Editor’s note: Throughout the month of May we will explore hard/weird/confusing/hilarious passages or verses in the Bible and try to make sense of them (or try to model how you make sense of them) to better understand God and the stories contained in scripture.
11 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 12 “Speak to the people of Israel, If any man’s wife goes astray and breaks faith with him, 13 if a man lies with her sexually, and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband, and she is undetected though she has defiled herself, and there is no witness against her, since she was not taken in the act, 14 and if the spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife who has defiled herself, or if the spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife, though she has not defiled herself, 15 then the man shall bring his wife to the priest and bring the offering required of her, a tenth of an ephah of barley flour. He shall pour no oil on it and put no frankincense on it, for it is a grain offering of jealousy, a grain offering of remembrance, bringing iniquity to remembrance.
16 “And the priest shall bring her near and set her before the Lord. 17 And the priest shall take holy water in an earthenware vessel and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water. 18 And the priest shall set the woman before the Lord and unbind the hair of the woman’s head and place in her hands the grain offering of remembrance, which is the grain offering of jealousy. And in his hand the priest shall have the water of bitterness that brings the curse.19 Then the priest shall make her take an oath, saying, ‘If no man has lain with you, and if you have not turned aside to uncleanness while you were under your husband’s authority, be free from this water of bitterness that brings the curse.20 But if you have gone astray, though you are under your husband’s authority, and if you have defiled yourself, and some man other than your husband has lain with you, 21 then’ (let the priest make the woman take the oath of the curse, and say to the woman) ‘the Lord make you a curse and an oath among your people, when the Lord makes your thigh fall away and your body swell. 22 May this water that brings the curse pass into your bowels and make your womb swell and your thigh fall away.’ And the woman shall say, ‘Amen, Amen.’
23 “Then the priest shall write these curses in a book and wash them off into the water of bitterness. 24 And he shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that brings the curse, and the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain. 25 And the priest shall take the grain offering of jealousy out of the woman’s hand and shall wave the grain offering before the Lord and bring it to the altar. 26 And the priest shall take a handful of the grain offering, as its memorial portion, and burn it on the altar, and afterward shall make the woman drink the water. 27 And when he has made her drink the water, then, if she has defiled herself and has broken faith with her husband, the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain, and her womb shall swell, and her thigh shall fall away, and the woman shall become a curse among her people. 28 But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be free and shall conceive children.
29 “This is the law in cases of jealousy, when a wife, though under her husband’s authority, goes astray and defiles herself, 30 or when the spirit of jealousy comes over a man and he is jealous of his wife. Then he shall set the woman before the Lord, and the priest shall carry out for her all this law. 31 The man shall be free from iniquity, but the woman shall bear her iniquity.”
That’s my reaction to this passage every time I read through Numbers. In case you didn’t read the whole passage, here are the CliffsNotes: if a man suspects his wife cheated on him, she goes to the priest with an offering, the priest writes curses on a scroll, the curses are washed off with water, and she drinks the water. If she cheated on her husband, she’ll have bitter pain and won’t be able to have kids any more. If she didn’t, she can have kids and continue with life as is.
At first glance, this seems extremely chauvinistic. Just because a guy is jealous, his wife has to go through this entire ordeal? As I was doing research, I found that in some of the Rabbinic Literature the whole process is even more extensive.
As my youth pastor used to say, “context is everything.” Numbers 5:11-31 demonstrates this assertion. First of all, in Israel at this time, an adulterer was to be stoned. That means people from their tribe would pick up big rocks and throw them at the adulterer until the person died. Also, in this tribal, nomadic society, women had few rights. They were practically considered property.
Theoretically, a jealous husband could have his wife killed. She can assert her innocence, but she has neither proof nor authority. That’s where this bizarre law comes into play.
God advocates for the powerless; he is her witness. This is the only passage in the law where a miracle decides a person’s innocence or guilt. If the bitter water causes a curse, she is guilty. If it doesn’t, she is innocent.
God proves her innocent in the sight of her community, leaving no room for whispers or rumors. God acts as her judge and jury, protecting her from potentially disastrous and unfounded claims. She is granted forgiveness from the suspicion– and suspicion can wreak as much havoc on a reputation than an actual misstep.
This reminds me of another passage. But, this time, the woman was caught in the act of adultery. There was no question or no reasonable doubt.
“‘The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?’ This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, ‘Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.’ And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.’” John 8:3-11
For all we know, she could be shamed and naked in the middle of the temple. She’s surrounded by people who want to kill her for her sin, and she has no way and nowhere to hide. Men stare at her and demand answers from Jesus, her judge. But Jesus writes in the dirt. He doesn’t glare at the woman’s nakedness and he ignores the angry questions. He graciously dismisses the mob and then talks to the woman.
Many times when we sin we feel convicted and then muster up the strength to ask for forgiveness a couple of days later. In the time between the initial sin and when we finally ask for forgiveness, we’ve probably emotionally bloodied ourselves. We give up and think that we already messed up in one spot, so we might as well do something else. Or, we try to fix ourselves up a little so we have something to offer to God when we ask for forgiveness. Either way, we slide down a slippery slope and end up where didn’t want to be.
Notice the order in this passage. First, Christ shows that the woman is not condemned. He lets her know that her sins are not held against her. Then he tells her to sin no more. God’s forgiveness precedes God’s command to change.
God the Father frees the accused woman of her shame. She doesn’t have to carry the weight of suspicion because her name has been cleared. And Jesus forgives the woman from her guilt. He saved her life after she broke the law. He demonstrated mercy and grace. In Christ, we have an Advocate and a Redeemer. We have a God who speaks on our behalf, fights for us, forgives us, and protects us.