n adulteress? The jealous husband of an adulteress? Or an innocent wife accused
of behaving adulterously? However it’s depicted, Numbers 5:12-31 portrays a fascinating manifestation of biblical justice.
If suspected of infidelity, a woman is brought by her husband to the priest at the sanctuary, who will “make her stand before the Lord” (Num. 5:16).* The priest takes “holy water” (perhaps from the laver?) and mixes it in a jar with “dust from the tabernacle floor” and it becomes “the bitter waters that bring the curse” (verses 17, 18). He uncovers the woman’s head, and with an offering that the husband brought “for her” (verse 15) now placed in the woman’s hand, the priest places her under oath before God. If faithful, he tells her, you will be “free from this bitter water that brings the curse” (verse 19); but if “you have turned aside with one other than your husband, and are defiled . . . the Lord will make you a curse and an oath in the midst of your people” (verses 20, 21).
After explaining the stakes, the priest writes the curses on a scroll and washes them away with the “bitter water that brings the curse.” He takes the offering from her, and part of it he waves before the Lord, and part he burns on the altar. Next, the woman drinks the water; the water that washed away the curses now enters her body.
“And she drinks the water, and if she has been defiled and has been unfaithful to her husband, then the waters which bring the curse will go into her and become bitter, and her belly will swell and her loins will rot, and the woman will be a curse among her people. But if the woman has not been defiled, and she is pure, then she shall be acquitted and bear seed” (verses 27, 28).
Of course, a litany of questions instantly arises; among them, Why water and dust? Couldn’t the Lord have simply meted out justice without those accoutrements? Of course. Perhaps it was done like this for the same reason that Jesus—when healing the blind man—“spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes” (John 9:6). These were earthly symbols, tangibles to help folk better understand the great things God was doing among them.
And in a case of suspected adultery, why only the woman, why not the man also? We aren’t told. What we are told, however, is more important: In an overtly patriarchal society, where men can be cruel, harsh, and oppressive, a woman, a wife, isn’t allowed to be victimized by a duplicitous husband who, for whatever reason, decides to get rid of her by hurling false charges of adultery (or maybe, and with no malice, he truly fears her guilt).
Whatever the reason for the accusation, this ancient ritual shows that the woman is protected by God Himself. In something so serious she was not left to the mercy, or lack thereof, of testosterone-laden good ol’ boys, or of false witnesses, or of those who could be bribed or in cahoots with the husband.
No, the deciding judge was the Lord of Israel, the God who created the heavens and the earth, and who redeemed Israel from the Egyptians. He Himself guaranteed that her fate would not be trifled with. Whether innocent or guilty, the woman was assured a divine verdict from the One who knows and sees it all.
Besides showing how seriously the Lord takes adultery, this ritual shows how seriously the Lord regards justice, too. In the vast camp of Israel, the Creator made it a point to ensure fairness for women who, if left to the discretion of sinful men, might be falsely condemned instead.
Whatever other lessons may be in them, these verses declare to us how much God cares about fairness and honesty in dealing with those at our mercy. What we could learn, too, is that people who mete out justice better do so with fear and trembling, because one day they themselves will be judged (Matt. 7:2) by the One who, with this ritual, showed that justice matters.
*All Bible translations are the author’s.