(KJV) Numbers 5:11

11 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, 12 Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, If any man's wife go aside, and commit a trespass against him, 13 And a man lie with her carnally, and it be hid from the eyes of her husband, and be kept close, and she be defiled, and there be no witness against her, neither she be taken with the manner;

(KJV) Numbers 5:21-23

21 Then the priest shall charge the woman with an 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 rot, and thy belly to swell; 22 And this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, to make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to rot: And the woman shall say, Amen, amen. 23 And the priest shall write these curses in a book, and he shall blot them out with the bitter water: 24 And he shall cause the woman to drink the bitter water that causeth the curse:

A woman suspected of adultery is taken before the priest to undergo a test of bitter waters that causes a curse.

My question is what happened if the woman refused to undertake the test?

  • +1 There is an answer, suggested below, that this was somehow "advantageous" for women to go ahead with this farce. Given the open corruption of the priesthood and legal system in Israel, (according to Scripture), this sounds like a great way to get yourself killed. So, yes - they "had to" according to law. And this is a great question, "What would happen if a woman ran, refused to go, or drink? For whatever reason?" Jul 10, 2017 at 18:30

2 Answers 2


The ritual prescribed for the woman suspected of adultery is found in Numbers 5:11-31.

OP's question is answered by continuing the initial passage quoted, beyond verse 13:

... 14 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— 15 then he is to take his wife to the priest.NIV

(Emphasis added.) That is, (1) the action undertaken is initiated by the husband in absence of evidence; and (2) the wife does not have an option in this case. If the husband initiates the process, then the wife must undergo the ritual.

It is to both their advantages that she does so. Obviously, the advantage to the wife is that she maintains her honour (assuming the result of the ritual is favourable). With innocence affirmed, her capacity to bear children is also affirmed (Num 5:28). While this might seem somewhat random in to modern sensibilities, it was an issue of fundamental importance to married women in that culture (cf. Hannah in 1 Samuel 1).

The advantage to the husband is that the sanctity of the marriage is maintained: it has been suggested that the divorce law of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 implies that marital union with a "defiled" woman pollutes the land.

This latter point is made by Tikva Frymer-Kensky in her important article: "The Strange Case of the Suspected Sotah (Numbers V 11-31)," Vetus Testamentum 34.1 (1984): 11-26 (see p. 18). It would be worth reading her article in full to gain insight into this unusual biblical ritual.

  • Moderator notice: Non constructive and off-topic comments have been removed. Offering a critique or requesting clarification is fine, but the be nice rule still applies. As for extended discussion about a topical matters and the relative merits of different world views — comments are just not the place for that.
    – Caleb
    Jul 13, 2017 at 12:08

1. Question Restatement:

In Numbers 5, what legal consequences might have been invoked - according to Biblical texts - if a woman refused to take the test of the bitter waters, like running away, refusing to drink, or even just verbally protesting?

Note: Omitting any analysis from the Talmud/Mishnah since it would be anachronistic to apply it to Ancient Israel, (since the Talmud was created 300 A.D., and the Oral Law was rejected and not observed by the Priests anyway.)

2. Answer, Exiled and Cursed:

The original form of this ritual test was to prove innocence, not guilt.

And by "original" - I mean, when the presence of "God" was to have been in the Temple / Tabernacle.

If the woman had fled, refused to drink, etc, the people would have assumed she committed "adultery" by default. Her own refusal would serve as evidence against her. And, she would likely/probably be stoned by a mob.

But, if everything was done legally, and "in order", there are Scriptural provisions that could have been invoked - so she would not have to take the test, or even die. ...

There are a few "catch all" laws in Scripture, that can essentially exile anyone from Israel for any breach, and "refusal to submit to lawful authorities" would have certainly fallen into that category.

NASB, Leviticus 18:20 - You shall not have intercourse with your neighbor’s wife, to be defiled with her.

NASB, Leviticus 18:29 - For whoever does any of these abominations, those persons who do so shall be cut off from among their people.

NASB, Deuteronomy 28:15 - “But it shall come about, if you do not obey the Lord your God, to observe to do all His commandments and His statutes with which I charge you today, that all these curses will come upon you and overtake you:


At the very least, the woman would likely be "cut off" from Israel, (exiled, etc.), and if God wasn't merciful, then all the curses would apply too.

It is also possible that the husband might experience a "change of heart", and drop the accusation.

Frankly, this ritual could be seen as a mercy - as it probably would not have had the negative side effects stated in Scripture. (That is, God might have been trying to make sure that "mercy" would prevail). But, after the Priesthood and Legal System got corrupted - I think anyone in their right mind would have ran, (both women AND men).

An Objection Against the supposed "Advantage" of this Law, and against this as "a right women enjoyed", (stated in another answer and comments): Not only could men get rid of innocent women through a corrupt priest, but also: a woman could be used to provoke her husband, then be "proven innocent" by a corrupt priest, and then the man could be killed once a mob had been incited against him for "false accusation".

There is zero "advantage" in this system or "cause for enjoyment" - if God was not truly involved, (which the majority of Hebrew Scripture is spent on saying how he wasn't).

  • While this answer seems well reasoned, if true there would be record of it; but there's no such record. It went the other way; the test was embraced not shunned.
    – Joshua
    Jan 28 at 4:56

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