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
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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
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.” 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, 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. 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. There was nothing in the water, the dust or the “curses” that was toxic: no arsenic, cyanide or strychnine; no hemlock, nightshade or curare.
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. 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.
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. The husband became suspicious because his wife was pregnant and he had reason to doubt the baby was his. 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. 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.
Now that’s something to remember.
 Dorothy Irvin, “Numbers,” in IVP Women’s Bible Commentary (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2002), 77.
 Roy Gane, Leviticus, Numbers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 525.
 Gane, 525-26.
 R. Dennis Cole, “Numbers,” in Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Old Testament, vol. 5, ed. John H. Walton (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 348.
 Baruch A. Levine, Numbers 1-20 (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 204.
 Katherine Doob Sakerfeld, “Numbers,” in Women’s Bible Commentary, ed. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1998), 53.
 Ibid., 201.
 Cole, 348.
 Irvin, 77.
 Levine, 198; Jacob Milgrom, Numbers (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1990), 350.
 Milgrom, 350; Irvin, 77.
 Irvin, 76.
 Baruch A. Levine, Numbers 1-20, (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 193.
 Elaine Adler Goodfriend, “Adultery,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 1, ed. David Noel Freedman, (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 82.
 Irvin, 77.
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.
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)