If you watched any of the hearings last week involving Christine Blasey-Ford and Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, you have witnessed a classic case of she-said/he-said. Our opinion of what did or did not happen might have been moved one way or another – but in spite of nine grueling hours of questions and responses, we do not know with any certainty. Given the passage of so much time, possible intoxication, the lack of any physical evidence, and the mystery of how humans remember details of experiences, it may be that only God knows.
And while the Senate will decide whether Judge Kavanaugh gets a seat on the Supreme Court – our passage today from Numbers 5 tells us about how God handled situations in which a wife was suspected of adultery but whose husband had no evidence. Only God was qualified to determine whether she had strayed or her husband was paranoid.
A husband who suffers from “a spirit of jealousy” and suspects his wife was to bring her to the priest at the Tabernacle. She was to be “set before the Lord” – at the east gate of the Tabernacle – which made her trial a very public act.
There the priest performed a series of ritual acts: he offered a grain-offering for jealousy, an offering of ground barley without oil or frankincense, loosened the woman’s hair, made her swear an oath that she had sexual relations with no man other than her husband, wrote the oath on a scroll and scraped off the ink into water mixed with dust from the Tabernacle floor, and made the woman drink the mixture.
This mixture, which the Torah calls “the bitter, curse-causing waters,” contained the oath and the curses that accompanied it, and ultimately determined the woman’s fate. As the woman drank the potion, the verdict appeared in her body: if she was guilty, the water would cause the woman to become infertile. If not, she would have children.
Some translations say that if the woman was guilty, she would miscarry, as well. There are two problems with that interpretation: not every woman who commits adultery becomes pregnant as a result, and abortion rights supporters have used that translation to argue that if God terminates problematic pregnancies, then we can, too.
If, however, she is innocent, verse 28 says that she will be free and she will conceive children – a wonderful consolation for enduring this trial – especially in a culture in which children were a mother’s source of support after the death of her husband. John Calvin wrote of this: [God] does not promise in vain, that if she be innocent, she should not only be free, but prolific also; so that God’s blessing would be the seal of her absolution.” Once God declared her faithful, everyone would know it – and everyone would know that her husband had accused her unjustly.
The impurities in the water had no power to do this – but God used them to execute judgment on adultery, just as ordinary bread and wine and water have no spiritual power in themselves – but God uses them to impart grace to us. This ordeal left everything in God’s hands – which was more reliable than even a jury of twelve people.
This test still seems to target the woman in a potential affair and not the man. But it was designed to bring out the truth – not punishment. If she had something to confess and confessed it, Jewish tradition says that would result in divorce without any alimony. It was an awful punishment, but less severe than the usual penalty of being stoned to death. And in confessing, she would have to reveal who was her partner in sin, and he would be punished with death. It seems unfair that the woman should suffer the penalty of barrenness – which seems so extreme – and not the man who committed adultery with her – but that would come about only if she persisted in lying about her sin.
The truth is that the test was rarely used. There may be one or two references in all of Scripture to such trials’ being conducted. And our Gospel lesson for today tells us of how one particular husband-to-be handled the situation when his fiancée turned up pregnant – and he knew the baby was not his, but he could not prove it:
[Read Matthew 1]
“Joseph resolved to divorce her quietly” – to call off the wedding without subjecting Mary to the Test of the Bitter Waters, shaming her, or trying to have her stoned. It helped that an angel explained the whole thing to him in a dream – but Joseph was described as “a righteous man.” That suggests that any man who took his wife to the priest for this test without any evidence beyond his own suspicion was not a righteous man. God wants trust in marriage – not jealousy. And so, it seems that this so-called “Test of the Bitter Waters” was not at all common – because the outcome could be so very bitter.
The test also provided a measure of protection for faithful wives whose husbands were jealous and suspicious. Some men abuse their wives by accusing them relentlessly of cheating on them. This test gave women the opportunity to defend themselves against their husband’s slander – and if she prevailed, he would be known throughout the community as an unrighteous man.
And it offered faithful wives protection when their husbands might have been tempted to stray – by increasing the odds that their husbands would be found out if they had.
As awful as this test was – it was better than similar ones used in neighboring cultures: the ancient Babylonians had a test for fidelity which involved the woman’s throwing herself into the Euphrates River. If she drowned, she was presumed guilty. If she survived, she was vindicated.
And it certainly was better than the practice of honor killings that is prevalent in some societies in our modern world. Woman are murdered regularly just because her husband or family suspects her of infidelity.
But was the whole process of Trial of the Bitter Waters just? We turn to the Jewish Rabbinic tradition for some insight: Moshe Greenberg showed that while most cultures in biblical times perceived adultery as an offense against the husband and left the punishment of the adulterers to him – in which case the punishment could be barbaric. In Biblical law, however, adultery is seen as a transgression against the God who created the institution of marriage, so God determines guilt and punishment.
Still, all of this is hardest on the woman – and you may get the impression that God hates women. But the truth is that God loves marriage.
God created marriage – and God demands that His people honor their spouses and their marriage vows by remaining faithful to each other. Marriage is God’s living metaphor for His relationship with His people –
the Bible speaks of the Church as the Bride of Christ. And Jesus wants His Bride to remain faithful to Him. So God made sure that faithfulness in marriage got its own commandment and part of another.
As we discussed last week – God had to get tough on sin that harmed the unity of the Israelite camp. Untruth destroys the sense of community – whether that community be just a husband and wife, or an entire nation. If you remember the Watergate hearings – Richard Nixon did not get into trouble because of the break-in, but because he tried to cover it up. And the sexual assaults on minors in the Roman Catholic Church were scandalous enough – but were made so much worse and even spread by efforts to hide the truth.
Our culture today considers such offenses to be private – no one’s business but the parties involved. But we all know of church communities that have been torn apart by infidelity – especially by leaders.
Adultery would destroy unity in the Israelite camp. God’s people were in the wilderness and had to work together – and fight battles together – to get to the Promised Land. Suspicion of your neighbor’s intentions toward your wife could lead to quarrelling or even violence. As we talked about last Lord’s Day, God wanted purity in the camp – because untreated spiritual sickness would hurt everyone.
God still loves marriage as much as He ever did. In fact, God has made it much easier and much less traumatic to find out today if your spouse is untrue. You can track cell phone or car locations, undelete e-mails or find logs of calls, or – if you have the money – hire a private investigator to keep tabs on your spouse.
But God does not want you to be faithful because you are afraid of getting caught. God wants you to be faithful because He is faithful and we should be faithful in all our relationships – especially in marriage.