Holy Water, Jealous Husbands, and Dropping Uteruses

I received an email this morning from a current student.  Here is how he started,

“Since we talked about weird laws tonight, Numbers 5:11-31 has been deeply troubling to me.”

I don’t think he’s unique.  Let me summarize the law. 

http://gotoanswers.wordpress.com/2012/07/10/is-it-wrong-to-be-jealous-when-your-boyfriendhusband-hangs-out-with-other-girls/In Numbers 5, a husband is jealous, wondering if his wife has been fooling around, so there’s a test to figure out whether she’s guilty or not.  The priest gives her some holy water in a jar, with tabernacle floor dust sprinkled on top.  She has to take an oath and drink the water.  If her uterus drops then she’s guilty.  If not she’s innocent, and her husband should trust her. 

This is how I replied:

A lot of people wonder about this weird story, but not too many have asked me about it directly.  I’ll probably convert this email into a blog post.

No definitive answers, but here are six points to make.

First, Genesis 2 lays out the ideal for a husband and a wife.  A mutual partnership of trust, where they both help (ezer) each other.  I would argue it was an equal partnership, with no implicit authority.  But after the first sin (the forbidden fruit eating), he rules over her (Gen. 3:16).

Second, the man is clearly ruling in Numbers 5.  So, we’re not talking about the ideal.  It’s not Genesis 2, more like Genesis 3.

Third, this bizarre test is almost certainly an improvement on what would have normally happened back then.  A jealous husband would often just get rid of his wife, and she would have no security, and become either destitute or a prostitute.  Assuming she’s innocent, this test gives the woman a way to reclaim her reputation, and hold onto security.

Fourth, from a purely human level, how often is slightly dirty water going to cause a woman’s uterus to fall out?  It would seem like the default is innocence, barring some supernatural intervention.

Fifth, while I’m still troubled by this, I can see good in this law for the woman, but it does require a step of faith on my part to assume that the law is somehow designed to protect her.  Their culture and context were very different than ours, even more patriarchal and sexist than ours.

Sixth, why not a similar test for a jealous wife of a suspicious husband?  Good point.  I don’t have a good answer for that, but in my next book I look at adultery and rape laws.  The relevant OT laws are actually rather progressive, more so than our laws today in terms of giving women the benefit of the doubt in these types of situations.

Now, off to my faculty meeting for the next 3 hours.

What would you have said to my friend about Numbers 5? 


  1. What does dirty water mean?
    What if it wasn’t just ‘dirty water’ but disease-carrying water?
    What if the woman was pregnant and the water carried listeria or diphtheria or some other eria that caused a miscarriage?
    I guess I’m just questioning whether the test presumes innocence. It seems so connected to fertility – a great curse. I get troubled by it.

    Also – it’s troubling because the law comes from God. So – your first point about the man being bad, ruling over his wife etc doesn’t hold as much weight because God appears to be sanctioning this jealous behaviour and giving it legitimacy. Does that make sense?

    These are my questions. I have no answers, sorry! 😛

  2. Tanya, good questions. The water starts out “holy” (Num. 5:17; not sure what that means, somehow blessed), but then adds dust from the tabernacle floor, which may include other ‘eria (as you say), but normally wouldn’t, unless it was near a latrine, but the tabernacle floor should be clean. (Kids eat dirt all the time, right?) Yes, I’m still troubled by the law, but I do think we can make sense of it somewhat. God gave the law, but that was his way to enter into the reality of the sexist world post Gen. 3:16. A lot of OT laws seem sexist, but as we read them in their context (not from our context), I think most of them make a lot of sense. My next book on Prostitutes, Polygamists, Rapist, Adulterer, Incest-ers (for lack of a better term) will add address many of these problematic laws.

  3. Ran across this in a book I am reading about Leviticus 16 and sacrificial ritual, “Cult and Character”, by Adventist scholar Roy Gane:

    (Page 330): The suspected adulteress ritual is a special case of divinely controlled, conditional retribution. At the sanctuary the suspected woman is to drink holy
    water containing some dust from the floor of the holy sanctuary and some
    curses stating the consequences if she is guilty (Num 5:17–24). This is a kind
    of litmus test in which she takes a holy substance into her body. While holiness
    can contact purity with no consequence, it will harm someone who is
    impure. The ritual enacts a trial by the deity, functioning as judge at his
    sanctuary. The verdict is shown by the onset or absence of punishment. A
    guilty woman does not die, but her reproductive organs are painfully damaged
    so that she cannot conceive (Num 5:27–28). This punishment fits the
    crime and is related to the penalty of extirpation, in that it affects a person’s
    ability to have a line of descendants.

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