What can a faithful, God-fearing man do if he is jealous and suspects that his wife has been unfaithful to him?
Well, if you are an ancient Israelite and if you believe the text of the Bible, (or if you are a modern man who thinks that the Bible’s laws concerning sexuality should be used to legislate issues of sexuality today), then this is what THE LORD ALMIGHTY commands that you do in Num. 5:11-31 (all verses below are from the NRSV):
Num. 5:11: The LORD spoke to Moses, saying:
Num. 5:12: Speak to the Israelites and say to them: If any man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him,
Num. 5:13: if a man has had intercourse with her but it is hidden from her husband, so that she is undetected though she has defiled herself, and there is no witness against her since she was not caught in the act;
Num. 5:14: if a spirit of jealousy comes on him, and he is jealous of his wife who has defiled herself; or if a spirit of jealousy comes on him, and he is jealous of his wife, though she has not defiled herself;
So basically, if a husband even suspects or, in a paranoid, jealous craze thinks that his wife has been unfaithful to him…even if she has not “defiled herself”, the jealous husband can take action against his wife. And once you read what that action is, you’ll be shocked.
Num. 5:15: then the man shall bring his wife to the priest. And he shall bring the offering required for her, one-tenth of an ephah of barley flour. He shall pour no oil on it and put no frankincense on it, for it is a grain offering of jealousy, a grain offering of remembrance, bringing iniquity to remembrance.
Num. 5:16: Then the priest shall bring her near, and set her before the LORD;
Num. 5:17: the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel, and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water.
So the woman is ordered to sit before the priest, and the priest begins creating a potion, of which one of the ingredients is the dust of the floor of the desert tabernacle.
Thus, so far, if you’re a woman, and your husband thinks you’ve cheated on him, you’re going to have to drink some dirty floor water. I wonder what else goes into this lovely potion?
Num. 5:18: The priest shall set the woman before the LORD, dishevel the woman’s hair,
So take that! The priest messes up your hair. And why? Because your jealous husband is accusing you of being a slut and you are to be shamed even if you are not guilty. But wait, it gets worse. Let’s see what the LORD GOD instructs Israel to do next in this trial.
Num. 5:18 con’t: and place in her hands the grain offering of remembrance, which is the grain offering of jealousy. In his own hand the priest shall have the water of bitterness that brings the curse.
I’m guessing the “water of bitterness that brings the curse” is bitter because of all the foot-trampled dust in the bowl of water she’s about to drink.
But if you’re wondering, “Hey, I thought you said there was some magical element to this process”, this is where it gets weird.
Num. 5:19: Then the priest shall make her take an oath, saying, “If no man has lain with you, if you have not turned aside to uncleanness while under your husband’s authority, be immune to this water of bitterness that brings the curse.
Num. 5:20: But if you have gone astray while under your husband’s authority, if you have defiled yourself and some man other than your husband has had intercourse with you,”
Num. 5:21: —let the priest make the woman take the oath of the curse and say to the woman—“the LORD make you an execration and an oath among your people, when the LORD makes your uterus drop, your womb discharge;
Delightful. If you’ve cheated, drinking this dirt water will make you miscarry. That’s what it says. And why? Because to God every life matters, even the unborn in the womb, who were conceived through means that were less than ideal? God loves every unborn child??
No. At least that’s not what the text says. Read it.
God wants the woman who had been suspected of cheating by her jealous husband to drink a bowl of holy water that contains dust from the floor of the tabernacle, and if she’s guilty, that is, she cheated and is now pregnant, drinking the magic dirt potion and pronouncing the curse will cause her to abort the child! This is what GOD IS INSTRUCTING: that the suspected unfaithful woman orally consume a concoction that will induce an abortion if she is pregnant.
Tell me again how much God hates abortion. Here, he’s giving the recipe for a drink that induces one.
But wait, there’s more…
Num. 5:22: now may this water that brings the curse enter your bowels and make your womb discharge, your uterus drop!” And the woman shall say, “Amen. Amen.”
Num. 5:23 Then the priest shall put these curses in writing, and wash them off into the water of bitterness.
Now we’re dealing with straight up magic! SYMPATHETIC MAGIC! Apparently, it wasn’t enough to pronounce the curse over the bitter potion. God instructs the priest to write down the miscarriage curse, and then WASH IT INTO THE WATER. We are dealing here with the vestiges of sympathetic magic. The priest has to write down the curse, and then brush it into the drink to be consumed, as if just saying a prayer aloud over your meal is enough. Why not write down the grace you say before your meal and sprinkle it on your salad?
This is sympathetic magic, just like the Egyptian execration texts (which, btw, contain the earliest mention of Jerusalem) that are motivated by the belief in the numinous power of writing. The writing activates the magic potion that causes the woman to abort if she is guilty.
The accused woman (remember, she has not been found guilty, this is her TRIAL!) has to drink dirt water containing the remains of ink that was used to write an magic abortion curse. And IF she drinks this bitter water, and IF she’s cheated, the magic potion will cause her to spontaneously abort the child. Again, tell me how much God loves the unborn (even in cases of rape, incest, and adultery) and hates abortion. Here, God is mandating–this is God’s instruction to all Israel–mandating that a woman drink a magic potion that will bring about an abortion if she is pregnant.
And before you start criticizing this interpretation because it doesn’t fit with what you already believe, note that God’s view of the unborn in Num. 5 is consistent with the Bible’s other teachings about unborn and even newborn children.
For instance, in Exod. 21:22-23, the miscarriage of a child following an assault on its mother is not treated as a murder of a human punishable by death, but as an assault against a man’s wife that is punishable by a fine paid to the woman’s husband. Or, note that in Num. 3:15-16, only males one month of age and older are counted as people in the roll. Children under one month of age don’t count. This is consistent with and corroborated by the equivalency prices of various aged individuals in Lev. 27:2-8, where Lev. 27:6 says that children under one month of age require no equivalency, as they do not yet count as people! Again, the biblical view concerning the unborn is consistent with the text of Num. 5, which is clearly calling for a drink to be drunk that will supposedly induce a miscarriage.
Num. 5:24: He shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that brings the curse, and the water that brings the curse shall enter her and cause bitter pain.
Again, if a husband makes an accusation against his wife, the very trial to determine whether the accusation is even true should involve the magical, ancient equivalent of a morning after pill.
Num. 5:25: The priest shall take the grain offering of jealousy out of the woman’s hand, and shall elevate the grain offering before the LORD and bring it to the altar;
Num. 5:26: and the priest shall take a handful of the grain offering, as its memorial portion, and turn it into smoke on the altar, and afterward shall make the woman drink the water.
Num. 5:27: When he has made her drink the water, then, if she has defiled herself and has been unfaithful to her husband, the water that brings the curse (ארר) shall enter into her and cause bitter pain, and her womb (בטן) shall discharge (צבה), her uterus (ירך) drop (נפל), and the woman shall become an execration (אלה, or “curse”) among her people.
Num. 5:28: But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be immune and be able to conceive children.
Let’s address some technical things here. This is ABSOLUTELY describing an abortion or chemically induced (remember, she is drinking a potion after all) spontaneous miscarriage. I don’t care what “gotquestions.org” tells you, while the term ירך (yrk) in Num. 5:21 and 27 is the Hebrew word for the “upper thigh”, it is also the common Hebrew euphemism for things dealing with the genitals, like in Gen 46:26, where the offspring of Jacob are referred to as the “ones going out of his thigh” (יצאי ירכו) (cf. Exod. 1:5). The same expression (יצאי ירכו) is used of Gideon in Judg. 8:30.
The same word, ירך (yrk), is also used in the incredibly awkward vow taken by Abraham’s servant mentioned in Gen 24:2 and 24:9 in which Abraham tells his servant to “put your hand under my ‘thigh'” (ירכי) as a fertility vow that he will only choose a wife for Abraham’s son, Isaac, from among his own people and not from the Canaanites. Note that Israel (Jabob) demands the same vow of Joseph not to bury him in Egypt in Gen. 47:29. This is a very different kind of “handshake”, and yet, there it is in the Bible.
Likewise, the word בטן (btn, or “belly”) is a euphemism for “womb”, as in Prov. 31:2, in which the “son of my womb” is expressed as בר–בטני (bar-bitni), using בטן (btn) as a clear reference to the womb. In Ecc. 11:5, בטן (btn) is used in the expression “how the breath comes to the bones in the mother’s womb (בטן)”, obviously referencing the breath of life that ultimately comes to a fetus at birth. In Deut. 28:4, when the text says, “Blessed shall be the fruit of your womb (בטנך)”, it is not talking about that which comes forth from the stomach (in either direction), but from a woman’s womb. Judg. 16:17, Ps. 22:11, Job 1:21 (“naked I came from my mother’s womb (בטן)”) and countless other passages make clear that בטן (btn) in Num. 5:27 is not an upset stomach or a simple tummy malady that came from drinking some expired dirty foot water, it is an explicit reference to a woman’s womb.
So the word בטן (btn) here means a womb swelling or distending (צבה) in distress (not a stomach), and because it is in parallel with the word ירך (yrk) in Num 5:27, ירך (yrk) does not simply mean “thigh” (as if “thigh dropping” made any sense at all). Rather, ירך (yrk) here is another reference to the womb, and the “dropping” or “falling” (נפל) of this womb is an unmistakable reference to a miscarriage. In this regard, the NIV (2011) translation of “miscarry” in Num. 5:21 and 5:27 gets it right.
And if the womb, or more technically, the uterus, “falls” (נפל), this can only be speaking about one thing: a potion-induced spontaneous miscarriage (i.e., abortion) to purge the unfaithful woman of the child that was not conceived by her husband.
And remember, THIS IS COMMANDED BY GOD in Num. 5. It is God’s prescribed means of discerning whether or not the woman has cheated on her husband: if she has, the fetus is aborted and the wife is presumably executed following the punishment prescribed in Lev. 20:10; if she has not, nothing happens.
The punishment for the crime is clear. Not only is the woman exposed as an adulterer and killed for her capital offense (cf. Lev. 20:10), but so too is the potential child’s life terminated in the process. And this, too, is consistent with the activity of God described elsewhere in the Bible, for God is described as having no problem whatsoever with killing an innocent child because he was brought about by illicit sexual activity like adultery. In fact, this is precisely what happened in 2 Sam 12:14, when through the prophet Nathan, God tells David, who conceived a child with Bathsheba, that, “because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD, the child that is born to you shall die.” And of course, while the child is completely innocent–the product of an adulterous relationship between David and Bathsheba–GOD KILLS THE CHILD in 2 Sam. 12:18-19, despite the fact that David begged God for mercy. Thus, this ritual is a double punishment for both woman and child, which is completely consistent with the commands and actions of God throughout the Bible. And if the child from an illicit union does happen to survive, Deut. 23:2 (HB 23:3) says this child is banned from the assembly: “Those born of an illicit union shall not be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.” Thus, even if they do survive birth, God’s position is to ostracize these children completely from his assembly!
And yes, this passage involves sympathetic magic in the form of a potion containing a written curse. The potion of dirty water and ink is not a likely abortifacient. But the point is that they believed in the magic. They believed that imbibing the written curse would reveal the truth, and they believed this divining process to be prescribed by God himself. Whether or not it actually worked is another question. All we know is that Israelite and later Jewish women were to be subjected to this humiliating, presumably abortive process in order to prove their innocence. Again, drinking holy water with dirt in it doesn’t necessarily terminate or prevent a pregnancy. It is the presence of the written curse that makes this a magic potion, again, one prescribed by God.
So ladies, if you’ve done nothing wrong, you get to have your hair intentionally disheveled by a priest and you get to drink dirty foot water with the ink of an abortion-inducing magic curse in it. And then, if you’re innocent, you’ll be immune to the magic potion, and able to return to the loving arms of your jealous husband and conceive children for him. That’s if you’re INNOCENT!
Num. 5:29: This is the law in cases of jealousy, when a wife, while under her husband’s authority, goes astray and defiles herself,
Num. 5:30: or when a spirit of jealousy comes on a man and he is jealous of his wife;
Don’t miss that last part. When she has cheated OR when a “spirit of jealousy” comes over the husband, she must endure the humiliating, abortion-inducing trial just to prove she’s innocent.
Num. 5:30 con’t: then he shall set the woman before the LORD, and the priest shall apply this entire law to her.
And just in case you think there is some punishment for the husband for falsely accusing a wife who survives this humiliation and pain, read the last verse and think again.
Num. 5:31: The man shall be free from iniquity, but the woman shall bear her iniquity.
Let me repeat that last verse. If the woman is INNOCENT, and her husband FALSELY ACCUSES her, read it with me: “THE MAN SHALL BE FREE FROM INIQUITY, BUT THE WOMAN SHALL BEAR HER INIQUITY.” The husband pays no penalty for the false accusation. His wife, on the other hand, is humiliated, and all because he had a “spirit of jealousy”.
As shameful as it is, I can think of no better summary–no better motto or slogan–for the treatment of women in antiquity (including in the Bible) than Num. 5:31:
“The man shall be free from iniquity, but the woman shall bear her iniquity.”
Thus reads the Word of the merciful Lord (who apparently doesn’t hate abortion quite as much as the right wing conservatives thinks he does).
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I cannot comprehend how any woman remained in this religion. Then I think to myself, “What choice did they have? They were chattel. And this is what happened to them when they were INNOCENT!”
And let us also remember, this is the same God to whom Jesus prayed, and that Christians believe Jesus to be. So please dispense with the whole, “This isn’t applicable to us Christians anymore. This doesn’t count. We don’t have to deal with this because the Old Testament was nailed to the cross, and we live under grace, not the law” argument, because it’s the same God who sent Jesus, the same religious tradition whose God created the universe and established the very expectation of a Messiah, and the same Jesus who said in Matt. 5:18:
“For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”
Christians can’t claim that they can just sweep passages like these under the rug and act like they never happened or that they don’t tell us something about the nature of God because he’s the same God who told Moses to establish this practice. The same God who gave you Ps. 23 gave you Num. 5:11-31.
This is why we (men) must make every effort to lift up women, encourage them, promote them, and beg their forgiveness for the millennia of oppression we’ve imposed upon them–modern day, institutional oppression that is found in the very laws of this country that were (and many still are) rooted in the laws of this book – the same book and the same laws that some religious fundamentalists are STILL attempting to impose upon our secular government and the citizenry of this nation.
I welcome comments and would love to see someone attempt an apologetic defense of this passage. I’m particularly looking for people who will claim that this is a “poor exegesis” (which usually means a non-apologetic exegesis with which you don’t agree), or “out of context“, or that my comments don’t count because I don’t believe that this text is “authoritative” or “inspired” or because I’m “not a Christian” or because I’m “an agnostic” or “an atheist”, because those anti-intellectual excuses always betray that the one making them simply has no reasoned response, only a desire not to listen to the obvious anymore.
Filed under: bible, christianity, judaism Tagged: | abortion, belly, btn, execration texts, exegesis, hebrew, miscarriage, nonstampcollector, Numbers 5, potion, shaming, sympathetic magic, uterus, womb, yrk