If your husband were to accuse you of cheating on him, would you be willing to rely on this test to reveal the truth?
The priest shall bring [the suspected adulteress] and have her stand before the Lord. Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water. 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. Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has had sexual relations 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 made yourself impure by having sexual relations with a man other than your husband … may the Lord cause you to become a curse among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell….”
Then the woman is to say, “Amen. So be it.”
…[The priest] is to have the woman drink the water. If she has made herself impure and been unfaithful to her husband, … 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. (Abridged from Numbers 5:11-31)
Bizarre as the procedure appears to the modern reader, it’s actually quite humane: the ordinary course of events would show the woman innocent, and supernatural intervention would be required for a guilty outcome. (Some interpretations of this passage notwithstanding, holy water mixed with floor dust was presumably not poison.) This stands in contrast to trials-by-ordeal not found in the Bible, in which the accused had to handle red-hot iron or perform other hellish feats in order to prove their innocence.
This passage is also humane simply because it requires a suspicious husband to follow due process and respect its outcome, rather than taking matters into his own hands.
So, we have an Old Testament passage that is actually quite enlightened. However, some people object because there is no mention of a similar trial for a possibly cheating husband.
Paul Copan’s reply in the book that has been the subject of my last several posts, Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God, is that this passage applied equally to both sexes:
…consider the context, which gives every reason to think that this law applied to men as well. Before and after this passage, the legislation concerns both men and women. …It wasn’t just the husband’s prerogative to call for this special trail; the wife could as well. (Page 105.)
Really? Really?? Every aspect of this trial, from the loosening of the woman’s hair at the outset, to the miscarriage or child-bearing as the outcome, makes clear that it was for women only.
Nobody can read the Old Testament and come away with the impression that men and women had identical roles. For example, it was the father’s prerogative to sell his daughter into what we might politely call a servant-with-benefits arrangement (Exodus 21:7-11). There is no mention of the mother participating in this decision, much less of the daughter doing so.
When Dr. Copan says that a jealous wife could call for the trial described in Numbers 5, he diminishes the credibility of his book. Why doesn’t he just admit that in Old Testament times a man’s sexual infidelity was of less concern than a woman’s? As I mentioned in the post Is the Bible Perfect?, Dr. Copan is surprisingly candid about texts in the Bible that needed a “moral upgrade” — and received one in later passages. Why not be equally candid here?
As problematic Bible passages go, this one isn’t so bad. When Dr. Copan goes so overboard in defending it, inventing convenient ideas that neither the text nor cultural norms warrant, common sense alone is enough to rebut him. That leaves the average reader wondering, “What about his arguments in other areas, where I have to take his word on scholarly matters that go beyond common sense? Can I trust him?”
Of all the bones I have to pick with Dr. Copan’s book, this is a small one. However, his claim that a woman could call for the trial is so outlandish that I had to include it in this series.
If you’re interested in learning more about this unusual judicial proceeding, including Jewish traditions in the Talmud and Mishnah, check out this Wikipedia article: Ordeal of the Bitter Water.