Wednesday, July 10, 2019

That Wacky Old Testament (14)

Yesterday we looked at the sometimes-controversial fifth chapter of Numbers, in which God gives instructions about how a jealous husband should deal with a wife thought to have committed adultery.

The confusion this chapter produces in modern women reading it for the first time is really quite entertaining. Brought up to believe unquestioningly in “equality” of every possible sort, they quickly look around for the parallel chapter in which a wife could take her husband to the priest and have him tested for adultery. The less-experienced Bible students are shocked to find it doesn’t exist.

The world was a different place in those days, especially in the nation of Israel. Some things have changed. Some have not.

Option Time

But before we overreact to an obviously hierarchical marriage structure, let’s bear in mind that a married woman in ancient Israel was not without options if she fell in love with another man, assuming he was not already married. They were not great options, but they did exist. If you and your “soulmate” were consumed with uncontrollable passion and could not live without one another’s company, you could simply quietly leave the camp of Israel and live among the Moabites, Ammonites or wherever else you pleased. The pagans were much less squeamish about sexual morality, and sojourning in other nations was common in those days. Furthermore, the Law of Moses did not address those who did not claim Israelite citizenship or live within the camp of Israel. It had nothing to say to them. Life in Israel was for those who wanted a relationship with Jehovah and the exceptionally blessed lifestyle that came with it.

A woman infatuated with another man could also have asked her husband for a divorce. This was certainly an option given in the Law to Israelite men. God didn’t like it, and he sure didn’t initiate it, but it was tolerated to ensure worse things did not occur.

A woman asking for a divorce might not get it easily or without some significant personal cost. She might not get it at all. But I’m guessing it was no more desirable for a man to be married to a woman who didn’t want to be married to him four thousand years ago than it is today. A decent man would probably do as Joseph was originally minded to do and “put her away privily”. The bill of divorce would free up her husband to marry someone who appreciated him rather than someone who didn’t, and free her up to do as she wished.

Both of these were options. What wasn’t an option for an Israelite woman was continuing to enjoy the protection of a financially-stable husband while quietly taking a lover on the side. That was not on the table, and with good reason. God doesn’t like liars, and he delights in bringing their schemes to the light of day.

Trial by Ordeal

And so we come to the so-called “trial by ordeal”. The ‘bitter water test’ was for two kinds of women: decent, innocent ones who had been falsely accused ... and immoral risk-takers who hadn’t.

The decent, innocent ones went to the tabernacle knowing they would be completely vindicated. Devout wives falsely accused might even propose it. They would surely be very hurt by the accusations, but they could confidently go before a priest knowing they were in the hands of a just and loving God; that their families, neighbors and friends (who were almost surely aware of the accusations) would shortly be told they were innocent; and that their jealous husband would shortly be falling all over himself to make amends. Not perfect, perhaps, but imagine how much better that was than life under a cloud of suspicion. Total vindication for the innocent was possible, even four thousand years ago.

The immoral risk-takers were both perfidious and stupid. The time to work out a deal, if it existed at all, was before the visit-the-priest-stage, back when their husbands first asked them if they had been unfaithful. There is nothing less helpful to your long term prospects than lying repeatedly to someone who is already 100% convinced you are lying.

Wait, that’s not right; there is one thing. That would be going into the presence of God and doubling down on the lie, then carefully crafting your own punishment by calling down curses on yourself in your very own words. A woman who failed the ‘bitter water test’ was not only prepared to cheat on her husband and lie to him repeatedly, but she was also convinced she could put one over on God.

And stupid. Did I mention stupid? One cannot help but think of Ananias and Sapphira, another pair of brazen liars for whom things did not work out well.

Such a performance almost certainly originates in complete unbelief.

The Fallout

Either way, the woman got what she deserved: in the case of the adulteress, pain, shame and childlessness. If her husband decided to pursue a divorce, he certainly would require no further evidence. According to Jewish historical sources, this is usually what happened.

I have read in some places that the woman so discovered would also subsequently be executed for adultery, though I am not quite sure that is correct. The absence of two witnesses to the original crime, the lack of a confession, and the fact that there was no man caught and taken with her may have ruled that out, though commentators disagree about that. What the text actually says is that she “shall become a curse among her people.”

Certainly we do not have an Old Testament test case to cite as an example of how violations of this law played out in the real world, as we do with other laws. In the New Testament, however, when presented with the opportunity to judge a case of a woman taken in adultery, the Lord Jesus famously passed.

Answering the Objections

Yesterday I mentioned three objections offered by critics that I should probably address.

First, there is no suggestion in the passage that the ‘water of bitterness’ was actually an abortifacient, or that the woman accused was either secretly or obviously pregnant. GotQuestions deals well with that issue here.

Second, the issue of whether a solution of holy water, dust from the tabernacle floor and some ink from a written statement could produce different results based on guilt or innocence is not complicated: God was involved. The actual ingredients were only symbolic. God had something personal at stake, and it involved demonstrating his holiness to his people. Further, it was his tabernacle, his priest, and his set of instructions as to how to deal with a jealous husband. If God could not be trusted to produce the correct results, it is hard to see how it would make sense to trust him in any other area of life. The only people who have difficulty with the Numbers 5 mechanism of determining guilt are those who don’t believe in any miracles at all.

The Authority Problem

It is the objection that the test was not equally applied to men that is hardest to dismiss out of hand, mostly because it is quite true. Men manifestly did not receive equal treatment under the Law in this respect.

However, I am not sure why anyone should expect equality between the sexes to have existed during a period in history in which men often had more than one wife, and Israel the man — the father of the nation — had two wives who were sisters, as well as a pair of concubines. The Bible is clear this sort of family arrangement was never God’s plan, and the Old Testament repeatedly illustrates how the practice created many difficulties both within the family structure and throughout Israelite society.

The difference is that the taking of second wives and the practice of concubinage were engaged in openly, and in several documented cases, with full agreement of the existing wives. No lying occurred, least of all lying to God.

Not an Equal Partnership

We would not be doing justice to the text if we pretended Israelite marriage was an equal partnership with respect to the issue of authority, and we would be lying or ignorant if we claim marriage “equality” in that sense is God’s plan for Christians today. There are bad husbands and good ones, but they are responsible for their conduct directly to God. He will surely call out selfish and wicked husbands in a day to come for all their failures and abuses of authority; have no doubt about that. Even today, when husbands fail to treat their wives appropriately, they run the risk of experiencing negative consequences in this life.

The wife’s situation in Israel was not like that. She was not directly responsible to God, but under the husband’s authority. She operated under an extra layer of management. This is stated three times in this chapter (v19, 20 and 29), and it is the reason the husband could take his wife to the priest to have her faithfulness tested, while the wife could not do the same to him. In verse 20 God addresses Israelite wives and says, “you are under your husband’s authority.” It couldn’t be put plainer than that.

This aspect of marriage remains the same today, as the New Testament teaches. Though this is not well understood, the extra layer of management for wives is not intended to be abused, as too often occurs. It is designed to be protective. That men sometimes fail at their jobs is not a knock on God’s design for marriage. It is simply evidence of our fallen state.

A Lesson from Eden

Authority and responsibility go hand in hand, which helps to explain verse 31: “The man shall be free from iniquity, but the woman shall bear her iniquity.”

A little background here, going all the way back to the Garden of Eden. When Eve ate the forbidden fruit, she “went astray”, as Numbers puts it. But she did not by that act singlehandedly change the course of the human race. That responsibility was Adam’s. He was the one in charge. It is “as in Adam all die,” not “as in Eve”. It was when Adam took the fruit and participated in Eve’s sin, allowing her to take the lead in acting against God’s commands, that humanity fell.

So it is that an Israelite man who knew of his wife’s unfaithfulness and quietly overlooked it would then become guilty along with his wife, spreading the uncleanness. He would follow Adam, becoming a participant in the defilement of God’s people and the attempt to cover up sin. Thus, if only to discharge his own responsibility before God, a husband convinced his wife was unfaithful was required to take action, either by divorcing his wife or by subjecting her to the ‘bitter water test’.

The Benson Commentary agrees:
Then shall the man be guiltless — Which he should not have been if he had either indulged her in so great a wickedness, and not endeavoured to bring her to repentance or punishment, or cherished suspicions in his breast, and thereupon proceeded to hate her or cast her off.”
In any case, the critics are quite right to object that the ‘bitter water test’ was not exactly egalitarian. It wasn’t. That does not make it mistaken or primitive. It is what it is.

Even Stephen

That said, there was a certain evenhandedness to be observed in the treatment of adulterous men and women under the Law of Moses. When caught in the act, or when there were sufficient credible witnesses to establish the facts, adulterers were to be put to death just like adulteresses. The only difference was that the men didn’t have a built-in way of vindicating their honor in the face of accusations made against them for which evidence was lacking.

In Israel, “Billie Jean is not my lover” wouldn’t cut it as an excuse so long as Billie Jean could produce two or three credible witnesses.

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