“The cohen will place the woman before Adonai, unbind the woman’s hair and put the grain offering for remembering in her hands, the grain offering for jealousy; while the cohen has in his hand the water of embitterment and cursing. The cohen will make her swear by saying to her, “If no man has gone to bed with you, if you have not gone astray to make yourself unclean while under your husband’s authority, then be free from this water of embitterment and cursing.”-Numbers 5:18-19
We’ve just begun studying one of the more fascinating parts in all of Torah.
We are presented with a situation where a man suspects his wife of having cheated on him.
The first question I want to address is why is the adulterous wife in Leviticus to be executed but the adulterous wife here in Numbers is not?
The answer is pretty simple actually.
In Leviticus the man knew 100% for sure his wife was cheating on him.
She was either caught in the act, there were two or more witnesses against her, or the wife herself admitted what she had done.
However, here in Numbers, things aren’t so clear cut.
The husband in question has suddenly been gripped with feelings of uncontrollable jealousy and only suspects his wife cheated on him.
Actually, the point of the husband only feeling suspicious or jealous is emphasized four times here in Numbers.
Before the Sinaitic Law was established, it’s important to understand in those days adultery was considered a religious or personal matter between a man and his wife.
It was NOT considered a matter requiring outside legal intervention.
Since there weren’t any legal restraints in place, if the husband only suspected his wife of cheating on him, he could up and kill her without having to worry about facing trial.
It didn’t matter whether or not he had any evidence to prove what he thought his wife had done.
Apparently this tragic scenario must have occurred with some degree of regularity because God here is putting His foot down and saying no more of this killing your wife based just on your feelings of suspicion.
That’s why God introduced the water ritual here in Numbers 5.
It’s all about the Lord’s compassion.
This water ordeal which had the suspected adulteress drink a cup filled with “water of embitterment and cursing” is nothing less than a trial by God with God being the only witness.
After the trial, if the woman was able to produce children without any problems, then that was an indication she was innocent.
If however, she remained barren over the passage of time, then that was an indication she was guilty.
Now honestly speaking, the ritual of having somebody drink magic water and then something either good or bad happening afterwards was a pretty common practice among the pagans.
In fact, the American Indians practiced a very similar ritual.
This ceremony is also reminiscent of the witch hunts that took place in America’s early history.
A woman suspected of practicing sorcery was placed on a dunking stool that was plunged into a pool of water.
Whether she drowned or not was the basis of whether she was guilty or innocent.
Also recall what Moses did in the Golden Calf incident back in the Book of Exodus?
He grounded up the Golden Calf into powder that was placed into cups of water and then had the transgressors drink from it.
Another interesting thing is that we’ll find the exact procedures for this water ritual in the texts from other ancient documents.
“They will draw water, drink, swear, and be pure.”
-From an Ancient Assyrian Text
“the dirt under the jamb
of the gate of Mari
they took and dissolved in water
and then drank.
Thus spoke Ea:
‘swear to the gods'”
-Akkadian Language Document from MARI
The basic concept and procedures from these other ancient gentile legal codes are pretty identical to what we’re presented with in Numbers 5.
After drinking the magic water, if something bad happened, that meant that the suspected party was guilty.
If nothing bad happened, then the suspected party was innocent.
This water ritual is just one example of many of God “borrowing” a common custom of the day and using it for His own purposes.