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In the book of Numbers, there is a very interesting test for a woman suspected of committing adultery. After some initial discussion, if the woman refuses to admit her sin, or is innocent, the priest will write the curses that might fall upon her on a scroll. Then he will scrape this ink off the scroll into some water that already had some dirt sprinkled into it. If she was guilty, she would suffer as a result, even though it could never be proved. If she was innocent than she would be fine; the bitter water would not harm her.

23The priest is to write these curses on a scroll and then wash them off into the bitter water. 24He shall have the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and this water will enter her and cause bitter suffering. 25The priest is to take from her hands the grain offering for jealousy, wave it before the LORD and bring it to the altar. 26The priest is then to take a handful of the grain offering as a memorial offering and burn it on the altar; after that, he is to have the woman drink the water. 27If she has defiled herself and been unfaithful to her husband, then when she is made to drink the water that brings a curse, it will go into her and cause bitter suffering; her abdomen will swell and her thigh waste away, and she will become accursed among her people. (Numbers 5:23-27)

My question is, Why was not such a ‘miraculous test’ made for men, whose wives had suspected them of being adulterous? I have my own theory that I may post later. As extreme as this case is, I do not see it as sexual discrimination by an unjust man based society. I am looking for answer that unfolds the righteousness of God in his holy laws. For bonus points, any symbolic meaning attached to the practice is also welcome.

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3 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

This test has many dimensions to it. It has little to do with the guilt or innocence of the woman.

In order for the test to apply, the woman must become foolish. This has been interpreted to mean that she has aroused her husband's jealousy by flirting. Or she has aroused the suspicion of witnesses to her flirting, but they have not witnessed adultery, and have made it known to the husband.

The time of causing suspicion must be followed by a period of sufficient length of time where the two were isolated together and had opportunity for adultery. see Rashi's comments

If the husband is suspicious, the test is a method of being reconciled.

If the community is suspicious, the husband may not have relations with her until she is cleared.

The first effect of the law is that it is a deterrent. And apparently an effective one since part of the law is that a woman so condemned would become a curse. Her name would be used in a phrase such as '...may you be as so-and-so who cheated on her husband." There is no record of a woman who has become such a curse.

The second effect is that innocent women are not put away because of libelous suspicions of the community or simple jealousies of the husband.

The third effect is that it caused a jealous husband to reconsider his jealousy. If she had really been unfaithful, she would die during the test. He had to consider if he really wanted to put her to death, or to grant mercy in the absence of proof.

The OP asks why is there not a test for the suspected man. The simple answer is that a woman could not divorce her husband even if he was unfaithful, nor could she have him put to death.

1Co 11:8 For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man.

1Co 11:9 Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.

However, some have interpreted that the test also applies to the adulterer:

causing the belly to swell and the thigh to rupture: [This refers to] the belly and thigh of the adulterer, or perhaps only those of the adulteress? [However,] when Scripture says “causes your thigh to rupture and your belly to swell” (verse 21), those of the adulteress are stated [thus here it must refer to the adulterer]. — [Sotah 28a and Sifrei Naso 1:65]

If the man and the woman were guilty, they could either confess and be stoned, or face the test, hoping to gain mercy from God, which would certainly be a life-changing event.

Christians see this as a commentary on Jesus (the man) and the church (the woman).

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Under torah a woman does not have standing to bring a legal claim against her husband, nor can she initiate a divorce. It seems to follow, then, that she could not initiate the sotah ritual against a straying husband. (Note that if there has been adultery, then this means the other man's wife, if he is married, has no recourse against him.)

According to torah, capital offenses -- of which adultery is one -- require witnesses. If someone commits a capital offense but there are no witnesses, an earthly court cannot convict and punishment is in the hands of heaven. The ritual described here can only be invoked when there are no witnesses (Num 5:13). So this ritual must have some purpose other than to punish; a court can't punish anyway in this case, and God doesn't need a special ritual to punish wrongdoers. What might that purpose be?

This ritual actually provides some protection for the accused woman. In the passage in Numbers 5 note that she has to consent:

21 then the priest shall cause the woman to swear with the oath of cursing, and the priest shall say unto the woman--the LORD make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when the LORD doth make thy thigh to fall away, and thy belly to swell;
22 and this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, and make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to fall away'; and the woman shall say: 'Amen, Amen.'

I wondered what happens in the case where she doesn't consent. The answer is that he has to give her a divorce on the spot. Without this ritual and without witnesses, he would be able to stay in the marriage, taking his suspicions out on her and perhaps holding a divorce "hostage" to other demands, so to speak. (Even in the case where she is innocent, she might be better off refusing and getting out of a marriage to someone jealous enough to invoke this ritual!)

While the focus here is on the woman, the only one who can be accused, this does not mean that the man won't also be divinely punished if they are guilty (as noted by Bob in his answer).


Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of a religious belief or doctrine.

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Well thought out answer with extra things I have not considered. –  Mike May 19 '13 at 22:57
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I'm no expert, and I can't provide an answer for what this practice means in the context in which it was given (beyond what has already been answered), but I certainly see plenty of Christ. He is the man who is justly jealous for the adulterous ways of His bride the church. However, though He would be well within His rights to have the church drink the curse and suffer from the bitter water, and though His bride deserves an agonizing death for the treatment she has offered toward Him, He Himself has drank the curse down fully. His love extends beyond the normal bounds. Whereas this law allows for, and the justice of God prescribes, punishment for adultery, He suffers the hurt twofold as the one cheated against and the one bearing the punishment.

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This is interesting Ryan. Thank you for contributing and welcome to BH-SE! Here are some things I have discovered to be core in answering questions on this site. 1) Answer only questions you are confident about. 2) Begin with the question and keep the text the focus. 3) Show your work logically, step by step. 4) Support all assertions with quotations/citations/links to credible sources. 5) Stop short of application (avoid getting into what difference it makes today). 6) When you are done, check and make sure you have answered the question. These should get you off to a fairly good start. –  Sarah Mar 19 at 12:54
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