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 remain 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 contemporary perspective, 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.