Tag Archives | Apologetics

Is Numbers 5 Good for Women?

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.

Unjust accusation

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.

Galatians 3:24—

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.”



Wonder Woman as an Apologetic Tool

It is generally the man who is not ready to argue, who is ready to sneer.” –G.K. Chesterton

Wonder Woman opened last month with the highest box office opening weekend ever for a female director, beating out the openings of the first Thor, Captain America, and Iron Man movies according to The Hollywood Reporter.  It did so despite the fact that “the movie skewed female (52 percent), while most superhero films rely on 60 percent or more of the audience being male.” Though Wonder Woman attracted a lot of women, it wasn’t the usual chick flick. It’s interesting that this movie is the one that put women on the map for their ability to tell a story that competes so well in a male-dominated industry.

Back in the day at Mars Hill Seattle, Pastor James Harleman led Film and Theology, a ministry that looked at well written movies to investigate their creative themes in light of the first Author and Creator. He now runs a website called Cinemagogue, which he defines as “the recognition that the creative impulse for storytelling and cinematic expression is a reflection of our Creator’s passion, as well as a progressive wrestling with life’s ultimate meta-narrative.” As a deacon at Mars Hill, I led a Film and Theology night on The Matrix Reloaded, looking at the impact of chaos theory on its story and imagery, an intersection of math and theology I still find fascinating. I am now working on a manuscript on the story of Mars Hill Seattle and the lessons, for good and bad, we can learn through its years in existence. As I rehash old memories long tucked away, I can’t get away from Mars Hill’s vision of cultural engagement like the Apostle Paul’s in Acts 17. For all the harm done by the ministry of Mars Hill Seattle, that initial vision of cultural engagement was good and right, and I have been blessed to reexamine it.

I am burdened for the culture revealed by both Wonder Woman and the Women’s March. Both give insight into our cultural moment and should prompt us to engage concerns and longings of a large group of women revealed by both. In this post, I will focus on the apologetic insights and tools in this year’s modern retelling of Wonder Woman.

Rumor has it that Joss Whedon, whose storytelling I often love (Firefly, anyone?!), wrote a sexist screenplay for Wonder Woman back in 2006 that never saw the light of day. In contrast, many consider 2017’s Wonder Woman a feminist dream come true. And there is great insight to be gained by understanding why Wonder Woman fits modern feminist sensibilities. Here are some general themes I noticed. There are spoilers below. You are forewarned.

  1. This superhero woman is kick-ass.

Pardon that language, but I’ve always resonated with women who value strength, physically and emotionally. I call them “kick-ass babes,” and I have a number of godly Christian friends in my life who fit that descriptor. They don’t have to be physically strong, but strength and perseverance characterize them in some way. It isn’t that Wonder Woman “kicked ass” in terms of beating up others. She did beat up others, but it wasn’t a gratuitous focus of the movie. Instead, she generally is “kick ass” herself, in pop culture slang meaning she is powerful, strong, and persevering. She and the Amazonian women in early scenes reminded me very much of Beyonce’s Superbowl halftime show. That was an in-your-face, strong-woman, all-woman performance, and I bet anything that the director of Wonder Woman loved it. Beyonce, like Wonder Woman, was surrounded by other strong, talented women, including an all-woman band that rocked the stands. Feminists in Hollywood and elsewhere value strong women.

  1. But this superhero woman is also compassionate.

This is a noteworthy fact in this Wonder Woman screenplay that distinguishes her from the majority of other comic superheroes, male and female. Interestingly, Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow exhibits no compassion at all. Most women I know find Black Widow in recent Avenger movies simply a sexist, female foil to an all male superhero team as written by misogynist men who don’t realize how out of touch they are with a female audience.

In contrast, Wonder Woman is feminine in ways Black Widow is not, beyond a stereotypical sexy feminine physique. She is deeply troubled by suffering, stepping into it to stop it without thought. She runs to a crying infant, a small but significant scene in this version of Wonder Woman. This superhero woman is drawn to children.

The interplay of points 1 and 2 point well to our longing, even in secular society, for womanhood as God created it to be in perfection. This strong but feminine warrior woman mentality is so BIBLICAL at its root. She wants to help! Others have written about Wonder Woman as ezer, so I won’t rehash all of that. But it’s worth reading through the Bible’s language around God’s example as ezer which is quite often in the context of battle and distress.

Deuteronomy 33: 29. Blessed are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the LORD ? He is your shield and ezer and your glorious sword. Your enemies will cower before you, and you will trample down their high places.

  1. Finally, superhero woman is both god and god killer.

This is where we get helpful cultural insight into the idols of our heart. Wonder Woman in the end is an unbeatable goddess, designed to be the killer of the god of war, Ares. Instead of being a strong woman in the image of the one true God that the Bible presents, Diana of the Amazons IS the god. She was made by Zeus, but not as a mere mortal. Of course, Wonder Woman is just a story, and there are limits to the parallels we can draw. But I am willing to ask if this points to a feminist desire to be one’s own god? Maybe. Maybe not.

It does remind me of the great coping mechanism for the gulf between the strong, compassionate womanhood that many clearly value and the realities of our fallen lives—female autonomy. Men become superfluous. The men needed Diana, but she didn’t really need them. The Amazonians didn’t need men. They didn’t need them in battle. They didn’t need them in bed. And though Diana said men were necessary for procreation but not pleasure, in today’s world we don’t even need them for that. A jar of semen in a sterile clinic will suffice.

This autonomous coping mechanism fails humanity in reality. It fails women, and it fails men. Though there is great conflict between the biological sexes after the Fall of Man, the hope of Jesus includes our reconciliation to God’s vision for both manhood and womanhood. In the gospel, men like Paul or Peter rely on the strong help of Phoebe and Priscilla. But Phoebe and Priscilla stay engaged with Paul and Peter, Aquila and Apollos, as well. Why?

While I try again and again in the household of faith to remind men that they need women, let me also remind women that we really do need men. While women need to be strong, we need also to value the strength of the men in our lives. Though men need our compassion, we can learn from their concerns as well. Though fallen man might only want a woman’s body, the answer is not to require only man’s sperm in a sterile jar for procreation.

Though men need women’s help in most every context, women too need men’s, particularly in leadership in the home and church.

And in that statement comes a fork in the road for many women. In our fallen world, male leadership is often not good for women. In Is the Bible Good for Women? I spent an entire chapter on a Biblical manhood that is good for women. I have been fortunate to experience positive Christian masculinity by way of my father and my Presbyterian pastors in Seattle and South Carolina. But I know many women have not. I encourage you to first know how the Bible portrays a man after God’s own heart, which is often a bit different than manly man caricatures among some Christians. Then, second, look for those kind of men around you. We need such men, as they need us. The interplay of Christian relationship between the sexes, brothers and sisters, sons and mothers, and fathers and daughters, are good and right and necessary for the full flourishing of humanity in the kingdom of God.

Eden was better than Amazon. And Eden is where we are heading again in Christ.

If you have a friend who cried when Wonder Woman took all the fire during the scene in No Man’s Land, ask her why. Don’t dismiss her. Don’t mock her. Don’t sneer. If she’s not a believer, be ready to point her to the one true God who created her in His image. He is the One who gives purpose to her created longings. He is the One who reconciles the sexes, so that Amazon isn’t utopia, but Eden is. Like The Matrix years ago, Wonder Woman is an apologetic tool, friend, a springboard for understanding the deep longings in our culture in many women’s hearts instilled by our Creator.