Num. 5 goes into great length to preserve an ancient Israelite test for the unfaithful wife. The test was in the form of a drinking formula. The formula basically consisted of water, soil and the words of the curse/spell, which were erased and dissolved into the water. The purpose of dissolving these words into the water, apparently, was to transfer the spell, through the drinking of the formula, to her body and bring the curse upon her. If she was indeed guilty of adultery, the formula would bring on these painful symptoms (verse 27, NIV),

it will enter her, her abdomen will swell and her womb will miscarry, and she will become a curse.

Most scholars believe this to be a superstitious magic formula, which had no basis in reality, for how can mere soil and water cause bloating in the womb of the adulterous woman?

However, if we read the verses closely, I believe, we may find a hint that gives away that the formula contained some other ingredient as well. This is how the making of the formula is presented in the bible,

The priest shall bring her and have her stand before the LORD. 17 Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water. 18 After the priest has had the woman stand before the LORD, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the reminder-offering, the grain offering for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse.

An obvious question arises: if the water only contained soil why is it called 'bitter water'? Is it possible that some other ingredient has been omitted here; a bitter and poisonous herb, which made the water taste bitter? This is what got me thinking that perhaps a secret poisonous herb was added to the water (see sotah 20a), which also caused all the bloating in the abdomen described in the passage (whether this information was lost to the biblical writers or they intentionally concealed it, I cannot say). Furthermore, we can speculate that some would've been immune to this bloating-inducing herb; thus, not every person that drank the formula would get the horrible symptoms described in the passage. This would effectively explain how the faithful wife emerges unscathed,

If she has made herself impure and been unfaithful to her husband, this will be the result: When she is made to drink the water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering, it will enter her, her abdomen will swell and her womb will miscarry, and she will become a curse. If, however, the woman has not made herself impure, but is clean, she will be cleared of guilt and will be able to have children.

Is this interpretation likely? Had there been other scholars who suggested similar interpretations?

  • ,wouldn't the ink that had been scrapped into the water cause it to taste bitter May 28, 2018 at 14:05
  • very interesting
    – brewpixels
    Sep 1, 2018 at 20:12

3 Answers 3


At first glance I'm sceptical. There is no clear indication of a secret ingredient, and the text can be explained without it.

Eating soil (geophagia) is a concept known from around the world. Depending on the constitution and the state of the human, it can have both negative and positive effects. The negative effects include adbominal pains.

Calling a mixture of water with desert sand and other dirt bitter doesn't seem immediately odd to me either. The writer probably doesn't want to repeat "water with dust of the floor of the tabernacle", and uses "bitter water" to refer to specifically that water. The mixture wouldn't be salty, sweet or sour, so bitter seems appropriate (also, Hebrew מר may not relate one-to-one to our sense of bitter).

So, while your hypothesis is not impossible, it also doesn't seem necessary. Applying Ockham's razor I think we should "reject it pending further evidence".

  • Keelan your answer is not satisfactory. First of all, soil is probably more salty than bitter, so calling the mixture 'bitter water' strikes me as odd. Secondly, the text never identified the bitter ingredient that would justify calling the water 'bitter' later on. I think it is unusual for the biblical writers to leave us in the dark and let ourselves figure out that the soil is the bitter ingredient here; especially when it is not readily apparent from the context.
    – bach
    May 28, 2018 at 13:01
  • 1
    @Bach like I said, the words for tastes don't need to semantically overlap exactly with the ones in English. Similarly, Hebrew doesn't have a word for "blue". I don't think the reader is left in the dark. Compare "I saw someone walking his dog. The golden retriever was quite large." Inferring that the dog and the golden retriever refer to the same entity is not difficult, it happens all the time in language. That this is more difficult in a foreign, dead language is because you share less cultural background.
    – user2672
    May 28, 2018 at 15:08

Bill Gothard of the Institute of Basic Life Principles explains this by saying that standing before the LORD in the tabernacle and scooping up some of the dirt would have brought up a great many contaminants from the slaughter of animals and the like. This nasty concoction would have made a guilty person sick while a righteous person would have a less compromised immune system from a clear conscience, lack of fear and the like and would not have gotten sick.

I'm not saying that this is how this worked as it is not said that it is in the scriptures. This is an attempt at a naturalistic rationale for the trial by ordeal which seems to have a "ring of truth" to it but might not prove to be the case in a double blind study.

This may just be an example of "trial by ordeal" where one is subjected to danger (such as being abandoned in the middle of a jungle) and if you survive you are determined to be innocent but if not, you were guilty. This puts one's fate in the hands of the gods or in this case, the LORD, to be the judge.

Either way (or a combination of the two) the part about the filth of the tabernacle floor makes sense as the "secret ingredient" to make the trial work.

Related: Whose spirit is willing in Mark 14:38? (Look at the second half of the response by User10231 starting with the section "What if Peter had been converted when he denied the lord?"

  • Thanks Ruminator. Can you please cite your answer?
    – bach
    May 28, 2018 at 12:53
  • I added a link. The IBLP puts on live seminars which is where I heard the teaching. It may appear in some of their literature but I don't have any of it.
    – Ruminator
    May 28, 2018 at 12:55

First: מַר שֵם ז in hebrew (biblical) mean drop (of water). So it was less water then dirt, salt, etc ( if someone delete it in the past).

Another mean of מר is "feel bad (sad" so maybe the water didn't taste bitter (but reather salty) but it was something that make you feel really bad (even if it was just for couple of hours) if you needed to drink it. If you add that to the psycologicly state of the beliver in this type of scene it can explain the name also.

  • 1
    Yes, מר also means sad. The two meanings are related. However, when it is used in connection to edible/drinkable items, it would be very strange to go for that meaning rather than the one which is related to taste.
    – user2672
    May 28, 2018 at 18:20
  • But מר food can make you sad even if it's salty, can't it? Why sad? Cause you would know that your body will be in pain etc.
    – A. Meshu
    May 28, 2018 at 18:43
  • When we say, "the dice is fair", we understand that fair means "correct, honest, etc.", but when we say "my fair lady", we understand that fair means "beautiful". We resolve homonymy with context. That happens here as well. If food items can be sad, how would a native know whether the taste or the emotion is meant?
    – user2672
    May 28, 2018 at 18:46
  • Agree @Keelan - but why donvoting? Did i wrote something that didn't match your comments? (-:
    – A. Meshu
    May 29, 2018 at 11:36
  • This post suggests that the word מר in this context is used because it means "sad". I believe this is incorrect and that it means "bitter", for reasons outlined above. There may be some emotional connotation to its usage here, but that does not answer the question at hand.
    – user2672
    May 29, 2018 at 11:38

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