The Law of Jealousy

I’m adding an article here to create a public link for readers on a forum. The formatting from MS Word is a little off but readable.

The Law of Jealousy (Numbers 5)

In the following sequence of ESV text and charts, I have outlined the passage and ordered it logically and chronologically to study the intent of the law, which is commonly regarded as a “trial by ordeal.” My commentary below is in italic.

First, one should note that the passage follows general teaching about confession of sins and appropriate sacrifice for sins (Numbers 5:5–9). This is also the stated goal of the law of jealousy (v. 15). So the law of jealousy flows naturally from the previous teaching about confession of sins.

The Law of Jealousy

11 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 12 “Speak to the people of Israel,

[12] 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,[14] 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,
[15] bringing iniquity to remembrance.  [guilt not remembered, if innocent]

The stated goal of the law is to bring a woman’s guilt to remembrance (v. 15) if she has committed adultery. In other words, the point of the ritual is to reveal guilt. This is completely characteristic of a trial by ordeal. In Mesopotamian culture, a suspected woman was thrown into a river to see if she would survive. This was practiced in Babylon, Assyria, Elam, Nuzu, Mari, and Carchemish (Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel, 1:157–58). For example, “If the finger was pointed at the wife of a seignior because of another man, but she was not been caught while lying with the other man, she shall throw herself into the river for the sake of her husband. . . . If that woman did not take care of her person, but has entered the house of another, they shall prove it against that woman and throw her into the water” (Code of Hammurabi 133a; The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures, James B. Pritchard, ed. p. 153). If she survived the river, she was deemed innocent of the charge.

The amount of offering is a tenth of an ephah (an omer, a day’s quantity of bread; Exodus 16:16). The same measure was used for the daily grain offering at the tabernacle (Leviticus 6:20) and as a sacrifice for sin for the poor (Leviticus 5:11–13), the latter being the more comparable situation to the offering for jealousy.

The Ritual Preamble

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, . . . [21] (let the priest make the woman take the oath of the curse, and say to the woman)

[19] ‘If no man has lain with you, and if you have not turned aside to uncleanness while you were under your husband’s authority,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,
[19] be free from this water of bitterness that brings the curse.21 then’ . . . ‘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.’
[22] And the woman shall say, ‘Amen, Amen.’

The preamble describes what will happen to the woman: (1) she will be brought “before the Lord.” According to Josephus, the rite took place at the temple gate, which was also a public place (Antiquities bk. 3, ch. 11, para. 6) subjecting her to public scrutiny. Mishnah Sotah 1:4 states that the ritual took place at the great court of the temple. (2) The priest will let her hair down, removing its covering, perhaps as a lover might have done (cf. Song of Solomon 4:1; 6:5; 1 Corinthians 11:6). Philo understands this act as symbolizing the laying bare of her soul (Cherubim pt. 1, V, para. 17). (3) She will hold the offering in her hands, which may have held a lover, before a handful is offered to the Lord. (4) She will agree to drink “water of bitterness,” which contains holy water from the bronze laver, tabernacle dust, and ink (v. 23, likely made from carbon/charcoal). (5) She will agree that she should be cursed, if guilty. Each action here is intended to bring intense psychological pressure on an unfaithful woman. The drink has unpleasant features (taste of dust and inky appearance) but would not have the power of a drug. Its power is in the psychological pressure it applies.

Verses 21–22 are curse formulas, wishing or praying punishment upon someone who is guilty. The Old Testament includes numerous examples of such curses. The first part of the curse makes a guilty woman the object of public derision (cf. Jeremiah 24:9; 29:18). The second part of the curse wishes physical harm upon a guilty woman. The language here (occurring nowhere else in the Old Testament) seems intentionally ambiguous, which may enhance its psychological effect so that the woman worries about what will happen to her. Philo understood the curse mildly to mean she would experience loss of pleasure and appetite (Allegorical Interpretation III, LI, 148). Josephus states that her right thigh would be put out of joint and her belly would swell with dropsy/edema. As a result, she would die in a reproachful manner (Antiquities bk. 3, ch. 11, para. 6). Cultural historian Roland De Vaux suggests the curse means that she will be barren forever (Ancient Israel 1:157–58; cf. Deuteronomy 28:17).

The Ritual Enacted

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.
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. . . [26] and afterward shall make the woman drink the water. 27 And when he has made her drink the water, then,
[27] if she has defiled herself and has broken faith with her husband,28 But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean,
[27] 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] then she shall be free and shall conceive children.

The offering functions as a prayer for the success of the rite. It also costs the husband who brings the accusation—he doesn’t get to do this for free. The amount of the offering is relatively small: an omer, a day’s quantity of bread flour. However, if the husband is wrong about his accusation, he may experience legal penalty (cf. v. 31) such as a sin offering. The shame before the Lord and the community will fall on him.

For the innocent woman, the water does not bring pain and suffering. Why would it? It is just water, dust, and ink. She will go back to her husband under no suspicion and the two shall have children together without him fearing that they belong to another man. Josephus states that the innocent woman would bear a male child in the tenth month after being exonerated! (Antiquities bk. 3, ch. 11, para. 6).

For the guilty woman, the rite causes intense suffering. Having noted the suffering as a sign of guilt, the priest and husband may report her guilt to the people of Israel, who will regard her as accursed. Further penalty is not explicitly stated. It is unlikely that she would be stoned for the adultery since there are insufficient witnesses for such a steep penalty (cf. Numbers 5:13; Deuteronomy 22:13–22). She might be divorced (Deuteronomy 24:1–4) and live apart, barren under the stigma of the curse (Numbers 5:21).

Concluding Summary

“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”[As above, the not guilty outcome remains unstated, probably for the sake of brevity.]

Trial by ordeal may seem strange to modern minds but such practices have served in many cultures across time. Benefits of the law and ritual are that they may reveal guilt and bring punishment; they may also exonerate the woman, free her from accusation, and save the marriage.


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