If a wife is suspected by her husband of having an extramarital affair but there were no witnesses to the act (Num. 5:13), what was the priest to do?
If there were witnesses (Deut. 17:6), the women and the “other man” would be put to death (Lev. 20:10).
Since there were no witnesses, the woman was not condemned as an adulterer. Jesus himself presided over just such a case (John 8:10-11).
If the husband was still jealous he could bring his wife and a tenth of an ephah of finely ground barley (Lev. 2:1-3, Lev. 6:14-20) to the priest (Num. 5:15).
Rabbi’s have considered the barley offering. The Israelites were not farmers. They did not plant or harvest. They were nomads, moving from one place to another in tents. Thus barley was rare and had to be purchased so it was quite expensive. Thus the husband would have to be quite serious about his suspicion to shell out the bucks for 3 1/2 lb. of barley.
Likewise the wife had to grind the barley to a fine powder. This took some time giving her ample time to consider telling her husband the truth.
Notwithstanding the absence of witnesses, the priest could always use the Urim or Thummim to determine guilt or innocence just like Joshua (Joshua 7:10-25). Despite the priest having the Urim and Thummim at the ready in his breastplate (Ex. 28:13-30, Lev. 8:8), the Law of Jealousy did not provide this remedy to determine the woman’s guilt or innocence. This is an interesting point, either the Urim or Thummin were not consulted because the woman was already determined to be innocent by the lack of witnesses or it was decided to invent a new device to determine the woman’s guilt. Many Christians have wide acceptance of the invention of a new test for guilt and innocence but the Urim and Thummim were continually consulted afterwards for hundreds of years and no other new tests were ever invented.
If indeed the lack of witnesses assured the woman’s innocence, what was the priest to do? The priest administered a test. This test was not a magic potion to determine the innocence or guilt of the woman; the lack of witnesses exonerated her.
Here it is instructive to note that the whole issue is the man’s suspicion that his wife is impure (defiled) and her impurity is undetected (Num. 5: 13,14). The hidden sex act and her impurity are two separate issues since the Priest distinguished between going astray and making herself impure (Num. 5:20,21,29). Indeed the resulting miscarriage after drinking the bitter water is considered to be a result of being both impure and being unfaithful (Num. 5: 27).
Westerners do not see it this way. The sex act with a man that is not her husband makes the woman impure. We think this makes the woman defiled or polluted. No so with the ancient Hebrews. This is going astray. The impurity arises from the resulting pregnancy of the extramarital affair. It is the defiling or polluting of the family genes comprising the new baby that makes her impure.
It is not easy to understand such a Hebrew culture where keeping track of who’s kids were who’s was such an important matter but it was. The best examples of this concept in the Bible are the stories of Ruth and Tamar. In Hebrew culture, the wife had an absolute right to bear children from her husband’s gene pool. In the Bible the mother-in-law, Naomi, lost her husband and two sons. She released her daughters-in-law because she was old, had no husband or other sons to give them, and she could not have sons in the future to father children for them (Ruth 1:3-13). The extent that the community went through to protect the wife’s right sometimes bordered on the bizarre. Tamar lost her husband and so his brother, Onan, was obligated to give her children. He slept with her but refused to get her pregnant so she waited for the youngest brother, Shelah, to grow up to be old enough to give her children. After considerable time she dressed up like a prostitute to trick her father-in-law into sleeping with her (Gen. 38:6-27). She ended up with twin sons. Odd stories, but they point to the importance of Hebrew women having a right to have children with their husbands, or in the case the husband died, the brother, or father of the same family. Any other man would not do. It had to be from the same family. And the resulting children became inheritors of the dead man’s estate.
Fathers likewise were concerned about who’s kids they supported since they were required to give double portion of inheritance to the eldest son and regular portions to their other sons (Deut. 21:15-17) and dowry to daughters (Judges 1:12-15).
The priest could not determine whether the wife had gone astray but he could administer a test to ensure that, at least, the husband would not have to support a child that was the result of an extramarital affair.
If the woman agreed (Num. 5:22), she would drink a liquid given to her by the priest (Num. 5:24).
The liquid was composed of holy water in an earthen (or brazen) vessel, dust from the floor of the tabernacle (Num. 5:17), and ink from the words of the curse written on the scrolls (Num. 5:23). The water was bitter and brought the curse of miscarriage (Num. 5:18).
Earthen vessels in contact with meat from sacrificial services or anything unclean were always broken after use (Lev. 6:28, Lev. 15:12).
Despite the widespread use of Holy Water in modern Christian traditions, Numbers 5 is the only place in the Bible where Holy Water is mentioned. The word denotes that it could have been sanctified water, consecrated water, or just water that was set aside but it was not the same as regular drinking water. Although not described in Numbers 5, it is likely that the earthen vessel was broken afterwards since it contained an unclean liquid.
If the woman was pregnant the liquid provided by the Priest likely contained an abortifacient. Abortifacients induce miscarriage. Abortifacients come from plant or mineral sources and have been used since ancient times. Greek playwright Aristophanes in 421 BC described use of pennyroyal to terminate pregnacy. An example of a modern day abortifacient is the morning after pill, RU-486.
If the women was pregnant, the abortifacient caused her to discharge the fetus (Num. 5:27). If she was not pregnant, nothing would happen, she would be exonerated (Num.5:28) and her husband was obligated to resume his husbandly responsibility to sleep with her and provide her children (Num.5:29) as was her right (Ruth 1: 10-11; Gen. 38:1-11).
The Law of Jealousy teaches three concepts: 1) The Laws of Moses ensured women had the right to due process in legal matters. 2) The woman had a choice whether to drink the abortifacient and abort the fetus or not. 3) Women, Men, Priests, and the community recognized that, besides the health of the women, personal, and societal considerations were factored in to decide whether to end a pregnancy.
Note: Many Pro-life Christians believe this interpretation of Numbers 5 to be heresy and completely contrary to the teachings of the Bible. They cite verses like Ps. 139:13-16 where God acknowledges knowing his chosen followers before birth (Jer. 1:4-5) and such verses are certainly true. Notwithstanding these verses, Numbers 5 makes no exception if the unfaithful woman is pregnant. Also there are several citations in the Bible where God commands the Israelites to destroy entire civilizations including women and children (Deut. 20:16-18). That God sanctioned the law of jealousy and commanded infanticide is contrary to Western morality. We believe that adults are responsible for evil but children are innocent. The Amorites were evil, no doubt (Gen. 15:13-21). I have listened to ministers inculcate persuasive reasons why Hittite and Amorite children must be slain. Some have said that the children would grow up and then retaliate against Israel. The story of Haman in the book of Esther where he tries to complete the vow of his Amalakite descendants (Deut. 17:16; Deut. 25:17-19; 1 Sam. 15:1-3) to destroy Israel, doesn’t dissuade us from the moral imperative to spare the children and attempt to assimilate them into our culture and values and these explanations are not satisfying. Children are innocent. I can’t reconcile these discrepancies between the moral God we Westerners imagine and the recorded history of the Bible. I have to acknowledge that God has, for whatever reason, sanctioned the killing of innocent children and babies. I am not God’s judge (Isa.40:13,14, 25,26), my thoughts are not his thoughts (Isa. 55:8-11), and his understandings are beyond my abilities to fathom (Isa. 40:28-31).