Today we are going to talk about the issue of a man who suspects his wife of being unfaithful; THIS is interesting. It seems out of place in the Bible in some ways, yet here it is, and we have to deal with it.
Let’s start by reading Numbers 5:11-31.
And in a very rare (for the Bible) narrative, the precise words are prescribed that are to be spoken in the ritual to make the determination if the wife is guilty. While this sort of thing is quite typical in most of the Middle Eastern cultures, it is almost non-existent in the Holy Scriptures. Usually, just a broad outline of the ritual procedure is provided, and the exact words of the oaths and prayers are left undefined.
The lack of detail in the Torah of some of the ritual procedures is what the earliest Hebrew Traditions sought to remedy. So we must not assume that Hebrew Tradition is necessarily in error or opposition to the Scriptures. Often Tradition is necessary to fill in missing pieces of how to conduct a worship service, or celebrate a Biblical festival or perform a circumcision ceremony, etc.
Now just like the matter of what to do when a person commits a criminal act against someone and then lies to God about it, this case of a man suspecting his wife of adultery must have been a reasonably common occurrence. Otherwise, it’s prominent place in Numbers makes no sense.
As highly idealistic as the regulations and principles of Torah are they were also needed and practical. Suddenly thrusting 2 or 3 million people together in such extreme circumstances, in a culture where modesty was required but now is hard to maintain, would have made the likelihood of men and women coming into human contact in ways that they shouldn’t have all the more tempting. So there needed to be methods of dealing with it and discouraging it.
Verse 12 says, “if the man’s wife has gone astray and broken faith with him”.
Notice the parallel use of the term “breaking faith” when it came to lying to God just a few verses earlier, and then here with suspected adultery between a man and his wife.
Just as the Wilderness Tabernacle is the best possible (albeit limited) earthly and physical representation of the spiritual dwelling place of God, so is the primary purpose of marriage as the best possible human and physical representation of our spiritual relationship with God.
This OT principle is again brought forward to the NT when we learn that we, as Believers, are the bride of Christ.
“Let us rejoice and shout for joy! Let us give Him glory and honor, for the marriage of the Lamb has come [at last] and His bride (the redeemed) has prepared herself.”
Revelation 19:7 (AMP)
Believers, of course, are often referred to as God’s, Messiah’s, bride.
Adultery is a topic that mentioned several times in the Bible. And this is because marriage is such an important model of God’s relationship with humankind.
But adultery was a frequent problem that began in just a few generations after Adam and Eve; those adulterous people were wiped out with the Great Flood, but then within a few generations of Noah adultery was once again all too common.
Therefore all the ancient law codes that we’ve been fortunate to uncover (some going back to a time well before Abraham) contain rules and procedures regarding dealing with adultery because even pagans recognized the danger that it presented to society.
When we examine the Mari documents and the Law of Hammurabi and a few others of these ancient legal codes we find that adultery was dealt with, not as a matter of crime and punishment, but kind of “off the books” as a religious/personal matter.
It might surprise you to know that despite all the cavorting and fraternizing of the gods themselves, and all the infamous orgies between the gods and goddesses, adultery among humans was still considered wrong and a severe matter. In fact, most of these cultures viewed adultery as an insult against the gods perhaps as much or more as an indiscretion of a husband against a wife or vice versa.
Most of the time, where it was male dominated in the Middle Eastern cultures, is was often the wife being accused And most of the time the husband had the legal right to kill his wife if the husband chose to kill her. But apparently that didn’t happen all that often; most times the man did NOT kill his wife but merely divorced her or lowered her status among his other wives and concubines or something like that.
With Israel however it was all entirely different. Adultery WAS a crime. And it was as much a part of the law code as murder or theft. The law code of Leviticus made the ONLY viable penalty for adultery to be death. There was no option of mercy or a lesser sentence, which is why these verses in Numbers are all the harder to deal with because the wife, in this case, will NOT be put to death even if she is found guilty.
I will tell you bluntly that most mainstream Jewish and Christian OT scholars say that Numbers 5 has undergone quite a bit of backlash; in fact, it’s practically unanimous. Most will also say that what we read here in Torah does fall in line with the rest of Numbers, and so this is NOT a chapter that was added later or modified to an extreme.
Leviticus Is Uncompromising But Numbers Is Opposite!
Let’s deal with the problem of why Leviticus is uncompromising but here in Numbers, the exact opposite occurs.
In Leviticus, it is assumed that the evidence against the wife is so overwhelming that there is no doubt whatsoever, and so she has confessed.
The key here is that men have witnessed it, the wife has admitted to it, so this is just a matter of men carrying out the law. There is no trial per se; there are not two sides to the story. Determining the truth is not at issue. It’s a slam dunk.
But in Numbers 5 it is a different matter. Here we are told four different times that the husband was but suspicious or jealous and that the wife claims innocence.
So what is to be done?
Since the custom of the era was that adultery was a religious/personal matter. A Husband could kill his wife if he believed she was unfaithful, and that the law would not prosecute him if he did, that likely happened quite a bit.
Numbers 5 put a stop to it because these verses call for a trial by GOD. Since God was the only witness, then God had to decide. But how is the case to be presented to God, and how does He make His decision known to men?
This was accomplished using a carefully defined water ordeal upon the wife, and then whatever happened to the woman over time as a result of the ritual indicated God’s decision.
Theologically, this is where things get pretty sticky. Magic or sacred water that someone drinks and then something either happens or doesn’t happen to indicate guilt or innocence was standard pagan practice throughout even the most advanced cultures.
The American Indians practiced it, and it also was the basis of early American witch-hunts, whereby a suspected witch was placed on a dunking stool, plunged into the water, and if she drowned she was guilty, and if the woman survived she was innocent.
No doubt this same mindset and belief system played a role in the Golden Calf incident where the gold of the idol was ground up, placed in water, and suspected participants in constructing the idol had to drink it.
The ordeal water procedure found here in Numbers is almost identical with methods found in law texts of other ancient cultures of that era. In a Middle Assyrian text is a code that “They will draw water, drink, swear, and be pure.”
In a Mari document… “the dirt under the jamb of the gate of Mari they took and dissolved in water and then drank. Thus spoke Ea: ‘swear to the gods.'” Here in Numbers, this is awfully similar to what we read.
Further, the core framework for the Mari and Hammurabi codes involved a combination of a water-ordeal and an oath to be sworn. And the concept was that if they had done the act of adultery, then the defendant who then drank the magic water swore an oath to the gods then terrible things would spontaneously happen to their bodies as a result. And if those bad things did NOT occur, then it was proof of innocence.
Turn your Bibles to John Chapter 8:1-11.
Christ The Defender Of The Weak
Notice that something very different has occurred here concerning adultery. Rightly so the Pharisees said the Torah demanded death for this woman because she was subject to the Leviticus law that was about a woman caught in the act of adultery.
That is WHY the statement that she was “caught in the act” is so crucial; otherwise, the law in Numbers 5 would have applied……a law that does NOT allow a suspected, but unproved, act of adultery to go without being punished. But Jesus says, “Go and sin no more; I’ll not condemn you.”
Condemn doesn’t mean just to find you guilty; it signifies to set out the punishment. It doesn’t mean, like in our modern society, to declare before the whole world that what you did was wrong, to stand and have the world shake its collective finger at you and humiliate you.
The word “condemn” really means being assigned the death penalty. The CURSE of the Law is condemnation for disobedience. The curse of the Law isn’t the Law itself; it’s the death penalty that comes from violating the Law. Jesus was saying to the woman, “I at this moment do not apply the death sentence to you even though you deserve it.”
We see in Numbers 5 the echoes of ancient and pagan practices among the Hebrews; in this case, it’s about trying to determine guilt or innocence of this woman suspected of adultery. If we’re going to understand what is happening in the Bible, then we have to take it in the context of the people, culture, and times it was written. And these Israelite people while being DECLARED holy by the God of Israel, were thoroughly pagan in their ways and customs and thinking.
Now this revelation may upset Jews and Christians alike, but such is the case, and the Bible constantly speaks to it, and the Prophets are always warning Israel to stop it!
I want to remind you that God, Himself made it clear that He didn’t choose Israel because
- they were more a faithful people (they weren’t),
- or because they shunned other gods (they didn’t),
- or because they behaved in more civilized ways,
- were inherently kinder than (none of which would aptly describe Israel).
He chose Israel for His good reasons (which He has not shared with humankind), not because of any merit on their part.
And, if we’re honest about it, God typically chose people who were the least likely to succeed, not those with the greatest fortitude or inner strength.
It’s the same thing for we Believers in Jesus; we were just as pagan and weak and prone to evil as anybody else, but He allowed us into the Kingdom and service to Him because we agreed with Him on ONE issue: Jesus Christ.
And just as most of the ancient Hebrews continued to behave as pagan as their neighbors, even though they had personally witnessed the incredible miracles and presence of God and had agreed to follow Torah. So do a lot of Christians accept Christ but other than showing up for Church on Sundays continue in their same lifestyles and make the same kinds of decisions, and look exactly like the world, the remaining six days and 23 hours each week.
We need to take the Scriptures in total and accept them as they are. They tell the truth, the unvarnished truth, and sometimes the truth isn’t beautiful and neat or what we had hoped it might be.
But just as God used the extreme and evil decadence of the Roman Empire as a tool to spread the Gospel after Jesus’ death and resurrection.
And just as He currently uses America’s wicked out-of-control infatuation with wealth and materialism and self to fund missionaries and do other works for the good of His Kingdom.
He also used the ancient Hebrews’ complicity and closeness to paganism to achieve His purposes. God has always used men’s evil for good.
After all, God has only ever had ONE perfect tool to work with on planet earth…..Jesus; all the rest of us are defective.
So let’s rapidly review this water-ordeal for the woman suspected of adultery. The ritual goes like this:
- Her jealous husband brings the accused wife to a Priest, along with an offering of barley.
- The Priest takes the woman and places her in front of the Tabernacle, which is bringing her “before the Lord.”
- The Priest puts Holy Water into a particular container, and dust from the Tabernacle floor is mixed in with it
- The Priest hands the woman the barley and unbinds her hair.
- The Priest then stands before the woman while holding the Holy Water vessel and recites an oath, and the woman agrees to the provisions of the oath by saying “Amen, amen.”
- The Priest next writes down the oath he just pronounced, and then washes the freshly inked letters off the surface into the same vessel that holds the Holy Water and dust.
- The barley the woman has been holding is taken back from the woman by the Priest and presented to God as a burnt offering on the Altar.
- Now the woman drinks the mixture of Holy Water, dust, and ink.
- Certain things happen to the woman if she is guilty. Nothing happens if she is innocent.
The “certain things” that are to happen to a guilty woman are a little bit masked because of Hebrew idioms. The Scripture says that if she is guilty, her “thigh will rot, and her belly will swell.” Our Complet Jewish Bible has the meaning a little better in focus: her reproductive organs will shrivel up. The thigh is a Hebrew idiom for genitals, male or female.
In an act of adultery, this makes perfect sense since the woman has sinned. Therefore it is the woman’s genitals that will bear the punishment. What this amounts to is that if the woman is pregnant from the affair, the baby will die, and if she is not pregnant, she will become barren for the rest of her life.
Let me be clear: no human is doing anything physically to this woman to cause her to abort her child or to become sterile. This mixture of water, dust and ink are not poisonous, and it does not cause harm (although it probably doesn’t taste magnificent). Rather the result is a divine judgment of God, the elements of which are wrapped up in the ritual and the water concoction she’ll drink.
What can be difficult for people of our era to understand is the devastation a woman of that era felt by becoming barren. It was the female equivalent of a male becoming emasculated, being made a eunuch.
A barren woman has lost her value as a human being because bearing children had everything to do with the spirit or essence of the Father continuing (in some mysterious and undefined way) in his son after the father died. Children were even a means to, and a measure of wealth, because the more children you had, the more work could be done to the benefit of the family. And since the work was usually either tending crops or animals, more children often meant more land cultivated, and more animals looked after.
A son was essential for passing forward the authority and name of the clan. For a woman to fail in her duty to bring new life into the world was the ultimate humiliation and an open rebuke from God, not simply a sad episode to her life.
In the end, it was assumed that a woman was barren because God cursed her, she was often of lower status than the other women, and socially shunned.
So for God to pronounce guilt on the woman suspected of Adultery by making her reproductive organs unusable was perhaps second in magnitude only to death for her.