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Numbers 5:11-31

The Jealousy Ordeal

5:11 1 The Lord spoke to Moses: 5:12 “Speak to the Israelites and tell them, ‘If any man’s wife goes astray and behaves unfaithfully toward him, 5:13 and a man has sexual relations 2  with her 3  without her husband knowing it, 4  and it is hidden that she has defiled herself, since 5  there was no witness against her, nor was she caught – 5:14 and if jealous feelings 6  come over him and he becomes suspicious 7  of his wife, when she is defiled; 8  or if jealous feelings come over him and he becomes suspicious of his wife, when she is not defiled – 5:15 then 9  the man must bring his wife to the priest, and he must bring the offering required for her, one tenth of an ephah of barley meal; he must not pour olive oil on it or put frankincense on it, because it is a grain offering of suspicion, 10  a grain offering for remembering, 11  for bringing 12  iniquity to remembrance.

5:16 “‘Then the priest will bring her near and have her stand 13  before the Lord. 5:17 The priest will then take holy water 14  in a pottery jar, and take some 15  of the dust 16  that is on the floor of the tabernacle, and put it into the water. 5:18 Then the priest will have the woman stand before the Lord, uncover the woman’s head, and put the grain offering for remembering in her hands, which is the grain offering of suspicion. The priest will hold in his hand the bitter water that brings a curse. 17  5:19 Then the priest will put the woman under oath and say to the her, “If no other 18  man has had sexual relations with you, and if you have not gone astray and become defiled while under your husband’s authority, may you be free from this bitter water that brings a curse. 19  5:20 But if you 20  have gone astray while under your husband’s authority, and if you have defiled yourself and some man other than your husband has had sexual relations with you….” 21  5:21 Then the priest will put the woman under the oath of the curse 22  and will say 23  to the her, “The Lord make you an attested curse 24  among your people, 25  if the Lord makes 26  your thigh fall away 27  and your abdomen swell; 28  5:22 and this water that causes the curse will go 29  into your stomach, and make your abdomen swell and your thigh rot.” 30  Then the woman must say, “Amen, amen.” 31 

5:23 “‘Then the priest will write these curses on a scroll and then scrape them off into the bitter water. 32  5:24 He will make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and the water that brings a curse will enter her to produce bitterness. 5:25 The priest will take the grain offering of suspicion from the woman’s hand, wave the grain offering before the Lord, and bring it to the altar. 5:26 Then the priest will take a handful of the grain offering as its memorial portion, burn it on the altar, and afterward make the woman drink the water. 5:27 When he has made her drink the water, then, if she has defiled herself and behaved unfaithfully toward her husband, the water that brings a curse will enter her to produce bitterness – her abdomen will swell, her thigh will fall away, and the woman will become a curse among her people. 5:28 But if the woman has not defiled herself, and is clean, then she will be free of ill effects 33  and will be able to bear children.

5:29 “‘This is the law for cases of jealousy, 34  when a wife, while under her husband’s authority, goes astray and defiles herself, 5:30 or when jealous feelings come over a man and he becomes suspicious of his wife; then he must have the woman stand before the Lord, and the priest will carry out all this law upon her. 5:31 Then the man will be free from iniquity, but that woman will bear the consequences 35  of her iniquity.’” 36 

1 sn There is a good bit of bibliography here. See, e.g., J. M. Sasson, “Numbers 5 and the Waters of Judgment,” BZ 16 (1972): 249-51; and M. Fishbane, “Accusation of Adultery: A Study of Law and Scribal Practice in Numbers 5:11-31,” HUCA 45 (1974): 25-46.

2 tn Heb “and a man lies with her with the emission of semen.” This makes it clear that there was adultery involved, so that the going astray is going astray morally. The indication in the text is that if she had never behaved suspiciously the sin might not have been detected.

3 tc The sign of the accusative אֹתָהּ (’otah) is probably to be repointed to the preposition with the suffix, אִתָּהּ (’ittah).

4 tn Heb “and it is concealed from the eyes of her husband.”

5 tn The noun clause beginning with the simple conjunction is here a circumstantial clause, explaining that there was no witness to the sin.

6 tn The Hebrew text has the construct case, “spirit of jealousy.” The word “spirit” here has the sense of attitude, mood, feelings. The word קִנְאָה (qinah) is the genitive of attribute, modifying what kind of feelings they are. The word means either “zeal” or “jealousy,” depending on the context. It is a passionate feeling to guard or protect an institution or relationship. It can also express strong emotional possessiveness such as envy and coveting. Here there is a feeling of jealousy, but no proof of infidelity.

7 tn The word is now used in the Piel stem; the connotation is certainly “suspicious,” for his jealousy seems now to have some basis, even if it is merely suspicion.

8 tn The noun clause begins with the conjunction and the pronoun; here it is forming a circumstantial clause, either temporal or causal.

9 tn All the conditions have been laid down now for the instruction to begin – if all this happened, then this is the procedure to follow.

10 tn The Hebrew word is “jealousy,” which also would be an acceptable translation here. But since the connotation is that suspicion has been raised about the other person, “suspicion” seems to be a better rendering in this context.

11 tn The word “remembering” is זִכָּרוֹן (zikkaron); the meaning of the word here is not so much “memorial,” which would not communicate much, but the idea of bearing witness before God concerning the charges. The truth would come to light through this ritual, and so the attestation would stand. This memorial would bring the truth to light. It was a somber occasion, and so no sweet smelling additives were placed on the altar.

12 tn The final verbal form, מַזְכֶּרֶת (mazkeret), explains what the memorial was all about – it was causing iniquity to be remembered.

13 tn The verb is the Hiphil of the word “to stand.” It could be rendered “station her,” but that sounds too unnatural. This is a meeting between an accused person and the Judge of the whole earth.

14 tn This is probably water taken from the large bronze basin in the courtyard. It is water set apart for sacred service. “Clean water” (so NEB) does not capture the sense very well, but it does have the support of the Greek that has “pure running water.” That pure water would no doubt be from the bronze basin anyway.

15 tn Heb “from.” The preposition is used here with a partitive sense.

16 sn The dust may have come from the sanctuary floor, but it is still dust, and therefore would have all the pollutants in it.

17 tn The expression has been challenged. The first part, “bitter water,” has been thought to mean “water of contention” (so NEB), but this is not convincing. It has some support in the versions which read “contention” and “testing,” no doubt trying to fit the passage better. N. H. Snaith (Leviticus and Numbers [NCB], 129) suggests from an Arabic word that it was designed to cause an abortion – but that would raise an entirely different question, one of who the father of a child was. And that has not been introduced here. The water was “bitter” in view of the consequences it held for her if she was proven to be guilty. That is then enforced by the wordplay with the last word, the Piel participle הַמְאָרֲרִים (hamararim). The bitter water, if it convicted her, would pronounce a curse on her. So she was literally holding her life in her hands.

sn This ancient ritual seems to have functioned like a lie detector test, with all the stress and tension involved. It can be compared to water tests in the pagan world, with the exception that in Israel it was stacked more toward an innocent verdict. It seems to have been a temporary provision, for this is the only place that it appears, and no provision is made for its use later. It may have served as a didactic force, warning more than actually legislating. No provision is made in it for a similar charge to be brought against the man, but in the case of the suspicion of the woman the man would be very hesitant to demand this test given the harshness on false witnessing in Israel. The passage remains a rather strange section of the Law.

18 tn The word “other” is implied, since the woman would not be guilty of having sexual relations with her own husband.

19 sn Although there would be stress involved, a woman who was innocent would have nothing to hide, and would be confident. The wording of the priest’s oath is actually designed to enable the potion to keep her from harm and not produce the physical effects it was designed to do.

20 tn The pronoun is emphatic – “but you, if you have gone astray.”

21 tn This is an example of the rhetorical device known as aposiopesis, or “sudden silence.” The sentence is broken off due to the intensity or emphasis of the moment. The reader is left to conclude what the sentence would have said.

22 sn For information on such curses, see M. R. Lehmann, “Biblical Oaths,” ZAW 81 (1969): 74-92; A. C. Thiselton, “The Supposed Power of Words in the Biblical Writings,” JTS 25 (1974): 283-99; and F. C. Fensham, “Malediction and Benediction in Ancient Vassal Treaties and the Old Testament,” ZAW 74 (1962): 1-9.

23 tn Heb “the priest will say.”

24 tn This interpretation takes the two nouns as a hendiadys. The literal wording is “the Lord make you a curse and an oath among the people.” In what sense would she be an oath? The point of the whole passage is that the priest is making her take an oath to see if she has been sinful and will be cursed.

25 sn The outcome of this would be that she would be quoted by people in such forms of expression as an oath or a curse (see Jer 29:22).

26 tn The construction uses the infinitive construct with the preposition to form an adverbial clause: “in the giving of the Lord…,” meaning, “if and when the Lord makes such and such to happen.”

27 tn TEV takes the expression “your thigh” as a euphemism for the genitals: “cause your genital organs to shrink.”

28 sn Most commentators take the expressions to be euphemisms of miscarriage or stillbirth, meaning that there would be no fruit from an illegitimate union. The idea of the abdomen swelling has been reinterpreted by NEB to mean “fall away.” If this interpretation stands, then the idea is that the woman has become pregnant, and that has aroused the suspicion of the husband for some reason. R. K. Harrison (Numbers [WEC], 111-13) discusses a variety of other explanations for diseases and conditions that might be described by these terms. He translates it with “miscarriage,” but leaves open what the description might actually be. Cf. NRSV “makes your uterus drop, your womb discharge.”

29 tn The verb is the perfect tense with vav (ו) consecutive. It could be taken as a jussive following the words of the priest in the previous section, but it is more likely to be a simple future.

30 tn Heb “fall away.”

31 tn The word “amen” carries the idea of “so be it,” or “truly.” The woman who submits to this test is willing to have the test demonstrate the examination of God.

32 sn The words written on the scroll were written with a combination of ingredients mixed into an ink. The idea is probably that they would have been washed or flaked off into the water, so that she drank the words of the curse – it became a part of her being.

33 tn Heb “will be free”; the words “of ill effects” have been supplied as a clarification.

34 tn Heb “law of jealousies.”

35 sn The text does not say what the consequences are. Presumably the punishment would come from God, and not from those administering the test.

36 tn The word “iniquity” can also mean the guilt for the iniquity as well as the punishment of consequences for the iniquity. These categories of meanings grew up through figurative usage (metonymies). Here the idea is that if she is guilty then she must “bear the consequences.”

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