Numbers 5:11 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 12 Speak to the Israelites and say to them: If any man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him… or if a spirit of jealousy comes on him, and he is jealous of his wife, though she has not defiled herself; 15 then the man shall bring his wife to the priest… 16 Then the priest shall bring her near, and set her before the LORD; 17 the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel, and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water. 18 The priest shall set the woman before the LORD, dishevel the woman’s hair,…the priest shall have the water of bitterness that brings the curse…24 He shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that brings the curse, and the water that brings the curse shall enter her and cause bitter pain… and her womb shall discharge, her uterus drop, and the woman shall become an execration among her people. 28 But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be immune and be able to conceive children.
I’ve edited out a lot of this passage because it’s so long, but you get the gist. This is the ritual prescribed should a man accuse his wife of adultery without evidence or witnesses to substantiate her guilt. He could simply be jealous, but she would still have to endure this potentially painful and humiliating ritual.
I understand that allowing the guilt to remain with the woman could result in guilt upon the entire community – which could be disastrous since God could withdraw favor and protection. That said, I’m struck by the apparent lack of standing from the wife. She is, in essence, treated as her husband’s property. I can also imagine a husband manipulating his wife with the simple threat of accusation. Awful.
There are other places in the bible where women appear to me to be treated unfairly, at least by modern cultural standards. The teachings of the apostle Paul in the New Testament come to mind. But Paul was a man of his time and, in many ways, was simply reflecting the cultural realities of his day. Our passage for today is different.
V.11-12 clearly state that God was prescribing this ritual to the people via Moses. God doesn’t abide by cultural norms, God creates culture. God could have shaped this scenario in any way that pleased, so why this? A female pastor colleague said to me, “This is why I believe God is a man.” She said this tongue-in-cheek, but her point is made. There is such gender bias favoring men here, how could it be otherwise?
This morning I’m left with the conflict between the ritual here prescribed and the character of the God I think I know. Lord, have mercy. Amen.