Author Topic: What is a "fallen thigh"?  (Read 1635 times)

Brian Stoffregen

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What is a "fallen thigh"?
« on: May 08, 2022, 12:26:18 PM »
There was a meme on Facebook that suggested that God gave instructions for causing an abortion in Numbers 5. As usually, I dug deeper into the text that was quoted.


Three times (5:21, 22, 27) the literal image of "thigh falling away and belly swelling" is used.

The Hebrew, יָרֵךְ, can refer to the "thigh," , e.g., where a sword is worn; but it can also be a euphemism for genitals, e.g., "going out of his loins" (Genesis 46:26; Exodus 1:5; Judges 8:30) to refer to offspring. (This suggests that the word might also refer to what the genitals produce.)

In looking at 13 different English translations there are 13 different translations! (While the quotes below are Numbers 5:21 the same language is used in each translation in vv. 22 & 27.) Some of these translations/interpretations are about causing a miscarriage. Others see the language as making the woman infertile. Most use the more literal terms without explaining what they might mean. Whatever it is, it is a divine punishment if the woman has had an affair. The punishment here for adultery is less severe than in Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22 where both parties in the adulterous relationship are put to death.

CEB  induces a miscarriage and your womb discharges
CEV  never be able to give birth to a child
ESV  makes your thigh fall away and your body swell
GNT  cause your genital organs to shrink and your stomach to swell up
LEB  making your hip fall away and your stomach swollen
NABRE  causing your uterus to fall and your belly to swell
NASB  making your thigh shriveled and your belly swollen
NASB95  making your thigh waste away and your abdomen swell
NET  makes your thigh fall away and your abdomen swell
NIV  makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell
NKJV  makes your thigh rot and your belly swell
NRSV  makes your uterus drop, your womb discharge
JPS  causes your thigh to sag and your belly to distend

Conclusion: we can't know for sure what these words mean. It seems likely that יָרֵךְ does not really mean "thigh," but it could refer to a woman's genitals (that fall =? stop working) or to the offspring in the womb who falls out before being developed (= miscarriage).

These verses, like Exodus 21:22 get interpreted as pro-choice or pro-life is based on the beliefs of the translator/interpreter. The language in Hebrew (and also Greek) is ambiguous.
"The church ... had made us like ill-taught piano students; we play our songs, but we never really hear them, because our main concern is not to make music, but but to avoid some flub that will get us in dutch." [Robert Capon, _Between Noon and Three_, p. 148]

Steven W Bohler

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Re: What is a "fallen thigh"?
« Reply #1 on: May 08, 2022, 01:34:14 PM »
There was a meme on Facebook that suggested that God gave instructions for causing an abortion in Numbers 5. As usually, I dug deeper into the text that was quoted.


Three times (5:21, 22, 27) the literal image of "thigh falling away and belly swelling" is used.

The Hebrew, יָרֵךְ, can refer to the "thigh," , e.g., where a sword is worn; but it can also be a euphemism for genitals, e.g., "going out of his loins" (Genesis 46:26; Exodus 1:5; Judges 8:30) to refer to offspring. (This suggests that the word might also refer to what the genitals produce.)

In looking at 13 different English translations there are 13 different translations! (While the quotes below are Numbers 5:21 the same language is used in each translation in vv. 22 & 27.) Some of these translations/interpretations are about causing a miscarriage. Others see the language as making the woman infertile. Most use the more literal terms without explaining what they might mean. Whatever it is, it is a divine punishment if the woman has had an affair. The punishment here for adultery is less severe than in Leviticus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 22:22 where both parties in the adulterous relationship are put to death.

CEB  induces a miscarriage and your womb discharges
CEV  never be able to give birth to a child
ESV  makes your thigh fall away and your body swell
GNT  cause your genital organs to shrink and your stomach to swell up
LEB  making your hip fall away and your stomach swollen
NABRE  causing your uterus to fall and your belly to swell
NASB  making your thigh shriveled and your belly swollen
NASB95  making your thigh waste away and your abdomen swell
NET  makes your thigh fall away and your abdomen swell
NIV  makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell
NKJV  makes your thigh rot and your belly swell
NRSV  makes your uterus drop, your womb discharge
JPS  causes your thigh to sag and your belly to distend

Conclusion: we can't know for sure what these words mean. It seems likely that יָרֵךְ does not really mean "thigh," but it could refer to a woman's genitals (that fall =? stop working) or to the offspring in the womb who falls out before being developed (= miscarriage).

These verses, like Exodus 21:22 get interpreted as pro-choice or pro-life is based on the beliefs of the translator/interpreter. The language in Hebrew (and also Greek) is ambiguous.

A quick reading of the passage did not show anything about the woman in question being pregnant.  Rather, it was about a husband suspecting her of unfaithfulness and using this test as a means of learning from God whether or not his suspicions were correct.  Sort of like the old trial by combat.  To make this passage about causing an abortion is a pretty big leap, I would think.

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Re: What is a "fallen thigh"?
« Reply #2 on: May 08, 2022, 01:49:08 PM »
And if even if it were about abortion, it still wouldn’t make anything like a pro-choice argument.

Dave Benke

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Re: What is a "fallen thigh"?
« Reply #3 on: May 08, 2022, 02:04:15 PM »
Numbers 12 is the account of Aaron and Miriam trying to outstrip Moses.  God's not having any of it, and Miriam becomes leprous, right on the spot.   The plea is then "Let her not be as one dead, of whom the flesh is half consumed when he cometh out of his mother's womb."  The description of leprosy is that of a miscarried child - half consumed and dead.

Moses then prays - וַיִּצְעַ֣ק מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶל־יְהוָ֖ה לֵאמֹ֑ר אֵ֕ל נָ֛א רְפָ֥א נָ֖א לָֽהּ.  It's an interesting passage - Moses then prayed to Yahweh saying "El now heal her now." 

One of my areas of research was the use of the word El for God, and connecting it to other descriptives.  El Elyon, God of the Heights, is the descriptive of the deity used in what we end up calling Jerusalem, which was initially Salem, from whence the high priest Melchizedek came bearing wine and bread to Abraham.  Additionally, Rapha El is a God term meaning God who heals or God is my healer.  And that word "rapha" is used as the kind of healing that does not stop but brings barak/blessing in fertility.  One of the four archangels is Raphael.   So those four Hebrew words, El na rapa na la were used among the Israelites in liturgies/prayers at the time of miscarriage, for the womb to be healed. 

This is not, it should be emphasized, about abortion.  At all.  What it is about is the seriousness with which the Israelites/cult of worship took concerning reproduction and the health of women in order to have or continue to have children.

The phrase is an ancient prayer for the healing of women who have suffered miscarriage or difficulty in bearing children for that affliction to be taken away. 

Dave Benke
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Rev. Edward Engelbrecht

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Re: What is a "fallen thigh"?
« Reply #4 on: May 08, 2022, 03:42:26 PM »
I'm looking at Numbers 5:22, consulting grammar. "When the Lord makes your thigh fall away and your body swell" (ESV). There is an infinitive construct governed by a preposition followed by a participle and a verb that only appears three times in the OT, all examples right here. So there is no range of use that allows for further understanding.

The nouns in the passage might be euphemistic or not. Very difficult passage. So most translators give a literal reading and there's not much more one can do with it. Perhaps further manuscript evidence may come to light some day and clarify this ritual.

The Mari archives apparently record a ritual with dirty water and an oath before the gods. The ritual appears to be more of a psychological ordeal than a medical application. The Mari example is about settling a disputed case rather than a case of jealousy. The party that gets sick from the dirty water loses the ordeal.

In the biblical example, if the woman gets sick, it implies guilt. If she doesn't get sick, it implies innocence from the suspicion.
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Brian Stoffregen

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Re: What is a "fallen thigh"?
« Reply #5 on: May 08, 2022, 07:54:29 PM »
A quick reading of the passage did not show anything about the woman in question being pregnant.  Rather, it was about a husband suspecting her of unfaithfulness and using this test as a means of learning from God whether or not his suspicions were correct.  Sort of like the old trial by combat.  To make this passage about causing an abortion is a pretty big leap, I would think.


I tend to agree. It seems more likely that the "punishment" could be the inability to have children. Or, really far-fetched, elephantiasis, where the calf swells up to be as thick as a thigh. The thigh fell down around the calf. (Creative interpretation.)


The NIV2011 surprised me a little, by using "miscarry," because it tends to be a more conservative translation (especially the original 1983 version). I just checked NIV83. It has "your thigh to waste away and your abdomen to swell" in the text, but a footnote has, "Or causes you to have a miscarrying womb and barrenness"
« Last Edit: May 08, 2022, 08:04:14 PM by Brian Stoffregen »
"The church ... had made us like ill-taught piano students; we play our songs, but we never really hear them, because our main concern is not to make music, but but to avoid some flub that will get us in dutch." [Robert Capon, _Between Noon and Three_, p. 148]

Rev. Edward Engelbrecht

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Re: What is a "fallen thigh"?
« Reply #6 on: May 08, 2022, 08:35:31 PM »
I would say the NIV had conservative translators but not in all cases.
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Brian Stoffregen

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Re: What is a "fallen thigh"?
« Reply #7 on: May 08, 2022, 08:40:10 PM »
Numbers 12 is the account of Aaron and Miriam trying to outstrip Moses.  God's not having any of it, and Miriam becomes leprous, right on the spot.   The plea is then "Let her not be as one dead, of whom the flesh is half consumed when he cometh out of his mother's womb."  The description of leprosy is that of a miscarried child - half consumed and dead.

Moses then prays - וַיִּצְעַ֣ק מֹשֶׁ֔ה אֶל־יְהוָ֖ה לֵאמֹ֑ר אֵ֕ל נָ֛א רְפָ֥א נָ֖א לָֽהּ.  It's an interesting passage - Moses then prayed to Yahweh saying "El now heal her now." 

One of my areas of research was the use of the word El for God, and connecting it to other descriptives.  El Elyon, God of the Heights, is the descriptive of the deity used in what we end up calling Jerusalem, which was initially Salem, from whence the high priest Melchizedek came bearing wine and bread to Abraham.  Additionally, Rapha El is a God term meaning God who heals or God is my healer.  And that word "rapha" is used as the kind of healing that does not stop but brings barak/blessing in fertility.  One of the four archangels is Raphael.   So those four Hebrew words, El na rapa na la were used among the Israelites in liturgies/prayers at the time of miscarriage, for the womb to be healed. 

This is not, it should be emphasized, about abortion.  At all.  What it is about is the seriousness with which the Israelites/cult of worship took concerning reproduction and the health of women in order to have or continue to have children.

The phrase is an ancient prayer for the healing of women who have suffered miscarriage or difficulty in bearing children for that affliction to be taken away. 

Dave Benke


Interesting: the word for "womb" in Num 12:12, רֶחֶם, is not the same one used in Num 5:21, 22, & 27, בֶטֶן. This second word can also refer to "belly," or "abdomen" or even "body." The first only seems to refer to "womb." It is used in Hosea 9:14 of a "miscarrying womb." (The second word is used in Hosea 9:11, 16; 12:3.)
"The church ... had made us like ill-taught piano students; we play our songs, but we never really hear them, because our main concern is not to make music, but but to avoid some flub that will get us in dutch." [Robert Capon, _Between Noon and Three_, p. 148]

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Re: What is a "fallen thigh"?
« Reply #8 on: August 16, 2022, 01:46:26 PM »
On Sunday I had occasion to teach on Numbers 5 while presenting on the topic of abortion. You can hear the discussion starting at 28:00 in the following YouTube video.

https://youtu.be/nBHYwSW2URg

Afterwards I checked to make sure the passage did not include the Hebrew term for miscarrying, shakal. The latter term is found in Genesis, Samuel, Kings, Hosea, and Malachi---in other words, it appears broadly over time in Hebrew literature, though not often. It does not occur in Numbers 5. If the writer intended miscarriage, he appears to have overlooked the most obvious way of communicating that.

Additionally, dusty water could certainly cause gastric distress but is unlikely to cause a miscarriage since a baby resides in organ separate from the digestive system. If dusty water was known to cause miscarriage, the ancients would likely have resorted to it rather than other, more life-threatening means of abortion.

I think there is really nothing to commend Numbers 5 as a basis for abortion.
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Brian Stoffregen

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Re: What is a "fallen thigh"?
« Reply #9 on: August 16, 2022, 04:48:26 PM »
On Sunday I had occasion to teach on Numbers 5 while presenting on the topic of abortion. You can hear the discussion starting at 28:00 in the following YouTube video.

https://youtu.be/nBHYwSW2URg

Afterwards I checked to make sure the passage did not include the Hebrew term for miscarrying, shakal. The latter term is found in Genesis, Samuel, Kings, Hosea, and Malachi---in other words, it appears broadly over time in Hebrew literature, though not often. It does not occur in Numbers 5. If the writer intended miscarriage, he appears to have overlooked the most obvious way of communicating that.

Additionally, dusty water could certainly cause gastric distress but is unlikely to cause a miscarriage since a baby resides in organ separate from the digestive system. If dusty water was known to cause miscarriage, the ancients would likely have resorted to it rather than other, more life-threatening means of abortion.

I think there is really nothing to commend Numbers 5 as a basis for abortion.

How do you understand the Hebrew phrases "the thigh falls away" and "the belly swells" in Numbers 5:21, 22, 27?

Looking at numerous English translations, there are many different interpretations of those phrases. "Miscarry" is one of the ways. "Becoming sterile" is another. "Shrinking genitals" still a third.

I note that נָפַל = "to fall" can be used like in English to refer to death, "he fell in battle."

Good discussion in the video.

Another issue you could add to the "living together" situation happened to a friend. She discovered that her 14-year-old daughter had a boyfriend and they were sleeping together. How could the mother condemn or even criticize that behavior when she was doing the same thing with her boyfriend? (The older couple have married and remain married.)
« Last Edit: August 16, 2022, 04:53:50 PM by Brian Stoffregen »
"The church ... had made us like ill-taught piano students; we play our songs, but we never really hear them, because our main concern is not to make music, but but to avoid some flub that will get us in dutch." [Robert Capon, _Between Noon and Three_, p. 148]

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Re: What is a "fallen thigh"?
« Reply #10 on: August 16, 2022, 11:53:59 PM »
Could also mean the swelling of calves and ankles to thigh-like proportions brought about by Congestive Heart Failure (CHF).
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Brian Stoffregen

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Re: What is a "fallen thigh"?
« Reply #11 on: August 17, 2022, 01:17:29 AM »
Could also mean the swelling of calves and ankles to thigh-like proportions brought about by Congestive Heart Failure (CHF).


Perhaps, but it is more likely that יָרֵךְ = "thigh, loins, side, base," in this context is a euphemism for genitals as it is in a few other biblical verses. "Going out of his loins," is an idiom that refers to offspring (Gen 46:26; Ex 1:5; Jdg 8:30;
"The church ... had made us like ill-taught piano students; we play our songs, but we never really hear them, because our main concern is not to make music, but but to avoid some flub that will get us in dutch." [Robert Capon, _Between Noon and Three_, p. 148]

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Re: What is a "fallen thigh"?
« Reply #12 on: August 17, 2022, 09:14:34 AM »
I've drafted a fuller description of the passage. For the sake of formatting, I posted it as a blog article. You can find it at the link below:

https://churchhistoryreview.org/2022/08/17/the-law-of-jealousy/
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Rev. Edward Engelbrecht

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Re: What is a "fallen thigh"?
« Reply #13 on: August 18, 2022, 05:27:01 AM »
Here is the commentary portion:

The Law of Jealousy (Numbers 5)

First, one should note that the passage follows general teaching about confession of sins and appropriate sacrifice for sins (Numbers 5:5–9). This is also the stated goal of the law of jealousy (v. 15). So the law of jealousy flows naturally from the previous teaching about confession of sins.

The stated goal of the law is to bring a woman’s guilt to remembrance (v. 15) if she has committed adultery. In other words, the point of the ritual is to reveal guilt. This is completely characteristic of a trial by ordeal. In Mesopotamian culture, a suspected woman was thrown into a river to see if she would survive. This was practiced in Babylon, Assyria, Elam, Nuzu, Mari, and Carchemish (Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel, 1:157–58). For example, “If the finger was pointed at the wife of a seignior because of another man, but she was not been caught while lying with the other man, she shall throw herself into the river for the sake of her husband. . . . If that woman did not take care of her person, but has entered the house of another, they shall prove it against that woman and throw her into the water” (Code of Hammurabi 133a; The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures, James B. Pritchard, ed. p. 153). If she survived the river, she was deemed innocent of the charge.

The amount of offering is a tenth of an ephah (an omer, a day’s quantity of bread; Exodus 16:16). The same measure was used for the daily grain offering at the tabernacle (Leviticus 6:20) and as a sacrifice for sin for the poor (Leviticus 5:11–13), the latter being the more comparable situation to the offering for jealousy.

THE RITUAL PREAMBLE

The preamble describes what will happen to the woman: (1) she will be brought “before the Lord.” According to Josephus, the rite took place at the temple gate, which was also a public place (Antiquities bk. 3, ch. 11, para. 6) subjecting her to public scrutiny. Mishnah Sotah 1:4 states that the ritual took place at the great court of the temple. (2) The priest will let her hair down, removing its covering, perhaps as a lover might have done (cf. Song of Solomon 4:1; 6:5; 1 Corinthians 11:6). Philo understands this act as symbolizing the laying bare of her soul (Cherubim pt. 1, V, para. 17). (3) She will hold the offering in her hands, which may have held a lover, before a handful is offered to the Lord. (4) She will agree to drink “water of bitterness,” which contains holy water from the bronze laver, tabernacle dust, and ink (v. 23, likely made from carbon/charcoal). (5) She will agree that she should be cursed, if guilty. Each action here is intended to bring intense psychological pressure on an unfaithful woman. The drink has unpleasant features (taste of dust and inky appearance) but would not have the power of a drug. Its power is in the psychological pressure it applies.

Verses 21–22 are curse formulas, wishing or praying punishment upon someone who is guilty. The Old Testament includes numerous examples of such curses. The first part of the curse makes a guilty woman the object of public derision (cf. Jeremiah 24:9; 29:18). The second part of the curse wishes physical harm upon a guilty woman. The language here (occurring nowhere else in the Old Testament) seems intentionally ambiguous, which may enhance its psychological effect so that the woman worries about what will happen to her. Philo understood the curse mildly to mean she would experience loss of pleasure and appetite (Allegorical Interpretation III, LI, 148). Josephus states that her right thigh would be put out of joint and her belly would swell with dropsy/edema. As a result, she would die in a reproachful manner (Antiquities bk. 3, ch. 11, para. 6). Cultural historian Roland De Vaux suggests the curse means that she will be barren forever (Ancient Israel 1:157–58; cf. Deuteronomy 28:17).

THE RITUAL ENACTED

The offering functions as a prayer for the success of the rite. It also costs the husband who brings the accusation—he doesn’t get to do this for free. The amount of the offering is relatively small: an omer, a day’s quantity of bread flour. However, if the husband is wrong about his accusation, he may experience legal penalty (cf. v. 31) such as a sin offering. The shame before the Lord and the community will fall on him.

For the innocent woman, the water does not bring pain and suffering. Why would it? It is just water, dust, and ink. She will go back to her husband under no suspicion and the two shall have children together without him fearing that they belong to another man. Josephus states that the innocent woman would bear a male child in the tenth month after being exonerated! (Antiquities bk. 3, ch. 11, para. 6).

For the guilty woman, the rite causes intense suffering. Having noted the suffering as a sign of guilt, the priest and husband may report her guilt to the people of Israel, who will regard her as accursed. Further penalty is not explicitly stated. It is unlikely that she would be stoned for the adultery since there are insufficient witnesses for such a steep penalty (cf. Numbers 5:13; Deuteronomy 22:13–22). She might be divorced (Deuteronomy 24:1–4) and live apart, barren under the stigma of the curse (Numbers 5:21).

CONCLUDING SUMMARY

Trial by ordeal may seem strange to modern minds but such practices have served in many cultures across time. Benefits of the law and ritual are that they may reveal guilt and bring punishment; they may also exonerate the woman, free her from accusation, and save the marriage.
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Re: What is a "fallen thigh"?
« Reply #14 on: August 18, 2022, 05:47:42 AM »
So there is nothing in the passage to suggest that priests were serving abortive cocktails at the temple. Water, dust, and carbon ink won't cause a miscarriage. If they could, surgical abortion would never have developed.

The ancient Jewish writers---who were pretty good with Hebrew---give us the best look at how Israel understood what a fallen thigh meant.
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