Monday, April 02, 2007

Numbers 5

Numbers 5: Purity of the camp; restitution for wrongs; test for an unfaithful wife


In this chapter, we are presented with some more rules/regulations for the Israelites, including a very interesting test for unfaithfulness—which, unfortunately, only applies to wives, not husbands.

In the first few verses, God commands the Israelites to send anyone who is “unclean”—that is, “anyone who has an infectious skin disease or a discharge of any kind, or who is ceremonially unclean because of a dead body” (verse 2)—outside of the camp, so as not to defile it.

The chapter then presents rules for making “restitution:”
  • Whenever one Israelite wronged another in any way, that person was to confess his or her sin.
    • Verse 6 in the NIV says “[w]hen a man or woman wrongs another in any way,” but the footnote says that this could also be translated “When a man or woman commits any wrong common to mankind,” which I think is a neat way of phrasing it.
  • The person who committed the wrong is to make full restitution, plus a fifth, to the wronged party.
  • Verse 8 says that if the wronged party “has no close relative to whom restitution can be made,” the restitution belongs to the LORD, meaning that it should be given to the priests, along with the ram which is to be brought for atonement. I’m assuming—which is not necessarily valid—that this is referring to the case where an Israelite wronged someone, and the wronged party died before the Israelite could (or would) make restitution.
This makes sense to me, except for the last part, which I highlighted above. But if my assumption is correct, then the whole thing makes perfect sense to me: If you wrong someone, pay them back—but don’t just pay them back, pay them back and add a fifth to it.

And now we get to the strange ceremony I’ve been alluding to:
  • Verses 11–31 present rules which apply when a husband suspects his wife of adultery. That is:
    Then the LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him by sleeping with another man, and this is hidden from her husband and her impurity is undetected (since there is no witness against her and she has not been caught in the act), and if feelings of jealousy come over her husband and he suspects his wife and she is impure—or if he is jealous and suspects her even though she is not impure—then he is to take his wife to the priest. (verses 11–15a)
    The priest would then perform the ceremony outlined here, to determine if she is really guilty. (Even though the verses quoted above assume guilt, the ceremony seems to be designed to prove either her innocence or her guilt.)
  • The ceremony is as follows:
    • The husband and wife were to go to the priest, and bring about 2 litres of barley, as a grain offering.
    • The priest was to have the woman stand before the LORD. He would then put some “holy water” in a clay jar, and then put some dust from the Tabernacle’s floor into it. He would then loosen her hair, and place the grain offering in her hands, while he himself held onto the “bitter water that brings a curse” (verse 18).
    • I’ll quote the next part verbatim:

      Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has slept with you and you have not gone astray and become impure while married to your husband, may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you. But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have defiled yourself by sleeping with a man other than your husband”—here the priest is to put the woman under this curse of the oath—“may the LORD cause your people to curse and denounce you when he causes your thigh to waste away and your abdomen to swell. May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells and your thigh wastes away.”

      Then the woman is to say, “Amen. So be it.”

      (verses 19–22)

    • The priest was then to write these curses on a scroll, but then wash the writing off into the bitter water.
    • The priest would then take the grain offering, wave it before the LORD, and bring it to the altar. He would burn a handful of it on the altar, and then have the woman drink the water.
  • If the woman had really been unfaithful to her husband, then the curses pronounced by the priest would come upon her: Her abdomen would swell and her thighs would waste away. On the other hand, if she was not guilty of being unfaithful, then she would be cleared of any wrongdoing.
  • And the last part bothers me the most:
    This, then, is the law of jealousy when a woman goes astray and defiles herself while married to her husband, or when feelings of jealousy come over a man because he suspects his wife. The priest is to have her stand before the LORD and is to apply this entire law to her. The husband will be innocent of any wrongdoing, but the woman will bear the consequences of her sin. (verses 29–31)
In a way, I get this, but in another way, it looks pretty patriarchal. The rule here is very one-sided; if a man suspected his wife of cheating on him, but had no proof, he could bring her to the priest, and go through this ceremony, and settle it once and for all. But what if the woman suspected her husband of cheating, and had no proof? There are no rules to redress this. And this is part of the reason I don’t like those last quoted verses; it seems that husbands could bring their wives to the priests pretty much on a whim—it only cost them a couple of litres of grain!—and go through this ceremony, and if it turned out she was innocent, there was no reproach to the husband. It would be very easy for husbands to abuse the system, using these rules, if they were unhappy with their wives for any reason at all.

On the other hand, however, we need to remember that this was a patriarchal society, and I’m assuming that’s why the rule was done the way it was done. It would be easy, in such a society, for a husband who was unhappy with his wife to simply claim she was an adulteress, bringing shame on her and ruining the rest of her life, and she would have no power to fight it. Under these rules, if a man suspected his wife of cheating, even though she hadn’t, this ceremony would at least clear her name. A husband couldn’t just tarnish his wife’s reputation by claiming, without any proof, that she was an adulteress; they’d have to go through this ceremony, and innocent women would be proven innocent.


Of course, aside from the patriarchal aspects involved in the ceremony above, it’s also very strange, to my Western eyes. It’s the only such ceremony that I know of in the Bible. I’m assuming that the LORD’s hand would be involved in this situation; since He knew the truth of the situation, if the woman was guilty of adultery, I’m assuming that He would intervene, and cause the curses to happen. Another theory is that psychology was supposed to be involved; perhaps, during the ceremony, if the woman was guilty, it was expected that she would confess to her guilt.

I don’t know of any cases where the ceremony was actually practised.

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