Bible Commentary: Numbers 5

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Numbers 5

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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 Numbers 5:11-31 [11] And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, [12] Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them, If any man's wife go aside, and commit a trespass against him, [13] And a man lie with her carnally, and it be hid from the eyes of her husband, and be kept close, and she be defiled, and there be no witness against her, neither she be taken with the manner; [14] And the spirit of jealousy come on him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be defiled: or if the spirit of jealousy come on him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be not defiled: [15] Then shall the man bring his wife to the priest, and he shall bring her offering for her, the tenth part of an ephah of barley meal; he shall pour no oil on it, nor put frankincense thereon; for it is an offering of jealousy, an offering of memorial, bringing iniquity to remembrance. [16] And the priest shall bring her near, and set her before the LORD: [17] And the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel; and of the dust that is in the floor of the tabernacle the priest shall take, and put it into the water: [18] And the priest shall set the woman before the LORD, and uncover the woman's head, and put the offering of memorial in her hands, which is the jealousy offering: and the priest shall have in his hand the bitter water that causes the curse: [19] And the priest shall charge her by an oath, and say to the woman, If no man have lain with you, and if you have not gone aside to uncleanness with another instead of your husband, be you free from this bitter water that causes the curse: [20] But if you have gone aside to another instead of your husband, and if you be defiled, and some man have lain with you beside your husband: [21] Then the priest shall charge the woman with an oath of cursing, and the priest shall say to the woman, The LORD make you a curse and an oath among your people, when the LORD does make your thigh to rot, and your belly to swell; [22] And this water that causes the curse shall go into your bowels, to make your belly to swell, and your thigh to rot: And the woman shall say, Amen, amen. [23] And the priest shall write these curses in a book, and he shall blot them out with the bitter water: [24] And he shall cause the woman to drink the bitter water that causes the curse: and the water that causes the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter. [25] Then the priest shall take the jealousy offering out of the woman's hand, and shall wave the offering before the LORD, and offer it on the altar: [26] And the priest shall take an handful of the offering, even the memorial thereof, and burn it on the altar, and afterward shall cause the woman to drink the water. [27] And when he has made her to drink the water, then it shall come to pass, that, if she be defiled, and have done trespass against her husband, that the water that causes the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter, and her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall rot: and the woman shall be a curse among her people. [28] And if the woman be not defiled, but be clean; then she shall be free, and shall conceive seed. [29] This is the law of jealousies, when a wife goes aside to another instead of her husband, and is defiled; [30] Or when the spirit of jealousy comes on him, and he be jealous over his wife, and shall set the woman before the LORD, and the priest shall execute on her all this law. [31] Then shall the man be guiltless from iniquity, and this woman shall bear her iniquity.
American King James Version×

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.