"Number 5:11-31 speaks of a test for an unfaithful wife and the law of jealousy. I've read some insightful commentaries, but would love to hear from you your understanding of this passage." -- Jennifer (San Diego)

Numbers 5 is a difficult passage. It sounds like a trial by ordeal, and seems unfairly biased against the woman (although I am not sure that it is either). I imagine you read something like that in the commentaries. Although I'm not sure my observations will bring any more clarity to the passage than you already have, here goes:

  • In the time of ancient Israel, if one of their sons wasn’t the actual son of her husband, that could threaten not only the estate but the future of the family, which was carried on through the blood line of descendants. An illegitimate son could challenge his father or his half-brothers -- a danger we normally don't face in modern times.
  • We don’t take marital infidelity very seriously anymore, but back then it was a matter of life and death.
  • The drinking of the water isn't just a trial to ascertain guilt, but the means of effecting a specific punishment.
  • The punishment appears to be miscarriage -- the just deserts of marital infidelity. Yet the penalty goes beyond that, if I am reading v.28 correctly: she will no longer be able to bear children.
  • Note that although adultery was a capital crime, that is not in view here. Although the O.T. had 18 capital crimes, all penalties were normally commuted to settlement in cash or kind. (The only exception: first-degree murder.)
  • Holiness is the underlying concern: for the marriage and family, for the tabernacle/temple, and for God's people. Knowing how important purity is, the man is charged not to take the easy way out (denying the truth or glossing over it), but to realize the potency of sin. (Consider the impact of Achan's sin on God's people in Joshua 7!) He is called to honesty.
  • Presumably, if on the way to the priest she confessed her sin, the oath would be unnecessary. The elaborate process would be avoided. Getting others involved in marital issues isn't usually necessary when we're open with one another.
  • Having said that, I do wonder how the poor woman felt if she was innocent. The shame of being brought before there priest, of having to stand with her hair down (culturally improper except among the closest of relatives), the awkwardness of having to take an oath -- if she was innocent I can only imagine the extra strain this could add to the marriage.