This morning in my daily Bible reading I got up to Numbers chapter 5. I must have read this passage before, but I couldn’t remember doing so. It describes the test that a man should put if wife through if she has been unfaithful, or even if he thinks she has been unfaithful. The passage can be found here. On first reading, in our 21st century ears, it doen’t seem fair at all. How do we reconcile that this is in God’s Word?
It says that if a husband is jealous of his wife and suspects her of being unfaithful, he is to bring her to the priest and there she is to drink bitter water and he will pronounce a curse over her.
Num 5:19-22 “If no other man has slept with you and you have not gone astray and become impure while married to your husband, may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you. But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have defiled yourself by sleeping with a man other than your husband”- here the priest is to put the woman under this curse of the oath-“may the LORD cause your people to curse and denounce you when he causes your thigh to waste away and your abdomen to swell. May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells and your thigh wastes away.
If she has been unfaithful her abdomen will swell up and that will be her punishment. If she has not been unfaithful, the curse will not take effect.
Num 5: 27-28 If she has defiled herself and been unfaithful to her husband, then when she is made to drink the water that brings a curse, it will go into her and cause bitter suffering; her abdomen will swell and her thigh waste away, and she will become accursed among her people. If, however, the woman has not defiled herself and is free from impurity, she will be cleared of guilt and will be able to have children.
So what are we to make of this odd passage? Some thoughts:
- This is the beginning of a section on purity. The people of God (who is the nation of Israel in the wilderness) are to dedicate themselves to being pure for God, in every aspect of their lives. Their impurity is dealt with through the priests and sacrificial system. Eliminating adultery is just one aspect of becoming a more holy people.
- This was a patriarchal society so it is no surprise that it seems unfair to us. There is a double standard – there is no mention of a comeback for the man who might have been involved in the adultery. Other patriarchal societies of the time had far worse tests for adultery that were far more likely to produce a guilty verdict. So although harsh to us (and I don’t think we are supposed to copy this ritual!) it was a softening of attitudes of the time.
- The verdict is not pronounced on the wife by the man or the priest. The priest offers the matter to God and He is the one who decides whether she is guilty or not, not the husband or the priest. By allowing God to decide they are asserting his sovereignty and omnipotence – God knows whether she is guilty so the matter is left in His hands.
How do we relate that to this passage today? God cares about purity in all aspects of our lives, yet he is also just, so can be trusted is situations where guilt is not clear. There will be some cases when we are called to suspend judgment and allow God to bring the truth to light.
It is also worth noting that Jesus forgave a woman who was not only suspected of adultery, but was caught in the act. She was dragged to Jesus by an angry mob who had already passed judgment and were keen to stone her (again, note that they let the man get away!) Jesus’ response was said “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7). Jesus knows what we’re all like but forgives us anyway, so he is the best person to pass judgment. God is just and forgiving.