Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

adultery unfaithful wife jealous husband

There are several passages in the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, that seem odd to us who are reading them thousands of years after they were written. As well as seeming odd, a few also seem unfair to women. Perhaps one of the strangest passages in the Hebrew Bible is Numbers 5:11-31 which outlines the ordeal of bitter water. This ordeal was designed to test the fidelity of a wife who was suspected by her jealous husband of being unfaithful.

(Note that the Hebrew text, unlike the NIV translation, is not clear about whether the woman being tested is pregnant or not. Whatever the case, the idea that God gives and takes away life is a basic tenet of Jewish and Christian faith. This passage is not about people inducing an abortion.)

The ordeal of bitter water must have been humiliating and distressing for innocent (and guilty) wives, but just how fair or unfair was this trial? Sarah O’Connor, who has an MA in biblical studies from Denver Seminary, discusses Numbers 5:11-31 on her blog here, and I have copied it below with her permission.


Cheating Wives, the Double Standard and a Bizarre Bible Passage

by Sarah J. O’Connor

I don’t know why I have a fascination with strange Bible passages, but I do. They represent a challenge, a puzzle I feel obligated to solve, at least in my own mind. One of these is the ancient Israelite process used to determine whether a married woman had messed around a bit on the side, found in Numbers 5:11-31.

Maybe you’ve read it, though I don’t blame you if you haven’t. Tucked away in a less popular part of Scripture, undoubtedly getting fewer likes than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, we encounter the magical test for the notorious unfaithful wife. What was a husband to do if he suspected his right-hand woman but wasn’t fortunate enough to catch her in the act?

Well, the one thing he was not permitted to do was to take matters into his own hands.[1] No, he had to take her to the priest.

If a man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him so that another man has sexual relations with her, and this is hidden from her husband and her impurity is undetected (since there is no witness against her and she has not been caught in the act), and if feelings of jealousy come over her husband and he suspects his wife and she is impure – or if he is jealous and suspects her even though she is not impure – then he is to take his wife to the priest. Numbers 5:11b-15a

The woman was brought to the priest, true enough, but the priest was not permitted to take things into his own hands either.

The priest shall bring her and have her stand before the Lord. Numbers 5:16.

No human judge, jury, executioner here. No support for community organized honor killings of wayward women in this Middle Eastern society. The woman was to stand trial before the Lord, the one being who could and would judge her fairly, who knew what had and had not occurred and who was and was not guilty as charged.[2]

The only case in biblical law, as it turns out, where God all-knowing, rather than an earthly representative, was to preside over a human court.[3]

This type of trial by ordeal was a typical ancient practice found in various law codes of the era. The person’s guilt or innocence was determined by a physical test rather than by the usual court proceedings with testimony and witnesses. If the accused survived the ordeal without any negative effects, they were vindicated by the gods. If not, they were guilty.

Babylon had a similar law that involved tossing the suspected adulteress into a raging river.[4] In the unusual case that she survived, the Babylonians believed the gods had intervened to prove her innocence. If she perished, the gods had demonstrated she was guilty as charged.[5]

In other words, guilty until proven innocent.

The biblical trial was different. Like Hester Prynne, the protagonist of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter, the suspect woman stood with loosened hair, held an offering in her hands, and agreed to the outcome of the ordeal with an “amen, amen.”[6] Then she was given holy water to drink. Mixed into this water were symbolic elements: a bit of dust from the tabernacle floor, along with the curses she would experience if proven guilty, “washed” from the scroll upon which the priest had written them.

The obscure curses, which functioned as both evidence and punishment,[7] had to do with a “falling thigh and swelling abdomen.” Right. Based on the reference to retaining “seed” in verse 28, however, many scholars think “thigh” and “abdomen” are euphemisms for reproductive organs.[8] Here’s how the NIV translates:

If she has made herself impure and been unfaithful to her husband, this will be the result: When she is made to drink the water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering, it will enter her, her abdomen will swell and her womb will miscarry, and she will become a curse. If, however, the woman has not made herself impure, but is clean, she will be cleared of guilt and will be able to have children. Numbers 5:27-28 NIV.

Now we’re talking. If she was innocent, the water would have no effect on current or future pregnancies. Which, by the way, was the most likely outcome.[9] There was nothing in the water, the dust or the “curses” that was toxic: no arsenic, cyanide or strychnine; no hemlock, nightshade or curare.[10]

Innocent until proven guilty.

Think about that for a minute. In a world dominated by men, where a man’s honor was often valued above a woman’s life, the Bible stands out in its protection of women.

Remember that the next time you read Numbers. If you ever do, I mean.

On the other hand, if our biblical Hester was guilty she experienced divine judgment that resulted in a miscarriage and, potentially, loss of the ability to bear children at all.[11] A heavy sentence, for sure, in a culture that valued a woman’s reproductive function above just about everything else.

Yet there was no judgment by human beings, no sentence handed down by a jury of men. And no death penalty, no capital punishment, no honor killing.[12]

Which is another very important point.

The most important fact about this trial, however, is revealed in the divine punishment: loss of the baby. This statute was not really about morality or marital unity: it was about inheritance.[13] The husband became suspicious because his wife was pregnant and he had reason to doubt the baby was his.[14] In a culture where land was gold, where you worked hard to provide for your heirs, where all of this was a ridiculously big deal, messing with the family line was a grievous sin indeed.

A man had a right to know if a child was truly his.[15] His wife’s bulging belly made the identity of the mother obvious, but was he the father? How could he know for sure? An expectant mother, on the other hand, knows the identity of both parents. At least she ought to.

Before the era of DNA testing, our ancient dad was at a disadvantage. Though it seems like it on first reading, this is not just one more example of the double standard. Not at all. It was a leveling of the playing field, a means to provide a husband with the information his wife already possessed.

But it did so in a way that, compared to its era and surrounding cultures, was protective of women.[16]

Now that’s something to remember.


Footnotes

[1] Dorothy Irvin, “Numbers,” in IVP Women’s Bible Commentary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2002), 77.

[2] Roy Gane, Leviticus, Numbers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 525.

[3] Gane, 525-26.

[4] R. Dennis Cole, “Numbers,” in Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament, vol. 5, ed. John H. Walton (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 348.

[5] Baruch A. Levine, Numbers 1-20 (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 204.

[6] Katherine Doob Sakerfeld, “Numbers,” in Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998), 53.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 201.

[9] Cole, 348.

[10] Irvin, 77.

[11] Levine, 198; Jacob Milgrom, Numbers (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1990), 350.

[12] Milgrom, 350; Irvin, 77.

[13] Irvin, 76.

[14] Baruch A. Levine, Numbers 1-20, (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 193.

[15] Elaine Adler Goodfriend, “Adultery,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 1, ed. David Noel Freedman, (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 82.

[16] Irvin, 77.


Further Reading

An article on the tractate Sotah, which deals with the ordeal, is on the Jewish Women’s Archive website, here. This Mishnaic tractate states that the ordeal was abolished by the Sanhedrin in the first century CE under the leadership of Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai. Increasing numbers of divorce was the reason behind the abolition. See Sotah 3.14.

James McGrath makes the interesting observation that the dust (Greek: γῆ) Jesus was writing in (when a woman caught in adultery was made to stand before him), was dust on the floor of the temple or temple courts (John 8:2-3, 8). Compare this with the dust in Numbers 5:17 in the Septuagint, which is put in the water for the suspected woman to drink: “the dust (γῆ) which is on the floor of the tent/ tabernacle of testimony.” See James F. McGrath, “The Writing on the Floor,” Biblical Archaeology Review (Spring, 2021): 72-74.

Related Articles

The Portrayal of Women in the Bible and Biblical Inspiration
Beauty, Marriage, Motherhood, and Ministry
Deuteronomy 22 and Marrying your Rapist
Periods of Purification after Childbirth (Leviticus 12:1-8)
God on Divorce (Malachi 2:16)

artigos em portugues sobre igualdade entre homens e mulheres no lar e na igreja

29 thoughts on “Jealousy and Bitter Water (Numbers 5:11-31)

  1. I’ve often paused at this passage. The blog post was very helpful – many thanks!

  2. I came across this in my daily reading recently, as I have several times over the last few years. I always read it with a bit of inward recoil. This is very helpful to put it into perspective, showing how it actually stands as favorable to women in a certain way. You even address why there is no corollary law for women who suspect infidelity — cultural context is king as usual. Thanks for these thoughts.

    1. “Inward recoil” is exactly how I have felt about this passage. But, as you say, cultural context is king. And drinking water mixed with tabernacle sweepings is surely to be preferred than to be thrown into a raging river.

  3. Thanks, Ben S., for sharing this quotation with me on Facebook.

    “The possible results of the trial are indicated by two phrases. If the woman is innocent, she is expected to bear seed; if she is guilty ‘her belly will swell and her thigh will fall’. The ‘bearing of seed’ indicates that the fertility of the woman is at stake; the most probable explanation of the guilty woman’s punishment is that she suffered a prolapsed uterus. There is no reason to suspect that the woman was pregnant at the time of the trial…”
    Tivka Frymer-Kensky, “The strange case of the suspected Sotah (Numbers V 11-31),” Vetus Testamentum 34.1 (1984): 11-26.

    Also, in the Protoevangelium of James, also known as the Infancy Gospel of James, both Joseph and Mary are given bitter water to drink because the temple priests suspect both Joseph and Mary of having illicit sex. This early Christian writing, dating from around 150-200 CE is considered fanciful fiction by some Christians with only a few brief statements in agreement with the biblical account of Mary and Jesus’ birth, but it is respected in the Orthodox Church. See paragraph 16 here: https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0847.htm

  4. Here’s what I think about this priest-made potion. I think the water of bitterness is salty well water that may also contain heavy metals and is known to cause miscarriages (see, e.g., 2 Kings 2:19-22). It might even be plain old Dead Sea water. Now, either God protected the righteous woman from the ill effects of the water or the righteous woman drank it confidently which made her sick and she threw it up. The guilty woman drank it slowly so that it stayed down and she suffered its ill effects.

    1. I prefer not to read too much into the physical properties of the constituents of the potion. I think they have figurative significance.

      1. Indeed. The figurative significance is that the dust from the floor of the tabernacle is being used ceremonially to represent the dust Moses made of the golden calf (Israel’s adultery), which he made the Israelites drink in Exodus 32.

        This was not an attempt at abortifacient witchcraft or cruelty. This was a very solemn ritual done to give weight to the magnitude of unfaithfulness in marriage and unfaithfulness to God.

        Every Israelite would have understood the symbolic significance of drinking dust from the floor of God’s footstool in water.

        1. That’s a very interesting idea, Amy.

          I looked at Exodus 32:20 and at Numbers 5:17 in the Hebrew text and was hoping to see similar language used for the powder/ dust or the scattering/ putting, etc. But the language is quite different in these verses. (There is no lexicographical connection.)

          Also, the people who drink the water in Exodus 32:20 are guilty. It’s not a test as in Numbers 5. And there is no mention that the gold-laced water hurt them. Rather, it seems to have been Moses’s way of utterly destroying and disgracing the golden calf by making it pass through the digestive system of unfaithful Israelites. Afterwards, 3000 of the unfaithful are killed by the Levites (Ex. 32:26-28) and later still, the rest are killed by an unidentified plague sent by God (Ex. 32:35). It seems they were not harmed by the gold water.

          1. Oh, thank you! See, this is why I am pursuing a seminary education. I just feel like I’ve hit a point where I need to go deeper and learn at least a little about the original Hebrew and Greek, and I need to sit under serious teaching in that kind of setting.

            It never stops fascinating me, and my husband and I are working hard to figure out how to get me into a program we can afford.

            Thanks for the replies. I had fun thinking about the Numbers passage again today.

  5. Marg do you ever feel like the punishment for Eve is harsher than it was for Adam? Women have to work too… and on top of that we get the joys of painful labor AND the fact that men will “rule over us”.

    1. Other than death, I’m not sure that the consequences of sin are punishments. But patriarchy has certainly made life painfully hard for too many women. (My labours were fine. I had zero pain with my first delivery.)

      1. Wait I always thought that the God basically punished mankind for sinning against Him in the original fall?

        And wow that’s amazing! If I have kids one day I hope I have a painless delivery wow!

        1. Maybe painful childbirth and hard work are punishments. I’m not sure. Being expelled from the garden so the couple couldn’t eat from the tree of life seems like a punishment. Whatever, the case Jesus has dealt with the problem of sin and death and their consequences.

        2. They were cursed, which is different than punishment.

          Man was cursed to physical labor to meet bodily needs rather than the earth producing for him. Woman was cursed to pain in her biological role. Both man and woman were given pain as their punishment.

          Death is not a punishment but the consequence of sin’s corruption. Eviction from the Garden of Eden (God’s presence) was not a punishment but the consequence of sin’s corruption, which cannot coexist in the same space with God’s holiness.

          1. The biblical text states that the snake and the ground were cursed. It doesn’t plainly say that the woman and man were cursed, though some interpret God’s statement to the woman and man that way.

  6. I struggled with this back in early 2017 when I was reading the Bible for the first time (ever), and I am glad I started with the Torah because so many of the “bad passages” that people struggle to reconcile with are found there. It was good for me to get that under my belt right from the off with Bible study. You arrived at the same conclusions here that I drew for myself, but there is some more here that I wanted to point out simply because it was on important to me.

    One thing I didn’t see explicitly discussed in your article or the subsequent comments is the symbolic reference back to Exodus 32 which was crucial for my comfort and acceptance of Numbers 5.

    Why this particular “trial?” Why this particular test for adultery? It’s actually a replay of the adultery against God that was committed by Aaron and the tribes with the golden calf, and it makes SO much sense and feels a lot less like random pagan nonsense when we look at Numbers 5 side-by-side with Exodus 32.

    I’ll use the CBT here because it’s the translation I have at hand on my desk. I’ll start with Exodus 32:19-20. Pay special attention to verse 20.

    “19 As he approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses became enraged and threw the tablets out of his hands, smashing them at the base of the mountain. 20 He took the calf they had made, burned it up, and ground it to powder. He scattered the powder over the surface of the water and forced the Israelites to drink the water.”

    This was the ritualistic punishment for the adultery (idolatry, as you know, is repeatedly made analogous to adultery). The people were made to physically consume it. They were made to drink into their bodies the physical evidence–the very object–of their adulterous sin.

    Now we go back to Numbers 5 where the ritualistic replay of Exodus 32 and the first adultery committed by Israel is replayed in the trial for one accused of adultery.

    “16 The priest is to bring her forward and have her stand before the Lord. 17 Then the priest is to take holy water in a clay bowl, take some of the dust from the tabernacle floor, and put it in the water.”

    It goes on to have the priest ritualistically take down the accused’s hair and have her hold her husband’s jealousy in her hands. He proclaims the curse for adultery over the woman just as God sent a curse upon Israel for their adultery (Exodus 32:35 – God inflicts a plague upon Israel; Numbers 5 – the priest proclaims a curse of infertility upon a guilty adulteress).

    It is perfect symmetry and makes much more sense when looked at together in my mind.

  7. Actually, much of this discussion is based on a mistranslation. Numbers 5:21 doesn’t say “womb miscarry.” The word translated as “miscarry” is actually the Hebrew word for “swell,” not “miscarry.” As far as I know, “swell” is not a euphemism for miscarry. There is no indication that the woman being tested is pregnant. I doubt God would kill an innocent baby for the mother’s wrongdoing. Many scholars say that the NIV and some other versions have mistranslated this verse. Pro-choicer’s often will claim that this verse condones abortion because of the NIV translation. Even if this verse does speak of an embryo or fetus dying because of God’s judgment, it is clear in the passage that the only one actually commencing the death is God. Only God can intentionally take away human life, including the lives of embryos and fetuses. This verse doesn’t condone abortion at all.

    1. There are two, connected, physical reactions given in Numbers 5:21, 22 & 27. The first reaction is that the woman’s “abdomen will swell.” A Hebrew verb tsabah-צָבָה meaning “swell” is used here. (This rare verb only occurs 3 times in the Hebrew Bible: in Numbers 5:21, 22, 27.)

      The second reaction is translated as “her thigh will rot” in the King James Bible. Instead of “thigh,” other translations render the Hebrew noun yarek-יָרֵךְ as “womb” (e.g., CSB, NIV, NLT). And the Hebrew word naphal-נָפַל, translated as “rot” in the KJV, typically means “fall.”

      The second reaction probably refers to what’s inside the woman’s womb. Whether it refers to becoming barren (a prolapsed uterus?) or to miscarrying is unclear, but the two effects of the curse do affect her fertility in some way, and it causes the woman to be a curse. If the woman is innocent of infidelity, she will be fertile and able to have children (Numb. 5:28).

      I think it is likely that Numbers 5:21, 22 and 27 are speaking about a miscarriage, but I agree that this verse says nothing about abortion. It is a basic Judeo-Christian doctrine that God has power over life and death, and rightfully so. Job understood this when he said, “The LORD gave, and the LORD has taken away …” (Job 1:21). Numbers 5:21 makes it clear that whatever happens to the woman who is undergoing the ordeal, it is the LORD’s doing. The bitter water that contained the sweepings was probably harmless.

  8. Okay, I’m halfway encouraged by this. This passage has always bothered me me too. But wasn’t the punishment for adultery death?Are we to believe that the woman who miscarried and was deemed guilty of adultery was not stoned? That is indicated in other passages, right?

    1. That’s a great question. And I don’t know what the answer is. Perhaps she was stoned. But we know that the Sanhedrin abolished the practice in the first century CE. I’m guessing it hadn’t been used much before then. Jews preferred to divorce an unfaithful wife rather than stone her.

  9. Wow what a fantastic commentary. I just stumbled upon this and felt very confused. Even my study bible had little to say! Thanks so much for posting this!!

  10. I really like these thoughts on this odd passage! I think it’s easy to overlook the fact that the test also protects women if they are innocent. But one thing I noticed when reading this passage is that many translations say the wife is “under her husband’s authority” in Numbers 5:19,20,29. I was wondering if you have any thoughts on that?

    1. The word “authority” is added to English translations. There is no word that means “authority” in the Hebrew. Note the italics which indicates added words in the NASB of Numbers 5:19, 20, 29.

      The more literal King James Bible does not include a word that means authority in Numbers 5:19, 20, 29 KJV cf. DR, ERV, NIV. But there is no doubt that, at that time, husbands and fathers did have more authority in the home than wives and daughters, and the Hebrew Bible does reflect this in narratives and regulations.

  11. I really wondered about this passage when I read it today. The accusation is based on the jealousy of the husband, but the solution is God.

    Thanks for your great explanation! Fascinating!

    Maybe it gave the jealous husband time to cool down and not let his jealousy possess him. I live in Brazil where feminicide is rampant and 99% of the cases are conducted by violent men.

    1. Thank you, Friedrich, for your insightful comment.

      Some of my articles have been translated into Portuguese, here, by a Brazilian man who also laments the misogyny and machoism in Brazilian culture.

  12. So we’re all going to pretend here like some women who were not guilty had forced abortions and even those who were guilty of adultery their children were then murdered. Just like the Salem witch trials many if not all the women were accused wrongly and murdered. There’s no difference here. So what are the qualifications today to excuse an abortion or are there only exceptions allowed back then? So disgusting and hypocritical.

    1. Hi Jessica, What you say in your comment doesn’t correspond with what is said in the article or in the other comments.

      It sounds like you think that drinking water with sweepings in them actually causes abortions. I don’t think this. I read the ordeal as being designed to appease unreasonable jealous husbands, and exonerate women.

      Nevertheless, as I say at the beginning of the article, the test would have been humiliating and distressing for the woman. No one here is pretending that the ordeal was fine and dandy.

      There were lots of disgusting and truly horrible things happening to people in ancient times. I’m sure glad I didn’t live back then! In some cultures, these horrible things persist.

      Unlike other tests done by other nations at that time, the woman wasn’t killed. In that way, the ordeal is different from the Salem witch trials, and different from any of a number of other horrendous things that certain illegitimate sectors of “the church” have cruelly inflicted on women (and on men).

      At the end of the article, I note that the ordeal was abolished by the Sanhedrin in the first century CE under the leadership of Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai. Increasing numbers of divorce was the reason behind the abolition.

      1. So I guess the abolishing of the practice because of the large number of divorces it was causing would imply that a large number of women were found to be adulterous and were divorced after God took the life of the resulting unborn child.

        1. Not at all. Rather, divorce had became a lot easier and some Jewish husbands divorced their wives for mundane matters.

          I’ve written about some of the first-century Rabbinic teachings on divorce here.
          https://margmowczko.com/jesus-divorce/

          Also, the bitter water ordeal was primarily designed to vindicate an innocent wife. It could be that no one was ever harmed drinking the bitter water, assuming the trial was used.

          I’ve looked hard and have not found any record of the trial being implemented.

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