The 1984 NIV hit bookshelves a decade before today’s leading Hebrew lexicon, the Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament (HALOT), came out in English. HALOT translates the event in the passage as a miscarriage, even though the original German version of the lexicon did not. But other studies and commentaries, some dating back to the early 1900s, also provided this interpretation. Some even described the drink as having abortive effects. The NIV translation team adopted the miscarriage language in the 2011 NIV update.
Waltke said he found the 2011 NIV change helpful: “I never really understood the passage until I began to realize it could refer to a miscarriage.” Waltke pointed to a 1975 study that explains the phenomenon as a false, hysterical pregnancy, in which the woman shows all the signs of pregnancy but does not have a baby. Such cases, Waltke explained, are a modern psychological reality and could have happened then too: If the woman is under duress and guilty of adultery, her mind will trouble her and her body will act like it’s pregnant. If she’s innocent, her mind won’t trouble her.
Citing this explanation, Waltke said the miscarriage described in verse 27 is not an actual miscarriage but the end of a false pregnancy. What about using the translation to justify abortion? He replied, “A person [who] wants to believe that is going to believe it. It’s very difficult for me to get that out of this passage. Because obviously she becomes swollen not due to sexuality but due to the drinking of the water.”
Waltke admitted, “Maybe ‘miscarry’ isn’t the best translation. But I think it carries the intention of the passage: there will be no baby.” Because of that, he called the translation “sensible.” I emailed him for his further thoughts on the pro-abortion use. He replied, “Never heard of it until you called. Using it to justify abortion shocked me.”
I SPOKE WITH the editor of the English HALOT, Mervyn E. J. Richardson, a former professor at the University of Manchester in England. He still works as an honorary researcher at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
Richardson stood by the introduction of “miscarriage” to the English version of HALOT. In fact, he almost took it a step further. “Perhaps I should have said ‘abortion’ and not ‘miscarriage,’” he said when we spoke via Zoom. The only hesitation? “That raises an ethical issue.”
He admits interpreting the event as a miscarriage or abortion is “speculative” since the language is obscure in the original Hebrew. But he thinks it’s “pretty obvious” and “not taking too much for granted.” Even then, he emphasized he wouldn’t want to use this verse to argue a pro-abortion or pro-life position.
“It’s something I hadn’t thought of until talking with you. I haven’t realized it would be so crucial,” Richardson said. “The focus of the whole thing is punishment much more than producing an abortion or a miscarriage. … Even though I have used ‘miscarriage’—and I’m saying I could have used ‘abortion’ and so on—it’s only one view of this unusual expression.”
He concedes it may have been better to stick with the literal translation that the “thigh will collapse” in the English HALOT entry and simply note that the meaning was uncertain. But at the time, he felt his approach was adequate and didn’t want to expand HALOT’s original German text unnecessarily.