Numbers 5 opens with instructions to keep lepers, people with discharge, and people who have touched a dead body outside of the camp. I’m a bit conflicted on this one because this seems like pretty sound quarantine practice but, on the other hand, there’s no stipulation about ensuring the safety or care of these people. The concern here is clearly not about caring for the sick or preventing an outbreak of disease (since there are many possible contagious and deadly diseases that involve none of these symptoms – such as most things involving the respiratory system), but rather about maintaining the ritual purity of the camp.

Now, okay, fair enough, this is a religious text written with religious concerns in mind. For all I know, there were legal or social specifications about also quarantining people with respiratory infections, and for ensuring that the sick are protected and cared for, but it just didn’t fall under the thesis of Numbers.

Of course, that opens a can of worms about people using the Bible to justify not seeking medical care for their sick children, or the idea that this is a book inspired by God (or at least purporting to narrate experiences with the divine) and no mention is made of germ theory or other specific methods of disease prevention which would have given us an indication that, perhaps, this really does narrate an encounter with a “superior” being.

But those are all discussions for theologians, so let’s move on.

We next get a bit of an addendum to the rules in Leviticus 6 about punishment for crimes. Once again, we are reminded that the guilty party must confess, make restitutions to the victim (of equal value to what was taken or damaged, plus 20%), and make an offering of a “ram of atonement.” But what Leviticus hadn’t addressed was what to do if there is no victim to make restitutions to (if, for example, the victim is dead and has no kin to claim the restitution). In this case, Numbers 5 tells us that the restitution should go to the priests instead. Of course, this only applies if the person is found guilty, and seems to reward sham trials.

Adultery

The bulk of Numbers 5 has to do with adultery – specifically, with how to find out if a woman has been adulterous.

If a wife “goes astray” and “acts unfaithfully against him [her husband]” (v.12), if she cheats on her husband but isn’t caught in the act, or simply if “the spirit of jealousy comes upon him, though she has not defiled herself” (v.14), the husband can bring her before the priests to perform a test, called Sotah.

  1. The husband must present a “jealousy offering” of cereal.
  2. The priest mixes holy water with dust from the floor of the tabernacle in an earthen vessel.
  3. The priest unbinds the woman’s hair.
  4. The woman holds her husband’s cereal offering in her hands.
  5. The woman must swear an oath that she will suffer certain physical ills if she has “defiled” herself while “under your husband’s authority” (v.19).
  6. The priest writes out the oath/curse in a book, and then washes the ink off into his mixture.
  7. The woman drinks the mixture.
  8. The priest takes the “jealousy offering” from her, waves it around a bit, and burns the memorial portion.
  9. The woman drinks the mixture (for the second time).
  10. If the woman suffers the physical ills, she is considered guilty and Leviticus 20:10 tells us that she – and her paramour – are to be put to death. If the woman does not suffer the physical ills, then it’s a ‘no harm no foul’ deal and her husband “shall be free from iniquity” (v.31), but the woman gets the consolation prize of being able to conceive children.

Okay, so there’s a whole lot to unpack here, so let’s take it bit by bit.

#1, The jealousy offering:

The cereal is to be plain barley meal, without any kind of oil or anything else added. According to the Encyclopaedia Biblica, this is a coarser, cheaper kind of flour. The Mishnah argues that this is because it would be the cereal fed to beasts, reflecting the bestial nature of adultery. The Encyclopaedia Biblica rejects this theory and posits instead that this passage is a much older tradition, reflecting a time when the kind of flour may not have been specified. As evidence, it cites the lack of examples of the Sotah being practised in the Bible as evidence that it had mostly died out by the time the Bible came to be composed.

#2, Holy water and dust:

These days, I think we have a fairly sanitized vision of what holy water is. It’s just water that’s been blessed, right? Same as the water we’d drink anyway, but with a little extra sacred punch. But as Brant Clements points out, the holy water may well come from the laver where the priests have been washing their hands and feet, so it may well contain contaminants of “oil, animal blood, dirt, and maybe dung.”

Mixed in with this water is dust from the tabernacle floor – that same floor that has raw animal blood sprinkled on it every time there’s a sacrifice. Who knows what kind of blood-born pathogens could be in there?

Even without any other ingredients, the “bitter water” could very well be poisonous.

(As a side note, would the Temple in Jerusalem have a dirt floor as well? If not, how would this ritual be performed?)

#3, Unbinding the hair:

I have no idea what this is about. The only thing I was able to find was this source, which refers to a 12th century BCE Assyrian law requiring all women to cover their hair, except prostitutes who are forbidden from doing so.

So maybe unbinding her hair has something to do with associating her with prostitution. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it. If anyone has an answer or wants to take a guess, leave a comment!

#6, The ink:

What’s the ink made of? One of the more toxic recipes in ancient Rome involved using ferrous sulphate (made by treating iron with sulphuric acid), but that didn’t become popular until around 400 CE. Prior to that, Romans used atramentum for their inks, which could refer to pretty much anything that would produce the right colour.

So maybe the ink was toxic, maybe not.

#7&9, She drinks it twice:

As in other examples of repetition, this is probably due to two separate traditions getting shoved into a single narrative.

The Punishment

What exactly is the punishment? That depends on the translation. Numbers 5:27 is translated as:

  • “The water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain, and her body shall swell, and her thigh shall fall away, and the woman shall become an execration among her people.” (Revised Standard Version)
  • “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.” (New International Version)
  • “The water that brings on the curse will cause bitter suffering. Her abdomen will swell and her womb will shrink, and her name will become a curse among her people.” (New Living Translation)
  • “The water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter, and her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall rot: and the woman shall be a curse among her people.” (King James Bible)

Some of these assume that she’s pregnant, in which case the swelling is pretty normal (though, if extreme, could be a sign of preeclampsia).

Numbers 5The abdominal swelling sounds like it could be cirrhosis, or liver failure. This is a plausible symptom of poisoning.

The thigh symptom is a bit trickier, since the language is unclear. What does it mean for a thigh to “fall away” (you know, without the rest of the leg falling away as well)? Clearly, some translators have interpreted it to mean that she will suffer a miscarriage. If that’s the case, it sounds an awful lot like abortion.

Other translators have interpreted it as a “rotting,” which makes me think that maybe she will suffer a blood clot in the leg. If left untreated, it could indeed lead to infection, which could be described as “rotting.” Blood clots are a possible complication in pregnancy, and the risks for them rises with preeclampsia.

So was the concoction poison? It makes little sense to give a trial by ordeal without an ordeal, so it stands to reason that it really was poisonous. If so, Numbers 5 is giving men blanket permission to poison their wives whenever they feel jealousy, just ’cause, as long as a priest administers the actual poison. If not, then, as Brant Clements points out, “the whole process was a sham, maybe designed to make the woman confess.” Neither option is particularly flattering.

And, as Clements points out, “the possibilities for tampering with the process to insure an outcome are significant.”

On adulterous men

Numbers 5 is completely gendered. Throughout, the Sotah is a trial given to women for adultery, and there is no corollary for adulterous men. I’ve been leaning on Brant Clements a lot for this chapter, but he says this far better than I ever could, so take it away, Brant!

As I understand it, in that patriarchal society, the rules for what constituted adultery were different for men and women. It all had to do with the woman’s marital status. A married man who had sex with a single woman was not guilty of adultery. If a man, regardless of his marital status, had sex with another man’s wife, they were both guilty of adultery.

Adultery, literally adulterating the substance of another man’s marriage, had as much to do with property rights and inheritance as anything. Adultery was a crime against a man. Conviction and punishment depended upon the testimony of witnesses. The adulterers had to be caught in the act.

[…]

Remember, adultery in that patriarchal culture was a crime against a man.

Is this sorcery?

There’s a few elements here that very clearly fall under category of magic. For example, the symbolic power of the word as shown by writing the curse out in ink and then mixing the ink into the potion is straight out of a witch meme.

Further, the whole ritual is designed to force God to perform for humans. Either the bitter water is poison and God must perform a miracle to protect the innocent woman, or the bitter water is harmless and God must perform a miracle to harm the guilty woman. Either way, a specific ritual is conducted with the expectation of forcing God to perform a certain action.

That’s the very definition of magic.

So let’s ask the priests what they think of Exodus 22:18, Leviticus 19:31, or Leviticus 20:27 now.