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The Trial of Jealousy
The offering of jealousy can seem to be one of the strangest offerings in all the Bible, offered by a jealous husband who suspects his wife of infidelity. Stranger yet, perhaps, is the awful ritual the wife is required to undergo. But there is a purpose to everything God commands. The Nelson Study Bible notes, "This text can be read as an exceptionally harsh judgment on an unfaithful wife [or even a faithful one!]. But there is a sense in which this law ameliorated the harsh realities for a woman in this time period. A woman could be divorced in the ancient world on the mere suspicion of unfaithfulness [thus leaving her destitute]. Without the limitations of laws such as this, a woman might even have been murdered by a jealous husband just on the suspicion of unfaithfulness. Here at least there was an opportunity for the woman to prove her innocence before an enraged husband" (note on Numbers 5:11-31).
Still, to some this whole proceeding might conjure up images of witch trials from medieval to colonial times, in which women were dunked in water to see if they drowned. A survivor was considered a witch and burned at the stake, leaving drowning as the only proof of innocence. Yet there are major differences here. For one, the faithful wife did not die but was exonerated in childbirth, and her unjustly jealous husband made to look the fool for his unfounded accusation.
Yet there is another, even more important difference. Whereas God never commanded and had no part in the completely absurd witch trials just described, He directly commanded and was an integral part of the trial of jealousy. Notice: "Bitter water that brings a curse was not a 'magic potion,' nor was there some hidden ingredient in the water. The addition of dust from the floor of the tabernacle to a vessel of holy water and the scrapings from the bill of indictment (verse 23) were signs of a spiritual reality. Holy water and dust from the holy place symbolized that God was the One who determined the innocence or guilt of the woman who had come before the priest" (note on 5:18)—not freak happenstance or the reasoning of ignorant people.