Number 5:11-31 - Test for a Woman Suspected of Adultery - Is it Just?

(SeanO) #1

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?

(Matt Western) #2

I’ve had an atheist claim this passage supports abortion, which prompted me to read it further.

The explanation which made the most sense to me is here below, and is a protection and fair trial of jealousy that protected the lady and brought her before God to be proven innocent or guilty. The mixture in itself seemed very benign and would do nothing with God intervening to honor the curse or pronounced by the priest. Remember that the priest could actually do nothing supernatural by just his own words.


  1. Although this ritual focused on the woman, it in no way implied that men who committed adultery were to be excused, for the law clearly stated that adulterers of both sexes were to be stoned (see Leviticus 20:10).
  2. In a way, the law provided protection of two different kinds for a woman. First, without this law it is possible that a husband could unjustly accuse his wife of infidelity. If his word alone were sufficient to convict her, she would be in a terrible state indeed. Putting the determination of guilt or innocence into the hands of God rather than into the hands of her husband, or even other men, ensured that she could vindicate herself if she were innocent. The second positive benefit is more subtle but probably is of even greater value. If a husband suspected his wife of adultery, one result would be a terrible strain in the husband-wife relationship. In today’s legal system, with no witnesses to prove her guilt, the court would probably declare her not guilty. But the basis for her acquittal would be a lack of positive evidence of her guilt rather than proof of her innocence. Such a legal declaration, therefore, would do little to alleviate the doubts of the husband and the estrangement would likely continue. Neighbors and friends also would probably harbor lingering suspicions about her innocence. With the trial of jealousy, however, dramatic proof of God’s declaration of her innocence would be irrefutable. The reputation of the woman would be saved and a marriage relationship healed. Thus, true justice and mercy were assured, and the whole matter would be laid promptly to rest.
  3. Those who ask why there was no parallel test a woman could ask of her husband should remember that if the accused woman refused to undergo the trial by drinking the water, her action was considered a confession of guilt. Thus, she and her partner in the evil act would be put to death (see Leviticus 20:10). If she attempted to lie and pass the test, but brought the curses upon herself, this result too was considered proof of the guilt of her male partner. It is possible that a wife who believed her husband guilty of infidelity could ask that his suspected partner be put to the trial of jealousy. The outcome would immediately establish the guilt or innocence of her husband as well as that of the other woman. Thus, in a world where the rights of women were often abused, the Lord provided a means for protecting their rights as well as seeing that evil was put away and justice done.

(SeanO) #3

@matthew.western Good thoughts! Yes, I think it is very important that the drink itself - holy water mixed with dust from the tabernacle floor - was completely harmless and that in comparison to the inhumane ‘trial by ordeal’ practiced in the surrounding culture this was a huge step forward.

(anon65845839) #4

I think the principle applies to the believer in the NT when Annanias and Sephira were disciplined by the Spirit of God as God acts and decides. For us to condone such things by our hand would be evil. Jesus has drunk the cup for us, down to the very dreggs. We are in Him and then 1Jn.1:9. Praise God!

(SeanO) #5

@anon65845839 Are you saying that in this case judgment is left in God’s hands? So if the woman is guilty, like Annanias and Saphira, it is God who does the punishing? I do not think the ‘cup’ in this instance would be equivalent to the ‘cup’ that Jesus’ came to drink, though I see that if the woman were guilty she could find forgiveness in Jesus.

(anon65845839) #6

To drink the cup meant death, correct? Either for the baby, or afterwards for the woman by stoning? That’s if the test revealed her to be unfaithful.

(SeanO) #7

@anon65845839 If the woman was guilty she would miscarry, but if she was not guilty then she will bear children. The passage does not say anything about stoning. I do not think that a miscarriage would have been sufficient evidence to stone her based upon simply reading the text. I think the miscarriage was the penalty.

But I really think it’s so important to understand how God was taking a practice from the surrounding culture that was oppressive to women and moving it in a redemptive direction. The water itself did not cause the miscarriage - the water and dirt were harmless. Only true intervention on God’s part could actually cause any harm and we know that God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in faithful love and truth.

Numbers 5:27-28 - 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.