Numbers 5:11-31 – An Ordeal to Test Suspected Infidelity


Numbers 5:11-31


A wife suspected of adultery is subjected to an elaborate ordeal to determine her guilt or innocence.


Included among the laws and rituals to ensure that the Israelite camp remains pure and undefiled is this test for infidelity. Female infidelity is regarded as especially serious, since it threatens the purity of the lineage of the family, tribe, and nation. The ordeal is similar to other water ordeals described in ancient Near Eastern literature, each of them providing some kind of test, usually abusive, to which the woman must submit.

In some contemporary perspectives, the ordeal is clearly sexist, since it applies only to the woman. This was probably not because of a lower view of women or even because of issues of betrayed love and intimacy, but because of the importance of family identity and the family name, passed on through the offspring. Still, it was no doubt then, too, a debasing ritual, just as it appears to the modern reader. Perhaps the only positive thing to be said is that it was not merely the word of the husband that could convict the woman. In the mind of that culture, the ordeal puts the matter before God, and the woman might be proven innocent.

Thankfully, traditional Jewish readings for the test are being recovered by modern Christian readers who may interpret the test as relatively liberatory for women. The reader will note that the test is called the “Law of Jealousy” (Numbers 5:29), pointing to the issue of male jealousy and otherwise unprovable guilt. There are three instances in which the test is applied: 1) for female adultery which is unknown (which would, of course, not lead to a test, since it is unknown), 2) if an attitude of jealousy overwhelms a man and his wife has committed adultery, or 3) if an attitude of jealousy comes over a man and his wife has not committed adultery. In every case, the man will present his wife to the priest with an offering for his jealousy (Numbers 5:15). 

The woman is made to drink the holy water, the holiest dust (from the floor of the tabernacle, presumably ash from sacrifices), and the ink that is washed from a scroll, notably containing the divine name. Before the woman drinks, she must agree to the blessings and curses by saying “Amen” twice. If the woman is guilty of unproven adultery, a bodily transformation will render her unable to have children in the future. 

The reader should note that miscarriage or abortion is not in the text here. A gestating fetus would have rendered the ritual unnecessary, as paternal resemblance would have been exactly the sort of proof that was missing, requiring the ritual. If the ritual proved the woman’s innocence, she would be able to conceive in the future.  

Notably, while the penalty for adultery is execution (Leviticus 20:10), the punishment for a woman convicted by this ritual is an inability to have children and a terrible reputation as a curse. If God is the only witness and there is no other proof, God refuses to condemn a woman to death, especially while her partner is unpunished (Deuteronomy 17:6, see also John 8:1-11). 

This ritual becomes a way to “prove a negative.” If a man suspects his wife of adultery but has no proof to support his jealousy, by agreeing to undergo this test, she may prove publicly that his suspicion is unfounded and she may be released from suspicion and her husband’s jealousy.