How was miscarriage and abortion understood in the ancient Near East?
There are many laws and perspectives concerning spontaneous, accidental, and intentional miscarriages in the ancient Near East. Miscarriage is the expulsion of a fetus from the womb before it reaches maturity. The Bible calls spontaneous miscarriages “ones who have fallen out” (nēpel) or the one who has never seen daylight (Job 3:16, Ps 58:9 ). An indirect reference to miscarriage is present when Miriam’s skin disease is described in graphic terms: “Let her not be like one dead, who emerges from his mother’s womb with half his flesh eaten away” (Num 12:12 [JPS]). Similar descriptions of miscarriages occur in the Babylonian omen literature, which describes giving birth to individual body parts and membranes (Šumma izbu 1.28-40).
Women in antiquity tried to prevent miscarriage by employing sympathetic magic. Magnetite rocks were popular talismans as the magnetic force was thought to keep the fetus inside. Texts also describe tying knots to bind the fetus to the woman and then loosening the knots for birth (see Scurlock, p. 139). Women might also bury potsherds under the house as a means of keeping the fetus from spontaneously exiting the women’s “house” (i.e., her womb).
Parents grieved over the pain of miscarriage. When the Mesopotamian hero Gilgamesh descends to the netherworld, he asks his friend Enkidu if he has seen his stillborn children. Enkidu’s affirmative answer provides comfort. Mesopotamian prayers attest to the grief parents experience when a pregnancy is lost. One heart-breaking text was commissioned by a husband, watching his wife try to deliver a stillborn fetus (“the one who is dead inside of her”). His grief over the lost child is compounded when his wife dies in childbirth (K. 890).
Ancient Near Eastern law codes require payment for the loss of a fetus that occurred because of an accident (Code of Hammurabi 209–214; Middle Assyrian Laws A 21, A 50-53; Hittite Laws 17–18). Exod 21:22-25 also requires payment for a fetus lost due to an accident. The law addresses what happens when two people fight and one of them accidentally pushes a pregnant woman and causes her child to fall out (miscarry). The law states that if no injury comes to the woman, then the husband of the once-pregnant woman may impose a monetary fine on the man who pushed his wife as repayment for the loss of the fetus. If the woman is injured, then the law demands lex talions, “life for life,” “eye for eye,” “tooth for tooth,” and so forth. According to Exodus, the woman and the fetus do not have the same status. Death to the woman results in death to the guilty part, while the death of the fetus (premature birth) is recompensed with money.
Intentional miscarriages, or abortions, were also known in the ancient world. In Assyria abortion was considered a heinous crime, perhaps because it interfered with the property rights of the husband. The Assyrian law code states that if a woman is found trying to abort her fetus, she should be impaled and left unburied (Middle Assyrian Law A 53). Abortions could also be caused intentionally, by other people. In Babylonia, a sorcerer could cast a spell on a woman causing her to miscarry. A woman could counteract this with a ritual to the god Assur. The biblical text says next to nothing about mothers intentionally aborting their fetuses. Jeremiah’s lament that he wishes he had been killed in the womb (Jer 20:17) might indicate abortion of this manner was known in ancient Israel, but it could also mean he wished he were spontaneously aborted. There are no biblical laws specifically referring to abortion, although the biblical ritual for the Sotah, which involves a woman accused of adultery, may refer to abortion (Num 5:11-31).