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 milkand curdle me like cheese?You clothed me with skin and fleshand 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 partsYou knit me together in my mother’s wombI 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?
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.
🗡 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.
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.