Abortion in Antiquity

I was deeply disturbed tonight by an article that’s been going around that states that a new bill could be put into motion in New York that would allow babies to be aborted up to their day of birth. I had a hard time imagining a world in which even those who approve of abortion could get on board with such a concept, so I knew that I had to look through a few different reports before I reacted. Having formerly worked in radio for years, I don’t believe in #fakenews per se, but I am well aware that we all naturally report with a bias, since we are not tabula rasa.

Unfortunately, after looking through a few articles I found on trusted webpages, I still wasn’t really sure what the conversation was in its entirety. Conservative news outlets seemed to be stating that you could now have abortions up to a baby’s birthday without stating that there were stipulations. On the other side, liberal news outlets seemed to be clarifying that the mother’s life had to be at risk, but were often leaving out the details of just how easy, accessible, and noncriminal abortion would now be under the bill’s wording. And on top of that, there were conflicting comments on both sides.

Now as far as protecting a mother’s life, I agree that this is an important conversation. In fact, the very pro-life-oriented-denomination in which I pastor agrees:

The intentional abortion of a person’s life, from conception on, must be judged to be a violation of God’s command, “You shall not commit murder,” except when extreme circumstances require the termination of a pregnancy to save the life of the pregnant woman. (2011 Free Methodist Church Book of Discipline, pg 63, emphasis mine)

Why do we have that clarification there? Well, again, it’s because we’re pro-life—and therefore, we understand that the protection of a mother’s life is just as much a pro-life conversation as the protection of a child’s life. That unfortunately doesn’t make such an incredibly tough decision any easier regardless of which way it goes, but it does recognize that a pro-life outcome is the goal; for Jesus qualified movements of life to be oriented with him, and movements of death to be oriented with Satan: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

And “kill and destroy” is something that Satan has been doing since ancient times—and abortion is one of the ways in which he has gotten the job done. We often think abortion is a new concept because we now have advanced medical tools to work with, but it goes way back. In the New Testament it was found in pharmakeia, which is the Greek word for “sorcery” or “witchcraft”—which, of course, Christians have always understood to be the forbidden works of spiritual entities outside of God. Pharmakeia was the use of drugs (think pharm-acy), namely in destructive ways. As one scholar explains,

In classical Greek pharmakeia referred to the use of drugs whether for medicinal or more sinister purposes, e.g., poisoning. In the New Testament, however, it is invariably associated with the occult…. in Galatians [5:20] and in Revelation, where it occurs twice (Rev 9:21; 18:23). English translations usually render pharmakeia as “witchcraft” (KJV, NIV) or “sorcery” (RSV, NEB). These words correctly convey the idea of black magic and demonic control, but they miss the more basic meaning of drug use. In New Testament times pharmakeia in fact denoted the use of drugs with occult properties for a variety of purposes including, especially, abortion.(George, Timothy. The New American Commentary: Galatians. Edited by David S Dockery, vol. 30, Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994, p. 394. Emphasis mine.)

Abortion can also be found before Revelation and Galatians as it was a threat on Jesus’ own life when Herod threatened to kill all children two-years-old and under (Mt 2:16-18), forcing Jesus to become a refugee (Mt 2:13-15). Therefore we must recognize that pro-life themes like abortion and taking care of refugees is ingrained in the very story of our Savior and a narrative we revisit every single Christmas.

But the conversation goes back even further than that to Exodus, the second book of the Bible. It’s there that Pharaoh commands Egyptian midwives to kill any baby boys born to the Hebrews. While this on its own is a theme of abortion, a word study here makes this form of abortion even more like modern abortion than we realize. The clue is found in one specific word.

“When you serve as midwife to the Hebrew women and see them on the birthstool, if it is a son, you shall kill him, but if it is a daughter, she shall live.” (Exodus 1:16, emphasis mine)

The Hebrew word for birthstool here is ʾāḇ·nǎ·yim, and it’s only found in one other place in the Bible—that is, Jeremiah 18:3, where the prophet watches an artist work with a potter’s wheel. In a 2003 Journal of Biblical Literature article, scholar Scott Morschauser concluded that the birthstool here in Exodus was actually a reference to the potter’s wheel, since the potter’s wheel was “regularly linked to pregnancy in ancient Egyptian religious literature and art.” In Egyptian belief, the creator-god, Khnum, would artistically mold humans upon a potter’s wheel. Therefore, Morschauser concludes that the ʾāḇ·nǎ·yim of Exodus 1:16,

refers to a child still forming in the womb that has not yet come to full term…. “When you look/determine ‘upon the potter’s wheel’ (i.e., when you undertake a prenatal examination], if it is a son, then terminate him; if it is a daughter, she shall live.” Such a procedure would have been within the scope of ancient Egyptian knowledge and practice. Medical texts contain prognostic recipes for determining the sex of an unborn child, as well as prescriptions for ending a pregnancy through draughts and potions. (Morschauser, Scott. “Potters’ Wheels and Pregnancies: A Note on Exodus 1:16.”) (Also see 1:01:45 of Bible scholar Michael Heiser’s podcast episode 255 for more insight on this.)

With all that being said, we can see that abortion as we know it today isn’t new at all. It’s in the pharmakeia of the New Testament, which is likewise practiced in its own Egyptian form in Exodus, and seen even as a threat to Jesus himself. These stories should make it easy for most Christians to link abortion to the work of the enemy and therefore encourage us to care about this topic and all other topics relating to life—a critique our faith well-deserves, for we often relegate it to this area alone and are seen as pro-death in many other conversations.


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