When dealing with texts like this, it has always helped me to remember that, in a way, God is a missionary to a broken world. In my opinion, God is the ultimate missionary. So when God came to ancient Israel He moved their culture in the direction of truth - He spoke truth into their culture. God did not try to replace their culture, but rather spoke into it - He redeemed it.
In the Code of Hammurabi (law 132), if a citizen accused a woman of adultery, that woman faced a trial by ordeal in which she had to jump into the river. In trial by ordeal, if the woman dies that is proof of her guilt, if she lives it is proof of her innocence. This obviously puts the woman at a huge disadvantage for 2 reasons:
- any citizen can accuse her
- the odds are stacked against her
In Number 5:11-31, a husband who suspects his wife of adultery without evidence can accuse her and then bring her before the Lord. The priests mix holy water with dirt from the tabernacle floor and she drinks it. The priests prays that if she is guilty she will miscarry, but if innocent that nothing will happen. The redemptive aspects of this law are:
- only her husband can accuse her - it is the husband who must be willing to take the risk of his own wife coming under a curse
- the odds are stacked in her favor - the water itself is not poisonous - nothing will happen to her unless God Himself comes against her
God has moved the trial by ordeal of the culture in a direction more humane and protected women while doing so. A little background knowledge makes a big difference in how we understand these texts!
What are your thoughts? Have you ever read this passage before?