The Spirit of Jealousy Trial

17 Nov

from Google Images

In Numbers 5:11-31 we find a very strange ceremony, at least by modern standards, whereby suspicion of guilt over adultery is satisfied by one drinking holy water. First, the water is mixed with the dust of the Tabernacle, making it bitter (Numbers 5:17). Afterwards, an offering is made by burning barley meal on the altar of God (Numbers 5:12-15, 23-26). The point is, if the person is guilty, that one’s belly would swell up and the thigh would rot (Numbers 5:27)—presumably death would follow. Nevertheless, if death did not follow, the Law does prescribe public execution (Leviticus 20:10).[1]

The Scripture prescribes this ceremony to establish the wife’s guilt or innocence to satisfy the husband’s suspicion, and this has led some to conclude that God looks more favorably upon males rather than females. However, the ceremony is immediately preceded by and concluded with God’s commands for the “children of Israel” or both male and female. This has led some scholars to conclude that, while the ceremony is worded to establish the wife’s guilt or innocence, there is no reason why the same ceremony couldn’t have been performed to establish the husband’s guilt or innocence, if his wife had the spirit of jealousy.

Let’s take a closer look at the Scripture and read it as though it involved only the wife’s guilt or innocence. That is, let’s presume the critic’s argument that the bitter water was only for the wife to drink. Nevertheless, there is absolutely no evidence in Scripture that this trial was ever carried out for either a wife or a husband. Presumably, it was, but evidence is lacking in the text.

First of all, we can see that God assumes innocence in the case of jealousy. How do we know? Notice that no leaven (or anything else) was added to the barley meal offering (Numbers 5:15). Leaven is a type of sin. Sin simply is not presumed in the ceremony. The woman was considered innocent unless proved otherwise.

Secondly, this law actually protects the innocent (wife in the text), because of the fact that she was considered innocent unless her belly swelled and her leg rotted. In other words, unless a supernatural event occurred to establish guilt, the woman always went free. This law would certainly benefit the woman in a patriarchal society, whereby inconsiderate males might wish to get rid of their wives without incurring any cost under the law. Some critics liken this ceremony to the River Ordeal practiced in Babylon, Assyria and Sumer, whereby the one suspected of a (any) crime was cast into a tar pit (river). If he was able to swim out he was innocent; if he couldn’t swim or was overcome by the toxic fumes, he was considered guilty—this was the general judicial treatment in those ANE lands for inconclusive criminal cases. One has to wonder, if a choice had to be made, would anyone today choose the tar pit sentence over the bitter water ceremony?

Therefore, while the world (Babylon, Assyria and Sumer) assume the guilt of those suspected of crimes unless proved innocent, God (through the Mosaic Law) assumes innocence and puts ‘jealousy’ in check. Just because one suspects someone is guilty (of anything), this does not mean that one is guilty. In fact, God shows that, unless he specifically and miraculously makes it known to us, we should presume innocence. Rather than it being evidence of the mistreatment of women in the ANE culture, the Mosaic Law at Numbers 5 protects the woman, who is more vulnerable in a patriarchal society, and prevents the proud, prejudiced and perhaps violent male from publicly humiliating and arbitrarily threatening to abandon his wife.


[1] As I said HERE, this current theme about “making sense of the Old Testament God” is based upon the book: Is God a Moral Monster by Paul Copan. These are my thoughts about his book. He may or may not agree with the impression his book has made upon me, but I thoroughly enjoyed reading what Paul wrote and recommend his book to anyone who is looking for a good read concerning defending our faith.

Comments Off on The Spirit of Jealousy Trial

Posted by on November 17, 2015 in apologetics


Tags: , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: