God’s Word for You
Numbers 5:23-26 A Test for Jealousy (Part 3)
by Pastor Timothy Smith on Tuesday, June 22, 2021
23 The priest is to write these curses on a scroll and wipe them off into the bitter water. 24 He will make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse. The water that brings a curse will enter into her and become bitter. 25 The priest will take the grain offering for jealousy out of the woman’s hand, wave the grain offering before the LORD, and bring it to the altar. 26 The priest will take a handful of the grain offering as its memorial portion and burn it on the altar. Afterward he will make the woman drink the water.
The last steps in the test for jealousy begin with writing down the curse proclaimed in verses 21 and 22. The priest was to write this on a scroll, which in this case would have been thin lambskin. He would write this with a kind of watery ink, or perhaps even charcoal (Jeremiah 36:18). This was scraped off, a procedure common to working with animal skin scrolls; this was how text was erased. Sometimes entire scrolls were scraped like this and then bleached so that they could be reused. This time, the scraping would simply rub off what was just written, and this, the text of the curse, was brushed off into the cup of bitter water. A reader might become confused by verse 26 after reading verse 24: When did she drink it? Verse 24 simply shows that the scraped words and letters of the curse were part of what she would drink; the actual drinking came after the grain offering was made.
The grain offering was first waved before the altar. It is universally accepted that this was a back and forth, up and down motion, exactly what one would do if you picked up a large book (like a Bible or a dictionary) and, holding it with both hands, you made the sign of the cross in the air. But whatever the motion was, it was only a shadow of the cross. The priest making the sign did not think of Christ when he did it the way we naturally would. He was only thinking that this was a display for God to see. A handful of the barley was tossed into the fire on the altar. While those heads burned, crackling and folding up and away into nothingness on the hot bronze altar, the rest of the barley now belonged to the priest who was serving for this ritual. The offering was made. Everything was ready. Now the woman was given the bitter cup to drink, and she drank it. There is no doubt but that she was required to drink it all, or as much as she possibly could. This was not a cup to be sipped, but to be drunk down to the bottom. We must not make any comparison with the cup Christ spoke about in the Garden (Mark 14:36). This was the cup of her own curse. If she was innocent she could suffer no ill effects at all. If she was guilty, the curse would enter into her body through the power of God’s word.
At this point we must ask a question with all the phrases Luther would ask of the gospel. I do this with some hesitation, certainly not as a parody, but as a genuine exercise of piety and theology, to show the boundaries of the ritual before us.
How can this bitter water do such things?
It is certainly neither the water nor the dust that does these things, but God’s Word which is in and with the water which has the power to curse and to enact his terrible law and judgment.
For without God’s Word the water and the dust are just plain water and dust, and there would be no curse. But with God’s Word, the curse that comes with the pronouncement of God’s holy Law enters into the person who is so cursed.
Where is this written?
The LORD God Almighty speaks this curse in this very text, Numbers chapter 5: “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. May this water that brings a curse go inside you and make your belly swell and your thigh shrivel.”
So we see that this is the opposite of a sacrament in every way. While the sacraments offer blessings through the gospel, this test brings curses through the law. But the law here is limited to the one who sinned in this specific way. In this case, the woman may have sinned in other ways, such as trespassing or stealing, but it is not her trespassing or stealing that is under consideration; only her faithfulness to her husband. For the wife who is innocent, there is no curse at all. The priest could say what a false prophet will say later in the book: “How can I curse those whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce those whom the LORD has not denounced?” (Numbers 23:8). The vindicated, innocent woman had nothing to fear. Unlike a pagan ritual in which the accused had little or no chance of survival, an innocent wife had nothing at all to fear since the Lord God himself was the source of the curse and the judge of her innocence. She could say, “You are a shield around me, O LORD; you bestow glory on me and lift up my head. I lie down and sleep, I wake again, because the LORD sustains me” (Psalm 3:3,5).
To curse someone is a serious undertaking. It should never be done lightly. Most people go through life without ever truly having a reason to genuinely curse anyone. Many people go through life shouting curses everywhere without ever having any need to at all. Cursing is covered under the commandment, “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God,” which we and millions of Christians number as the Second Commandment, although some in America number it as the Third. Rather than use God’s name to wish evil on anyone, we should apply ourselves every day to calling on God’s name when we’re in trouble, using God’s name to proclaim the gospel, to pray to him, give thanks to him, and to praise him for his grace and every blessing.
Pastor Timothy Smith