skin, or leopards their spots?” This rests upon the assumption that Ethiopian skin tone differed from Israelite skin tone and was marked as different, but note the woman speaking in Song of Songs 1:5, who says

שְׁחוֹרָה אֲנִי וְנָאוָה

“Black am I, and beautiful.”

Thus, dark skin was known and admired, even if it was not the norm. Several other Israelite characters are described as אדמיני, “ruddy” or “earthy” (e.g., Esau in Gen. 25:25 and David in 1 Sam. 16:12 and 17:42). Though it is quite a bit later,the Mishnah provides support for the idea that the skin tone considered normal in Israel was a reddish mid-brown. In the 2nd century CE, Rabbi Ishmael said “The children of Israel (may I be atonement for them!) are like boxwood, neither black nor white but of an intermediate shade.” (Mishnah Negaim 2:1). 1Thus, statements that crop up from time to time saying Jesus was white are not true either in a literal or a racial sense. Credit to Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg for the reference.

Mid-brown seems to be the default for the residnts of ancient Israel, then, and darker skin tones were known, but no mention is made of white or light skin in any biblical text.

But, as I wrote in my previous post, race is not color and color is not race. The existence and acknowledgment of different shades of skin does not necessarily imply any concept of race.

To clarify this point, it will help to expand on what “race” is as a concept and what it isn’t, and how concepts of race developed. I say concepts of race in the plural, because the definitions and theoretical underpinnings of race have changed over the years, even as its function in creating a stratified social order has remained relatively stable.

What ties concepts of race together is the idea that the global human population can be divided into a small number (usually 3–5) of subpopulations according to meaningful (i.e., biological) criteria. Different theories of race have rested on varied historical models—most involve early branching of the human family tree into distinct populations, but some have held that different races were the result of separate acts of divine creation (polygenesis).

These theories began to emerge in the context of European expansion and conquest in the 15th century, most directly as justifications for slave trafficking. In Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, Ibram X. Kendi locates the first attestation of a racial theory in Gomes Eanes de Zurara’s biography of Prince Henry of Portugal, published in 1453. The prince had sought to enter Portugal into the European slave trade in earnest at a time when the traditional source of slaves—Eastern Europe—was building up defenses against Westerners. Prince Henry had shifted his efforts to the west coast of Africa, sailing south to avoid paying the premium charged by North African Middlemen who trafficked slaves across the Sahara.

In his presentation, de Zurara referred to all Africans as belonging to a single people, from the light-skinned Tuareg to the dark-skinned Ethiopians and sub-Saharan populations. They were all members of an inferior race, whom Prince Henry, according to de Zurara, had undertaken to enslave in an altruistic act of evangelism.

The reality, of course, was not so benevolent. Prince Henry had grown fabulously wealthy trading slaves, and de Zurara had laundered his reputation with assertions of his Christian charity and the Africans’ natural savagery.

Thus, the racialization of Africans arose as justification for a strategy of domination and exploitation. This is perhaps the most important thing to realize about race—it has never been disinterested, but serves always to organize groups of people into hierarchies of domination and subordination. Race did not emerge from the studies and laboratories of careful, objective scholars, but was created to defend oppression and justified with science only afterward. Even as the biological arguments for its validity have changed and finally evaporated, therefore, it has continued to serve its function stratifying society.

Thus, the statements above that race and racism do not appear in biblical texts is interesting, but it does not quite reach the heart of the issue. Biblical texts provide evidence for many kinds of oppression and exploitation.In some cases they are condemned and resisted (e.g., slavery in Egypt in Ex. 1–3, economic predation throughout the Law and Prophets, and the unaccountable power of kings in Deuteronomy, Judges, and 1 Samuel); in others they are accepted or even celebrated (e.g., rape marriages to war widows in Deuteronomy, slavery in the laws of the Torah). In each case, acts of oppression were justified by existing or invented social, legal, or political structures supported by appeal to tradition or divine mandate.

Biblical texts contain many faces and types of oppression, racism just isn’t one of them. There are several lessons to learn from this. For one, race is not eternal. It was invented and it can be dismantled. But dismantling racism will not necessarily bring about the end of systemic oppression. Racism is just one manifestation of a pernicious and persistent human drive to dominate others, to gain from others even at their great expense.

In our contemporary context, combatting racism is an urgent and necessary part of building a world that allows for the freedom and flourishing of all. Yet we ought never forget that other vectors of oppression persist alongside systemic racism—discrimination according to class, disability, sex, gender, and sexual orientation. A fully-realized anti-oppressive ethic must approach all of these in their distinct forms and logics, never imagining that there is only one vector of oppression or that more cannot be contrived.

And regardless of how oppression is enacted and justified, it is also important to remember the biblical texts that confront and resist it in any form—the calls to love one’s neighbor as oneself (Leviticus 19:18), to break the bonds of oppression (Isaiah 58), to avoid theft, exploitation, and excess wealth (Amos 8:6, Proverbs 30:7–9)), to care for the needs of orphans, widows, and immigrants (Deuteronomy. 27:19, Jeremiah 22:3, Zechariah 7:10), and to speak up for the rights of the poor and destitute (Proverbs 31:1–9). These ideals contain the seeds of resistance against unjust systems in any form, in any time, place, or society.

Scholar Strike 1: I Don’t See Color

“I don’t see color.”

We’ve all heard this line in conversations about race. It is almost a standard response to accusations or insinuations of racism or racial prejudice. It is the mantra of so-called “Colorblind Ideology,” the belief that the best way to end racism is to stop considering race altogether.

The assumption, I guess, is that racism stems directly from the perception of skin color, and simply wouldn’t be possible without it.

I have a problem with this. You see, I don’t see color.

No, but like, literally. I really don’t see color, not real color anyway. Sometimes my visual field pulses with red and blue light, or turns entirely pink for no apparent reason, but those are artifacts of my optic nerve and brain. Colors from the outside world don’t make it inside. Not anymore.

I grew up with color perception, so as a child and young adult I could see skin tone as well as anyone else. But as my vision has deteriorated, I find myself less and less able to tell the color of a new person’s skin. My color perception is nonexistent, and even my ability to tell contrast is greatly diminished. 

Often, I find myself a bit adrift, thinking that some information about someone’s racial or ethnic identity would be useful. So despite being literally colorblind, I cannot deny the importance of race.

But maybe that’s just me. Maybe I’m just used to thinking about race because I grew up sighted. Maybe I’m just missing the visual information that once came so easily. Wouldn’t people who had always been blind be free from concerns about race? Wouldn’t they “not see color” in the metaphorical as well as the literal sense?

Good question., Luckily someone did some research on that.

In his 2015 book Blinded by Sight: Seeing Race through the Eyes of the Blind, legal scholar Osagie Obasogie undertook to discover the link between the visual stimulus of skin color and the social and legal phenomena of racial classification, prejudice, and discrimination.

Obasogie was motivated by the basic question “how do blind people understand race?” (p. 1).

and he is reacting against the naive general assumption that “blind people simply cannot appreciate racial distinctions and therefore do not have any real racial consciousness” (p. 2).

This assumption rests upon a common sense view of race that he calls race ipso loquitor, or “race speaks for itself” (). That is, race is an obvious category that derives directly from salient visual markers such as skin color and physical features. If race is visually self-evident, how important can it be to the blind? In interviews with sighted participants, Obasogie found that most thought race would be irrelevant or unimportant to the way blind people live their lives.

Interviews with blind people showed something quite different.

Obasogie interviewed 106 participants from multiple racial and ethnic backgrounds who had been totally blind from birth. Unlike me, they had never had vision and thus had never experienced race as a visually self-evident phenomenon. 

It was striking, therefore, that the blind participants defined race primarily in visual terms. Despite having no direct access to visual information on skin tone and other physical characteristics, most participants initially described race in terms of color, and then supplemented that definition with other factors such as ethnicity, ancestry, geography, and genetics. Some described their attempts to use other other information—accents and speech patterns, hair texture or body odor—as proxies for visual information when trying to ascertain peoples race, but noted also the high error rate in attempts to do so.

Regarding the significance of race, understandings varied more across lines of race than across lines of visual acuity. That is, blind white people and sighted white people had more similar views on race than blind people of different races or sighted people of different races. Most notably, blind white people across the board tended toward a view of “white racial transparency”—that is, they thought of race as something that other people had, not themselves. This view has been characterized as a view of white as the default—a baseline to which “ethnic” attributes are either added or subtracted. Non-white participants, on the other hand, tended to see race as an attribute possessed by and significant to everyone. 

Blind white participants were also the only ones to use discrimination against disabled people (ableism) as an analogy for racial discrimination, and to understand the struggle for civil rights by both racially minoritized and disabled communities as essentially the same. Non-white participants, on the other hand, tended to frame disability and race as two entirely different and separate experiences and identities. As a side, note, this has long been and continues to be a common point of strife in the disability activist community, which skews heavily white and has historically marginalized the voices and perspectives of disabled people of color.

So far, the findings show more similarity than difference between blind and sighted people of the same racial background. This alone calls into question the notion that race visually speaks for itself, since blind people tend to share the same racial identities and assumptions as the rest of their racial group.

This became explicitly apparent when participants were asked to describe how and when they became aware of the existence and significance of race, and how it factors into their everyday living and decision making. Participants told story after story of parents and authority figures who made sure to instill racialized knowledge in blind children and, to some extent, in blind adults as well. 

Sighted children can pick up on racial cues non-verbally, noting in course of regular events the correlation between racial identity and adult attitudes, body language, and types of speech. Blind children cannot correlate behavior with visual features in the same way, and thus did not generally come to awareness of race on their own. Instead, many adults felt compelled to make the implicit explicit—to ensure that blind children receive the racial information that they deem necessary to live within their place in society.

Blind participants recounted common experiences in their childhood, wherein they would meet and converse with someone without knowing their race. Afterward, and adult would inform them of the person’s race and perhaps give cues about whether the person was suitable to socialize with or not. Such experiences reinforced the idea that race was an important marker not only of identity, but also of status.

White parents also made sure to highlight the racial housing segregation that still exists in many cities and towns across the United States. They would inform their child when they would cross over the line dividing white and Black sections of town, emphasizing that Black people lived in separate areas, that the conditions in these areas were inferior, and that these inferior conditions resulted from the inherent shortcomings of their race.

Racial boundaries were drawn and enforced with special vigor when it came to romance, particularly for young blind white women. One participant related a story in which she brought home a picture of her third-grade boyfriend. Her parents looked at it and said “Crystal, he’s colored.” 

Confused, she confirmed that it had been taken with color film.

They then gave her a lecture on race and the unsuitability of Black boys as romantic partners. She describes the potent mixture of bewilderment and shame that she felt, driving her to destroy the photograph and cease speaking to the boy completely.

Quite a few participants reported that these childhood lessons stayed with them and still guided their behavior. Many were uncomfortable dating across racial lines, and made special efforts to ascertain the race of the people they dated before committing. 

Blind people’s experience with race is not a mere curiosity. It cuts to the heart of the illusion that underlies colorblind ideology. It shows that race, though understood visually by sighted and blind alike, is not an obvious or self-evident characteristic. It is not learned by observation, but by implicit and explicit instruction from a very young age.

The example of the blind throws the disconnect between colorblind ideology and social reality into stark relief. The racial distinctions, classifications, and hierarchies that sighted children learn implicitly from observation must be actively and intentionally taught to those who cannot perceive visual cues.

In some cases, parents went to extreme lengths to impress the importance of race on their blind children. Leaning into the apparent impunity with which they could lie about visual matters, they said things that would be amusingly bizarre if they were not so damaging. One mother told her daughter that mixed race relationships would lead to polka-dotted children. A small blind black girl was told she should not bathe with her white friend, because her black would rub off on her. 

As strange as these lies are, they are no more strange than the counterfactual definitions of race we use without question every day. No person has truly black skin, or truly white skin. Skin tones exist along spectra of colors and tones, which do not divide neatly into clear categories. Consider how often people are described as racially ambiguous, or the recent cases of Rachel Dolezal and Jessica Krug, two white women who successfully pretended to be Black for years. If race were a self-evident function of skin color, these cases should not be possible.

Race is not color, and color is not race.

Race is a socially created and maintained classification scheme with no defensible biological basis. The social processes that construct and perpetuate racial categories are not straightforward or empirical, but they cast themselves as such. Thus, colorblind ideology manages to hide its social construction behind a veil of straightforward common sense. Race becomes obvious. It becomes what is seen, not what is made and reinforced over centuries of social relationships and representations. 

But this is an illusion. Behind the common sense of racial self-evidence, the social creation and perpetuation of racial divisions and hierarchies continue. Racism cannot be undone simply by not seeing it, or by pretending not to see it. The next time you hear someone say they do not see color, or the next time you are tempted to say it yourself, think of me. Think of those who cannot see color in the most literal sense, but still recognize that they are not exempt from the racialized system in which we live. Race is all of our responsibility, and the first step toward dismantling racial injustice is recognizing its foothold in our minds.

 ***

For further reading on the shortcomings of colorblind ideology, see here and here. Also read Part Two of Obasogie’s Blinded by Sight and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

 

For further reading on the experience of blind people of color, see this recent piece by Anil Lewis: Being Black Helped me be Blind and Being Blind Helped me Realize that #BlackLivesMatter.”