On God-ordained, Abortion-inducing Magic Potions and Jealous Husbands Shaming Their Wives in the Bible

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.

Where is NonStampCollector when you need him? This needs to be a video.


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.

13 Responses

  1. So three quick notes as this thought continues to develop:

    1) No, I do not think this process actually worked, and by that I mean the drinking of holy water plus dirt plus the ink of a written curse induced menstruation, an abortion, or any thing of the sort.

    2) The point is that they believed it worked. Thus, if this process actually ever took place in ancient Israel (and this is a legitimate question among scholars), it more likely served as a psychological deterrent for the wife or reassurance for the husband. That is to say, if a woman believed that this process worked and faced prospect of being found out even if she was completely clandestine, then the retainer of this process of divination would have had value and we can understand why ancient Israel would have retained it. Likewise, if a skeptical or clever woman who had cheated was willing to take the risk, going through the process and not dying could serve as reassurance to the husband, who saw that even God declares she didn’t cheat. This offers some theoretical motivation for why ancient Israel would have retained this clear example of divination.

    3) So what’s the point? The point is that this example of sympathetic magic–one that potentially kills wife and unborn child–was retained by ancient Israel in the pages of its holy book. The point is ultimately to show that from a believer’s standpoint, the hermeneutics of Reform Judaism and Progressive/Liberal Christianity are really the only ways to get around such a chauvinistic and ethically problematic portion of the Bible. These groups simply acknowledge that this was done in history, that it was part of ancient Israel’s beliefs at the time, that this was their attempt to describe God at that time, that this practice is clearly wrong, as it both demeans women and does not accurately portray the deity, and thus can be dismissed as a form of guidance or instruction to the believer, other than to serve as an example of what people can do to one another in the name of religion. Conservative Evangelicals, fundamentalists, those believing in biblical inerrancy, or in the perfect revelation of God, etc., cannot do this, and therefore must contend with various apologetic ways in which to harmonize this troubling episode with their theology. This episode is ethically abhorrent on the part of the deity, precisely because it shames women (note there is no instruction about what to do when women are jealous) and portrays the deity as one who is more than willing to punish the unborn child for the crimes of the mother. However, if you believe that it accurately portrays God, then, of course, some must find a way to defend the practice. Of course, skeptics, agnostics, etc. simply read it as yet another example of what ancient peoples believed.

    But no, I don’t believe this process actually worked, so efforts to determine what potentially abortifacient chemicals may have been in the ink, etc., are ultimately unproductive, as the entire point of this episode is the believed numinous power of writing in antiquity and the persistence of unscientific myths in the bible similar to the imprinting reproductive qualities and reproductive qualities of mandrakes in Gen. 30 – both of which are similar tales pertaining to reproduction that have been utterly debunked.

    Ultimately, given these three reproductive myths in the Bible, and the persistence and endorsement of polygamy, infanticide, and the use of rape and kidnapping to procure wives, the question must finally be ask how anyone could look to the Bible for any modern instruction whatsoever regarding sexual reproduction.

  2. Tabernacle ordinances have been changed – it is no longer physical under the New Agreement – the old being a shadow of the New, of course.

    Yĕhowshuwa` Anointed now dwells in believers instead of tents or buildings; and we in Him.

    What do you say an Israelite husband should have done, in 3000 B.C., when he suspected his wife was an adulteress? (we’re talking about a capital offense). This is innocent until proven guilty ordinance – an example of tolerance and mercy – when he might have just caved her head in instead (again, we’re talking about a capital offense).

  3. This is an interesting post. But to argue that it is about abortion or pregnancy is flawed. Not all acts of intercourse result in pregnancy. In fact, most acts of intercourse do not result in pregnancy. According to the account the husband is jealous that his wife is unfaithful and yet he cannot prove it. If a pregnancy was the result of every adulterous act then all the jealous husband would have to do is abstain from sexual intercourse with his wife, wait a few months and the evidence of the adulterous relationship would be manifest because the woman would be visibly pregnant. He would then have proof and both the adulterous wife and her lover would be stoned according to Mosaic law.

    This passage hinges on suspicion of adultery not suspicion of pregnancy caused by adultery. You are assuming that drinking of the bitter water is meant to rid the uterus of its contents (a bastard embryo or fetus). I offer the following commentary taken from the Old Testament Student Manual (Genesis – 2 Samuel) published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. (found at this link: https://www.lds.org/manual/old-testament-student-manual-genesis-2-samuel/numbers-1-12-wilderness-wanderings-part-1?lang=eng)

    “(17-10) Numbers 5:11–31. The Trial of Jealousy

    This law for determining the guilt or innocence of an adulterer is puzzling in many respects. At first it seems heavily biased against the woman for there is no similar requirement for the man. A close examination of the law will show what was involved in it and why the Lord revealed it.

    “The rabbins who have commented on this text give us the following information: When any man, prompted by the spirit of jealousy, suspected his wife to have committed adultery, he brought her first before the judges, and accused her of the crime; but as she asserted her innocency, and refused to acknowledge herself guilty, and as he had no witnesses to produce, he required that she be sentenced to drink the waters of bitterness which the law had appointed; that God, by this means, might discover what she wished to conceal. After the judges had heard the accusation and the denial, the man and his wife were both sent to Jerusalem, to appear before the Sanhedrin, who were the sole judges in such matters. The rabbins say that the judges of the Sanhedrin, at first endeavoured with threatenings to confound the woman, and cause her to confess her crime; when she still persisted in her innocence, she was led to the eastern gate of the court of Israel, where she was stripped of the clothes she wore, and dressed in black before a number of persons of her own sex. The priest then told her that if she knew herself to be innocent she had no evil to apprehend; but if she were guilty, she might expect to suffer all that the law threatened; to which she answered, Amen, amen.

    “The priest then wrote the words of the law upon a piece of vellum, with ink that had no vitriol in it, that it might be the more easily blotted out. The words written on the vellum were, according to the rabbins, the following:—‘If a strange man have not come near thee, and thou art not polluted by forsaking the bed of thy husband, these bitter waters which I have cursed will not hurt thee: but if thou have gone astray from thy husband, and have polluted thyself by coming near to another man, may thou be accursed of the Lord, and become an example for all his people; may thy thigh rot, and thy belly swell till it burst! may these cursed waters enter into thy belly, and, being swelled therewith, may thy thigh putrefy!’

    “After this the priest took a new pitcher, filled it with water out of the brazen bason that was near the altar of burnt-offering, cast some dust into it taken from the pavement of the temple, mingled something bitter, as wormwood, with it, and having read the curses above mentioned to the woman, and received her answer of Amen, he scraped off the curses from the vellum into the pitcher of water. During this time another priest tore her clothes as low as her bosom, made her head bare, untied the tresses of her hair, fastened her torn clothes with a girdle below her breasts, and presented her with the tenth part of an ephah, or about three pints of barley-meal, which was in a frying pan, without oil or incense.

    “The other priest, who had prepared the waters of jealousy, then gave them to be drank by the accused person, and as soon as she had swallowed them, he put the pan with the meal in it into her hand. This was waved before the Lord, and a part of it thrown into the fire of the altar. If the woman was innocent, she returned with her husband; and the waters, instead of incommoding her, made her more healthy and fruitful than ever: if on the contrary she were guilty, she was seen immediately to grow pale, her eyes started out of her head, and, lest the temple should be defiled with her death, she was carried out, and died instantly with all the ignominious circumstances related in the curses.” (Clarke, Bible Commentary, 1:634.)

    Several points should be noted.

    1. Although this ritual focused on the woman, it in no way implied that men who committed adultery were to be excused, for the law clearly stated that adulterers of both sexes were to be stoned (see Leviticus 20:10).
    2. In a way, the law provided protection of two different kinds for a woman. First, without this law it is possible that a husband could unjustly accuse his wife of infidelity. If his word alone were sufficient to convict her, she would be in a terrible state indeed. Putting the determination of guilt or innocence into the hands of God rather than into the hands of her husband, or even other men, ensured that she could vindicate herself if she were innocent.
    The second positive benefit is more subtle but probably is of even greater value. If a husband suspected his wife of adultery, one result would be a terrible strain in the husband-wife relationship. In today’s legal system, with no witnesses to prove her guilt, the court would probably declare her not guilty. But the basis for her acquittal would be a lack of positive evidence of her guilt rather than proof of her innocence. Such a legal declaration, therefore, would do little to alleviate the doubts of the husband and the estrangement would likely continue. Neighbors and friends also would probably harbor lingering suspicions about her innocence. With the trial of jealousy, however, dramatic proof of God’s declaration of her innocence would be irrefutable. The reputation of the woman would be saved and a marriage relationship healed. Thus, true justice and mercy were assured, and the whole matter would be laid promptly to rest.

    3. Those who ask why there was no parallel test a woman could ask of her husband should remember that if the accused woman refused to undergo the trial by drinking the water, her action was considered a confession of guilt. Thus, she and her partner in the evil act would be put to death (see Leviticus 20:10). If she attempted to lie and pass the test, but brought the curses upon herself, this result too was considered proof of the guilt of her male partner. It is possible that a wife who believed her husband guilty of infidelity could ask that his suspected partner be put to the trial of jealousy. The outcome would immediately establish the guilt or innocence of her husband as well as that of the other woman.
    Thus, in a world where the rights of women were often abused, the Lord provided a means for protecting their rights as well as seeing that evil was put away and justice done.”

    Now all of this assumes that the Hebrew Bible, as we have it, has come down to us correctly interpreted. And it assumes that the wife, if innocent, has sufficient faith in the Hebrew God to drink a man-made poison potion and not die from the draught. Nevertheless, I agree with you that the Hebrew Bible has been used to justify oppression of women and many other groups of peoples throughout time.

  4. For my own part, I fail to see any problem with the notion of an evolving morality to which God condescends, though I suppose my particular views aren’t really in question here.

    I’m still not sure there’s a one-to-one correlation between this ritual and modern day abortion, however. After all, even some of the staunchest members of the pro-life crowd make distinctions between the agents, causes, and motivations of killing, noting that obviously not every infant’s life must be preserved in all cases. Usually when a mother’s life is in jeopardy they consider it acceptable to terminate a pregnancy. And one can easily see how ending a life for economic reasons, emotional reasons, or even convenience might differ from ending a life for religious reasons. One might not like that logic, but it can be quite consistent. And the killing of an infant isn’t necessarily considered problematic when it’s God himself doing the killing, which is where I think your example would fall. It hardly seems plausible (as you note) that the dirty water would have been understood as a natural abortifacient and instead appears far more likely that it was conceived of as a magical potion of some kind. Yet magical potions get their power from the divine, so it’s no stretch to simply chalk this scenario up to God’s will, which isn’t considered problematic.

    There are some great observations here, but I certainly don’t think it’s an air-tight argument. The evangelical pro-lifer may end up having to ask some questions about God’s character, but I don’t see how their fundamental position is radically affected.

  5. Bob wrote, “…(note there is no instruction about what to do when women are jealous).”

    Polygyny was common, polyandry was not. Husbands had (have) a liberty that wives did (do) not. Polygyny is a natural expression of human sexuality, condoned by Scripture.

    The traditional orthodox vows taken by Christians in 2015 concoct a prohibition against polygyny that is not found in Scripture – “forsake all others”.

  6. HOW PRO-LIFE IS THE BIBLE?

    According to the God of the Bible it was more important to stone a woman to death if she should “entice you to follow after other gods,” than it was to rescue the life of any fetus she might have been carrying.

    It was more important to stone a woman to death the day after her wedding night “if she was discovered not to have been a virgin,” than it was to wait and see if she might have conceived new life that night.

    It was more important to stone a woman to death for “adultery,” than to wait and see if she might be pregnant.

    It was more important to stone a woman to death for “failing to cry out while being raped within earshot of the city,” than it was to spare the life she might have conceived during that ordeal, during which the rapist may have held a knife to her throat, or strangled her into silence and submission.

    And what about the test of “bitter water” mentioned in chapter five of the book of Numbers? The test consisted of mixing dust from the floor of the Hebrew tabernacle with “holy water” to make a concoction that a woman drank to test whether or not she had committed adultery. (The dust from the floor of the tabernacle was probably littered with blood and other drippings from sacrificed animals, Plenty of bacteria grows on that stuff. No health inspector would recommend licking an unrefrigerated and unsanitized slaughterhouse floor, which could be quite bad for one’s health indeed.) If she had, it says, “her belly will swell and her thigh will rot.” Scholars have pointed out that “thigh” is a euphemism for sexual organs. So if the woman had committed adultery and had conceived as a result, then the “bitter water” would induce an abortion (“her thigh would rot”). (I wonder if this means that Bible-believing women who are accused of having affairs ought to swallow some dirt from the floor of their church mixed with “holy water?” Or better yet, swallow an abortion pill like RU-486 in front of the whole congregation?)

    And what about children who “curse their parents?” The Bible says, “Kill them!” (Ex. 21:17; Lev. 20:9; Mat. 15:4; Mark 7:10) The Bible does not say how old the child has to be, but it does emphatically state they must “surely be put to death” should they “curse their parents.”

    Ah, the good old days, when God fearing people had higher priorities than “saving fetal lives.” They were too busy stoning whomever enticed them to worship other gods, stoning adulteresses, stoning women who weren’t virgins on their wedding night, stoning women who “failed to cry out” during rape, and stoning sassy children. In other words they were too busy with all of those higher priorities to worry about “the fate of fetuses.”

  7. The dust from the floor of the tabernacle was probably littered with blood and other drippings from sacrificed animals, Plenty of bacteria grows on that stuff. No health inspector would recommend licking an unrefrigerated and unsanitized slaughterhouse floor, which could be quite bad for one’s health indeed.

  8. @Lynne Cropper

    Delayed I know, but you seem to be assuming that a husband could be punished for sleeping with any woman not his wife. This isn’t so. The Bible defines adultery entirely by the marital status of the women, not that of the man. For a married women to sleep with a man not her husband is adultery, whether the man in question is married or not. For a man to sleep with a woman who is not his wife is only adultery if the woman in question is married. (Even Leviticus 20:10 specifies it is the women’s marital status that is important.)

    If a woman was jealous because she suspected her husband was sleeping with another woman, she could only bring the issue before the courts if the “other woman” was married. It the woman was not married, tough luck. In fact, revealing the affair might cause said women to become another of her husband’s wives, provided she wasn’t a widow or a prostitute (as per Exodus 22:16).

  9. Bob: I think you are making a mistake in this last comment. Ladysunami is talking to Lynne when she says “you seem to be assuming…”. She’s not talking to you.

    That said, I have one brief comment on this interesting discussion.

    We read Numbers and indeed the whole Bible through our modern scientific understanding of the world. The original recipients did not. Thus we ascribe the power to cause abortion to the potion itself, not to God. The ancients would not do this. If the potion caused abortion it was believed to be God’s judgement, not the chemical power of the potion.

  10. You are correct. I saw the @ comment as sender not as responding to. I’ll delete my comment.

  11. Rick,

    You are correct in that the ancients would to have attributed the abortion to God. To be sure. My point is, that the written curse is what activates or enables the curse brought about by God. They would have indeed understood it to be God bringing about the abortion, but they would also have understood the curse, that is the written curse erased into the potion, to be that which activates or enables God’s judgment in this case. If that were not the case, they would just bring her before the priest, who would throw the urim and thumim, and God would divine her to have cheated. (note also that that is also divination). God doesn’t just judge in these cases, he is invited or activated to judge by the use of sympathetic magic. Otherwise, there would be no need for the elaborate potion.

  12. […] of infidelity (again reducing her ability to produce purebred offspring of known origin), he can forcibly give her an abortion potion. Never say Jehovah is anything less than a bro. (See also Fifteen Bible Texts Reveal Why God’s […]

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