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God’s Word for You

Numbers 5:11-15 A Test for Jealousy (Part 1)

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Friday, June 18, 2021

The Evangelical Heritage Version (EHV) gives “A Test for Adultery” as the heading for this section. It could also be called “A Test for Jealousy,” and that’s the name that the Lord himself gives for the test that follows (Numbers 5:29). This is an unusual law in two ways. First, it is a rare law that prescribes not only an action but also the precise wording of the prayers and curses involved. In this way it is possible to compare it with the two sacraments of the New Testament, where we have the elements and the words commanded for us. Second, this was a law that regulated suspicion rather than evidence. Pastor Paul Kuske, former Dean of Michigan Lutheran Seminary, makes a crucial point about Israel’s situation at this time:

“Whether his [the husband’s] feelings were legitimate or unfounded, God intended that the corrosive feeling be addressed and removed. To understand what follows, it will help to remember that the temporary and unsettled conditions under which the Israelites lived for almost forty years in the desert brought special temptations. When a number of relatives and in-laws, married and unmarried, lived under the same roof, the temptation to adultery was a constant threat. God therefore outlined a plan for a husband who suspected his wife of being unfaithful to him” (People’s Bible: Numbers, Milwaukee: NPH, 1990, p. 52).

A Test for Adultery
    11 The Lord told Moses to speak to the Israelites and tell them this: 12 If any man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him, 13 and another man lies down with her, but this remains hidden from her husband and she is not found out, she has defiled herself even though there is no witness against her and she was not caught in the act.
    14 If a feeling of jealousy comes over her husband and he becomes jealous of his wife who has defiled herself, or if a feeling of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife, even though she has not defiled herself, 15 then the man is to bring his wife to the priest.

The Lord presents two cases to Moses that will use the same test. The first case (5:11-14a) is of a wife who is actually guilty of adultery, but the husband only suspects her and has no proof. If he had proof, there would be no need for the test. The second case (5:14b) is if the husband was jealous and suspicious of his wife even though she was innocent. The procedure required the jealous man to bring his wife to the priest at the tabernacle. He was not to take matters into his own hands. The location was important because of the use of dust from the tabernacle ‘floor’ and holy water (probably water from the bronze basin for washing that stood between the altar and the Tent of Meeting, Exodus 30:18). Also, the wife was to “stand before the Lord” (Numbers 5:18), and this would certainly mean entering the tabernacle grounds and standing directly in front of the altar, since she would be placing her hands on an offering.

He is also to bring an offering on her behalf: two quarts of barley flour. He is not to pour oil on it or put frankincense on it, because it is a grain offering for jealousy, a grain offering for remembrance, to reveal guilt.

The grain offering that was brought “on her behalf” was not expensive. It was simply two quarts of barley, without any oil and without any frankincense. Normally these had to accompany a grain offering of any kind (Leviticus 2:1). Offering grain without oil or incense was consistent with sin offerings (Leviticus 5:11), but salt was always required. “Do not leave the salt of the covenant of your God out of your grain offerings; add salt to all your offerings” (Leviticus 2:13).

Since this offering was barley and not wheat or the “fine flour” so often required (Leviticus 2:2, 6:15; Numbers 6:15, 7:13), it has been called “the lowliest sacrifice in the Bible.” The wife was accused of guilt, but she is not declared to be guilty yet and therefore she is permitted to bring an offering. Perhaps there is a hint that her husband may already have cut off her portions of oil and incense like God cutting off blessings from his people (compare Hosea 2:8-10; Joel 1:8-11; Micah 6:14-15). But there is also something here that could easily be missed. Since she is permitted to bring a sacrifice, her status is, as we Americans would put it, “presumed innocent until proven guilty.” It’s clear that she also had a right to “a speedy and public trial” as our Sixth Amendment puts it (US Constitution, 1789).

When we remember the point of this chapter to be the holiness of the community, then a test about jealousy is not only understandable, but expected. How can a family be happy and content and serve God wholeheartedly and in holiness if there is suspicion and jealousy? The family unit is the basic building block of humanity, of every form of human culture and existence. Adultery is therefore an infection worse than gangrene or leprosy, since it rots a marriage and a family and, by extension, the whole human existence. When a “prominent man” in Luther’s city praised sexual sins and adultery and said, “I didn’t think adultery was such a great sin,” the Reformer said: “In God’s sight adultery is of two kinds. The first is [in] Matthew 5:27-28 (lust), which nobody escapes. The second is [in] John 8:3-11 (the woman accused of adultery or fornication), and is horrible.” He added: “It is a sin against God, against the Holy Spirit, against civil authority, against domestic life. For an adulteress puts a stranger into the home as heir and cheats her husband” (LW 54:218).

It is hard to live in a society like ours where most of our American culture goes directly against the Scriptures. It is as if we live in a muddy field, and it will be impossible for us not to have some of the mud splashed on our shoes and clothes. But we don’t need to roll around in it or praise it. Or explore just how deep it goes. Use your faith in God and your hope of eternal life to make yourself beautiful (1 Peter 3:5). Live a life that gives glory to God. Make your spouse (present or future) proud of you and never suspicious. Lead a life of holy submission to Christ, whether a man who submits to his elders (1 Peter 5:5) or a wife who submits to her husband (1 Peter 3:1). Whatever the world thinks of you, your Father in heaven knows that you shine like a star (Philippians 2:15).

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith

About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


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