Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Exodus 13: Abortion, Virginia Politics, and the First-Born

Man ... what will a Virginia congressman not say?

At a press conference last week, Republican Bob Marshall explained that disabled children are God's punishment for abortion: "The number of children who are born subsequent to a first abortion with handicaps has increased dramatically. Why? Because when you abort the first born of any, nature takes its vengeance on the subsequent children"--this from CBS.

But when Marshall says "nature," he apparently means "God," and Rachel Maddow reports that the congressman cites Exodus 13:2 as evidence for his claim.

The NRSV translates the relevant passage as follows:

"Consecrate to me all the firstborn; whatever is the first to open the womb among the Israelites, of human beings and animals, is mine." Marshall's stunted argument suggests, I think, that God's claim in Exodus forbids the abortion of the first-born because these children--even more than others--belong to Yahweh.

Pursuing this rationale to its logical conclusion, may we ask, Mr. Marshall, if God would condone the abortion of "non-consecrated" third-born? But I digress ...

Now, I don't mean to wade into the muddy waters of abortion debate: it's a difficult topic, and I respect sane thinkers in both pro-life and pro-choice camps. But I do want to suggest that Mr. Marshall's anti-abortion claim is scientifically dubious, remarkably callous, and--for our purposes--Biblically stupid.

In the fourteen seconds I've been thinking about this ridiculous story, I've come up with three solid reasons (of thousands) why Marshall is dumb to hang his offensive argument on this slim tack of a Biblical support.

First off, while this Exodus passage seems to indicate God's preference for the "consecrated" firstborn, crucial instances in the Tanakh prove that He actually likes second-born children better. For instance, while Abraham loves his first-born son Ishmael, God and Abraham's wife Sarah prefer the second-born Isaac, and the blessing passes on to the latter.

And while Isaac favors his first-born son Esau, God and his wife Rebekah favor the second-born Jacob, and the blessing again passes to the younger son. Jacob, perhaps detecting a pattern, actually curses his own first-born, saying to Reuben, "Unstable as water, you shall no longer excel" (Genesis 49:4). He loves his twelfth-born, Joseph, who will eventually save his family from famine. And the covenental lineage--which produces both King David and, for Christians, Jesus--derives from Jacob's fourth-born, Judah.

Speaking of David, it is his second-born son from his unseemly-got wife Bathsheba who becomes the third great king of Israel, Solomon. And if you don't mind me getting a little edgy, I'd suggest that God himself aborts the first-born child of that union in 2 Samuel 12:15.

Second, in quoting Exodus 13, Mr. Marshall would do well to remember its context. In this chapter, the Israelites have just been sprung free from Egypt after a series of spectacular plagues have been unleashed on their captors. The last of these plagues is, famously, the slaughter of the first-born. And while Egyptians are Egyptians and Israelites are Israelites, the latter might be a little hesitant to "consecrate" their first-born to a wrathful God who just massacred the first-born population of an entire nation.

Finally, Mr. Marshall forgets a seminal fact in referring his audience to Exodus 13:2: Americans are not Israelites. In this chapter, God makes a historically and nationally specific claim on the first-born of the Hebrews--God's chosen people. And while such claims may be understood as still binding on some conservative Jews--both in and outside Israel--they are not binding on, well, anyone else. Christians--and Marshall is a Christian--take the Hebrew Bible as inspired text, but even the most literal-minded do not follow all of Torah law. In fact, if I had a nickel for every Torah law that Marshall himself does not follow, I bet I'd have something like seventeen dollars, and I could go out for a nice dinner tonight.

So you can make all the jaw-dropping statements on abortion and punishment you want, Congressman. Just don't use the Bible to back them up. Say you were divinely inspired instead.


  1. See, JP, this is why you'll _never_ be a Congressman.

  2. I'll have to delete my blog before I run and hope that my three readers can keep my secrets. :)


We here at "Eat the Bible" love your comments--please share.