Westminster Theological Journal 55 (1993) 233-53

         Copyright © 1993 by Westminster Theological Seminary.  Cited with permission.




                   (LEX TALIONIS) AND ABORTION*


                                                JOE M. SPRINKLE


I. Introduction


W.C. Kaiser, in defending the use of OT law for formulating Christian

ethics, argues that many ethical questions of interest to the modern

Christian are not addressed in the NT, but only in the Old.  "Where," he

asks, "will we obtain authoritative materials on the abortion question if the

OT is not consulted?"1

    The passage most directly relevant to the abortion question according to

Kaiser is Exod 21:22-25, the case of a pregnant woman struck during a

brawl.2  Key to finding direct relevance in this passage to the abortion

question is the interpretation that, contrary to the view exemplified by most

commentators and translators,3 premature birth rather than miscarriage is

involved in the first half of this passage where there is no serious injury

(Nvsx).  Only in the second case with serious injury is the death of the fetus

and/or mother contemplated, and there the lex talionis, the "law of retal-

iation," is applied' 'life for life," implying that the killing of the fetus was

regarded as taking a human "life" (wpn).  This interpretation, which is

reflected in the NIV translation, implies that deliberate induced abortion

of a human fetus is murder.

     Many anti-abortion Christian theologians and ethicists adopt this inter-

pretation to bolster their case against abortion.4  However, this line of

interpretation is subject to criticism on exegetical grounds.  It will be my


     *An earlier draft of this paper was presented at the Annual Meeting of the Evangelical

Theological Society, Kansas City, November 1991.  I appreciate the following for reading the

paper and making helpful suggestions: Daniel Evearitt and Donald Williams of Toccoa Falls

College, and Michael A. Grisanti of Central Baptist Seminary.  I also appreciate the fine

editorial work of Moises Silva.

     1 W. C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983) 34.

     2 Kaiser, Ethics, 168-72.

     3 Kaiser (Ethics, 170) lists the RSV, Berkeley Version, NAB, JB, Amplified Bible, Douay-

Rheims, Moffatt, and Goodspeed, which take the miscariage view.  Tanakh, .NEB, REB, and

Today's English Version can be added to the list.

     4 Among them:  J. W. Cottrell, "Abortion and the Mosaic Law," Christianity Today 17

(March 16, 1973) 6-9; J. M. Frame, "Abortion from a Biblical Perspective," in Thou Shalt Not

Kill (ed. R. L. Ganz; New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House, 1978) 51-56; J. W. Montgomery,

The Slaughter of the Innocents (Westchester, IL: Cornerstone, 1981) 98-101; J. J. Davis, Abortion

and the Christian (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1984) 49-52; id., Evangelical




purpose to reexamine the interpretation of this passage and reassess its

relevance to the issue of abortion.


II. Exegetical Problems in Exod 21:22-25

     Any interpreter of Exod 21:22-25 should begin by confessing that this

passage is extremely difficult due to the large number of exegetical cruxes

it contains.  The variety of ways in which scholars have resolved these cruxes

has resulted in a multitude of specific interpretations of the pericope as a

whole.5  The following is an interpretive translation of Exod 21:22-25 which

will facilitate a discussion of its exegetical difficulties.

     (22) If men are in struggle with one another and butt a pregnant woman so that

     the product of her womb [hydly] comes forth in fatal miscarriage, but there is

     no further serious injury [Nvsx] to the woman, then someone (the guilty party

     or a representative of the guilty parties) will be charged tort in accordance with

     what the woman's husband requires of him, paying the amount for which he is

     culpable (?) [Myllpb]. (23) But if there is further serious injury [Nvsx] to the

     woman, then you Israelite will payout [hqqn] as the guilty party according to

     the formula: "the monetary value of life in exchange for the life lost [tHt wpn

   wpn], (24) value of an eye in exchange for the eye lost, the value of a tooth in

      exchange for a tooth lost, value of a hand in exchange for the hand lost, the

      value of a foot in exchange for the foot lost, (25) the value of injury caused by

      burning in exchange for burning inflicted, the value of a wound in exchange

      for a wound inflicted, the value of a stripe in exchange for stripe inflicted."

   Here are the main exegetical issues in this passage:  Did the men strike the

woman intentionally or unintentionally, or does intention make a difference

in this case?  Was the husband involved in the brawl?  Was the woman

actively involved, or merely an innocent bystander? Why is the plural Mydly

rather than the singular dly, used for the fetus? Must the woman's  Mydly that

"come forth" have been born dead or does the regulation contemplate also

the possibility of their being born alive?  Related to this, what is the mean-

ing of Nvsx: death?  serious injury?  disaster for which no one can be blamed?

What accounts for the change in person and number in this passage in

which "men" struggle, but only one man (the verb is 3d masc. sing.) pays

a tort to the woman's husband in the case without Nvsx, but if there is Nvsx


Ethics (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1985) 150-51; P. B. Fowler, Abortion:

Toward an Evangelical Consensus (Portland: Multnomah, 1987) 147-49; J. K. Hoffmeier, "Abor-

tion and the Old Testament Law," in Abortion: A Christian Understanding and Response (Grand

Rapids: Baker, 1987) 57-61; R. J. Sider,  Completely Pro-Life (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity,

1987) 46-47; N. Geisler, Christian Ethics: Options and Issues (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989) 145.

     5 For a partial tracing of the history of the interpretation of this passage, cf. B. S. Jackson,

Essays in Jewish and Comparative Legal History (SJLA 10; Leiden: Brill, 1975) 75-107 [= "The

Problem of Exod 21:22-25 (Ius Talionis)," VT 23 (1973) 273-304], and S. Isser, "Two Tra-

ditions:  The Law of Exod 21:22-23 Revisited," CBQ .52 (1990) 30-44.

THE INTERPRETATION OF EXODUS 21:22-25                                    235

not "he" but "you" pay "life for life"?  Why does only one person pay a

tort if more than one man were fighting?  Who is the "you" who renders

"life for life": the same man who paid the fine in the case without Nvsx or

Israel?  What is the meaning of Myllpb:  by judges? by arbitrators? by as-

sessment?  alone?  as the culpable party?  Can some of the problems be best

explained on the assumption that there are textual corruptions, or that two

originally unrelated laws have been awkwardly thrown together?  How does

the so-called Law of Retaliation relate to the situation described?  Was the

application of "life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth" applied literally in

the sense of capital punishment ("life for life") and physical mutilations of

the offenders, or does this formulation imply monetary composition ("the

value of a life for the life taken," etc.)?  If the latter, how would such pe-

cuniary values be determined?  How does this regulation relate to the reg-

ulations which precede it and follow it which concern slaves?  Why is this

example addressed at all?  What principle(s) does it seek to convey?

     The analysis will be simplified a bit by eliminating all views--and these

are not uncommon--which suppose that the text is so corrupt as to require

radical surgery to make sense of it.6  I operate on the assumption that the

text as it stands makes sense if rightly interpreted, an assumption vindicated

through exegesis.  The key issue for the remaining interpretations of the text

as it stands pertains to the question of whether or not the text implies the death

of the baby (or babies) both in the case with and the case without Nvsx, or

whether the case without Nvsx allows for the possibility of the child surviving.

     The majority view, both in ancient times among rabbinical interpreters

and among modern exegetes, is that the death of the child is assumed

throughout this case.7  On the other hand, the view that the death of the


     6 E.g., A S. Diamond ("An Eye for an Eye," Iraq 19 [1957] 153) calls the lex talionis "one

of the plainest interpolations in the Pentateuch, being inconsistent with its immediate con-

text." S. E. Loewenstamm ("Exod XXI 22-25," VT 27 [1977] 357) thinks that "the text of

a law dealing with a blow given to a pregnant woman has become mixed up with the text of

another law providing for the consequences of blows which men dealt upon one another in a

brawl."  Jackson (Essays, 105) claims that Exod 21:24-25 (the lex talionis) is a later interpolation

inserted on the basis of the similar language of the slave law of vv. 26-27.  H. Cazelles (Etudes

sur le code de l'alliance [Paris: Letouzey et Ane, 1946] 56) thinks vv. 24-25 belong after vv.18-

19 rather than in their present position.  Similarly, A. H. McNeile (The Book of Exodus [3d ed.;

London: Methuen, 1931] liii and 129) comments that vv. 23b-25 are irrelevant in their present

context. L. Schwienhorst-Schonberger (Das Bundesbuch (Ex 20, 22-23, 33) [BZAW 188; Berlin:

Walter de Gruyter, 1990] 81-83) concludes a more complete survey of critical scholarship

with the remark that only a few exegetes (R. Westbrook is the only one footnoted) regard

Exod 21:22-25 as a unity in the strict sense.

     7 This category of interpretation is the most common among commentators.  Along the

lines of this interpretation are the standard commentaries on Exodus by S. R. Driver, M. Noth,

B. Childs, and J. P. Hyatt, as well as S. M. Paul (Studies in the Book of the Covenant in the Light

of Cuneiform and Biblical Law [VTSup 18; Leiden: Brill, 1970] 70-77), and R. Westbrook, ("Lex

Talionis and Exodus 21:22-25," RB 93 [1986] 52-69). Isser ("Two Traditions," 31-38) notes

that the majority ancient Jewish tradition followed this interpretation: Josephus, Ant. 4.8.33

§278; Tg. Onq.; Mek.; m. Ketub. 3:2; m. B. Qam. 5:4.



fetus is not assumed has existed from ancient times, going back at least to

Philo of Alexandria, and continues to be defended today.8  According to this

interpretation, the focus of the passage is not on the woman's life, but on

the child's, or at least a combination of both woman and child.  The death

of the child is not assumed in the expression "her children [hydly] come

forth," since premature labor induced by the trauma of the blow could

result in a healthy birth and no permanent injury to the mother.  Moreover,

the verb "come forth" (xcy) can be used of ordinary birth rather than

miscarriage.9  Hence the expression "there is no Nvsx" could mean that

there is not "serious mishap" to either the mother or the child.  If there is

no deadly and/or serious injury (Nvsx may not always imply death), the

offender is still guilty of exposing a pregnant woman and her fetus to

unnecessary life-threatening danger, an offense deserving monetary pen-

alty.  On the other hand, if the child (or the mother) dies or is seriously

injured so that there is Nvsx, then the so-called talionic formula "life for life"

(wpn tHt wpn) applies, sometimes taken in the sense of capital punishment

for murder.  The fetus, according to this view, is in any case a human

"life" (wpn).


III. A Proposed Interpretation

     What I would like to do is examine the cruxes of interpretation in this

passage and offer an analysis of the passage based on solutions to these



1.  An Intentional Blow to the Woman?

     To begin, was the blow to the pregnant woman intentional or uninten-

tional?  A few interpreters have argued that the attack on the pregnant

woman was intentional.10  It is true that the verb Jgn, "butt, push, gore,"


      8 Along the lines of this general interpretation are the standard commentaries on Exodus

by Cassuto and Durham, as well as J. Weingreen ("The Concepts of Retaliation and Com-

pensation in Biblical Law," Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy 76 [1976] 1-11), M. G. Kline

("Lex Talionis and the Human Fetus," JETS 20 [1977] 193-201), H. W. House ("Miscarriage

as Premature Birth: Additional Thoughts on Exodus 21:22-25," WTJ 41 [1978] 108-23), and

J. Ellington ("Miscarriage or Premature Birth," BT 37 [1986] 334-37). Several elements of

this interpretation are also found in Jackson ("The Problem of Exod. 21:22-25 [Ius Talionis],"

, 273-304).  Isser ("Two Traditions," 36-38) notes the minority ancient Jewish tradition which

contemplates the possibility that the child might be born alive: Philo De spec. leg. 3.108-9.

     9 Cf. "and the first one was born [xcy] red" (Gen 25:25); "this one was born [xcy] first"

(Gen 38:28).

   10 D. Daube, Studies in Biblical Law (London: Cambridge, 1947) 108, for example, argues

from Deut 25:11f. (where wife grabs the genitals of a man lighting her husband), that the blow

in Exodus "must be regarded as a deliberate, malicious attack."  But, unlike Deut 25:11f., the

text's silence concerning the relationship between the woman and the men lighting more

likely indicates that whether or not her husband was involved is of no relevance to this case.

THE INTERPRETATION OF EXODUS 21:22-25                        237


usually refers to intentional acts.  But in this case, given the plural, that

"men. . . butt a pregnant woman," it seems more likely that the men, while

intentionally fighting each other, have flown out of control and uninten-

tionally hit the woman as an innocent bystander.


2. The lex talionis: Literal or Figurative?

     Next, is the punishment in the so-called lex talionis formula literal or

figurative?  According to the figurative view, the lex talionis has to do with

"composition" in the legal sense of the satisfaction of a wrong or injury by

money payment, this being an old rabbinic interpretation.11  Modern schol-

ars, however, frequently understand it to refer solely to literal retaliation

involving execution and maiming. In the discussion which follows, the fig-

urative interpretation will be defended.

     There are a number of arguments favoring the figurative interpreta-

tion.12  First, the literal application of the so-called lex talionis is inconsistent

with the principles and legal outcomes of other laws elsewhere in the liter-

ary unit of Exod 20:22-23:33.  Exod 21:18-19, for example, presents a more

serious case, a case of deliberate injury as opposed to the accidental nature

of the injury of the pregnant woman described here in Exod 21:22-25.  The

penalty there, however, is not to strike the offender and injure him in

exactly the same way in which he injured the other man as one would

expect on a literal understanding of lex talionis--which, by the way, would

be absurdly impractical--but for the offender to pay money, i.e., to pay

for the medical costs and for the lost time of the man he injured.13 In

Exod 21:26-27, the penalty for striking out the eye or tooth of a bondsman

likewise does not result in a talion against the owner's eye or tooth, but a

release of the bondsman, equivalent to forgiveness of the bondsman's debt.

Moreover, the literal talion of "life for life" in the case of accidental killing

of a pregnant woman would be in contradiction with the principle ex-

pressed in Exod 21:13-14, which says that accidental manslaughter is not

a capital offense.


Deut 25:11lf. is a substantially different case of little relevance for comparison.  Accordingly,

Kaiser's statement (Ethics, 102) that this "pregnant woman intervened" in the fight--as if a

pregnant woman were likely to jump into the middle of the brawl!--and was "perhaps the

concerned wife of one of them" is needless speculation.  Surely the active "intervening" of the

woman would affect the legal outcome inasmuch as the one striking her could with justification

plea "self-defense."

     11 Cf. b. Sanh. 79a; b. B. Qam. 83b; b. Ketub. 33b; Rashi on Exod 21:24; m. B. Qam. 8:1.

    12 P. Doron, "A New Look at an Old Lex," Journal of the Near Eastern Society of Columbia

University 1 no. 2 (1969) 21-27; and J. K. Mikliszanski, "The Law of Retaliation and the

Pentateuch," JBL 66 (1946) 295-303, summarize most of these arguments.

    13 Paul (Studies in the Book of the Covenant, 67-68) argues that the reason the talionic punish-

ment ("eye for eye, tooth for tooth," understood literally) is not invoked in this case is that

there was no original intent to cause injury.  But whether or not there was "original intent,"

the use of a stone shows that there was certainly "subsequent intent," and this would have .

been sufficient, had the man died, to make it a tmvy tvm offense.



     It is a general hermeneutical principle that one should assume that an

author or editor of a literary unit can be expected to be self-consistent;

hence, one regulation of our unit of Exod 20:22-23:19 ought not be inter-

preted in ways contradictory to another regulation so long as there are

other possibilities which are not in conflict. This principle leads to the

rejection of a literal talion.

     Second, Exod 21:29-30 shows that ransom could serve as a substitute for

literal talion. A man who does not constrain an ox with a known tendency

to gore, so that as a result it gores someone to death, is liable on the

principle of "life for life" to give up his own life. Hence, the text says, "also

its owner is to be put to death" (Exod 21:29b). But the text immediately

allows the possibility of ransom: "If a ransom is laid upon him, he will pay

the price of redemption for his life [vwpn] whatever is laid on him." In other

words, v. 29 applies the principle of wpn THt wpn a man whose negligence

has caused the loss of a life forfeits his own life.  But v. 30 goes on to show

that this operates within a system that permits a payment of money to take

the place of the actual execution of the offender.  Though in principle such

a man forfeits his life, it was possible (and in practice probable)14 for him

to redeem his life by paying the offended party a ransom.  A similar prin-

ciple seems to be implicit elsewhere in this collection.  For example, if some-

one injures another person, as in the case in Exod 21: 18-19, the offender

on the principle of "wound for wound" deserves to be injured in the

same way.  But rather than actually injuring him, which does nothing for

the original victim, the man normally pays a ransom, consisting in the case

of Exod 21:18-19 of payment for the inactivity and medical expenses of the

man he injured.  By paying this "ransom," the culprit thereby avoids hav-

ing the same injury imposed on him.


     14 Acceptance of ransom is the probable resolution to the situation described here. (1) The

death of the negligent owner would give no tangible benefit to the victim's family, whereas

ransom would both punish the culprit and benefit the family.  Family self-interest dictates the

ransom opinion.  (2) Other forms of negligent but unintentional homicide are not capital of-

fenses--cf. Exod 21:12-15; Num 35:9-15; Deut 19:1-13.  To make negligence with an ox a

capital offense, but negligence with a stone, ax head, or some other inanimate object not a

capital offense seems inconsistent. (3) As I read the OT, it seems clear to me that the moral

sensitivities of the ancient Israelites were not radically different from those of modern people.

Modern people would see capital punishment for unintentional manslaughter as excessive,

and hence morally objectionable as compared with accepting a ransom.  So also did the

ancient rabbis of the Talmudic period who therefore concluded that ransom must always be

accepted in such cases--cf. J. J. Finkelstein, The Ox that Gored (Philadelphia: American Philo-

sophical Society, 1981) 31; b. B. Qam. 40b-c; m. B. Qam. 4:5.  It seems to me probable that

Israelites of the biblical period would also be sensitive to the injustice of making unintentional

manslaughter a capital offense, and would ordinarily on that basis be persuaded to accept a

ransom.  In sum, there is good reason to suppose that the death sentence of v. 29 is mostly

hyperbole to underscore the seriousness of negligence which threatens the life of another

human being.

THE INTERPRETA1l0N OF EXODUS 21:22-25                                     239


     Additional evidence that' 'life for life" can be related to ransom is pro-

vided by I Kgs 20:39:  "Guard this man! If he is missing it will be your life

for his life [vwpn THt Jwpn] or [vx] you must weigh out silver."  Here "life for

life" in the sense of capital punishment has an explicit alternative of mon-

etary substitution, which obviously would be the option chosen by anyone

who could afford to pay.  There is reason to suppose that this option was available

even where not explicitly stated.  The availability of ransom seems to have been so

prevalent that when biblical law wants to exclude it, as in the case of intentional

murder, it must specifically prohibit it (Num 35:31).15  The system of ransom

means that though the lex talionis could in principle be applied literally,16

normally it was not.  Rather, monetary composition substituted for literal talion.

     Third, the use of the verb Ntn, "you will give life for life" suggests mon-

etary exchange.  The "you" here most plausibly refers to the nation Israel

personified as an individual (cf. the same usage in Exod 21:2, 14; 22:17, 20,

22, 24-25, 27-29; 23:1-19).  Ntn is used here in the sense of making monetary

payment:  "you, 0 Israelite, must pay money [as the guilty party]."17  The

sense "pay money" is well attested for Ntn in the immediate context.  Ntn is

used in the sense of monetary payment immediately before the so-called lex

talionis when Exod 21:22b states, "and he will pay [ntnv] by Myllp." A few

verses earlier in Exod 21:19b, Ntn is used to describe payment for an injured

man's time of convalescence (Nty vtbw--"he will pay for his inactivity").  A

few verses later, three other examples occur:  Exod 21:30, "And he will

pay/give [Ntnv] the ransom for his life"; Exod 21:32, "He will give


     15 Num 18: 15-17 gives further illustration of the ransom principle. This text specifies that

the firstborn son who was in principle to be sacrificed to God must in practice be redeemed

for live shekels, the "sacrifice" in effect being a legal fiction. The broad availability of "ran-

som" is also illustrated here, for the text is compelled to prohibit the redemption of firstborn

sheep and goats precisely because otherwise its availability would be assumed.

     16 Josephus (Ant. 4.8.35 §280) seems to suppose that the lex talionis was applied literally

"unless indeed the maimed man be willing to accept money."  Hence he sees the possibility

of either literal application or the substitution of a ransom.

    17 Another sense of Ntn is just possible:  "You, 0 Israel, are to impose (monetary) penalty"

(insofar as you act as a judge in such a case).  For the sense "impose penalty" for Ntn, see 2 Kgs

18: 14 and 23:33, where the verb is used of Sennacherib's "imposing" tribute and of Neco's

imposing a "fine" (wnf, a word cognate with the verb used in Exod 21:22, which refers to a

case without Nvsx, and which requires the offender to give monetary payment to the father).

Cf. Lev 17:11; Deut 26:6. This usage of Ntn is infrequent, however, and the examples listed

differ from our text in that there Ntn is used in conjunction with -lf, which designates the one

on whom the penalty is imposed; therefore, whereas the sense "impose penalty" is possible,

the other sense, "to pay money," seems the more likely.  Cf. U. Cassuto (A Commentary on the

Book of Exodus [Jerusalem: Magnes, 1967] 275), who renders "You 0 judge (or you, 0 Israel,

[through the judge who represents you) shall adopt the principle of 'life for life' ";

"Schwienhorst-Schonberger (Das Bundesbuch, 126) who renders "you are to utilize [the prin-

ciple]"; and TWAT 5.696 which shows that Ntn can take the sense of MyW and tyw.



[Nty] thirty shekels of silver to his master"; and in the context of bailments

Exod 22:6, "If a man gives [Nty] his fellow silver."  Hence, the general

employment of Ntn] in the verses surrounding Exod 21:23-25 suggests the

giving of money is a probable meaning in v. 23 as well.18

    Fourth, the usage of the word translated “for” (tHt) is consistent with the

monetary interpretation.  The meaning here can be taken as "instead of, in

place of," that is, substitutionary compensation--"eye in compensation for an

eye."  This usage is illustrated in Exod 21:26b, 27b where a bondsman

whose master has struck out his eye or tooth is freed in compensation for/in

place of the eye or tooth he lost.  Likewise, in Exod 21:36, if an ox was known

to be a gorer and yet it was permitted to gore to death another man's ox,

the owner is negligent and must make restitution "ox for [tHt] ox," that is,

he must provide compensation either by giving the monetary value of an

ox, or by providing the live animal itself as a substitute for the dead one.

In Exod 21:37 a thief makes restitution "five members of the herd in place

of [tHt] the ox" he stole, and "four members of the flock in place of [tHt]

the sheep."  That is, he compensates for his stealing by restoring not only a

replacement for the sheep or ox he stole, but also by providing additional

sheep (or their monetary value) as a penalty for the act.  This monetary

understanding of tHt is further supported by the parallel in Deut 19:21

where the tHt is replaced by b, the beth pretii, "of price."

     Some arguments can be raised in support of taking the lex talionis as

literal retaliation, but they are not conclusive.  The usual understanding of

the Ancient Near Eastern laws takes the references to talion there quite

literally.  A. S. Diamond,19 for example, supports this view by citing LH

(Laws of Hammurapi) §§229-30:

    If a builder has constructed a house for a seignior but did not make his work

    strong, with the result that the house which he built collapsed and so has caused

    the death of the owner of the house, that builder shall be put to death. If it has

    caused the death of a son of the owner of the house, they shall put the son of

    that builder to death.20

Diamond also cites LH §§196-97:  "If a seignior has destroyed the eye of

a member of the aristocracy, they shall destroy his eye.  If he has broken

a(nother) seignior's bone, they shall break his bone."  Diamond draws fur-

ther support from the "sympathetic" sanction of MAL (Middle Assyrian

Laws) §9, which decrees the cutting of man's lower lip for kissing a

married woman.


     18 Compare the frequent employment of the Akkadian cognate nadanu in economic texts for

the payment of money (C4D N 1.45-46).  Schwienhorst-Schonberger (Das Bundesbuch, 102)

thinks the Akkadian expression "X kima X nadanu" corresponds to the Hebrew expression "X

tHt X Ntn," both meaning "to pay a sum corresponding to the value of X."

     19 Diamond, "Eye for an Eye," 151-55.

     20 My translations of cuneiform laws are from ANET.

THE INTERPRETATION OF EXODUS 21:22-25                                    241


R. Westbrook, however, argues that even in Ancient Near Eastern laws

that appear to demand a literal talion there is an unstated assumption that

a ransom of money could be substituted for literal talion. Scholars have

noted the contrast between the LH §196 (above), where literal talion seems

to be specified, and LE (Laws of Eshnunna) §42, where it is not: "If a man

bites the nose of a(nother) man and severs it, he shall pay 1 mina of silver.

(For) an eye, (he shall pay) one mina of silver, (for) a tooth, l/2 mina; (for)

an ear, l/2 mina; (for) a slap in the face 10 shekels of silver." Such differences

have often been explained on the basis of supposed progress from a "prim-

itive" society where literal talionic maiming was applied, to the more ad-

vanced society where payment of money substituted for literal talion.

However, the contrast between LH §§229-30, 196-97 and LE §42 just cited

contradicts this theory21 in that the latter with its pecuniary penalty pre-

cedes by a few years those of Hammurapi with its literal talion.  The con-

trast, moreover, is unexpected, since the two collections are from societies

that are closely related chronologically, geographically, and culturally.

Westbrook argues that this difference is more apparent than real.  The

solution to this discrepancy, according to Westbrook, is that the "ransom"

principle operated in Mesopotamia as it did in Israel, so that the statement

in the Laws of Hammurapi requiring talion also assumes the possibility of

ransom.  The LE §42 simply specifies the ransom price appropriate to var-

ious injuries.  Among other examples Westbrook uses to support his thesis is

MAL B §2, where in the case of murder the "owner of the life" can either

execute the murderer or receive compensation from him.22

     J. J. Finkelstein has pointed out the absurdity of taking some of the

Mesopotamian laws literally.  He notes that LH §230 (cited above) could

not be applied literally in the case of a builder who had no son.  Even more

absurd if applied literally is LH §218 which states that a physician whose

patient dies in surgery or is blinded by surgery is to have his hand cut off.

Finkelstein remarks that “it is inconceivable that any sane person in an-

cient Mesopotamia would have been willing to enter the surgeon's profes-

sion" if such a law were literally enforced.  Finkelstein concludes that such

laws were never meant to be complied with literally even when they were

first drawn up, but that they were from the beginning hyperbolic, having

more of an admonitory than a legal function, saying in effect, "Woe to

contractors and physicians who because of negligence, greed, laziness, or

any other reason endanger the life and limb of others."23  It can be added,

however, that if a system of ransom were assumed where the life of the

builder or his son could be redeemed and the hand of the physician could


     21 This theory is also contradicted by the early Sumerian collection of laws, the Laws of

Ur-Nammu, where pecuniary penalties occur rather than talion.

    22 R. Westbrook, Studies in Biblical and Cuneiform Law (CahRB 26; Paris: J. Gabalda, 1988)

45, 47-55.

     23 Finkelstein, Ox that Gored, 34-35.



be redeemed by pecuniary ransom, these laws would not only have an

admonitory function (for which the more graphic statement of the penalty-

execution or mutilation--is more effective), but would also be practical as

law. Such observations support Westbrook's view.

     It has also been argued that literal talion was practiced in the Bible.  One

passage cited in this regard is Judg 1:6-7, which records the cutting off of

thumbs and big toes of king Adoni-Bezek, who himself had previously done

the same to seventy kings.  Although this is often taken as a literal appli-

cation of the principle of lex talionis, it may be more "poetic justice" than

an application of the original, intended meaning of this law.24

     Lev 24:19-20 also sounds like a literal application of talion:  "If anyone

maims his fellow, as he has done, so shall it be done to him: fracture for

fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.  The injury which he inflicted on

another shall be inflicted on him."  This prima facie seems to imply literal

talion, but such language does not do so necessarily.  Lev 24:17-18 applies

the principle of "life for life" to cover not only homicide, but also the

destruction of a beast.  In the case of an animal monetary substitution surely

would have been acceptable.  In addition, literal sounding language is not

always literal.  As Ibn Ezra pointed out, Samson in Judg 15:11 says, ''as they

have done to me, so I did to them," yet he had not done exactly what the

Philistines had done to him, for they had burned to death his wife and

father-in-law (Judg 15:6), but he simply slaughtered a great many of them

(Judg 15:8).25  In a similar way, in Lev 24:20, the "injury which he inflicted

upon another" could be "inflicted on him" not by exact reduplication of the

injury, but figuratively through a ransom which served as a substitute for

that injury.  Moreover, in Deut 19:15-21, the so-called lex talionis--is applied

to the case of a false witness, with the judgment that whatever verdict

would have been carried out against the falsely accused should be carried

out against the false witness.  Here the so-called talionic formula "life for

life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot" is not applied

literally, but merely means that the punishment varies with the severity of

the accusation.  On the basis of these arguments, a strong case can be made

that the lex talionis did not have to be carried out literally, but could have

been applied figuratively through payment of ransom in order to achieve


    The purpose of the lex talionis is to express the principle that the (mone-

tary) penalty one can demand for an injury must be proportional to the

degree of injury involved so that the less the injury, the less should be the

penalty.  Moreover, it limits the penalty to the monetary equivalent of the

injury caused, excluding punitive damages (e.g., "two eyes for an eye").


    24 So also similar statements of "poetic justice" in the prophets who predict that crimes

committed by people against others will, as punishment, be inflicted on the offenders need not

be considered direct application of this law.

    25 Cited by Doron, "A New Look at an Old Lex," 25-26.

THE INTERPRETATION OF EXODUS 21:22-25                        243


As for the formulation "life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth," which

has a poetic ring to it, there is clear organization in three sections:  (1) "life

for life" representing the most serious, i.e., deadly injury; (2) "eye for eye,

tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot" representing various parts of

the body injured, working progressively from the head down to the foot;

(3) "burning for burning, wound for wound, stripe for stripe" representing

various types of injuries.26  In this regard, categories (2) and (3) overlap-

one can have a "wound" to a "foot" or "hand."  It can also be noted that

at least one element of this formula, e.g., "burning for burning," is an

unlikely injury in the context of a blow to a pregnant woman.  This confirms

the conclusion that this formula is broader than the present context, ex-

pressing a general principle in a poetic/proverbial manner, a conclusion

supported by the partial repeating of the formulation in Lev 24:18b, 20

(where "breaking for breaking" is added before "eye for eye" and the

formula ends with "tooth for tooth"), and Deut 19:21 (where only "life for

life" through “foot for foot” is quoted, and the preposition b replaces tHt,

"for").  In this context, the lex talionis is saying that if there is any further

injury, no set rule can be given, but the extent of the (monetary) penalties

paid to the aggrieved family should correspond to the extent of the injuries.

As for the specific amount of payment for a specific injury, Exod 21:22

and 21:30 suggest that this was a matter of tort between the family and the

offender.  As a practical matter, judges could well become involved should

the parties fail to agree on a price (cf. Deut 21:18-21 where the elders

confinn that a son is incorrigible before allowing the parents to have him

executed), though not necessarily otherwise.  If judges became involved,

guidelines such as those at Eshnunna (cr. LE §42 above) could well have

been utilized, though presumably with enough flexibility to allow the judge

to take into account individual circumstances.

     The conclusion that the lex talionis has to do with composition is impor-

tant since it undermines one line of argument that draws a distinction

between the death of the fetus, in which money is paid, and the death of

the mother, which is said to be a capital offense where "life for life" is exacted in

terms of literal execution.  On the contrary, the above argumentation has attempted

to show that “life for life” in the present context probably does not imply capital

punishment, but rather alludes to a system where composition is achieved through

a ransom which substitutes for talion.  If so, there is no distinction in the quality or

kind of punishment between the death of the mother and the death of the child

whether or not one sees miscarriage in the case without Nvsx.

3. What is the Meaning of  Nvsx?

      The key term Nvsx is a rare one used but five times in the OT (twice in

Exod 21:22-25 and three more times in the Joseph Story, Oen 42:4,38 and


   26 After H. J. Boecker, Law and the Administration of Justice in the Old Testament

and the Ancient East (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1980) 173.


44:29).  It is also used in Sir 34:22; 38:18; 41:9 in the Apocrypha.  Most

interpreters have felt the general meaning offered by BDB, "mischief, evil,

harm," to be more or less correct.  A few interpreters27 assert that this word

more specifically implies "deadly calamity" or the like, support for which

can be derived from the occurrences in Genesis in which Nvsx is used of

Joseph's alleged death by the attack of a wild animal.

     A quite different view of Nvsx has been offered by R. Westbrook.28  He

claims Nvsx does not mean "deadly calamity," but refers to "cases where

responsibility cannot be located."  This new meaning radically affects the

overall interpretation.  The woman, according to Westbrook, has a miscar-

riage after being struck in a brawl, but in the first instance there is not Nvsx

that is, there is not a case of "perpetrator unknown," but rather the culprit

is known.  In that case the culprit pays the fine "alone" (Myllpb).29  But if

there is a case of Nvsx, so that responsibility among the men (more than two

being involved) cannot be established, then "you" pay "life for life, eye for

eye, tooth for tooth," the "you" referring to Israel as a whole as elsewhere

in the Book of the Covenant.  The second half of this regulation is thus an

example of a humanitarian principle that the Israelite community as a

whole (through its representative) should compensate persons who suffer

a loss where individual responsibility cannot be established.

    Westbrook claims to find this meaning of Nvsx in Gen 42:4, 38; 44:29, the

only other OT occurrences of this word.  Westbrook adopts a suggestion of

D. Daube30 that Jacob did not believe that Joseph was killed by a wild

beast, but said so in Gen 37:31-33 because he was legally bound to acknowl-

edge the evidence of Joseph's coat covered with blood and declare his sons

innocent of negligence (cf. the analogous regulation in Exod 22:10-12,

where bringing the carcass of a sheep torn to pieces removes from the shepherd

the responsibility of making restitution).  Later, then, when Jacob expresses fear

that Nvsx would befall Benjamin as it did Joseph, he feared, says Westbrook, not

just "calamity" but "a disaster for which no one can be blamed."

     Westbrook's interpretation in Genesis is highly suspect, however.  It is

doubtful that Jacob would follow legal formalities privately with his own

sons; such is more appropriate in a courtroom setting with persons outside

of one's own immediate family.  Moreover, it is far from clear that Jacob at

first disbelieved the story of Joseph's demise, as the view adopted by West-

brook implies.  Indeed, it is Jacob who, upon looking at Joseph's bloody

garment, jumps to the conclusion that a wild beast had devoured him

(Gen 37:33).  His sons do not have to lie directly about the matter; they


     27 Among the Rabbis, the Mek. states, "Nvsx here only means death" (cited by Paul, Studies

in the Book of the Covenant, 72 n. 3). KB ("todlicher Unfall") agrees.

    28 Westbrook, "Lex Talionis," 52-69. j,

   29 Ibid., 58-61.

    30 Daube, Studies in Biblical Law, 3-15.

THE INTERPRETATI0N OF EXODUS 21:22-25                         245


simply do not contradict Jacob's false deduction.  When he fears lest Nvsx

befall Benjamin in Gen 42:4, he does not yet suspect the brothers of any-

thing, so that a legally loaded meaning "disaster for which no one can be

blamed" is inappropriate.  It is only later in this chapter, when the brothers

arrive back from Egypt with the grain and their money but without their

brother Simeon, that Jacob begins to suspect the brothers of treachery, just

as Joseph had planned for him to do by withholding Simeon and returning

the money, making it appear as if they bought the grain by selling their

brother.31  Nvsx in Gen 42:38 cannot refer to a "case where responsibility

cannot be located" because Reuben in v. 37 specifically volunteers to take

responsibility for the safety of Benjamin, and yet Jacob refuses to let him go

lest Nvsx befall him.32  Moreover, in Gen 44:28-29 the brothers, who know

Joseph only as an Egyptian official, repeat to Joseph Jacob's words to the

effect that Jacob believed Joseph to have been torn by a beast, and fears Nvsx

for his brother Benjamin as well.  If Nvsx contained an obvious, implied

suspicion of the brothers, they would not have incriminated themselves by

repeating the accusation to an Egyptian official.  In sum, Nvsx in Genesis

need mean no more than "(deadly) disaster" from which Jacob wanted to

protect Benjamin, the last remaining child of his favorite wife Rachel.

Westbrook ignores the usage in Sirach, perhaps because he considers the

meaning of  Nvsx there to be a late development. It suffices to say that the

meaning "a disaster for which no one can be blamed" does not fit the

usage there.

     Westbrook's meaning for Nvsx in Exod 21:22-25 does not fit the partic-

ulars of that case either.  Westbrook supposes that the text contemplates a

circumstance where the blame for striking the pregnant woman cannot be

placed on any particular individuals.  However, a case of striking a pregnant

woman during a brawl seems an unlikely one for having a "perpetrator

unknown."  It is unlikely that a pregnant woman would be alone with strangers

during a brawl. On the contrary, one would expect there to be plenty of witnesses:

the woman, other brawlers, and gawking bystanders. Moreover, anonymity in the

close-knit society of ancient Israel would be uncommon.  The introduction of a

"perpetrator unknown" prima facie seems farfetched.

    The etymology of the word Nvsx perhaps speaks against Westbrook's

"legal" interpretation of this term.  Nvsx could well be derived from hsx

meaning "to heal" (KB; contra BDB which takes it from hsx II "be sor-

rowful" based on an Arabic root).  If so, Nvsx would be related to the noun

ysx, which means "physician" in Talmudic Aramaic and in Syriac.  This


      31 Cf. M. Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative (Bloomington: Indiana University

Press, 1985) 298-300, for this analysis.

     32 Schwienhorst-Schonberger, Das Bundesbuch, 91.



term in turn is derived from Akkadian asu, itself a loanword from Sumerian

A.ZU (traditionally "knower of the waters").33  Denominative verbs have

been derived secondarily from this non-Semitic noun in Aramaic (Aphel

“to cure,"  Ithpaal "be cured, recover").  A reasonable interpretation is

that the noun Nvsx in Biblical Hebrew is also a secondary development from

this word, in which case Nvsx would be expected to be a medical, not a legal

term, meaning something like "injury requiring attention of a physician,

serious injury," from which a secondary sense such as "deadly injury"

might have developed (cf. KB, "[healing, euphemism for] deathly accident").

In the context of Exod 21:22-25, Nvsx is not limited to "deadly injury"--

even though that is the sense in Genesis--but "serious injury/medical

calamity," including injuries up to and including death.  This seems clear

from the talionic formula after the case with Nvsx which does not end with

"life for life," but contemplates various lesser injuries as well.


4.  What Is the Meaning of Myllpb?

     The philologically difficult term Myllpb cannot be pinned down with

certainty.  Traditionally it has been understood to mean "by judges/arbi-

trators" (to keep the husband from demanding too much, so Tg. Onq.), but

this meaning is doubtful.  Although the verb of this root does seem to have

the meaning “to judge,”34 the lexical meaning "judge" for lylp is not well

established from its only other occurrences in Deut 32:31 and Job 31:11.

Moreover, the context of Exod 20:22-23:33 makes the interpretation

"judges" doubtful.  If one excludes the philologically and contextually far-

fetched view that Myhlx in Exod 21:6 and/or 22:7-9 means "judges,"35 we

find that (excluding Exod 21:22) there is no direct reference to judges in the

entire legal unit of Exod 20:22-23:33.  Indeed, it seems that even among

those regulations in the Book of the Covenant which might not inappro-

priately be called "laws," those laws regularly lack administrative details

such as who decides a case, who carries out a sentence, and how a sentence

is to be carried out, all of which suggests that these so-called laws might be

better characterized as moral comments on legal matters than as a com-

plete law-code.  This context casts further doubt on the traditional rendering.


  33 S. A. Kaufman (The Akkadian Influences on Aramaic [Assyriological Studies 19; Chicago:

University of Chicago Press, 1974] 37) provides some of this information, though he in fact

rejects association of asu with Nvsx. CAD A II.347 rejects that A.ZU means "knower of the waters."

     34 Interestingly, the Hebrew term for "to pray" (llpth) can be understood as a HtD stem

of this root meaning "to seek a judgment for oneself."  Cf. M. Greenberg, Biblical Prose Prayer

(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983) 21-22.

     35 Cf. J. M. Sprinkle, "A Literary Approach to Biblical Law: Exodus 20:22-23:19" (Ph.D.

dissertation; Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati, 1990) 163-70,

344-49, or the forthcoming revision of this work for the JSOTSup, for a discussion of Myhlx

in these texts.

THE INTERPRETATION OF EXODUS 21:22-25                        247

If  Myllpb does not refer to judges, then to what does it refer?  There has

long been a conjectural emendation that replaces this term with Mylpnb,

meaning “the price of the miscarriage.”36  I am normally reluctant to accept

conjectural emendation, but this reading cannot be altogether ruled out.

     Another interpretation of Myllp was defended by E. Speiser.37  He argues

that the root has to do with “reckoning, assessing” and that Myllpb means

"by assessment/reckoning."  Hence, the penalty paid is assessed on the basis

of the stage of the development of the dead fetus.  The rationale for this view

is that the later the stage of pregnancy, the more time has been lost to the

woman, the greater the grief for the loss of a child, and the more difficult

the miscarriage.  This may have been the view of the LXX, which para-

phrases Nvsx hyhy xl as "imperfectly formed child" and translates Myllpb

"with valuation."38  Furthermore, Speiser's view gains credibility in that penalties

for miscarriage actually do vary with the age of the dead fetus in the parallel

ancient Hittite Law § 17, which states, "If anyone causes a free woman to

miscarry-if (it is) the 10th month, he shall give ten shekels of silver, if (it is) the

5th month, he shall give five shekels of silver and pledge his estate as security."39

     Speiser makes a good case for his interpretation of  llp.  Those who oppose

abortion are understandably uncomfortable with this view because the life

of a young fetus being worth less than that of an older one might be used

to justify first trimester abortions when the fetus is less valuable.  This con-

clusion is not a necessary deduction from Speiser's interpretation, however.

Lev 27:1-8 gives monetary values for redeeming persons who have been

given as a votive offering to the sanctuary.  It is interesting to note that the

monetary value assigned to people varies according to age and sex, from a

low of three shekels for a girl between one month and five years, to a high

of fifty shekels for a male aged twenty to sixty.  Yet despite these differing

monetary valuations, probably reflecting the market value of slaves, the

intentional killing of anyone of them would be considered murder.  The

same could be true of the fetus, having a lower economic value for the

family early in pregnancy, and a higher economic value later on, but per-

haps being considered equally human throughout.  Note also Exod 21:32

where a monetary value of thirty shekels is assigned to a male or female

slave gored to death by an ox, but the transcendent life value of the slave


     36 S. R. Driver (The Book of Exodus [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1911] 219)

attributed this view to Budde.  It is mentioned by BDB.

     37 E. A. Speiser, "The Stem llp in Hebrew," JBL 82 (1963) 536-41.

    38 mh>  e]ceikonisme<non and meta> a]ciw<matoj.  The LXX seems to imply the view that an

imperfectly formed child who is not yet viable independently of the mother is not yet fully

human; consequently, there can be no case Nvsx ("deadly injury") in the case of the death

of the fetus.  Weingreen, "The Concepts of Retaliation and Compensation in Biblical Law,"

9-10, argues that the LXX's rendering was influenced by the debate among Greek thinkers

as to whether or not the embryo is to be considered a living entity.

      39 A later version of this law increases the penalties.



is nonetheless affirmed by the execution of the ox as a murderer for taking

a human life in violation of Gen 9:5.  This stoning of the ox is in contrast

with the case where an ox gores an ox to death in which the goring ox need

not be dispatched because human life is not involved.

     There is another view of the meaning of llp which is neutral on the

question of whether or not the fetus dies.  Westbrook, as we have seen,

understands this root to imply the sense of "sole responsibility" and that

Myllpb  means "[he pays] alone." He argues that llp in the G stem means

"take sole responsibility" and in the D stem means "shift responsibility (to )1

subject or object of verb )."40  A. Berlin, however, has rightly criticized West-

brook's emphasis on "sole/alone" in his view that llp means "sole re-

sponsibility."  Instead, she has made a good case that this root has to do

simply with "responsibility, accountability." According to her, Myllpb 

means ''as the culpable party."41

     Berlin's view could be slightly modified, however, by taking the b as a

"beth of price," and the plural as that of abstraction, and read the text,

"he pays/gives the amount for which he is culpable" (lit. "amount of [b] culpable

ones/culpability").  If taken this way, the expression could refer to some

customary set amount (perhaps varying according to the development of the fetus

as in the Hittite Laws), or an amount which takes into account any extenuating

circumstances.  My translation above tentatively adopts this modification.

      In summing, there are too many uncertainties to make any firm conclusions

based on Myllpb.


5. Is There a Miscarriage in the Case without Nvsx?

     Does the case without Nvsx imply the death of the fetus? My answer is yes,

and several lines of argument support this conclusion: there are medical


    40 Westbrook ("Lex Talionis," 58-61) applies this view to various passages. Deut 32:31 reads,

"For their rock is not as our rock; our enemies are alone" (Myllpb responsible for themselves).

Job 31:11 & 28 takes Myllp Nvx as "a sin for which I alone am responsible." 1 Sam 2:25, "If

a man does wrong against a man, God may take the blame for him [Myhlx vllpty], but if a

man does wrong against the LORD, who will bear responsibility for him [Myhlx vllpv]?" Ps

106:30, "Pinhas stood and took upon himself responsibility [llpy] and the plague was halted"

(cf. Num 25:7-8, where what llpy refers to is taking bold initiative against the source of divine

curse [Israel's sin] by killing an Israelite man in the act of immorality). Ezek 16:52, "You have

taken responsibility [for the sins, tllp] of your sisters,"  i.e., Jerusalem, by being so much worse

than her sister Samaria, has taken over responsibility for the sins of the latter. Gen 48:11, "And

Israel said to Joseph, 'I did not take upon myself the responsibility [for holding out the hope]

to see your face.' "

     41 A. Berlin, "On the Meaning of llp in the Bible," RB 96 (1989) 345-51. Kline ("Lex

Talionis and the Human Fetus," 195-96) earlier came to a similar view that lylp has to do with

incurring guilt, though he exceeds the evidence by claiming that it could mean "liability to

death."  I doubt Kline's view that the final mem is an emphatic enclitic since this is both rare

and mainly limited to archaizing texts.

THE INTERPRETATION OF EXODUS 21:22-25                                    249


reasons for thinking this view likely; the use of the plural hydly gives support

to it; and comparison with similar ANE laws suggest this line of interpretation.

     First, the medical reasons.  In the days before modern medical science,

most premature births under these circumstances would result in the death

of the fetus. R. N. Congdon, writing as a physician, remarks on this passage

by reviewing modern medical statistics concerning premature births fol-

lowing physical trauma (usually automobile related) to a pregnant mother.

He points out that only in the last six weeks (of a normal forty weeks) of

pregnancy would an infant's lungs be sufficiently developed for it to survive

outside the womb.  Apart from modern medical technology, any premature

births before that time would result in fetal death.  But not even premature

birth in the last six weeks would necessarily result in a live birth.  A blunt

blow severe enough to induce premature labor frequently causes such dam-

age as fetal skull fracture, disruption of the oxygen supply through the

umbilical cord, uterine rupture, and overt disruption of connection be-

tween the placenta and the uterus, each of which is fatal for the fetus.  Even

less severe disruptions of the placenta creating an impaired oxygen supply,

if not repaired, typically result in labor or in fetal death within forty-

eight hours.42  Congdon concludes:  "There are only a few instances, in

a nontechnological era, in which blunt trauma serious enough to cause

abortion of the fetus would result in a viable birth.  If medical data has

anything to say about Exodus 21:22, it indicates that the overwhelming

probability for such a situation is an outcome of trauma-induced abortion

with fetal demise."43

     Another argument in favor of assuming the death of the fetus comes from

the use of the plural hydly. One of the arguments used by W. Kaiser against

assuming the death of the child is that if the author wanted to denote a

miscarriage, he should have used the root lkw (a verb used of miscarriages,

cf. Exod 23:26) along with dly.44  This argument from silence is not partic-

ularly strong, however.  It could be turned on its head by posing an equally

weak argument from silence: why did the author not use the ordinary word

for a live birth dly, if he had that in mind, rather than the more ambiguous

xcy ("came out")?  The better answer to Kaiser, however, is to observe that

the author does not need to use the term for miscarriage because the plural

form hydly is a plural of abstraction with the sense "the product of her

womb," an apt term for an inadequately developed baby.45

     Other explanations for this plural are unconvincing. C. E Keil argued

that the plural hydly occurs  "because there might possibly be more than


     42 R. N. Congdon, "Exodus 21:22-25 and the Abortion Debate," BSac 146 (1989) 140-42.

     43 Congdon, "Exodus 21:22-25," 142.

     44 Kaiser, Ethics, 170 n. 22.

     45 The recent monograph by Schwienhorst-Schonberger (Das Bundesbuch, 97-98) has come

independently to similar conclusions.



one child in the womb."46  This seems farfetched, however, since the possi-

bility of twins introduces an unneeded complication to the point being

made by this case.  Kaiser adds that the plural "allows for. . . either sex,"47

but this suggestion too is an irrelevant complication; moreover, such a

plural is not the way in which the Book of the Covenant expresses the idea

that a regulation applies regardless of sex (for that we expect something like

hdly vx dly; cf. Exod 21:15, 17, 28, 31, 32).

     More plausible is the view that the plural refers to a not fully developed

fetus that is nonviable when born, and that the plural of abstraction "the

product of her womb" is used proleptically in anticipation of, or foreshad-

owing, the fatal outcome (note that the situation described would usually result in

stillbirth).  This interpretation, by the way, need not imply that a live, unaborted

fetus is subhuman.  It merely implies that a corpse is sub-human.

     Finally, the comparison with ANE laws confirms the view that the fetus

is assumed to have died.  When the case laws in the Bible are compared with ,

those of the Ancient Near East, it is clear that in broad terms they come

out of the cultural milieu.  Indeed, the fact that in one case a biblical law

is identical in wording with a known, earlier Mesopotamian one (cf.

Exod 21:35 and LE §53) suggests some literary dependence.  I argue (in

general agreement with Cassuto)48 that biblical laws are essentially making

[moral comments on legal matters, but that their wording draws upon legal

traditions that would have been known to the Israelites, though modifying

those laws to express a uniquely Israelite ideology.  But since Mesopotamian

legal traditions (probably via the Canaanites) are being drawn upon, it is

not irrelevant to make comparisons (and contrasts) with cuneiform laws

that deal with similar subject matters, as has been the universal practice of

modern scholars of biblical law.

     When this is done, it is discovered that not only Hittite Laws §17, but also

Sumerian Laws §§1-2, what has been provisionally taken as part of the

Laws of Lipit Ishtar,49 LH §§209-14, and MAL §§A 21,50-52 all refer to

causing a miscarriage by striking a woman (sometimes discussing the penal-

ties for killing her in the process), but none of them contemplates the

possibility of a birth of a viable baby.  Surely this evidence suggests that our

case, where the language is a bit ambiguous and is set in a corpus of laws

that is drawing upon contemporary legal traditions influenced by Meso-

potamia, probably does not contemplate a viable birth either.50


     46 C. E Keil, Commentary on the Old Testament: Pentateuch (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978

[1864]) 135.

    47 Kaiser, Ethics, 103.

    48 Cassuto, Exodus, 262.

    49 Translated in M. Civil, "New Sumerian Law Fragments," in Studies Landsberger (Assyri-

ological Studies 16; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965) 4-6. The other texts are

translated in ANET.

   50 Paul (Studies in the Book of the Covenant, 71 n. 1) correctly observes, "The fact that

so many of the legal corpora specifically refer to [causing a miscarriage), which apparently was

 not too

THE INTERPRETATION OF EXODUS 21:22-25                        251


     We conclude that the death of the fetus is to be assumed so that the

question of Nvsx ("serious injury") applies solely to the mother.


6. How are the Changes in Person and Number in Exod 21:22-25 to

be Explained?

     We may now review our conclusions, paying particular attention to the

changes in person and number in this passage.  If there is no Nvsx after the

miscarriage, that is, no serious injury to the woman, then someone ought

to pay the father for the economic loss to the family of the child.  The

purpose of the plurals (men brawl, men strike a pregnant woman) is to

point out the accidental nature of the injury--they are fighting each other,

not the woman, and are out of control.51  The switch to singular, "he pays,"

reflects an indefinite use of the singular.52  That is, "someone" pays,

whether the most negligent party in the brawl (Berlin's view that Myllpb

means ''as the culpable party" would go along with this view), or a repres-

entative of the men who brawled.  The point is that the accidental, negli-

gent taking of the life of an embryo has resulted in a great loss for the

woman's family, and someone should compensate monetarily for the dam-

age done by paying the father as the head of the family.

     As for the other half of the regulation, if there is serious injury (Nvsx) to

the woman up to and including death, then the so-called lex talionis applies

which states that the penalty, in this case monetary, should vary according

to the degree of injury caused. The "you" (sing.) who pays according to this

principle is Israel represented by an individual.  Westbrook, as seen above,

also argues that the "you" is Israel, but in his view Israel pays only if the

guilty party cannot be determined.  In my view, in contrast, the "you" is

Israel personified as the guilty party and is not a different entity from the

one who pays the fine Myllpb to the husband.53  This usage of the second


common, may be due to the literary dependence of one corpus upon another."  That the Bible

refers to it suggests some literary dependence.  Kaiser (Ethics, 103) states, "We cannot agree

that these laws are the proper background for [Exod 21:22-25]."  To this I can only ask, why


     51 Kline ("Lex talionis and the Human Fetus," 198) suggests this plural may be "the

indefinite plural active used as a passive, signifying 'a pregnant woman is struck.' "  But the

ready antecedent  Mywnx ("men") speaks against this.

    52 Cf. E E. Konig, Historisch-comparative Syntax der hebraischen Sprache (Leipzig: Hinrichs,

1897) 354-55, §§324d-dB, for examples of the indefinite use of the singular verb.  Some ex-

amples: Gen 19:17, 38:28, 48:1, 50:26; Exod 10:5, 21b; Lev 2:8.

    53 The singular "you" in biblical law flows easily between Israel as a whole personified as

the original patriarch and a particular Israelite within Israel.  Compare the use of second

person singular elsewhere: the "you" in Exod 21:2 ("If you acquire a 'Hebrew' slave") is Israel

represented by a an individual Israelite who happens to be a slaveholder; the "you" of

Exod 21:14 ("from my altar you may take him") is Israel as represented through those re-

sponsible for executing murderers; the "you" of the Decalogue is Israel, and hence individual

Israelites; "your poor" in Exod 23:6 is Israel's poor. For a complete discussion, see Dale

Patrick, "I and Thou in the Covenant Code," SBLSP (1978) 1.71-86.



person serves to remind the reader that this is not an impersonal law-code,

but YHWH's personal address to Israel.


IV.  Exod 21:22-25 and the Surrounding Context

      The case of the pregnant woman struck during a brawl breaks a sequence

between the two bondsman laws, Exod 21:20-21 having to do with striking

a bondsman to death, and 21:26-27 having to do with injuring a bonds-

man. Why the case of the pregnant woman should come between these two

has puzzled commentators.

    According to D. Patrick, Exod 21:22-25's link with Exod 21:26-27 is only

superficial.  The case of the injured bondsman came to the lawgiver's mind

because, like the lex talionis, it deals with "eye" and "tooth" and uses the

term tHt.54  Others, less graciously, suggest scribal misadventure.

My own view, suggested to me by H. C. Brichto,55 is that Exod 21:20-27

as a group is fundamentally about injuries to bondsmen, specifically debt

slaves as in Exod 21:2-5, which is a natural sequel to the discussion of injury

to the full citizen in Exod 21:18-19.  Exod 21:22-25 on the pregnant woman

is parenthetical, though necessary to further the author's discussion of


    What the case of the pregnant woman introduces is the principle that one

should as a rule pay the exact monetary equivalent for mayhem that one

caused even if the mayhem was unintentional, as the striking of the preg-

nant woman in a brawl among men would be.  This principle was intro-

duced, however, to form a contrast with the case of injury to a bondsman

that follows.  The case of injury to a bondsman by using similar language

but drawing a quite different conclusion indicates that this principle does

not apply in the case of a beating of a bondsman in which the beating is

intentional (this is the master's right if for the purpose of making him work),

but the maiming was (in all likelihood) unintentional.  In this case, and

unlike the talionic formula, the penalty does not vary according to the

degree of injury, but maiming of any sort, as great as the loss of an eye, as

little as the loss of a tooth, results in the bondsman's freedom and the loss

of the master's investment, i.e., the master loses the time owed by the

bondsman in lieu of the bondman's unpaid debt.

     The reason why the talionic formula does not apply, but that any maim-

ing results in the slave's freedom, is that this bondsman (being actually a

"distrainee" or an "indentured servant" rather than a "slave"--cf.

Exod 21:2-4) must be treated as a human being despite his reduced social

status.  The master has the right to the bondsman's time and to a limited

extent can use force to make him work, but the master has no right to his

bondsman's person. If he murders the bondsman, he is subject to "vengeance"


    54 D. Patrick, Old Testament Law (Atlanta: Knox, 1985) 77.

    55 Personal dialogue.

THE INTERPRETATION OF EXODUS 21:22-25                                    253


(Exod 21:20-21) as with the murder of any other human being; if he maims

him, he loses all rights as master (Exod 21:26-27) since he has no right to

treat another human being in that way.  Hence the biblical author has

artfully expressed a philosophical concept concerning the humanity of a

bondsman by this juxtaposition of the case of the pregnant woman and the

case of the maiming of a bondsman.

     If this view is correct, the lex talionis was introduced not to prove the

humanity of the fetus--it is quite ambiguous on that point--but rather to

prove the humanity of slaves.


     Although one might like to find definitive answers to the abortion ques-

tion from Exod 21:22-25, it is not possible to do so.  The detailed exegetical

analysis of Exod 21:22-25 (lex talionis) given above shows the passage to be

ill suited for establishing a biblical ethic concerning abortion.

      On the one hand, the case of the pregnant woman does not disprove the

humanity of the fetus.  The killing of the fetus and the killing of the mother

are treated alike:  in both cases composition is achieved through payment of

money.  The text talks only about accidental killing, and exegetically from

this passage alone we have no way of knowing whether the intentional

killing of the fetus by its mother would have been considered murder.  What

is clear here is that the accidental killing of the unborn is punished.  What

about the intentional killing of the unborn? Would it go unpunished?

Exod 21:22-25 does not exclude the possibility that the intentional killing

of the mother and the intentional killing of the fetus would also be treated

alike, that is, as murder.

     On the other hand, the case of the pregnant woman cannot be used to

prove the humanity of the fetus either. Contrary to the exegesis common

among certain anti-abortion Christian theologians, the most likely view is

that the death of the fetus is to be assumed throughout the entire case.  It

cannot be proven whether the formula “life for life” applies to the fetus

since it occurs in the instance with Nvsx ("serious injury"), which deals

exclusively with injuries to the mother.  The wording of the case does not

rule out the possibility that the fetus was considered subhuman.  Rather

than proving the humanity of the unborn, the passage instead serves (by its

contrast with the subsequent case) to demonstrate the humanity of slaves.

Toccoa Falls College

P.O. Box 236

Toccoa Falls, GA 30598-0236


This material is cited with gracious permission from:

            Westminster Theological Seminary

            Chestnut Hill

            Philadelphia,  PA   19118


Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at:  thildebrandt@gordon.edu