Commentary on Numbers 5:11-31

Notes (NET Translation)

11 The LORD spoke to Moses: 12 “Speak to the Israelites and tell them, ‘If any man’s wife goes astray and behaves unfaithfully toward him, 13 and a man has sexual relations with her without her husband knowing it, and it is hidden that she has defiled herself, since there was no witness against her, nor was she caught — 14 and if jealous feelings come over him and he becomes suspicious of his wife, when she is defiled; or if jealous feelings come over him and he becomes suspicious of his wife, when she is not defiled — 15 then the man must bring his wife to the priest, and he must bring the offering required for her, one tenth of an ephah of barley meal; he must not pour olive oil on it or put frankincense on it, because it is a grain offering of suspicion, a grain offering for remembering, for bringing iniquity to remembrance.

The case in question involves a husband who suspects his wife has committed adultery but has no solid evidence or witnesses to support his claim. The wife may or may not have actually committed adultery. The procedure that follows determines the guilt or innocence of the wife suspected of adultery.

Only the husband, not the community, can bring the wife to the priest in the case of jealousy. An ephah is about 22.8 liters, so the husband is instructed to bring about 2.28 liters of barley meal as an offering. Barley flour is cheaper than the wheat flour (Ruth 2:17; 1 Kgs 5:8; 2 Kgs 7:1) used in some other offerings (Lev 2:1-3; 5:11-13; 6:14-23). Oil and frankincense are associated with joy (e.g., Ps 104:15) and so are not appropriate for this offering. The purpose of the offering is to expose iniquity if it has, in fact, occurred.

16 “‘Then the priest will bring her near and have her stand before the LORD.

The wife is taken into the court of the tabernacle (“before the LORD”).

17 The priest will then take holy water in a pottery jar, and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle, and put it into the water.

The repeated statement that the priest will have the wife stand before the LORD (vv 16, 18) suggests the events of v 17 are out of chronological order. They may have occurred earlier. This is the only reference to holy water in the Torah. The holy water may have been taken from the bronze basin in the courtyard of the tabernacle (Ex 30:17-21, 28-29). The holy water is mixed in a pottery jar, not one of the special vessels used in the tabernacle service.

Every component in a ritual has symbolic significance, but without living informants it is difficult to recover the full meaning of a ceremony. It may be that the mixing of the water and dust in the vessel is supposed to picture what is happening inside the woman’s body. Vessel can refer to a body (1 Sam. 21:5; Jer. 18:4; 22:28; cf. Acts 9:15; 1 Thess. 4:4). Water symbolizes life and fertility (Ps. 1:3; Jer. 17:13), and occasionally is a metaphor for male semen (Prov. 5:16; cf. 9:17). Several of the symbolic meanings associated with dust might be appropriate here. Abraham’s seed were to be as numerous as the dust of the earth (Gen. 13:16; cf. Num. 23:10). The unclean beast, the serpent, ate dust (Gen. 3:14; cf. Exod. 32:20). God created man from the dust of the earth (Gen. 2:7). The last meaning may be primary here, but the other ideas may be in the background as well, for symbols evoke a multiplicity of associations.1

18 Then the priest will have the woman stand before the LORD, uncover the woman’s head, and put the grain offering for remembering in her hands, which is the grain offering of suspicion. The priest will hold in his hand the bitter water that brings a curse.

Uncovering the woman’s head might have been done to indicate remorse (Lev 10:6; 21:10; Ezek 24:17) or uncleanness (Lev 13:45). Even though the husband brought the offering (v 15), the wife has to present it to the priest because it is for her. The “bitter water that brings a curse” is the holy water mixed with dust (v 17). It is unlikely that the dust would have made the water taste bitter. Perhaps the word “bitter” refers to its effect on the guilty: a hard and stressful life (vv 24, 27).

According to the Mishnah the suspected adulteress could refuse to continue the procedure at certain points, and perhaps these preliminary “visual aids” were to force a confession from the guilty party before a curse was actually pronounced and the woman was brought into contact with holy water.2

19 Then the priest will put the woman under oath and say to the her, “If no other man has had sexual relations with you, and if you have not gone astray and become defiled while under your husband’s authority, may you be free from this bitter water that brings a curse. 20 But if you have gone astray while under your husband’s authority, and if you have defiled yourself and some man other than your husband has had sexual relations with you . . . .”

The phrase “under your husband’s authority” refers to marriage.

According to the rabbis, the priest encourages her to confess by adding these words: “Wine can be responsible for much, or frivolity can be responsible for much, or childishness can be responsible for much. Many have been guilty before you and were swept away (when they refused to confess and then drank the water). Do not cause the great Name to be blotted out in the water of bitterness.” He then tells her of the affair of Reuben with Bilhah (Gen. 35:22) and of Judah with Tamar (Gen. 38:15ff.). Both of them then confessed and inherited life in the next world.3

21 Then the priest will put the woman under the oath of the curse and will say to the her, “The LORD make you an attested curse among your people, if the LORD makes your thigh fall away and your abdomen swell; 22 and this water that causes the curse will go into your stomach, and make your abdomen swell and your thigh rot.” Then the woman must say, “Amen, amen.”

God will work a miracle to indicate the wife’s innocence or guilt (v 21). The water itself does not have magic powers. In saying the wife will be a curse among her people the text is suggesting the wife’s name will be used in sayings like, “If you have done such a thing may your end be like that of so-and-so” (e.g., Isa 65:15; Jer 29:22).

The meaning of the physical effects of the curse (“your abdomen swell and your thigh rot”) is debated by scholars. The Hebrew word beten (“abdomen”) means “womb” in every one of its other ten occurrences in the Torah. The term “thigh” may be a euphemism for the procreative organs (Gen 24:2, 9). Since v 28 says the innocent wife will be able to bear children we should understand the punishment to involve the reverse. The guilty wife will not be able to beget children.

“Amen” confirms acceptance of the curse (Deut 27:15-26; Neh 5:13).

23 “‘Then the priest will write these curses on a scroll and then scrape them off into the bitter water.

24 He will make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and the water that brings a curse will enter her to produce bitterness.

This verse is anticipatory. Verses 25-27 indicate that the offering is performed before the drinking of the water.

25 The priest will take the grain offering of suspicion from the woman’s hand, wave the grain offering before the LORD, and bring it to the altar.

26 Then the priest will take a handful of the grain offering as its memorial portion, burn it on the altar, and afterward make the woman drink the water.

The sacrificial procedure follows that of the regular meal offering (Lev 2:2).

27 When he has made her drink the water, then, if she has defiled herself and behaved unfaithfully toward her husband, the water that brings a curse will enter her to produce bitterness — her abdomen will swell, her thigh will fall away, and the woman will become a curse among her people. 28 But if the woman has not defiled herself, and is clean, then she will be free of ill effects and will be able to bear children.

29 “‘This is the law for cases of jealousy, when a wife, while under her husband’s authority, goes astray and defiles herself, 30 or when jealous feelings come over a man and he becomes suspicious of his wife; then he must have the woman stand before the LORD, and the priest will carry out all this law upon her.

31 Then the man will be free from iniquity, but that woman will bear the consequences of her iniquity.'”

The husband has nothing to lose by putting his wife through the procedure. His suspicions will either be proved or laid to rest. A guilty wife will “bear the consequences of her iniquity”, meaning she will be punished directly by God instead of by the husband or community.

The background of adultery in the Bible and its environment projects into clear relief the dimensions of the paradox offered by our text. For the adulteress, proved guilty by the ordeal, that is, by God Himself, is not punished with death! True, her punishment is just, “poetically” just. She who opened herself to illicit sex is doomed to be permanently sterile. Yet the gnawing question remains: Having been proved guilty of adultery, why is she not summarily put to death?

The key to the answer lies in the fact that the guilty woman did not go apprehended by man. That this element is the most significant in her case is shown by the fact that it is cited four times in her indictment, each in a different manner: (1) “unbeknown to her husband”; (2) “she keeps secret” (or “it was done clandestinely”); (3) “without being apprehended”; (4) “and there is no witness against her” (v. 13). These clear redundancies, among others, lead one critic to assert that their purpose is “to give weight to what might (and all too correctly!) be seen as a transparent charade . . . to protect the woman as wife in the disadvantaged position determined for her by the mores of ancient Israel’s society.” This stylistic inflation, however, may have been deliberately written with a judicial purpose in mind: to emphasize the cardinal principle that the imapprehended criminal is not subject to the jurisdiction of the human court. Since the adulteress has not been apprehended–as the text repeats with staccato emphasis–then the community and, especially, the overwrought husband may not give way to their passions to lynch her. Indeed, even if proved guilty by the ordeal, they may not put her to death. Unapprehended adultery remains punishable only by God, and there is no need for human mediation. The punishment for this sin against man (the husband) and God is inherent in the ordeal.

Supportive evidence may also be adduced from the absence of the technical verb for committing adultery, naʾaf, which is found in the Decalogue (Exod. 20:13; Deut. 5:17) and the priestly code itself (e.g., Lev. 20:10, four times in this one verse!). Thus, although the legislator expressed the woman’s infidelity in four different ways, it may be no accident that he refrained from using the legal term naʾaf, for he wished to disassociate this woman’s fate from the death penalty imposed for adultery. The glaring omission of the term naʾaf is then but another indication that jurisdiction in this case lies outside the human court.4


The modern reader may wonder why an oath was not sufficient on its own. Would not God have answered the priest’s prayer without resorting to the mumbo-jumbo of magic? Does not this ceremony imply an unbiblical notion of a God subject to human manipulation, or at least an unscientific belief in the efficacy of holy water? Similar objections could of course be raised against the practice of animal sacrifice. Why does the Old Testament insist on the slaughter of lambs and bulls to propitiate God’s wrath? Would not prayer alone have been adequate to secure divine forgiveness?

Since ritual plays such a major role in the Bible and its function is rarely appreciated by modern readers, it is worth while examining very briefly the role ritual plays in social life, before we attempt to interpret this particular ceremony. ‘Rituals reveal values at their deepest level . . . men express in ritual what moves them most, and since the form of expression is conventionalized and obligatory, it is the values of the group that are revealed.’ Monica Wilson was talking about African tribal societies, but her observations are equally applicable to the conventional rites of our society. Monarchs are crowned with elaborate ceremonial: prime ministers and presidents are installed with next to none. University degrees are conferred in person at grand graduation ceremonies: A or O-level (high-school examinations) certificates are sent out by post. It is not simply because coronations and graduation are archaic customs that more ritual is associated with them. Monarchs are supposed to enjoy the allegiance of their whole people and to personify the values of the nation, whereas prime ministers are elected by majority vote. Similarly, the holding of a degree ceremony indicates that a degree is more highly valued than an O-level pass. The rituals accompanying graduation, baptism or marriage indicate the importance society attaches to these institutions. Similarly, here the offering of sacrifice and the drinking of the bitter waters underlines and dramatizes the curses imposed on the woman. Whether the potion was effective in making a guilty woman sterile no more depends on magic than does intercessory prayer. Prayer and symbolic rituals both depend ultimately on the will of God for their efficacy.5

On the sociological level this passage raises concerns about the fairness of the so-called trial by ordeal as well as the unjust treatment of women that this passage prescribes (since no procedure is recorded for the suspicious wife). First, we must recognize that this passage is not a product of modern Western concerns. The cultural life of the ancient Near East was very different from modern life as regards societal roles, etc., and we must not make the text into something it is not just because what it is grates on our twentieth-century consciences. But, once we have issued this warning, let us also be careful that this text is not made into an antiwoman trial by ordeal on the basis of a surface reading.

The trial by ordeal was a common feature of the ancient world. This method was “an appeal to divine judgment to decide otherwise insoluble cases that cannot be allowed to remain unresolved.” Thus the ordeal was related to divination as a method for discovering the divine will for a course of action. The most common ordeals in the ancient world seem to be by water (e.g., plunging into rivers), by heat (e.g., carrying a red-hot object or plunging the hand into boiling liquid), and by the action of some potion. It must be admitted that the current passage is similar to certain features of the trial by ordeal, viz., the imbibing of the liquid and the fact that the verdict is, in effect, left in God’s hands. These similarities have led virtually every modern commentator to call the ritual in Num. 5:11-31 a trial by ordeal.

As in any investigation, differences between institutions, texts, etc., are likely to be at least as significant as similarities. The present ritual differs in important ways from the typical trial by ordeal. First, in the ancient Near Eastern ordeal the agent of the ordeal (the fire, water, etc.) was dangerous to innocent and guilty alike. Here the water probably poses no threat at all to the innocent party. Second, in the ordeal the accused had to survive something inherently harmful. If the accused was harmed by an inherently harmful agent, that person was guilty. Thus, the accused was guilty until proven innocent. Here the case is genuinely open, as vv. 12-14 show. Perhaps the woman is guilty, perhaps she is not. Third, in the ancient Near Eastern ordeals the guilt of the party was determined by the ordeal procedure, but the punishment was pronounced separately by the court. Injury to the guilty party was separate from the legal penalty. Here the penalty is the outcome of the ritual. Finally, the punishment in the ancient Near Eastern ordeal is manifest immediately. Here we have no statement of how long it will take for the liquid to do its work.

In the present case the whole matter, from beginning to end, is placed in God’s hands. There is no human punishment on top of divine punishment. The punishment for the adulteress prescribed by the Torah is death (Lev. 20:10). Neither the term adulteress (nō’āp̄eṯ) nor the death penalty is mentioned here. Rather, the divine punishment is limited to the “fallen thigh” and the “swollen belly,” whatever those expressions may mean. This text, in fact, supplements that of Lev. 20:10. It prevents a jealous husband from punishing his wife on the basis of suspicion alone. This complex ritual must be exactly performed (v. 30b) so that the woman might be protected from a husband’s whim in an age in which protections for women were admittedly few and far between. To call this ritual an ordeal, however, is misleading and confusing.

Theologically one must affirm the theocentricity of this passage in order to keep it from slipping into the realm of magic. It would be an erroneous reading of the present text to affirm that these mārîm waters functioned in a magical way, i.e., by themselves and apart from divine action. The whole of the ritual is God’s revelation (v. 11); it is to God that the woman is brought (vv. 16, 18, 30); it is God who metes out punishment to the guilty (v. 21); and it is God to whom the meal offering is given. The potion is made up of holy water (so called because it has been taken from God’s presence in the tabernacle), plus dust from the tabernacle floor (hence also from the realm of the holy), plus the words of a negative oath (curse) sworn before God. God is the major actor in this ritual drama and none of it takes place without him.

Therefore the danger to the guilty (unclean) woman is real. Contact between that which is holy and that which is unclean brings disaster to the latter. Any “naturalistic” view that sees the potion as harmless water and “more likely to acquit a hundred guilty wives than convict one innocent one,” or that the punishment happens merely by the power of suggestion, or that the ritual is a “transparent charade” to unmask a jealous husband, must be rejected. It must be seen as an operation of divine grace that the punishment on the unclean woman is limited in this case.6

There is no other attestation in Scripture that the ordeal was applied or was effective. According to Ramban, this ordeal is the only case in biblical law where a judicial decision depends upon a miracle.

Tannaitic sources attest that the ordeal for the suspected adulteress was suspended by Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, who lived at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple (cf. Mish. Eduy. 5:6, Ber. 19a, TJ Sot. 18a). Mishnah Sotah 9:9 ascribes the suspension to the rampant increase of male adulterers; that is, it became ludicrous to put only women to the ordeal. Tosefta Sotah 14:2 gives a more plausible reason: Adultery was practiced in the open, thus removing the very legal grounds for the ordeal–it was no longer a clandestine, unapprehended act. Clearly, the threat of the ordeal was no longer a deterrent.

The precise architectural details concerning the construction and function of installations in the Temple court for the execution of the ordeal further corroborate the presumption that it had continued to be a living practice. To cite but a few of these details: The officiating priest was chosen by lot (Tosef. Sot. 1:2); he prepared the potion by mixing the holy water from the laver with dust taken from the Temple court, from beneath a slab one cubit square, located at the right of the entrance; the slab was affixed with a ring so that it could be easily lifted (Mish. Sot. 2:2); the verses containing the imprecation were inscribed on a golden tablet hung on the Temple wall so that it was visible from the court (Tosef. Sot. 2:1). Such a tablet was one of the many donations of Queen Helena of Adiabene (Mish. Yoma 3:10). Its purpose was to obviate the need to bring in a Torah scroll in order to copy out the appropriate verses (cf. Rashi on Sot. 37a). Despite the evidence of these facilities and of cases of the ordeal, the many restrictions imposed by the rabbis for its administration render it likely that it was a rare occurrence.7


Ashley, Timothy R. The Book of Numbers. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Cole, R. Dennis. Numbers. Kindle Edition. The New American Commentary. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000.

Friedman, Richard Elliott. Commentary on the Torah. First Edition. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperOne, 2001.

Levine, Baruch A. Numbers 1-20. The Anchor Yale Bible. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Mays, James L., ed. The HarperCollins Bible Commentary. Revised Edition. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000.

Merrill, Eugene H., Mark F. Rooker, and Michael A. Grisanti. The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament. Kindle Edition. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2011.

Milgrom, Jacob. Numbers. The JPS Torah Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.

Wenham, Gordon J. Numbers. Kindle Edition. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP Academic, 2015.

  1. Wenham 2015, Kindle Locations 1447-1454 
  2. Ashley 1993, 131 
  3. Milgrom 1990, 40 
  4. Milgrom 1990, 349-350 
  5. Wenham 2015, Kindle Locations 1422-1438 
  6. Ashley 1993, 122-124 
  7. Milgrom 1990, 348 

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