AT WHAT POINT DOES LIFE BEGIN?
Let us begin our study with a consideration of Ex. 21:22-24 which reads in the KJV, “If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no mischief follow: he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband will lay upon him: and he shall pay as the judge determines, and if any mischief follow, then thou shalt give life for life,eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand and foot for foot”.
First we must understand that the Hebrew word translated “mischief” is used five times and the context of each occurrence implies “hurt” (see Gen. 42:4 and 38, 44:29 and the two occurrences in Ex. 21 quoted above).
This passage says that if a pregnant woman gives birth prematurely, but no further harm is done, there will be a fine. But if harm is done, the consequences will be in accordance with the Mosaic Law, i.e. “eye for an eye” etc. .
The crucial question in regard to our study is: Does the “mischief”, referred to in this passage refer to harm to the woman or to harm to the child she is carrying. That is to say, if it refers to the woman then we must understand the verse to say that there will be consequences only if the woman is harmed. But if it refers to the child in the womb then we must understand this verse to say that if it departs (comes out of the womb) harmed, the consequences will be meted out in accordance with the Mosaic Law. Let me paraphrase this verse in both ways for the sake of clarity.
“If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no harm comes to the woman….he shall pay a fine”. Or: “If men strive, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart from her, and yet no harm is done to the child……he shall pay a fine”. The first paraphrase implies that there will be no consequences if the child dies, only if harm is done to the woman. The second paraphrase implies that if harm is done to the child there will be consequences.
The importance of a correct understanding of this verse is crucial in our study as to when life begins. That is to say, if we are to understand this verse to say that there will be consequences only if the woman is harmed, but none if the child is harmed, the implication is, of course, that the child in the womb was not a living being and therefore the law requires no consequences if it is harmed.
How shall we come to a correct understanding of this very important point? There is a small clue as to whether the passage is in reference to the woman or to the child in her womb. But that clue is based on my belief that every word in the Bible is inspired by God, therefore, every word is of importance. With that said, let us once again consider Ex. 21:22, “….he shall be surely punished, according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him….”. In my opinion, the phrase, “the woman’s husband” tells us that this passage is about the woman. That is to say, if the passage concerned the child in the womb coming to harm, we would read of the child’s father. But we read of the woman’s husband. Therefore, I believe this passage is about the woman.
Let us now continue with this verse. This verse gives no indication as to how long the child had been in the womb. It could have been nine months or it could have been two months. Given that we are given no indication, we must assume that the law applies to any child in the womb, no matter how long that child had been in the womb.
Therefore, if the child in the womb comes out, let us say, after two months in the womb, obviously, it will not live. And yet the law stands, i.e. there is no punishment if the child is harmed. That being the case, it made no difference as to how long the child had been in the womb, there was, by law, no consequence to a child in the womb being harmed.
Therefore, we must conclude that because there were no consequences for a child in the womb being harmed or even killed, a child in the womb was not considered a living being.
Let us continue our study with a consideration of James 2:26. That verse reads, “The body apart from the spirit is dead”. Mr. Wayne Jackson has suggested that “the spirit is present as soon as there is a living body”. We will come back to this comment.
I believe that as we consider what the Bible says about spirit, it will become clear that life begins at birth.
The word “spirit” is one of the most misunderstood words in the Bible. The paper on spirit quotes and categorizes every time the word “spirit” is used in the Bible. The Hebrew word translated “spirit” is “ruach” and the Greek equivalent is “pneuma”. As discussed in the above mentioned paper, “spirit” is used of the Holy Spirit (The Greek word translated “Ghost” is the same as is translated “spirit”). It is used of the spirit of Christ, and what is of most importance in this study, “spirit” is often used of the spirit that gives life. Let us consider just a few passages in which the word is used in that way.
Gen. 6:17 and 7:15, “And behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath (“ruach”) of life from under heaven….”.
Gen. 7:22, “All in whose nostrils was the breath (“ruach”) of life ….died”.
Job 34:14, “If He set His heart upon man, if He gather unto Himself his spirit (“ruach”), man shall turn again unto dust.”
Ps. 104:29, “….Thou takest away their breath (“ruach”) and they return to dust.”
Ps. 146:4, “His breath (“ruach”) goeth forth, he returneth to the earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.”
Ps. 135:17, “They have ears, but they hear not; Neither is there any breath (“ruach”) in their mouths.”
I believe that the passages quoted above show that the spirit that gives life, when used of a human being, is always used of the breath one breathes in order to have life. In other words, the spirit that gives life is the air we breathe. Indeed it is often translated “wind” (please see the above mentioned paper on spirit). With that in mind we are better prepared to consider Mr. Jackson’s comments on James 2:26.
Mr. Jackson has suggested that “the spirit is present as soon as there is a living body”. The question is then, is the spirit that gives life to the embryo/ body present in the womb? If we are to take our answer from Scripture, we must conclude that it is not because the spirit of life does not enter into the body until the first breath is taken. For further evidence of that statement let us consider the passages in Ezek. 37 which speak of resurrection.
Ezek. 37:5,”Thus saith Jehovah Elohim unto these bones; ‘Behold, I will cause breath (“ruach”) to enter into you, and ye shall live.”.
Ezek. 37:6, “And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you……and put breath (“ruach”) in you, and ye shall live….. .”
Ezek. 37:8, “And when I beheld, lo the sinews and the flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them above; but there was no breath (“ruach”) in them… .”
Ezek. 37:10, “…and the breath (“ruach”) came into them and they lived…”.
In short, the body is not alive in the womb because it does not receive the breath of life until it is born. Add to that Gen. 1:26 where we read that when God breathed into Adam’s nostrils, man “became a living soul”. He became a living soul when he took his first breath. .
The verses quoted above from Ezekiel 37 have to do with resurrection, not with birth. However, as we leaned in our study of Ex. 21, the Mosaic Law did not consider a child in the womb to be a living being, therefore, we have no other option but to conclude that life does indeed begin at birth, when the new born child breaths, and the breath of life enters the body.
Let us consider the passages suggested by some that, in their views, prove that life begins at conception.
Mr. Wayne Jackson wrote, “The Hebrew Old Testament uses the word zera’ (seed) both literally and figuratively. In a literal sense it may be used of seed planted in a field. The most frequent metaphorical use of . . . zera’ (seed) is employed to designate human seed, i.e., offspring and descendant(s)” (Van Gemeren, 1152). The word can signify an individual person, as in the case of the coming Messiah (Genesis 3:15), the people of the nation of Israel (Genesis 15:5; 22:18), or, prophetically, Christians (Psalm 22:30; Isaiah 53:10; cf. “children” – Hebrews 2:13)”.
We read in the paragraph above that “The most frequent metaphorical use of . . . zera’ (seed) is employed to designate human seed, i.e., offspring and descendant(s)” (Van Gemeren, 1152)”. Note that when the word is used to designate an offspring or descendant(s) it is used as a metaphor. A metaphor is a figure of speech which is defined by Dr. E. W. Bullinger in the Companion Bible as, “A declaration that one thing is or represents another”. In other words, Mr. Jackson is saying that the Hebrew word “zera” is not used of a person, it is used as a metaphor which, by definition, represents a person. The seed therefore, in accordance with his own statement, is not a person, it is something that represents a person.
Continuing with Mr. Jackson’s comment we read, “Now here is an important point. In Numbers 5:28, a woman was said to “conceive seed,” or as the English Standard Version reads, “conceive children.” That which is “conceived” is not a blob that later becomes a child; it is a child”.
Numbers 5:28 reads, “And if the woman be not defiled, but be clean; then she shall be free, and shall conceive seed”. Let us consider the Hebrew word translated “conceive” in this verse. That Hebrew word is “zarag”. The word is used approximately 55 times in the Old Testament. It is translated “sow” or “soweth” or “sown” 39 times. I believe the meaning is quite clear, i.e. the word means “to sow”. In other words, Num. 5:28 should read, “then she shall be free, and shall sow seed”. Let us consider the English word “sow”. According to Wikipedia “to sow’ means “the process of planting seeds”. And according to the “Free Dictionary” by Farlex, it means “to scatter seed over the ground for growing”. To “scatter seed” is not to conceive, it is what is required before conception. That is to say, the meaning of the Hebrew word “zarag” is not “to conceive”, but to scatter seed so that it will be available for conception. In terms of Num. 5:28 and human conception, it means that when the woman is clean she may sow her seed (i.e. her egg) in order that she may conceive.
In short, Num. 5:28 does not say, as Mr. Jackson suggests that “That which is “conceived” is not a blob that later becomes a child; it is a child”. What it does say is that a seed (or egg) is sown and if it is fertilized, it then results in conception. But I see no logical or Scriptural reason to read into this verse that life begins at conception.
We read in Ps. 139:16, “Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect, and in Thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them”.
Let us begin with a consideration of the point of this passage which, of course, comes from the context. Verse 1 reads, “Thou hast searched me and known me”. And verse 2 “….Thou knowest my downsitting and my uprising”. Verse 3 reads, “….Thou art acquainted with all my ways”. I believe the point of this entire Psalm is that God knew David. The point at which God knew David will be discussed below.
Let us consider the second phrase first for reasons which will be made clear. The second phrase tells us that David’s members (parts of his body) were written in God’s book even before he was “fashioned” (“as yet there was none”). The phrase “there was none” used in reference to the members of David’s body tells us that this phrase speaks of the time before conception. That is to say, we read that members were written in the book when “as yet there were none”, so this verse tells us that God wrote David’s members in His book even before there were any members, i.e. before conception.
The first phrase reads, “Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect”. We must, of course, determine the meaning of the Hebrew word translated “unperfect”. That Hebrew word is “chadal”. According to Strong’s Lexicon it is most often translated “cease”, but is also translated “unoccupied”. How are we to determine which is the meaning the Holy Spirit meant for us to understand? Fortunately, the form of the Hebrew poetry will help us. That is to say, the Hebrew poetry is such that it uses more than one phrase to express the point of the verse so that each phrase of the poetry enhances the other phrases. So the reason we considered the last phrase first was because the last phrase was easier to understand, so now we can use that phrase to help us understand the first phrase.
With that in mind, let us determine the meaning of the Hebrew “chadal” by the last phrase of the poetry. We saw above that that phrase speaks of a time before conception. Because the poetry of the verse is used to enhance the meaning of all phrases, the first phrase must also refer to a time before conception. Therefore, I believe we may understand the first phrase to say, “Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unoccupied”. In other words, God had written of David’s members before they were in existence (“as yet there was none”) and in the interest of consistency, the second phrase of the poetry must also have to do with a time before conception, i.e. God saw David’s substance even before that substance was occupied. So David’s substance was not yet “occupied” and this too refers to a time before conception. The symmetry of the poetry is then upheld.
Now that we have determined the point of the Psalm (God’s intimate knowledge of David) let us consider two possible interpretations of this verse. One interpretation is that God knew David in the womb, i.e. at conception. The other interpretation is that God knew David even before he was in the womb. Which interpretation best enhances the point? I believe the latter interpretation best enhances the point of the Psalm. That is to say, because the point of the Psalm is the intimacy with which God knew David, I believe the interpretation that verse 16 says that God knew David even before David was conceived in his mother’s womb best enhances the point.
So the poetry helps us to determine the meaning of the words used and the context, not surprisingly, substantiates the suggestion that this verse is in reference to a time before conception. Therefore, I do not believe that this verse can be used as a proof text that life begins at conception.
Continuing with Mr. Jackson’s article we read, “David declared: “In sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). ……..the text assuredly indicates that David considered himself a person (“me”) from the moment of his conception”.
Mr. Jackson suggests that because David uses the pronoun “me” that the pronoun implies that this verse speaks of him being a person at conception. Is that what this verse tells us?
Every dictionary definition I can find gives the same definition of “conceive, i.e. “to become pregnant”. So when David wrote that “in sin did my mother conceive me” he was saying that in sin his mother became pregnant with him. I believe a consideration of the point of Psalm 51 will help us determine if the fact that David’s use the pronoun “me” indicates that verse 5 speaks of him being a person at conception.
Verse 2 reads, “….wash me thoroughly from mine iniquity”. And verse 3, “I acknowledge my transgression”. Verse 4 reads, “Against Thee, Thee only have I sinned, and done this evil in Thy sight”. Obviously, David was expressing in this Psalm his great sorrow for having committed a sin against God.
With that in mind let us consider verse 5 again. “….In sin my mother did conceive me”. I believe the point of verse 5 is that David felt so consumed with remorse concerning his sin that he even felt it in the fact that he was conceived in sin.
Is the point of this Psalm, or of this verse in particular, enhanced by the interpretation that David was a person at conception? I do not see how it is thus enhanced. Is it enhanced by the interpretation that David was not a person at conception? Again, I do not see how it is thus enhanced.
My point is that to force the subject of when an egg becomes a person on this verse is not in keeping with the context, and should not, in my opinion, be used to prove, or disprove, a question that has nothing to do with the point of the Psalm.
Psalm 22:10 and 30
Some have suggested that Ps. 22:10 and 30 prove that life begins at conception. Let us consider those verses. We read in Ps. 22:9-10, “But Thou art He That took me out of the womb; Thou didst make me hope when I was upon my mother’s breasts. I was cast upon Thee from the womb: Thou art my God from my mother’s belly”. This passage is not about one in the womb, it is about one who had been taken from the womb, i.e. born. Note the phrases “He That took me out of the womb” and “when I was upon my mother’s breasts”.
Does the phrase “Thou art my God from my mother’s belly” say that God was David’s God while still in his mother’s belly? That is to say, should we understand this phrase to say “Thou art my God from the time I was in my mother’s belly”? That would be inconsistent with the other phrases of this verse. That is to say, the other phrases all speak of David after his birth, not while in his mother’s belly. The key word in this phrase is “from”, i.e. “from my mother’s belly”. I believe we must understand the word “from” as saying that God was David’s God once David was taken from his mother’s belly which is what every other phrase of this verse says.
Now let us consider verse 30 of Ps. 22. “And a seed shall serve him…”. In order to understand this verse to teach that life beings at conception, one would have to interpret this verse literally, i.e. the seed will serve. Obviously, a seed will not serve. Therefore we must interpret this “seed” as a metaphor, as suggested in Mr. Jackson’s article quoted above. That is to say, a seed will not serve, a person will serve. Because “seed” is used as a metaphor for a person, this verse says that “a person will serve him”. There is therefore, nothing in this verse to suggest that life begins at conception.
Gen. 3:15 is another verse that has been suggested proves that life begins at conception. That verse reads, “And I will put enmity between thee (Satan) and the woman, and between thy seed (Satan’s seed) and her Seed (Christ)…”. For those who believe that a person begins at conception the implication is that because Christ is referred to as a “Seed”, the “Seed” is a Person, i.e. Christ.
But again, “seed”, as suggested by Mr. Jackson in his article quoted above, is used as a metaphor. That is to say, “Seed” is to be understood figuratively because it was Christ Who was the subject of prophecy, not a Seed. Therefore, “Seed” is used to represent something else. It is used metaphorically to represent the Person of Christ.
If we understand “Seed” in Gen. 3:15 literally that would mean that the Seed would crush the head of Satan. But it was not the Seed that crushed the head of Satan, it was the Person of Christ. Therefore, we must see “Seed” in this verse as representing Christ, not as being Christ. That being the case, this verse does not prove that life begins at conception. (See also Gen. 15:5 and Is. 53:10).
We read in Jer. 1:5, “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee….”. This verse is offered many times as proof that life begins at conception. But what is overlooked is that we read in this verse that God knew Jeremiah before Jeremiah was formed in the belly. That is to say, this verse does not say, as many seem to assume, that God knew Jeremiah at conception, it says that he knew Jeremiah before conception.
What is the point of this verse? I believe the point is that God chose Jeremiah to serve Him even before Jeremiah was conceived. The point is not enhanced, indeed it is diminished if we say that this verse teaches that life begins at conception. That is to say, if we say that this verse teaches that God knew Jeremiah at conception that diminishes the very point of the verse which is that God knew Jeremiah even before he was conceived..
I do not believe that this verse can be used to prove that life begins at conception. I believe that what it does say is that Jeremiah was in the mind of God even before Jeremiah was conceived.
Mr. Jackson wrote, “A Greek word corresponding to the Old Testament zera’ is sperma (seed). It is found 217 times in the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint; LXX), and 44 times in the Greek New Testament. Likewise, it is employed metaphorically for a person; and this “seed” (person) commences at “conception” (see Hebrews 11:11)”.
Let us consider Heb. 11:11 in order to determine if that verses tells us that “seed (person)“commences at conception” as suggested. Heb. 11:11 reads, “Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged Him faithful Who had promised”. Does this say that that which Sara conceived was a “person at conception”? I do not believe so. This verse tells us that Sarah conceived seed. In this case, I believe “seed” refers to a literal seed, not to a metaphorical person as in passages quoted above. The reason for that belief lies in the extremely interesting Greek word translated “conceive.
The Greek word translated “conceive” is “katabole”, the definition of which is defined in Heb. 11:11. I am indebted to an anonymous writer of an article on the inter-net from which I will quote a few paragraphs.
“So, what exactly does the Greek term katabole (the English scientific use=catabolic) mean? In simple terms, it refers to a process of breaking something down and making something new as a result. In order for a woman to conceive, her body must be able to breakdown the male’s sperm in order to incorporate his DNA information (in the sperm’s nucleolus) with her DNA (in the egg’s cytoplasm) in order to conceive a child which has the DNA characteristics of both the father and mother. This is accomplished through a biochemical process called catabolism.
“If the female’s body no longer produces the necessary hormonal chemistry to initiate this catabolic process, she cannot conceive. That is why Sarah, who was way past child bearing years, was able to conceive because God strengthened her body to do it. That is why the English Bible uses the word “conceive” as a translation of the Greek word katabole, because the English word perfectly describes the end result of a foundational biological process, even though the exact dynamics of that biological process was unknown to man at the time Hebrews 11:11 was penned.
“This is yet another Biblical example of “Progressive Revelation” of the Scriptures; it was an established scientific truth documented in the Scriptures by the Holy Spirit many hundreds of years before mankind would be able to comprehend the full meaning of what had been written”.
In short, we learn from Heb. 11:11 that God gave Sarah’s body strength to endure the biochemical process necessary for her to conceive (i.e. to have her egg fertilized). In regard to our study, this verse has nothing to do with when that fertilized egg became a person and, in my opinion, should not be forced to say something it was never meant to say.
Many would insist that the soul enters the body at conception, which would mean that life begins at conception. Let us consider how the Bible defines “soul”.
Gen. 2:7 describes the creation of man. “And the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul”. Note, in this verse, man is two part, i.e. 1) the body from the ground, and 2) the breath of life which was breathed into the body. When these two were combined, man became a living soul. In other words, contrary to traditional teachings, the Bible does not teach that man is three part, it teaches that man is two part, the body and the breath of life. We must see how the words translated “soul” are used in the Bible in order to understand the meaning that the Holy Spirit intended.
The Hebrew word translated “soul” in the verses quoted below is nephesh”. Its first occurrences are found in Genesis, chapter one. Gen. 1:20, “And God said, ‘Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creature (nephesh) that hath life…”. Gen. 1:21, “And God created great whales and every living creature (nephesh) that moveth, which the waters brought forth abundantly…”. Gen. 1:24, “And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth the living creature (nephesh) …the cattle and creeping thing and beast of the earth…”. Gen. 1:30, “And to every beast of the earth, and to every fowl of the air, and to every thing that creepeth upon the earth wherein there is life (nephesh) I have given every green herb for meat…”.
The traditional view of soul is something spiritual that man has and is part of man. But the verses quoted above show something quite different. How can we come to a definition of soul that allows for the fact that the first occurrences of the Hebrew word translated “soul”, are translated “creature” and “life”? In the King James Version of the Bible “nephesh” is translated in 45 different ways. In my opinion, every occurrence of “nephesh” can be translated with one of only three words. These are “being”, “life” or “person“. These three words all have the same connotation and will not contradict the meaning of the others.
Let us go back to the first occurrences in Genesis to see if one of the three words suggested above will adequately translate the Hebrew word “nephesh”. Gen.1:20, “…bring forth the moving beings…”. Gen. 1:21, “….God created every living being….”. Gen. 1:24, “….bring forth the living beings”. In my opinion “beings” is a better translation of “nephesh”.
Now let us go back to the creation of Man. Gen. 2:7 “…and man became a living being“. This translation allows for the word to have the same connotation in all its occurrences, and will not be a stumbling block to the reader when it is applied in the Bible twenty-two times to the lower animals.
Let us come back, once again to the creation of man. When God brought body and spirit together man became a living being. May I be allowed a rather mundane example from every day life to clarify my point? If I combine a pie- crust with a pie filling I get a pie. That is to say, by combining the two things they became something else. So, when God combined the breath of life with the body from the dust of the earth, man became something else, he became a living being.
There is only one Greek word translated “soul” in the New Testament, it is “psuche”. “Psuche” corresponds exactly to the Hebrew word “nephesh” as can be seen by the following comparison. Deut. 6:5 reads, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul (nephesh) and with all your strength”. In Mark 12:30, Christ quotes this passage, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul (psuche) and with all your mind and with all your strength”. We have in this comparison the God-breathed translation of the Hebrew “nephesh” to the Greek “psuche”. We know from this that “psuche” is equivalent to the Hebrew word “nephesh”. (The translation of “nephesh” and “psuche” could, in these verses, be translated “being” and convey the meaning intended).
Therefore, to speak of the soul entering the body at conception (or any other time) is not in keeping with how the Holy Spirit used the Hebrew and Greek words translated “soul”. That being the case, we cannot say that life begins when the soul enters the body.
This paper was written by Joyce Pollard. If you would like to respond please e-mail me at: email@example.com