Human Life—From Conception to Birth
“Life is sacred” is a fundamental principle in the Scripture. We have explained this principle in the series of articles Sanctity of Life. But still, it is equally important to clarify one more thing. If life indeed begins at conception and is sacred as the Scripture testifies, is that which we call “fetus” a human being? And if “fetus” is a human being, when does it receive its soul: at conception or at birth?
In other words, the question: Is “fetus” “it” or a person, because it is the soul that makes a living body a person?
Another question that we need to posit is this: Is there concrete evidence from the Scripture to support our supposition that the unborn child in the mother’s womb is not some impersonal “embryo” or “fetus” but a living human being with a soul? To these questions we will seek answers in the following study.
Note: According to medical science, “embryo” is classified as a multicellular organism formed after conception during the first 8 weeks of human development (after which it is classified as a “fetus”). At least the science admits that the unborn goes through “human development”.
For the purpose of this study, we will focus on a single verse in Gen 25:22, as we will try to show that the question of life from conception to birth is far from trivial and hope to provide a more complex answer below.
The fraternal twins
Life is a gift from the Creator, which we did not deserve to receive, and like a whisper in the wind, life means nothing without Him. Yet, we received it as a free gift, and there is nothing we can do to redeem it—it is a precious and invaluable gift bestowed on us that cannot be paid back.
Life is also a Creator-given privilege man cannot expect, demand, or claim. None of us has done anything to deserve it! We did not ask to be born; we did not know we would be born. We did not know what is to be born. And when we were born, we did not even know we were born, for how long, and born for what.
And when we glance back from the end of life to its course, life appears empty, for it has passed swiftly by and fled away like vapor borne away by the winds of the past. For Yitschak and Rivkah everything began with barrenness.
And Yitschak was forty years old when he took Rivkah as wife, the daughter of Bethu’el the Aramean of Paddan Aram, the sister of Lavan the Aramean. And Yitschak prayed to Yehovah for his wife, because she was barren. And Yehovah answered his prayer, and Rivkah his wife conceived. (Gen 25:20-21)
Yitschak’s marriage, like his father’s, was for a long time childless―for 20 years. Yitschak was 40 when he married Rivkah and 60 when Eisav and Ya’akov were born (Gen 25:26). He prayed to YHVH for his wife Rivkah to conceive because she was barren. After 20 years, YHVH heard his prayer and granted the continuation of the promised seed. Rivkah conceived and the fruit of her womb secured the blessing of the heavenly promise. But there were two seeds in her womb.
When Rebekah conceived, the children already struggled together in her womb. In this she saw a bad sign that the pregnancy would bring misfortune and might not secure the promise, so she cried out, “If so, why is this?”
And within her the children struggled together, and she said, “If so, why is this?” So she went to ask Yehovah. (Gen 25:22)
The narrative of our story presents Rivkah in an active role of a mother, who was concerned about the fulfillment of the promise given to Avraham. Where and how she asked YHVH, is not recorded, and therefore cannot be determined with certainty. Some Rabbis suppose that she prayed to YHVH. Others suppose that she went to Avraham or Melchitsedek (according to the tradition, that was Shem, who was still alive). Nevertheless, it is remarkable that it was Rivkah to whom YHVH decided to reveal the future of her sons, not Yitschak.
It is clear in the Bible that children born by the same father and mother will grow up as part of one nation, like the children of Israel, for example. But that was not the case of Rivkah’s children, who while still in the womb were two separate nations already fighting each other (Gen 25:23). As soon as they came out of the womb, they each developed in a different way, even physically, and took their own paths, as two separate nations.
For example, in Gen 27:15 we are told that Rivkah took the garments of her older son Esav and put them on Ya’akov’ her younger son. But why is it necessary for the Torah to tell us that Esav was the “older” and Ya’akov was the “younger”? Did we not already know that? The words gadol, “older”, and katan, “younger”, are not only used in reference to age but in the context of the garments may also refer to Esav’s much larger physical size compared to Ya’akov’s.
That makes Esav and Ya’akov fraternal twins, not identical. The twins were born from the fertilization of two separate eggs with two different sperm cells of their parents. As a result, Esav and Ya’akov did not have the same DNA code and were genetically distinct sharing half their genomes, just like any other siblings who were born at separate times. That explains why the two brothers developed in two separate nations even from their mother’s womb.
Finally, after nine months of difficult pregnancy, Rivkah gave birth to the twins. The child that came out first was red, hairy and fully developed. For this reason, they named him Esav, “fully made”, but also Edom, “red”, from adamah, “ground”.
Gripping his brother’s ankle in an attempt to protect his head from his brother’s kick, the other appeared shortly after. He was thus named יַעֲקֹב Ya’akov, which means “he takes by the heel”, because he was holding the heel of his brother.
Note: Why was he called יַעֲקֹב Ya’akov, and not just עֵקֶב ekev, or עָקֵב akev, “heel”, if the reason was simply that he was holding on to his heel? The Hebrew word ya’akov is a verb, which can mean “he takes by the heel” referring to Ya’akov’s struggle “to protect” his soft fontanel (membranous gap in the skull of an infant) from the heel of his brother Esav―”he protects” (yud in the beginning makes the verb third person imperfect tense, “he protects”, or “he restrains”, as if holding by the heel).
With the birth of the fraternal twins, the Torah introduces before us a complication by telling us that Esav was the firstborn, and thus primary inheritor, and that Ya’akov was the second. The rest is history as the relation between the two brotherly nations assumed the form of a constant repetitions of servitude, revolt, and reconquest, as prophesied to the mother, which struggle continues even today. Please, read what we have suggested in the article The Palestinians—the Indigenous People in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan concerning the development of the Edomites into “Palestinians”.
But did we notice something peculiar in verse 22 above that relates to our subject?
The narrator of Genesis called the “fetuses” in Rivkah’s womb “children”―banim in Hebrew. Banim (children, but literally “sons”) always refers in the Hebrew text to born children, even figuratively as in “the children of Israel”. But here in our verse, for the first time the word banim is used to refer to an unborn telling us that the unborn child in the mother’s womb is not some impersonal “embryo” or “fetus” but a living human being with a soul. The correctness of this view is placed beyond all doubt by the contents of verse 22, namely, that the fruits of the mother’s womb are explicitly called “children”.
When does “fetus” become a human being?
As we argued in other places, soul is a direct emanation from the Creator. Through man the soul enters this world, and at death it returns to its original source in heaven. The term “soul”, by its frequent use to denote different things in Hebrew, has lost its meaning and turned into a universal term of an abstract reasoning. But in order to obtain a better understand of this important matter of “soul”, we will use the Hebrew words neshamah, nephesh, and ruach instead, as we shall have more to say upon this point presently.
The Ruach of El has made me, and the Neshamah of the Almighty gives me life. (Job 33:4)
Malbim (Rabbi Meïr Leibush ben Yehiel Michel Weisser) is perhaps the most recognized authority on the Book of Job. He identifies a hierarchy of three levels within the soul. But according to other rabbis, the Hebrew Scripture (Tanak) speaks of the human having three souls: neshamah, nephesh, and ruach. In this instance, the higher one is designated as neshamah, which Malbim calls “divine breath”, and that below it is ruch.
The author of the Book of Job clearly identifies in verse 4 above two forces that emanates from Elohim the Almighty: (1) Ruach which forms the human body in the mother’s womb and (2) Neshamah that gives life to the body, which is to say, the consciousness. Both Neshamah and Ruach are the breaths of the Creator transmitted from heaven united echad in YHVH, they are all Elohim “Powers” (see Deu 6:4).
Malbim explains that Ruach is present in unborn human embryos, and it is this creative power of Elohim that shapes the body and clothes it with flesh. Afterwards comes Neshamah of Elohim with its life-giving power. Once the creative work is done, parts of Neshamah and Ruach of YHVH Elohim remain in human, which are neshamah and ruach, respectively, as seen in Job 27:3, and a new soul has been created: nephesh chayiah, “living being”.
And Yehovah Elohim formed the man out of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of lives. And the man became a living being. (Gen 2:7)
And this is the process of creating a new life in the mother’s womb: YHVH forms human through His creative power Ruach, breaths into his nostrils the breath of lives through life-giving power Neshamah, and man becomes a living being, “nephesh”.
We thus understand that ruach in man is the primeval breath associated with the material body. This is not intrinsically immortal, unlike the neshamah which does not die when the body dies, since neshamah is a part of the Eternal One. Upon death of the body, neshamah goes in a stage of existence called Gan Eden (Paradise) until it rises in resurrection and obtains new life in the World to Come. In the resurrection, the process of creation will repeat itself: first, the body is re-created through Ruach, then it comes back to life through Neshamah (see Ezekiel 37 and also what we have said in the article Mystery of Origin of Life – Time of Reckoning Ministry).
It is remarkable in the account of Job 1 & 2 that in the description of the adversary (the satan) and his performing certain actions, it is distinctly stated that this angel has no power over the soul nephesh. This is distinctly expressed in the literal words, “But guard his nephesh” (Job 2:6). Nephesh therefore designates the soul in man which is not his to touch; much less he has power over neshamah and ruach. The satan however has power over those thoughts of man which are known as “evil inclination”.
With that said, when does the soul is breathed into man? There is a debate between the rabbis as to the timing when the Almighty breathes His Ruach and Neshamah into man, namely, when it is decreed that the sperm cell shall be male or female, or when the child is actually formed.
There is no clear answer to this question, as there is no clear answer to the question: “From what time does the satan rule over evil inclination; from the formation of the child, or from birth? If it is from the formation, then the child would be able to rebel in the mother’s womb, as Esav rebelled, for with Elohim anything arbitrary is inconceivable. But if it is from birth, the Scripture supports it too, for it is said in Gen 4:7, “At the door [i.e., where the baby emerges] sin lies in wait”.
As we concluded above, after the birth of the twin brothers, the rest is history as the relation between the two nations of Esav and Ya’akov assumed the form of a constant struggle, as prophesied.
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