Numbers 5

The Word Made Fresh

1The LORD said to Moses, 2“Tell the people that anyone who has leprosy, or bodily secretions, or has touched a dead body, must be quarantined outside the camp. 3Man or woman, send them outside so they will not contaminate the camp, for my dwelling is among those in the camp.” 4The Israelites did as Moses instructed them.

5The LORD said, 6“Tell the Israelites that whenever a man or woman wrongs another, they are being unfaithful to the LORD. 7They must admit their error and repay, plus twenty percent, the one they have wronged. 8If the injured party has no close relative to whom the payment can be made, it belongs to the LORD and must be given to the priest, plus a ram for reconciliation. 9Every sacred gift the Israelites bring to the priest belongs to the LORD. 10Each person’s sacred gift must belong to them, but what is given to the priest belongs to the LORD.”

11Then the LORD told Moses to speak to the people and tell them, 12“If a man suspects his wife of being unfaithful 13by having sexual intercourse with another man, but there are no witnesses and she wasn’t caught in the act, 14and the man is overcome with jealousy whether or not she has been unfaithful, 15he is to bring his wife to the priest. He must also bring two quarts of barley flour, the offering required for her. He must not pour oil on it or put incense on it because it is an offering that seeks retribution for a sin. 16The priest will bring her to stand before the LORD. 17He will pour some sacred water into a jar and add some dust from the floor of the sanctuary. 18He will loosen her hair and place the grain offering in her hands. He will hold the jar of bitter water which will reveal the sin.19Then the priest shall make her swear to her innocence and tell her that if she has not committed adultery the water will not harm her, 20but if she is guilty and has committed adultery 21 the LORD will make of her a curse among the people by making her womb reveal her guilt. 22The woman must respond by saying, ‘Amen, let it be so.’

23“Then the priest will write down the accusations made against her and wash the words into the bitter water. 24He will tell the woman she must drink the water and the water will cause severe pain within her. 25The priest will then take the grain offering from her hands, raise it before the LORD and bring it to the altar. 26He shall burn a handful of the grain on the altar, and then make the woman drink the water. 27If she has committed adultery and been unfaithful to her husband, the bitter water will cause bitter suffering. Her stomach will be swollen, and her womb will be wasted, and her family will disown her. 28However, if she is not guilty, she will be pronounced innocent, and she still be able to have children.

29“This will be the legal process in situations where a husband is jealous because he believes his wife has been unfaithful. 30When a man becomes suspicious of his wife he shall bring her before the priest who will apply this process. 31The man will be blameless for his jealousy, but the woman will bear the blame should she be found unfaithful.”

Commentary

1-4: “Unclean” persons are to be quarantined outside the camp to prevent contamination of others.     

5-11: Crimes against one’s neighbor are to be confessed and restitution is to be made. It is important to note that when you do wrong to someone else you are “breaking faith with the LORD.” If the person whom you have wronged has died or is otherwise unavailable the restitution is made to next of kin. If the next of kin is not available restitution is to be made to the priest.

12-31: This section unwinds an elaborate way of testing a wife who is suspected of adultery. While this sounds barbaric to us, the lengthy and involved process probably did more to protect the well-being of the wife than was the case in other societies. I don’t know how the “test” could work except as a psychological intimidation of the woman. It would seem that a person with no conscience could beat the test, while someone of a nervous nature could never pass it no matter how innocent – not too unlike early models of our modern-day electronic lie detectors. Yet, it is remarkable that the jealous husband’s word is not simply taken at face value. The test is as much a test of him as it is of her. A tiny step forward, I think.

Takeaway

Although the end of the chapter does not treat the case of a husband suspected of adultery, he won’t get off scot free if he does commit adultery. We learned in Leviticus that adultery carried the death penalty for both parties (Leviticus 20:10). Such a penalty is excessive in our world, but when you live in a world where the passing of the estate goes primarily to the father’s eldest son and then is divided between subsequent sons, adultery takes on a lot more weight. Still, I am astounded that God, who said, “Thou shalt not kill,” would give such instructions to Moses, and I have often wondered if Moses didn’t reinterpret and maybe add to what he actually heard from God on Mt. Sinai.