A Christian normally experiences some tension in trying to apply the Old Testament to his life. There is a theological tension over the question whether instructions in the Old Testament are still applicable to Christians. In what sense is the Old Testament authoritative for the Church today? In The Authority of the Old Testament, John Bright has suggested a valid working hypothesis: Old Testament passages must be referred to the New for its verdict, whether it be to confirm, modify, or deny.
In the matter of birth control, the Christian also faces a sociological tension. The Old Testament world, in contrast to modern society, valued a large family for economic and international security. Survival demanded growth and expansion. In addition, men in the ancient world sought “social immortality,” i.e., preservation of their memory upon earth through their offspring. Christians today, on the other hand, seek “individual immortality,” the hope of life after death. Old Testament saints living in a rural society were much more favorably disposed toward large families than many Christian couples today living in overcrowded cities. For us, children tend to be a financial hindrance rather than help.
The third tension in this area is focused on the question, Did the Old Testament writers know about techniques for birth control and abortion? If not, we may be asking them questions they had never faced and thus be in danger of inferring wrong answers from the Scriptures.
Early Family Planning
A married man and woman in Old Testament times seem to have had five means of limiting family size: abortion, sterilization, infanticide, continence, and contraception by withdrawal (often referred to as coitus interruptus in the older literature).
In the absence of any biblical text forbidding abortion, we must appeal to the literature of the Ancient Near East. An Assyrian law dated between 1450 and 1250 B.C. prescribed death by torture in cases of procured abortion. The fact that God did not set forth a similar law becomes even more significant when one realizes that in sexual matters the Mosaic Code is normally more extensive and more severe than other codes.
A second factor suggesting that abortion was permissible is that God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed. The Law plainly exacts: “If a man kills any human life he will be put to death” (Lev. 24:17). But according to Exodus 21:22–24, the destruction of a fetus is not a capital offense. The divine law reads: “When men struggle together and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and she suffers a miscarriage but no other harm happens, he shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact from him.… But if harm does ensue, then you shall impose soul for soul.…” Clearly, then, in contrast to the mother, the fetus is not reckoned as a soul. The money compensation seems to have been imposed not to protect the fetus but rather to compensate the father for his loss.
In the matter of accidental miscarriage, the contrast between the Mosaic law and the Assyrian law is once again instructive. In a similar context the Assyrian law reads:
[If a seignior] struck a[nother] seignior’s [wife] and caused her to have [a miscarriage], they shall treat [the wife of the seignior], who caused the [other] seignior’s wife to [have a miscarriage], as he treated her; he shall compensate for her fetus with a life. However, if that woman died, they shall put the seignior to death; he shall compensate for her fetus with a life. But when that woman’s husband has no son, if someone struck her so that she had a miscarriage, they shall put the striker to death; even if her fetus is a girl he shall compensate with a life [quoted in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, by James B. Pritchard, Princeton, 1950, p. 184].
The Old Testament, in contrast, never reckons the fetus as equivalent to a life.
On the other hand, the Old Testament never exacts “a fetus for a fetus”; it apparently protects the fetus. Furthermore, the Bible repeatedly asserts that conception is a gift of God. Eve at the birth of Cain declared that she had received him from the Lord (Gen. 4:1). Sarah’s belief that the Lord restrained her from bearing (16:2) was confirmed when Abraham later received the divine assurance that she would have a son (17:19). Taking pity on Leah, the Lord “opened her womb” (29:31), as he also did afterwards for Rachel (30:22). Of Ruth it is recorded that “the Lord gave her conception” (Ruth 4:13).
Third, the Christian is aware that God is actively involved in fashioning the fetus. Of himself David said: “You created my kidneys; you skillfully wove me in my mother’s womb.… My skeleton was not hidden from you when I was carefully formed in the darkness, when I was embroidered with variegated colors in the innermost part of the earth” (Ps. 139:13–18, author’s translation).
Thus, while the Old Testament does not equate the fetus with a living person, it places great value upon it. The Talmud appears to reflect the biblical balance by allowing abortion when the life of the mother is in danger (Mishna, Oholot, 7:6).
Apparently the early Hebrews realized that the male as well as the female could be the cause of a childless union (Deut. 7:4). In practice, however, only the male could be made sterile artificially. We may assume that principles derived from texts concerning the sterilization of the man are also applicable to the woman.
God rejected the common Near Eastern practice of sterilizing males. According to Deuteronomy 23:1, a eunuch was excluded from the communal life in Israel. This law is peculiar to the Mosaic Code. Sterilization was made unique among types of physical deformity. Deformities of the body, such as blindness and lameness, restricted Aaron’s descendants from serving as priests, but only sterilization—whether congenital, accidental, or self-willed—excommunicated a male from the covenant community.
The least we can conclude from this text is that God looks with disfavor upon sterilization as a means of limiting human reproduction. However, this conclusion must be evaluated in the light of our Lord’s teaching about eunuchs (Matt. 19:12).
Although infanticide was normally practiced for religious reasons in the Ancient Near East, it was also practiced to rid the parent of an unwanted child. For example, the mother of Sargon of Agade, by tradition a high priestess expected to live in chastity, disposed of her unwanted child by exposure. That infanticide by exposure was known in Israel can be gathered from a reference in Ezekiel, where Jerusalem is described as though she “were cast out on the open field, for [she] was abhored, on the day she was born” (Exek. 16:5). It is well known that the Arabs practiced female infanticide.
Godly Hebrews never engaged in infanticide. The Old Testament forbade the common practice of child sacrifice, for it “profaned the name of God” (Lev. 18:21). Those who engaged in it were to be stoned to death (Lev. 20:2). In addition, the life of the child no doubt came under the protection of the fifth commandment.
That continence was also practiced as a means of limiting children we may infer from a Sumerian proverb that mentions a proud husband who boasted that his wife had borne him eight sons and was still ready to lie down to accept his nuptial embrace. Evidently, some wives would not. In Israel, however, there is no evidence that periodic continence was used for the spacing or limitation of pregnancies. In fact, the Mosaic law indicates that continence has no place in marriage: “If the owner marries another woman, he must not diminish from [the female slave] her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights” (Exod. 21:10). In addition, as Charles Ryder Smith points out in Bible Doctrine of Womanhood, “the Old Testament has no sanction for celibacy; its priests married, and even its typical ascetic, the Nazarite, was commanded other abstinences than this” (Num. 6).
Rhythm In Reverse
Sexual intercourse was to be forgone by women only during their ritual uncleanness occasioned by menstruation (Lev. 15:19–28; 18:19; 20:18) and childbirth (Lev. 12:1–8), and by men only for religious reasons (Exod. 19:15; 1 Sam. 21:4, 5). On the basis of these passages, some have contended that continence should be practiced for birth control. But instead of limiting birth, these restrictions tend to increase fertility. Herman Wouk, in This Is My God, says: “The main practical result of this abstinence after the menses is that they rejoin at the time when the wife is most likely to conceive. It is the exact opposite of the rhythm system of birth control.”
The conjugal regulations in the Talmud accurately reflect the teaching of the Old Testament. M. Mielzener says: “The duty of conjugal cohabitation is legally, as well as ritually and ethically, regulated in the Rabbinical Code. A continual refusal, on either side, regarding this duty, if not excused by sickness and circumstances, offers a ground for divorce” (The Jewish Law of Marriage and Divorce in Ancient and Modern Times).
In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul likewise enjoins intercourse as a mutual duty owed by each to the other, to be withheld only during limited periods of special religious observance (1 Cor. 7:5).
Three areas of evidence support the common assumption that withdrawal was the most universal and commonly practiced method of contraception in biblical times: (1) the terms for prostitutes in Assyria and Babylonia; (2) references in the Talmud; (3) the incident of Onan recorded in Genesis 38:8–10.
Terminology applied to the female temple personnel in the Code of Hammurabi and other Babylonian documents indicates that these priestesses were sexually active but in some way prevented conception. No women consecrated to gods were allowed to bear children, even in marriage. Since contraceptives and sterilization of women were unknown and technically unfeasible in antiquity, a priestess, or hierodule, could avoid impregnation only by using abnormal methods of intercourse. One text prescribed an extreme precaution: “The high priestess will permit intercourse per anum in order to avoid pregnancy.” However, this extreme measure apparently was not practiced by other classes of female cult personnel. The titles and expressions used to denote these other priestesses may point to the avoidance of pregnancy by coitus interruptus.
The Talmud also indicates that withdrawal was practiced to avoid pregnancy. According to the Yebamot section of the Talmud (34b), during the twenty-four months in which a child is nursed, “a man must thresh inside and winnow outside”—a euphemism for withdrawal.
The case of Onan (Gen. 38:8–10) provides the one clear Old Testament example of withdrawal with contraceptive intent: “Then Judah said to Onan: ‘Go in to your brother’s wife and perform the duty of a brother-in-law to her, and raise up offspring for your brother.’ But Onan knew that the offspring would not be his; so when he went in to his brother’s wife, he spilled the semen upon the ground, lest he should give offspring to his brother. And what he did was evil in the sight of the LORD, and he slew him also.”
The context clearly indicates that Onan’s sin lay in his selfish unwillingness to honor his levirate duty. Roman Catholic exegetes reject this explanation, however, and insist that God killed Onan for practicing birth control. They argue that Onan paid for his deed with his life, whereas the penalty for refusing the responsibilities of the levirate marriage was far milder in the normally severe Mosaic Code.
A Persuasive Point
This objection is certainly valid, and the difficulty must be faced. The texts can be harmonized through recognition that the Mosaic Law has to do with a man who refuses to marry his brother’s widow, whereas the case of Onan concerns a man who was willing to marry his brother’s widow but then perverted the institution. The Lawgiver had the bereaved one at heart; but Onan used levirate marriage for his personal gratification. In a word, he used his brother’s wife with no respect for her personality and dignity, and without brotherly concern.
We conclude, then, that this passage instructs us concerning the responsible use of sex; it does not forbid contraception per se.
One would expect to find an express prohibition of contraception by withdrawal somewhere in the Bible if God considered it a sinful act in itself. But nowhere does this appear.
There are two passages where one might expect to find such a prohibition. In the first, Leviticus 15:16–18, the emission of semen apart from coitus is not regarded as a sinful act. Since no sacrifice was demanded, the law for cleansing was ceremonial; no moral fault was involved. The second passage is Leviticus 20:10–21. Here the Bible lists sexual crimes punishable by death. All of these involve intercourse apart from the marriage relationship. Once again we find no reference to withdrawal as a sexual abuse. We conclude, therefore, that the Old Testament prohibits infanticide, sterilization, and continence as means of avoiding pregnancy, but it does not prohibit contraception.
We must now consider the purposes of marriage to determine what use may be made of contraception.
God instituted marriage so that man could have company. “Then the LORD God said: ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him’ ” (Gen. 2:18). The psalmist says: “God gives the desolate a home to dwell in” (Ps. 68:6).
Moreover, it is within the framework of marriage that man achieves unity; apart from marriage he is broken, incomplete. “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). To joy of the reuniting of man and woman and the sadness of their parting are celebrated in an incomparable way in the Song of Songs.
God also instituted marriage in order to give pleasure—not merely sensual pleasure—to both the man and the woman. To the woman he said, “Your desire shall be for your husband …” (Gen. 3:16). To men the inspired sage advises: “Enjoy life with the wife whom you love …” (Eccl. 9:9).
A fourth reason for marriage is that of procreation. The Old Testament considers children an evidence of God’s blessing: “And God blessed them, and God said to them: ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth’ ” (Gen. 1:28), an injunction repeated to Noah after the Flood (Gen. 9:1, 7). When the text declares, “God blessed them,” it means in part that he made them virile. On this basis he gives the command to reproduce. The divine ideal is for all of nature to be fertile. Predicting the golden age to come, Jeremiah says: “Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man and the seed of beast” (Jer. 31:27; cf. also Gen. 1:22; 8:17; 49:22; Ps. 128:3).
Dealing With Overpopulation
It should be noted that with the blessed promise of offspring there is also the injunction to subdue the earth. This text may apply to cases of overpopulation, where the balance with nature cannot be maintained. Perhaps in such cases God enjoins man to use his technological achievements to maintain a balance for the good life.
God also instituted monogamy, says Malachi, “to seek a godly seed” (Mal. 2:15). Innumerable Old Testament passages instruct his people on raising a godly seed. We may infer from Deuteronomy 6:4 ff. and others that God expected his people to be co-laborers in producing a godly seed to bless the earth.
Finally, God instituted marriage in order to illustrate his love for Israel. The analogy of the love of a husband for his wife is repeatedly used by the prophets to illuminate God’s persistent love for his unfaithful wife, Israel. The analogy, however, can be used only by implication in the problem at hand.
Protestant theologians often justify birth control by separating these purposes of marriage from one another.
But according to the Old Testament, the Creator instituted marriage to serve all these ends together. John Warwick Montgomery’s judgment (CHRISTIANITY TODAY, March 4, 1966) harmonizes with this prudence derived from the Old Testament: “The burden of proof rests, then, on the couple who wish to restrict the size of their family.”
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