After an interview for Is the Bible Good for Women?, one of my friends who interviewed me asked me about another hard passage in Scripture that I didn’t address in the book. It was the Trial by Ordeal that Numbers 5 prescribes for wives whose husbands have a “feeling of jealousy” without any proof adultery actually took place.The passage was disturbing to me, but I’ve learned studying Deuteronomy 21 and 22 that careful study of these passages can actually give us precious nuggets of Jesus-centered truth when we read them in context of the long story of Jesus in Scripture. So I set off on a study, and once again, was encouraged that God’s long plan for His daughters on earth is truly good.
Numbers 5 is a good case study on hard Old Testament laws that singularly focus on women. It well reflects the harsh reality of life for women in particular after the Fall. It reflects the problem with humankind. But what does it reflect about God the Father? What does it reflect about Jesus? What is its place in the long story of Scripture fulfilled by Jesus in the gospels?
I’ll summarize Numbers 5:11-31, but I recommend you read it for yourself as well.
God told Moses, “If any man’s wife goes astray, is unfaithful to him, and sleeps with another, but it is concealed from her husband, and she is undetected, … and if a feeling of jealousy comes over the husband and he becomes jealous because of his wife who has defiled herself—or if a feeling of jealousy comes over him and he becomes jealous of her though she has not defiled herself—then the man is to bring his wife to the priest.” The husband is also to bring a grain offering along with his wife. The priest then brings her forward before the Lord and gives her holy water mixed with dust from the tabernacle floor, “bitter water that brings a curse.” She will be unaffected by this bitter water if she is innocent of the accusations. But if she is guilty, “the water that brings a curse will enter her to cause bitter suffering; her belly will swell, and her womb will shrivel. She will become a curse among her people.”
Note: Here, God gave Moses steps for judging between a jealous husband and his wife who may or may not have committed undetected adultery. There is no proof of adultery. The Bible gives different laws elsewhere if the wife is caught in adultery.
We call this type of ritual a TRIAL BY ORDEAL. The Salem witch trials in colonial Massachusetts made Trial by Ordeal famous. Such trials have a long history in many cultures throughout the world. There were various types of trials—trials by fire, trials by burning oil, trials by hot water, trials by cold water, trials by drinking acid, and trials by combat. Most medieval Trials by Ordeal had a common theme, that the gods would protect an innocent person from being harmed. Throw someone tied up into a cold river, and if he was innocent, he’d miraculously float to the top. Force a woman to walk across hot coals, and if she was not burned (or her burns healed quickly), she was innocent of the accusations against her. Religious leaders believed the miraculous intervention of the gods would keep a person safe in a situation meant to harm them. That’s how most ancient trials by ordeal worked.
Modern believers recognize the multiple problems with a trial by ordeal. Such trials seem the work of superstitious people lacking common sense, without access to scientific facts we now take for granted. But what should modern believers do when we encounter a trial by ordeal not in superstitious medieval religious cultures but in the words of the Bible itself?!
It helps to remember that the gospels clearly reveal the Son of God as one who elevates women above their oppressed cultural status. And Jesus Himself taught in Luke 24 that all of the Law and Prophets (which hold many oppressive passages related to women) are ultimately about Him, pointing to His life, death, and resurrection.
Jesus’s words in Luke 24:27, tell us clearly that the Law of Moses, such as instructions in Numbers 5, somehow points to Him, somehow gives insight into what He came to do and the necessity of both His death and His resurrection for the sins of mankind. This Old Testament law speaks into the necessity of repentance, Jesus says, which is our first tool for approaching this Biblically sanctioned Trial by Ordeal.
One sided accusations
Numbers 5 is addressing a particular situation in which adultery is suspected but there is no external proof. The husband experiences a “feeling of jealousy” which in verse 14 may or may not be because his wife actually defiled their marriage. This reminds me of Deuteronomy 22’s laws for a husband accusing his wife of not being a virgin at their marriage. Note that in both passages, there doesn’t seem to be the opposite problem, wives accusing their husbands of sexual unfaithfulness. Though other laws on sexual faithfulness apply equitably to both sexes, these accusations of unfaithfulness seem one sided.
It is no secret that the Old Testament reflects a fallen culture that was naturally inclined against women. At the Fall of Man, God said this would be the case. Woman will naturally turn toward the man, but he will oppressively rule over her in response (“Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” Gen. 3:16 CSB). We see gendered oppression play out regularly in the pages of the Bible – the rape of Dinah, Tamar, and the unnamed concubine in Judges are particularly harsh examples. In that fallen, survival-of-the-fittest world, women were commodities among powerful men, which often resulted in irrational, unjust jealousy. In Numbers 5, as in John 8, only the woman was singled out for punishment for a two-party violation of the marriage covenant. Even if she had, in fact, been a party to adultery that broke covenant with both her husband and God, the injustice of the woman bearing the sole consequences without mention of her male partner in sin is obvious.
Even worse, this law seems to accommodate an unjust accusation by a jealous husband against a wife as well. Elsewhere in Scripture, we see the seriousness of the sin against the wife in such a case. In his commentary on Numbers 5, Matthew Henry reminds us that “charity in general, much more conjugal affection, teaches to think no evil, 1 Co. 13:5.” But in Numbers 5, the husband’s violation of love by way of an unjust accusation isn’t condemned. It isn’t until the New Testament that we see clear teaching on unjust accusations as violation of the command to love. Why then does this law in Numbers 5 not include some measure of this teaching?
We are confronted with an issue that comes up again and again in the long story of Scripture and in our own lives at times as well.
This is where Luke 24 is particularly helpful. Consider how the Bible slowly builds our expectation of the coming Messiah. Why did God assure Satan of his coming destruction by Jesus in Genesis 3:15 and then wait thousands of years before calling Abraham with the next step in the plan of salvation? Why did he wait around 500 years after Abraham’s call before bringing Israel out of Egypt? Why did He wait another 1400 years past the Exodus before the Messiah was born?
I often ponder 1 Peter 3:8 which says, “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” I know God’s perspective of time is very different than my own, but when reconciliation of oppression does not happen in a lifetime, I have no other tools to understand the patient pace of His movement. Our hope as believers is that injustice in this life is fully reconciled in the next, and this passage requires that understanding as much as any.
Yet, even this injustice points to Jesus’s coming in the New.
Interpreting Scripture with Scripture
Despite the obvious problems in Numbers 5, we have tools in our toolbox to better understand this passage. The most important tool is the fact that the Bible is the best commentary on itself.
The Westminster Confession of Faith, “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself.” Luke 24 gives us helpful commentary on Numbers 5. But there are other Scriptures that do as well.
In Numbers 5, we are confronted with a passage that can go negatively in our own heads quickly depending on what we believe about God. What do other passages in the Bible teach of the character of God? I find it helpful to review things I know from Scripture about God’s character when confronting a troubling passage like this.
Isaiah 28:29 (CSB)
This also comes from the Lord of Armies.
He gives wondrous advice;
he gives great wisdom.
So could there be some wisdom in here for folks living in that time and place, for men and women facing those types of temptations in ancient Middle Eastern culture?
Exodus 34:6 (CSB)
The Lord passed in front of him and proclaimed: The Lord—the Lord is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love and truth,
Compassion comes from the Latin for suffering with someone. God enters into the suffering of His children. He is not distant from them, and He is faithful in His love of them. So could God be showing compassion for the accused wife in this passage?
Psalm 119:68 (CSB)
You are good, and you do what is good;
teach me your statutes.
Simply put, God is good. He does what is good. So His statutes are then worth engaging when we are unsure, because we trust His character.
Consider the context. Remember that civilization isn’t very civilized at this point in humanity. In the context of the ancient world, including outside the bounds of Israel, a husband was understood to have full authority over his wife and, if accused of adultery, would have been well within his cultural rights to divorce her without cause and in some cases even put her to death. For instance, in the Code of Hammurabi, an accused wife was expected to “jump into the river for her husband” if he similarly accused her of unfaithfulness, even in the absence of evidence.
Not so for God’s people. In God’s household, if a husband accused a wife without evidence, God commanded that the priest be called in to mediate. Do you start to hear whispers of the good news of Jesus?
The accuser with all the cultural power could not decide the consequences for himself. He had to submit to another who stood in protection of his wife and determined her guilt or innocence by process before God, not by simple suspicion or accusation.
The accused wife was to drink holy water sprinkled with tabernacle dust. And here is the great difference in medieval trials by ordeal, and even those in the Code of Hammurabi contemporary to the Law of Moses, that promised death to the accused unless there was miraculous intervention. Instead, the miracle in this trial would be if the woman was harmed, not if she was saved. This water was most likely from the same source used for ritual cleansing throughout the book of Leviticus. The drink might taste gritty, but it would not be poisonous. It would take a miracle to prove her guilt, not to prove her innocence. She was naturally protected by the process rather than threatened by it.
While this odd procedure can easily become the focus of the passage, drawing our attention to other trials by ordeal throughout history, it is the mediation of the priest that is a better focus, pointing to the long story of Scripture ultimately fulfilled by Christ. John Calvin notes in his commentary on Numbers 5 that “many are causelessly suspicious” and suggests that Numbers 5 is protecting against “trifling suspicions” of husbands against wives. The role of the priest then is key in Calvin’s understanding because “when jealousy has once taken possession of the mind, there is no room for moderation or equity.” In this law, God, the just Judge, stepped in through the mediation of the priest to protect the woman against unjust accusation.
But the process seems by no means perfect, leaving us to wonder why God prescribed this method and not some other more precise one, or just teaching us as He does in I Cor. 13 that agape love puts away suspicions and acts in good faith.
Here we must remember another verse on the Law that give us helpful commentary for understanding the problems in Numbers 5.
24 The law, then, was our guardian until Christ, so that we could be justified by faith.
Rather than producing righteousness in the heart of God’s children, the Law was a tutor/guardian/keeper that pointed us to our need for Christ. Numbers 5 may have temporarily provided protection for the wife from an unjust accusation in a way that Trials by Ordeal in other cultures did not, but it did not change the heart of the husband sinning against his wife through unjust accusation. It is this very injustice that shows us our need for something more than the Law could provide. And here, we have hints of that better thing in Jesus that the Law teaches us we need.
This human priest is commanded to step into an unjust situation and stay the hand of jealousy, albeit in a limited way. But this points to our better mediator, our great High Priest and mediator before God, Jesus Christ (I Tim. 2:5).
1 Timothy 2:5 (CSB)
For there is one God and one mediator between God and humanity, the man Christ Jesus,
What is the point of a mediator? They are advocates who stand between an accuser and a judge. In Numbers 5, the husband unjustly accuses, and apart from this law, would likely set up himself as accuser, judge, and executioner. The priest steps in to mediate before God, the just judge. The priest protects this woman from an unjust accusation, as Jesus stepped into our lives stopping both the unjust and the just accusations of the accuser, Satan.
Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:
“Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God,
and the authority of his Messiah.
For the accuser of our brothers and sisters,
who accuses them before our God day and night,
has been hurled down. (Revelation 12:10)
Why have Satan’s accusations of us before God the Judge been hurled down? Because they were satisfied by Christ’s payment for our sins on the cross! This is key to understanding how Numbers 5 fits into the long story of Jesus in Scripture. Numbers 5 affords wives priestly protection from accusation and misuse, though in an imperfect, partial way. This law was a tutor, pointing to Jesus, yet still unable to make men fully righteous.
In the Gospels, we see the fulfillment in Christ, as Jesus stepped in to halt the just condemnation of the woman caught in adultery in John 8 and silenced the shameful accusations against the sinful woman of Luke 7. Ultimately Jesus on the cross silenced for all time both the just and the unjust accusations of Satan against us all, male and female. He brought our case before God the Father, Judge over all the earth, protecting us from unjust accusation and paying the penalty for the just ones. Jesus became “a curse among (the) people” in our place (Num. 5:21). Numbers 5 then is a tutor that points us to the One Mediator between God and men who silences all accusations against those who believe for all time. Apart from its context in the long story of Scripture, Numbers 5 is troubling and confusing. But understood as a tutor showing us our need for Jesus, this law is transformed into something truly beautiful.
Matthew 5:17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.”
Also, Mary Willson gave a session on this passage at TGCW16. Here’s the link. http://restitutio.org/2018/02/15/133-is-god-a-misogynist-mary-willson/
Thank you for unpacking this difficult section in Numbers, where what you read doesn’t seem on the surface to fit with what you know about God’s character and the Bible narrative, yet you know it does. I found it helpful, as you contrasted the typical cultural practices of surrounding communities to how God commanded the Hebrews to act toward wives suspected of adultery. You see that hint of grace, that protecting of the innocent, and the promise/longing of something better that was to come. Beautiful. I am thankful that God has always cherished and shown protection to his daughters, especially when culture was terribly unkind. It speaks so much to our worth in him. My eyes are full of tears, as I am reminded of his eternal, convenant love. It is truly the something better our hearts long for.
Good stuff, Wendy. The saying is that you can’t prove a negative, but here God graciously provided a means to do so.
I really found the way you thought through this passage so helpful. Thank you for thinking and sharing. What a Savior we have.
Thank you, Wendy, for this. You showed me the beauty of God in Christ Jesus, my Mediator, for which I’m thankful.
Would I be wrong to go deeper and compare the effects of numbers 5 to the judgment of Solomon in 1 Kings 3:16–28?
I don’t see the link between those two, but I need to think about it more.
Well, the women that knew they were guilty would be scared to drink the drink and thus confess (maybe) whereas innocent women really had nothing to fear because the drink isn’t actually poisonous, so it would be more about the anticipation of the drink than the actual drink itself (just a thought I had), just as the anticipation of cutting the child in half was enough to reveal the innocence of one woman over the other. I don’t know if I’m right to read it that way, but it’s a connection that popped up as I was pondering the text.
Gotcha. I hadn’t thought of it like that, but it’s interesting to consider.
Brilliant, encouraging, thoughtful teaching on a hard passage Wendy. Much appreciated and brings a smile to my face to be able to be encouraged by you in rural America, here on a tiny Scottish Island! But the best thing for me is your constant pointing back to Him who loved us and gave himself for us. Thanks again!
I love OT law for this reason, and your exposition of the jealousy ritual is glorious. Thank you for this!!
Thank you, all, for the encouraging feedback!
Excellent article. You hit the nail on the head.
Thank you, Sam!
Someone tried to tell me this passage teaches abortion for unfaithfulness.
I intuitively knew this passage was for the protection of women.
Thank you for studying and explaining.