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.
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?