Wisconsin Lutheran Chapel logo

God’s Word for You

Numbers 5:16-22 A Test for Jealousy (Part 2)

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, June 21, 2021

16 The priest is to bring her near and present her before the LORD. 17 The priest is to take holy water in a clay vessel, take some of the dust that is on the floor of the Dwelling, and put it into the water. 18 The priest is to present the woman before the LORD, let down the woman’s hair, and put into her hands the grain offering for remembrance, which is the grain offering for jealousy. The priest is to have in his hands the bitter water that brings a curse. 19 The priest will make her take an oath, and he will tell the woman, “If no man has slept with you, and if you have not gone astray by becoming defiled while married to your husband, may this bitter water that brings a curse not affect you. 20 But if you have gone astray while married to your husband, and if you are defiled and another man besides your husband has had sex with you—” 21 Then the priest will make the woman take an oath with a curse, and the priest will tell the woman, “May the LORD make you an object of cursing and swearing among your people when the LORD allows your thigh to shrivel and your belly to swell. 22 May this water that brings a curse go inside you and make your belly swell and your thigh shrivel.” The woman will say, “Amen, Amen.”

This ritual has been compared with the “trial by ordeal” of the Medieval world, something similar used by the ancient Hittites, or the pagan mchape test for witches in Africa in the 1930s. However, the Medieval ordeals of combat, water, or fire all presumed that the one tested was guilty unless they proved otherwise. The test before us, as we have already seen, assumes that the woman is innocent and gives her a divine forum in which to prove her innocence. It is assumed that a woman who was suspected but not accused by her husband (or others) could even insist on the test in order to vindicate herself.

Verse 17 is the only passage in the Bible (or in the Apocryphal books) where “holy water” is mentioned. It flits past without any explanation at all. But the ritual takes place in the outer court of the Tabernacle, so the water in question must have been taken from the bronze water basin (Exodus 30:18). This was used by the priests for purification and washing. Dust from the floor of the Tabernacle grounds is picked up. This was whatever was there underfoot. There in the Sinai, this would have been sand. The word for floor here is qarqa’, also the word for the sea floor in Amos 9:3, the floor of Solomon’s Hall of Justice (1 Kings 7:7) and the floor of the Temple (1 Kings 6:15,16,30).

This dust or sand was mixed with water in a clay vessel such as a small cup. The woman’s hair was then let loose. This means that however she had done up her hair, with a covering, or with pins, or braided, or combed nicely, or however she had it done (2 Kings 9:30; Judith 10:3), it was to be set loose just as when someone was in mourning (Leviticus 13:45) or was showing submission (Luke 7:38; John 11:2). We must take a moment to insist that this had nothing at all to do with the hair of the women of Corinth (1 Corinthians 11:6). That passage is about the culture of Corinth, not the whole community of God’s people.

At this point, the barley offering was put into the woman’s hands. This verse (Numbers 5:18) is perhaps the clearest passage that shows us that women were permitted to bring an offering to the altar in the Tabernacle. Whether she was guilty or innocent of this act, she had every right to be there with her offering, before the Lord.

The cup or bowl of bitter water (water mixed with dust or sand) was in the hands of the priest as he spoke the words of blessing or curse. The first formula assumes her innocence: “If you are not guilty… may this bitter water not affect you.” There was nothing dangerous about the bitter water. It was the same water used for all ritual bathing and cleansing in the tabernacle. The priest and Levites probably drank this water every day. And the sprinkling of dust or sand came from the soil they were standing on at that moment. For an innocent woman, this water was no different from any water she would drink at any other time. It was not as if she were drinking poison, with only her purity to preserve her life as in the rituals of the pagans.

However, if the woman were guilty, then the curse involved four things:

1, The LORD would make the woman an object of cursing. This means that people would curse her and wish evil upon her.

2, The LORD would make the woman an object of swearing. This means that people would use her name to make oaths about their own guilt or innocence. People might say such things as, “You’ll be as damned as that guilty woman.”

3, The LORD would allow (cause) her thigh to shrivel. “Thigh” (yarech) is a polite term for the sexual organs (Genesis 24:2,9). Her ability to conceive children would end. Jesus described a woman’s joy when her child is born into the world (John 16:21); the guilty woman would have no such joy.

4, The LORD would allow (cause) her belly to swell up. This rare verb seems to mean to puff up or be blown full as if with air. There is no implication of air in the text here, but the meaning is that her belly would grow as if there was a baby, but there would be no baby. This would bring additional grief, since for most women the act of carrying a child in late term, when her womb is biggest and heaviest, is the most physically uncomfortable time of her life. This would be the condition of the cursed woman, but with no hope of delivering a baby.

Finally, the woman agreed to the test by a double “Amen.” There are only two such double amens in the Old Testament, here and in Nehemiah 8:6. Lenski says, “In Hebrew it [the double amen] is placed at the end to confirm a statement or to seal an obligation, it is like our liturgical Amen” (Lenski, The Gospel According to John p. 174). In the New Testament (always in John’s Gospel), Jesus spoke many double amens when he wanted to underscore the importance of something he said (statements of the greatest weight), such as when he said, “Amen, Amen, I say to you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34), or “Amen, Amen, I say to you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless he is born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5).

The test was prepared. The woman had the offering in her hands. The blessing was spoken for the innocent; the curse was spoken if it was discovered that she was guilty. It would seem as if it was time for her to drink the water, but not quite yet. The focus of the test was not the woman herself, it was God. Therefore, there would be one more element that will focus all of our attention on God, and not vaguely on God as an unknown being, but specifically on the word of God itself. As with the gospel, the power of God is shown to us in the working of his word. Let God’s word dwell in you (Colossians 3:16), in your heart, so that his message rather than your questions is what takes up all of your attention day and night (Psalm 1:2; Psalm 119:97, 148). Let God speak to you through the means he has given all mankind: his holy Scriptures.

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.


Browse Devotion Archive