Tuesday, July 09, 2019

That Wacky Old Testament (13)

The “bitter water” test found in the fifth chapter of Numbers is the source of a fair bit of confusion and debate.

There are arguments that it legitimizes abortion, arguments that the test couldn’t possibly work, and of course we can’t forget the obligatory fussing that the test was unegalitarian because it was not applied to men.

That makes the chapter worth a little more attention, surely.

Not a Christian Option

Numbers 5 contains a God-given fidelity test for married or betrothed women in ancient Israel in the event their husbands believed they were having an affair.

In a Christian marriage, the wife has God-given authority over her husband’s body and the husband has God-given authority over hers. For solid practical, religious and cultural reasons, Israelite marriages 3-4,000 years ago did not operate quite the same way. So let’s get it out of the way right up front that the ‘bitter water test’ is not presented to today’s reader of scripture as a viable option for Christians having marriage difficulties. I’m much more interested in looking at Numbers 5:11-31 in its cultural context to see if perhaps it made a whole lot more sense in Israel than it might make to us today.

I believe it did. Is anyone surprised?

A Brief Summary

In Israel, a jealous husband or fiancé (betrothals were taken a little more seriously in those days than engagements are taken today) did not have to become a green-eyed monster if he believed his wife or wife-to-be had cheated on him. He did not have to divorce her outright to settle the matter to his satisfaction, reciprocate in kind, or mistreat his wife for things she may or may not have actually done. If she continued to maintain her innocence in the face of his accusations, the issue could be resolved by taking a grain offering to the priest. Any couple could afford that.

The priest would take some dust from the tabernacle floor and put it in holy water in a clay vessel. The woman would then hold the grain offering while taking an oath that she had been faithful, calling curses on herself in the event she was lying. Her statement would be written down by the priest, then the ink washed off the paper into the dusty water (making it a fairly unpalatable concoction, I’m sure). The priest would then burn the grain offering before God, bringing Heaven itself into the equation, and then give the woman the water to drink.

Two Possible Outcomes

If she were innocent, she would be perfectly fine, though she might like a bit of fresh water to wash the taste of dust and ink out of her mouth. Probably her husband would get it for her himself, while falling over himself apologizing profusely. If, however, it turned out she was indeed guilty of adultery, she would immediately experience acute pain, a swollen womb and a “falling thigh”. She would subsequently be unable to conceive, and would experience the social shame (and perhaps the legal consequences) appropriate for those who break faith and lie to God.

How was this accomplished? Well, it had to be at least somewhat miraculous. I’ve seen speculation that the effectiveness of the ‘bitter water’ turned on hormones released by stress levels, but no purely naturalistic explanation makes sense, or would be guaranteed 100% accurate. In a time period when God spoke to Moses on Sinai, sent plagues on Egypt and opened up the Red Sea for his people to cross, it seems silly to cavil about how it came to be that holy water worked differently on liars than on honest women. Believe it all or disbelieve it all, but don’t carp about trivia, please.

Believe It or Not

I also balk at calling such a thing a “trial by ordeal”, because the “ordeal” part only happened to guilty women, unless you call the taste of the concoction an ordeal. I suspect that’s stretching it though. There are probably alcoholic drinks that taste worse. Not only do they cost more, but people consume them voluntarily.

However, our modern culture does not easily accommodate things that might be ever-so-slightly conflated with trials-by-ordeal. We do not need them in any case; DNA tests are simpler. It should be obvious ancient Israel didn’t have many of those.

All the same, there are things about this chapter that admittedly may make us a little concerned. So one thing we should get very clear at the outset of studying it is this: three times in this chapter it says, “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying ...”

We either believe that or we don’t.

Did God Speak?

If we do not believe the Lord actually spoke to Moses, here or elsewhere, the Law has nothing whatsoever to say to us either by principle or precept. If these instructions are simply the words of an opinionated man, well ... times change. We may create whatever moral rules we like and dismiss those we don’t.

However, if we believe the Lord really did speak to Moses, there can be no taking the foolish and inconsistent intellectual position that some of God’s commands were good and proper in their time and provide insights into his character, while others (like this one) reflect a low and patro-hierarchical morality that our enlightened modern society has now superseded. We either take them all, or we take none. The Israelite could not have bits of the Law of Moses without accepting the entire thing, and the modern Christian reader cannot have his Old Testament and his doctrine of scriptural inspiration without the occasional moment of intellectual pause. So be it.

Well, what about it then?

First, Some Context

To get the sense that the ‘bitter water test’ was designed to deal with something bigger than interpersonal disagreements about sexual habits, we need to look at the entire chapter.

Numbers 5 deals with various kinds of defilement. Uncleanness. Things that separated men and women from their God. The tabernacle from which the dust was gathered for the water of bitterness was the place where God Almighty uniquely came down from heaven and camped among the Israelites. One of the conditions of his presence with them was that they abstain from things that made them unclean, or else go outside the camp, away from the presence of God. That was just how it was, and the people of Israel not only accepted God’s conditions, they mourned when he threatened to leave them to their own devices.

With God in Israel’s midst, then, it was first necessary that ceremonial uncleanness be dealt with. Those who were defiled through illness or through touching dead people or animals were to stay outside the camp. The first four verses of chapter 5 deal with that requirement. Then, people with unclean consciences were to confess their sin and repay their debts, adding 20%, even if the person to whom they had done the wrong was now dead, and even if he had no kin to receive the repayment of the debt. It was necessary that justice be done for God to remain in fellowship with Israel. This subject is covered from verses 5-10. The rest of the chapter deals with women accused of being secretly unclean through sinful sexual conduct.

If true, then, an accusation of sexual unfaithfulness was not merely a personal matter. Defilement — even discreet, hidden defilement — impacted the nation’s relationship with its God. It may have been hidden from man, but not from him.

More Reasons It Mattered

Here are a few reasons a woman committing adultery and concealing it had a wider impact than we might think. First, there are at least three problems with it stated for us right in the chapter: defilement (sin against herself, mentioned seven times), breaking faith (sin against her husband, mentioned twice), and going astray (sin against God, mentioned three times). So there is sin against self, sin against the husband, and sin against God.

Second, adultery produced three very practical problems that we do not have to read very far between the lines to grasp. These are jealousy, lies and cuckolding.

The effects of this last item should not be underestimated. There was something more at stake than the feelings of two married people. In Israel, permanent land ownership was inherited, not purchased. The land was God’s. You could never acquire another person’s real estate permanently, because in the year of jubilee it would be released back to the original owner at no cost. Because of this, any Israelite husband who allowed himself to be tricked or browbeaten by his wife into raising another man’s child was effectively making him heir to valuable family real estate, and co-heir with any real children of the marriage. He was giving away his God-given inheritance in Israel to the scion of another man … perhaps a man from another tribe or even another nation.

That mattered to a father, it mattered to the child and it surely mattered to any brothers and sisters who would normally share the estate.

Life Without DNA Testing

Now, sure, not every unfaithful wife becomes pregnant by her lover, and this passage does not assume a pregnancy was the cause of the husband’s jealousy. But if the husband believed his wife was characteristically unfaithful, the probability that she would eventually carry another man’s child was not insignificant. Some mechanism was needed by which a husband could be confident about his wife’s faithfulness. Among other things, if he had doubts about her, he might wrongly disinherit a deserving child.

As to the first two problems, unresolved jealousy and dishonesty would not only ruin the marriage, resulting in unhappiness, perpetual suspicion, possible abuse and a terrible atmosphere in which to raise children, but they also would contaminate the camp and create a breach in the relationship between God and man.

For several reasons, then, a situation in which a woman was thought to have committed adultery could not go unaddressed.

More on God’s solution tomorrow ...

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