For sure, many Christians felt so deeply about the abortion issue that they saw no alternative but to vote Republican right on down the ticket. For them, the intrinsic value of every unborn child demands defense regardless of other political or economic factors at play.
The disregard of how economic justice plays into our current struggle with abortion also works its way into a flat understanding of the biblical passages most held up as definitive teaching on abortion. Of course, the Bible says nothing directly about abortion, but it does offer some definitive declarations about the value of human life from the womb onwards. Biblically, however, womb ethics is inextricable from womb economics.
The “flat” reading of Scripture has been on the American Christian landscape for several centuries now. It is not just a problem with a “literal” reading of the text, but more broadly with a dissected reading of it. In my discussion here, we need to understand that the womb is not just a metaphor for how the world works, but also a model of it. In the ancient Near Eastern world, four metaphors were especially employed to relate social interaction with the cosmos. Thus the way the world came into being and how it operates is modeled by the womb, an artist’s creation, a cultivated field or orchard, or a battle between chaos and order.
In his book Wisdom in Revolt: Metaphorical Theology in the Book of Job, Leo Purdue explains how the ancients relied on these metaphors in a similar way as economists and scientists develop models to understand and anticipate environmental and social interactions. Dominant metaphors are not just word plays. They are critical conduits to communicate the ruling ideology of those in power. Metaphor as model is just as powerful today as it was in the ancient world. They have the capability to determine economic outcomes, whether positively or negatively, as some economists argue.
With this in mind, we can now delve into the particular use of the womb as a metaphor/model of the way things work.
Several biblical passages affirm the near divine value of human life from the womb (Ps 22:10–11, Gen 1:24–27, Ps 8:8–10). Even more so, some passages speak of God’s intimate involvement in the womb.
For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb…My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth, your eyes beheld my unformed substance. (Ps 139:13–16).
A passage such as this undeniably supports a view of God’s involvement in human life from conception onwards. But this very notion of a divinely initiated and formed human in the womb derives almost entirely out of a deep anxiety fostered by gross economic disparity enforced by violence.
The primary referent to “man” being wonderfully made in the womb is a king. It refers to an especially favored human capable of ruling and in hope of restoring justice and righteousness. The restoration of equity centered on a clean slate proclamation—the cancelling of personal debts and the return of indentured servants to their own land—was no fanciful ideal, but the conventional expectation of ruling elites derived from the actual practice of monarchs in the Bronze Age. Andurarum, as it was called, could occur annually at a New Year festival or at the coronation of a new king.
The expectation for rulers in the ancient Mesopotamian world to act righteously was universal, and nearly all managerial elites whether small or great claimed such attributes even if they were notoriously otherwise. Nebuchadnezzar, the destroyer of Jerusalem, claimed to be a defender of the marginalized and enslaved, rectifying a situation where people “devoured one another like dogs, the strong robbed the weak.” Jeremiah was one prophet who concurred with such sentiment (Jer 12).
The “marvelously formed in the womb” verses in the Psalms (Ps 139) primarily speak of an anticipated ruler who can restore social equilibrium. They speak primarily of ruling males who manage both labor and resources.
The expectation to administrate righteousness and justice proved a driving factor in the prophetic confrontation with Israel’s ruling elites. With the increasing failure of kings, the same notion of a favored one in the womb destined to restore order transferred to prophets and to the people of Israel (Jer 1:5, Isa 44:2). But in all such references, the fundamental concern is for the restoration of economic equity.
God’s self-designation as a “redeemer,” a canceller of debt, is qualified by his capability to “form you (Israel) in the womb. The nurturing of a child in the womb by its mother before it is born models how God intricately develops conditions for just change even before they are evident. The primary encouragement of this imagery resides solely in God’s resolute determination to cancel debt (Isa 44:22), restore land (Isa 44:26–28) and rise up righteous rulers.
Most important for my discussion here, God’s intimate crafting of a chosen one in the womb communicates His active intervention in the ruthless and unjust practices of wealth creation and distribution.
There are biblical passages that apply to a more general sense of every human, but even here, and especially here, the womb becomes a primary model of human equity.
The womb demonstrates the equity of all humans in humility. This is especially emphasized with the story of Jacob and Esau coming from the same womb. (Gen 25:24, 38:27, Hos 12:4). The outrage of Jacob’s seizure of property rights (played out in the sorted history of Judah and Edom) is highlighted in the story by the violation happening in a place where it especially ought not to—the womb.
From the mouth of Job and the preacher of Ecclesiastes, the womb becomes the primary model for addressing unjust wealth accumulation and distribution. In Job’s final argument, he defends his right treatment of the poor under his supervision on the basis of womb economic justice. God made both he and the poor in the womb (Job 31:15). In womb economics, all have the right to just economic treatment from the womb, i.e. the right to life, on the basis of the equity of humans in the womb.
The preacher of Ecclesiastes applies womb economic justice not only to a just distribution of wealth post-womb, but equally to the deleterious effect of wealth accumulation on the rich (Ecc 5:13). In imagery reminiscent of Jesus’ parable of the rich fool (Lk 12:16–21), the rich man steals land through debt peonage (Ecc 5:9) only to have death steal it back. Womb economics ought to instruct every man to avoid seizing more than he needs and hoarding more than he can consume (Ecc 5:10–15).
The fertility metaphor, womb economics, is but one of several dominant metaphors employed in the ancient Near Eastern world to connect economic renewal to a restoration of societal equity and order that has cosmic implications. In this regard, it is readily connected to creation and restoration, of decisive intervention in chaos, of the bringing forth of light out of darkness, just like when an infant moves from the dark recesses of the womb to the light of day (Isa 45:7, Gen 1:1–3).
Divinities form a savior in the recesses of the womb for the primary purpose of a regime change. The new king is expected to break the yoke, the bar, and the rod of oppression seized in violence and establish in its place a kingdom of righteousness and justice (Isa 9:6–7).
The Bible’s womb to the tomb ethic (Ecc 3:16–20) ought to guide both our pro-life ethic and economics. Biblically, you cannot have one without the other. Equity begins at conception. In the womb, all develop in a nurturing atmosphere free from invaders. The womb serves as a model that all are conceived in humility and best nurtured in equity. What happens inside the womb should inform every aspect of human life outside it. One can only be pro-life if one embraces life as gift.
The biblical model of womb economic justice needs to find its way into our current morass over abortion, at least for Christians. Properly understood “pro-life” means for one thing that seizures of livelihood outside of the womb are as violent as invasive procedures inside it.
Leo G. Perdue, Wisdom in Revolt: Metaphorical Theology in the Book of Job. Journal For the Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 112. Sheffield: Sheffield Press.
Wool felt painting by Gayla Ruckhaus