The quote below comes from Numbers 5. It is an absolutely ghastly procedure that is so incredibly sexist and chauvinistic that not even the most fundamentalist of Christians would even consider putting it into effect. Frankly, this law is so ghastly that it is difficult to read for a person today.
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘If any man’s wife goes astray and behaves unfaithfully toward him, and a man lies with her carnally, and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband, and it is concealed that she has defiled herself, and there was no witness against her, nor was she caught—if the spirit of jealousy comes upon him and he becomes jealous of his wife, who has defiled herself; or if the spirit of jealousy comes upon him and he becomes jealous of his wife, although she has not defiled herself—then the man shall bring his wife to the priest. He shall bring the offering required for her, one-tenth of an ephah of barley meal; he shall pour no oil on it and put no frankincense on it, because it is a grain offering of jealousy, an offering for remembering, for bringing iniquity to remembrance.
‘And the priest shall bring her near, and set her before the Lord. The priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel, and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water. Then the priest shall stand the woman before the Lord, uncover the woman’s head, and put the offering for remembering in her hands, which is the grain offering of jealousy. And the priest shall have in his hand the bitter water that brings a curse. And the priest shall put her under oath, and say to the woman, “If no man has lain with you, and if you have not gone astray to uncleanness while under your husband’s authority, be free from this bitter water that brings a curse. But if you have gone astray while under your husband’s authority, and if you have defiled yourself and some man other than your husband has lain with you”—then the priest shall put the woman under the oath of the curse, and he shall say to the woman—“the Lord make you a curse and an oath among your people, when the Lord makes your thigh rot and your belly swell; and may this water that causes the curse go into your stomach, and make your belly swell and your thigh rot.”
‘Then the woman shall say, “Amen, so be it.”
‘Then the priest shall write these curses in a book, and he shall scrape them off into the bitter water. And he shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and the water that brings the curse shall enter her to become bitter. Then the priest shall take the grain offering of jealousy from the woman’s hand, shall wave the offering before the Lord, and bring it to the altar; and the priest shall take a handful of the offering, as its memorial portion, burn it on the altar, and afterward make the woman drink the water. When he has made her drink the water, then it shall be, if she has defiled herself and behaved unfaithfully toward her husband, that the water that brings a curse will enter her and become bitter, and her belly will swell, her thigh will rot, and the woman will become a curse among her people. But if the woman has not defiled herself, and is clean, then she shall be free and may conceive children.
‘This is the law of jealousy, when a wife, while under her husband’s authority, goes astray and defiles herself, or when the spirit of jealousy comes upon a man, and he becomes jealous of his wife; then he shall stand the woman before the Lord, and the priest shall execute all this law upon her. 31 Then the man shall be free from iniquity, but that woman shall bear her guilt.’”
Taken as written, this is God’s approval for a man who feels that his wife is cheating on him to take action. The action is to take her to the tabernacle where she will be stripped of her veil and forced to drink holy water mixed with dirt and ink scrapings from a piece of papyrus by the priest. Worse, the expectation is that if she truly has sinned, then she will suffer a slow painful death as, “her belly will swell [and] her thigh will rot … .” This is bad enough, but catch something else. Neither the supposed man who committed the adultery with her nor the husband are apparently punished in any way. Should she be found guilty by this procedure, the philandering man goes free. He is not even mentioned. Should she be found innocent, nothing happens to the husband, who has caused her to be defiled in public by having her veil taken from her. This is an incredibly hard Scripture to harmonize with what else God says in the whole of Scripture. To say that this is a sexist, misogynist, sickening Scripture is an understatement.
So, I went to a source that I thought I could check, “Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Old Testament, Volume III.” But, when I went to the Book of Numbers, there was no commentary listed by any Church Father or Mother. It may be that this resource had simply not put one in. Or, it could be that the Church Fathers hid their eyes from this Scripture, and did not wish to deal with it any more than I do. So, then, I went to Matthew Henry’s commentary, a Protestant classic. What is quite helpful there is to read the interpretation of those Scriptures as put forth in the Talmud. Apparently, the whole proceeding was to be in private rather than in public, not even the woman’s personal servants were permitted to be present that her shame might not be broadcast, particularly is she is found innocent. But, yet, the Talmud states that if the woman refused to drink the water that she would be forced to drink it. In the 1800’s, at least one suffragette died after she was forced-fed during a hunger strike at a British prison. There is at least a semblance of an equality of justice in the Talmud:
“The rabbin say that the adulterer also died in the same day and hour that the adulteress did, and in the same manner too, that he belly swelled, and his secret parts rotted: a disease perhaps not much unlike that which in these latter ages the avenging hand of a righteous God has made the scourge of uncleanness, and with which whores and whoremongers infect, and plague, and ruin one another, since they escape punishment from men. The Jewish doctors add that the waters had this effect upon the adulteress only in case the husband had never offended in the same kind; but that, if he had at any time defiled the marriage-bed, God did not thus right him against his injurious wife; and that therefore in the latter and degenerate ages of the Jewish church, when uncleanness did abound, this way of trial was generally disused and laid aside; men, knowing their own crimes, were content not to know their wives’ crimes. And to this perhaps may refer the threatening (Hos. 4:14), ‘I will not punish your spouses when they commit adultery, for you yourselves are separated with whores.'”
Note that this procedure did not last long. The commentary says that it died out because so many men were “degenerate” and were thus in fear of receiving the punishment should they also be found to have participated in the same sin. The Talmud goes on to promise a blessing to the innocent wife. “If she were innocent, the water she drank would be physic to her. The Jewish writers magnify the good effects of this water to the innocent woman, that, to recompense her for the wrong done to her by the suspicion, she should, after the drinking of these waters, be stronger and look better than ever; if she was sickly, she should become healthful, should bear a man-child, and have easy labour.” Mind you, it still troubles me that the husband gets off scot-free, unless he committed the same sin. But, it is a bit relieving to read that the Jewish collectors of the wisdom and the decisions of the rabbis appear to show the same concern over these verses that I have. Their interpretations and commentary show a amelioration of this law to prevent extreme applications of it.
Which lets me bring up a point. The only way to accurately interpret Scriptures is to also know what the people of that time and culture and of times near to that time thought the Scripture meant. If one read the Book of Numbers, the procedure is horrific. If one reads the Talmud, about how the procedure was implemented, the degree of horror goes way down. Nevertheless, this is an example of a Scripture in which God takes a heathen people and begins to train them in better ways to behave. What do I mean?
Well, before this law, a man would be allowed to simply kill a wife suspected of adultery. This was the law in Canaan and among the Hittites, and among many of the Middle Eastern groups. Thus, the law actually prevented the murder of women by jealous spouses. More than that, water mixed with dirt and ink scrapings would not tend to sicken you. Thus, as demeaning as this procedure was, it would at least keep the wife alive much more often than not. God would have to directly act in order for the water to be effective. If he did not act, the woman had simply drunk a mildly degrading drink of water with dirt and ink scrapings. As versus being murdered, this was certainly the beginnings of a better alternative. As God began to work changes in the culture, through the Holy Spirit, one can read in the rabbis that the law was even more diluted and became more humane in its application, until it apparently was not used anymore by the time the Talmud was finalized.
Frankly, this reminds us that God is willing to put up with an awful lot from us while he is in the process of changing us. This is ever bit as true in our personal lives as in the culture in which we live. It also reminds us that reading the Old Testament cannot be done apart from the commentary of the rabbis of that time and the Early Church Fathers (and Mothers) who came later. Otherwise, we can come up with some rather odd interpretations of what God was about back then.