Weird Wednesdays – The Adultery Test


Hey, there. Time to take a look at some of the weird things we can find while reading through our bibles. And we’ll start with a doozy. In Numbers 5, God purportedly tells Moses about a test the priests are to give a woman accused of adultery by her husband.

11 Then the Lord said to Moses, 12 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him 13 so that another man has sexual relations with her,and this is hidden from her husband and her impurity is undetected (since there is no witness against her and she has not been caught in the act), 14 and if feelings of jealousy come over her husband and he suspects his wife and she is impure—or if he is jealous and suspects her even though she is not impure— 15 then he is to take his wife to the priest. He must also take an offering of a tenth of an ephah of barley flour on her behalf. He must not pour olive oil on it or put incense on it, because it is a grain offering for jealousy,a reminder-offering to draw attention to wrongdoing.

So the situation is this. You’re a woman in ancient Israel married to a man. And perhaps he sees you talking one day with Judah the butcher or hears about it from one of the local gossips in the camp. And he’s overcome with jealousy. How dare you talk to another man?!

Of course you tell him it’s nothing. You were just trying to get a good deal on some chicken, but he’s not having any of it. He accuses you of adultery and he drags you in front of the priests along with a grain offering (because the priests need to get paid for this stuff, after all.) And then it gets really weird:

16 “‘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.19 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. 20 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”— 21 here the priest is to put the woman under this curse—“may the Lord cause you to become a curse among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell. 22 May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries.”

“‘Then the woman is to say, “Amen. So be it.”

23 “‘The priest is to write these curses on a scroll and then wash them off into the bitter water. 24 He shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and this water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering will enter her. 25 The priest is to take from her hands the grain offering for jealousy, wave it before the Lord and bring it to the altar. 26 The priest is then to take a handful of the grain offering as a memorial offering and burn it on the altar; after that, he is to have the woman drink the water. 27 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. 28 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.

Okay, so first, you’re hair is loosened and uncovered. In this culture that would be humiliating for the woman, though I’ve seen some commentaries say that this was common for any accused person on trial, and I’ve seen other commentaries that say it is a deliberate attempt to shame the woman and that her breasts were also exposed to those in attendance.

Then the priest puts together sort of a magic potion. Some water, some dust from the floor of the Tabernacle, and pronounces a curse over it. If the woman drinks and is guilty, her thighs and belly will swell and either kill her or make her infertile or possibly cause a miscarriage of any child she is currently carrying (there are varying interpretations of this), if she is innocent, God will prevent those things from happening and her name will be cleared of wrongdoing though she will still have had to endure the shaming of the trial and she still has to live with a husband who put her through it in the first place. Hooray for her, right?

Then the priest writes the curse down on a parchment, dips the scroll or grinds the scroll and puts it into the water (transferring the power of the curse to the water) and the woman drinks it. And then she’s either fine or her thighs and belly swell and she dies or is labelled an adulterous. Magic.

29 “‘This, then, is the law of jealousy when a woman goes astray and makes herself impure while married to her husband, 30 or when feelings of jealousy come over a man because he suspects his wife. The priest is to have her stand before the Lord and is to apply this entire law to her. 31 The husband will be innocent of any wrongdoing, but the woman will bear the consequences of her sin.’”

So a few things to note:

  • If you’re innocent, assuming the magic potion works, your accusing husband gets off scot free for doubting you and falsely accusing you, and you have to continue to live in marriage with this jerk.
  • If you weren’t innocent and did get it on with Judah the butcher and the magic potion happens to work, per the text, you’re the only one who gets punished. Judah also gets off scot free. Now there are rabbinic traditions that say the Judah the butcher would also swell up and die
  • If Judah the butcher’s wife suspected that he was being unfaithful, there is no avenue for her to accuse him. The law only gave husbands the leverage to humiliate and accuse their wives because they were feeling jealous.
  • It really did suck to be a woman during the Bronze Age
  • If she weighs the same as a duck, she’s still a witch. It’s SCIENCE!
  • In addition to this particular trial by ordeal or magic potion, there are quite a few references elsewhere to other common rituals that people then used to determine the will of the gods, such as the practice of casting lots or divination.

Weird, man. Really weird.

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