Numbers 5:11-31

Download audio

In this chapter of Numbers the people are being prepared for their journey to the Promised Land. Because the Lord is among them, they must be holy and steps are being taken to ensure that holiness. The chapter began with a selective or representative set of laws ensuring the ceremonial and moral holiness of the people of Israel. We considered those last Lord’s Day evening. We come now to a much more elaborate regulation governing cases of suspected but unconfirmed sexual sin. And there is no getting around the fact that what we are reading tonight is one of the strangest texts in all of the Law and, in fact, all of the Bible.

Lig Duncan, a PCA pastor from Mississippi, once told me that he had heard Palmer Robertson, longtime American seminary professor nowadays of the African Bible College in Uganda and widely read author on Old Testament themes, tell his seminary class that he had yet to figure out how to preach a sermon on the law of the jealous husband but he was working on it. In other words, Dr. Robertson was suggesting this might be the very last text in the Bible that a thoughtful preacher could understand well enough to preach and teach. Well, Dr. Robertson would have made that confession some years ago; I hope that the possibilities of interpretation are better now than then, because it is time for me to preach a sermon on the law of the jealous husband!

Prof. Jack Collins was here for worship last Lord’s Day evening so I cornered him after the service to ask him about his understanding of this text. Many of you know Jack as a friend and so may not attribute to him the full stature that he has gained among the professional caste of Old Testament scholars. He is among the very best. I expected that he would, in a few deft strokes, outline for me the best approach to the text. Instead he allowed that he might have seen some valuable notes on the passage recently but couldn’t remember where it was he saw them. Big help!

Text Comment

As we begin it is important to recognize that we are talking about the same thing in these following verses as was spoken about in the first ten verses of the chapter, viz. the purity of the people. It is the possibility of the wife’s impurity, as we will read in vv. 13-14, 19-20, and 28 that is the whole point; and her impurity consisted in her having broken faith with her husband. The same term for this breaking faith is used in v. 12 as was used in v. 6. We are still concerned with the need for the people of Israel to be holy as God is holy and to ensure his continued presence with her by not transgressing that holiness.

The entire regulation concerns what is to be done to a wife who is suspected to be unfaithful. Remember, however, in the Law of Moses regulations cut both ways most all of the time. This is not said to be sure, but in my view we may safely assume that the same thing would be done if the wife had suspicions about her husband but could not prove them. The fact that the laws applied equally to men and women, to husbands and wives, is often enough stated directly in the law to lead us to believe that any regulation stated solely in respect to one sex applies with equal force to the other. Relative to this particular sin it is interesting to remember that the death penalty for adultery in the Law of Moses, for example, was to be enforced on men and women, husbands and wives alike.

The man must take his suspicions to the priest. This is no longer a private matter and if a man wishes to have his suspicions confirmed or to act on them or the wife wishes to have her virtue vindicated the matter must be taken to the priest, which is to say, to the Lord. We are well aware that one of the first casualties in an unhappy home is trust. We know all too well how suspicions and real or perceived offenses accumulate. The matter must be brought out of the home and out of that toxic atmosphere of mistrust and into the light of day and must be placed under the oversight of a disinterested man, a godly man, a priest. Only then can the outcome be trusted.

What is more the man must bring an offering of barley flour. This is the same offering, or nearly so, that is described as the poor man’s sin offering in Lev. 5:11. The point is that we are talking about sin, not simply about marital harmony. We are talking about right and wrong before a holy God. The cheap barley flour makes this, in fact, the lowliest sacrifice in the Bible. The oil and incense are symbolic of joy so their omission is clearly deliberate. There is no joy at this moment. [Milgrom, 38; Wenham, 83]

Since the woman is under suspicion of being a brazen, unrepentant sinner, she can’t bring the sin offering so the husband brings it instead. Indeed, if she brought the offering it would be tantamount to her admission of guilt. [Milgrom, 38]

Notice the all important before the Lord. It will be the Lord who determines guilt or innocence and it is the holiness of the Lord that is at issue here. Israel must be holy because God is holy.

Some water from the supply consecrated for use in the tabernacle was to be mixed with dust from the floor of the sanctuary. It is not entirely clear whether we are talking about the actual sanctuary floor, the holy place, or the dust of the floor outside. In any case, what is holy, consecrated for the use of God, is going to encounter in the woman either holiness or unholiness.

The loosened hair was symbolic either of disgrace or uncleanness. The offering was brought by the husband but it was her offering and it was for her sake that it was given; so she must give it to the priest herself.

There are parallels to this practice of “trial by ordeal,” even to the requirement to drink a prepared liquid, in other older ANE cultures prior to this time in the 15th century B.C. These ordeals were also used in the case of suspected adultery. Here are two stipulations from the Code of Hammurabi (pars. 131-132). You will easily appreciate the similarity.

“If a man’s wife was accused by her husband, but she was not caught while lying with another man, she shall make an oath by the god and return home. If a finger has been pointed at a man’s wife because of another man, but she has not been caught lying with that other man, she shall leap into the River for the sake of her husband.”

A typical form of trial by ordeal in the ANE was for the accused to be thrown into a river. If the gods caused the accused to drown, then she obviously was guilty. If she survived, the gods obviously had acquitted the accused. That is, the ordeal provided the punishment directly. Here the punishment has nothing directly to do with the ordeal itself. [Milgrom, 346; Waltke, Theology, 517] Of course a person’s ability to swim had a great deal to do with how likely it was that he or she would survive being thrown into a river. But to be thrown into a river was inherently dangerous. But the water required to be drunk here in this ritual wouldn’t hurt anyone by itself. There was no danger from the water by itself.

By means of these ordeals the gods were supposed to reveal the guilt or innocence of an individual who had been accused of a crime for which there was no evidence of wrongdoing. What we have in other words, here in Numbers 5, is a practice familiar to ANE peoples that is here given a new moral and theological setting and is tweaked in a very significant way. That kind of cultural transposition is common to biblical ritual as you know. Whether circumcision or sacrifice, feast or sanctuary, there is little in Israelite practice that is unique in its outward form. It is the new liturgical setting and the new theological rationale that is unique and changes everything. Those changes, to be sure, often bring with them some fundamental changes in the practice as well. Circumcision was common in the ANE but not as a ritual for newborns and so on.

You’ll notice that the woman is required to make a vow. What we have in this ritual, when stripped down to its essentials, is a dramaticized vow. And it is made in the immediate presence of Yahweh.

And the punishment perfectly fits the crime. As the ancient Jewish commentators put it: “In the member she sinned with she will be punished.” [Mishnah, Sotah 1.7] Her genital area will distend and she will not be able to conceive. [Milgrom, 37] Thigh is probably a euphemism for the genitals, the procreative organs; the belly a euphemism for the womb.

Notice carefully once again that this form of test was not like others in which harm was inevitable absent virtually a miracle to prevent the harm. No one had to be thrown into a river, to plunge a hand into boiling water, or grasp a red-hot piece of metal. Those were other forms of trial by ordeal in the ANE. There is nothing toxic in the water that must be drunk. If there is to be some horrible effect it will not come from the water, it will come from the Lord judging the woman for her sin. So the ordeal by itself would not detect guilt or innocence. In fact, it is not really accurate to call this an ordeal at all, because in the ANE ordeal involved surviving something inherently harmful. One was guilty unless one survived. Not here. The water itself was not dangerous. One problem with torture, of course, as we have learned often enough in our modern world, is that it can produce false positives. The innocent will confess simply to make the pain stop. There is nothing like that here. The woman has absolutely nothing to fear from the water she drinks. If nothing happens, if Yahweh does not intervene to disclose her guilt, she will be seen to be innocent.

Here the burden of the situation is that the woman has vowed her innocence. If she was guilty she would literally have to eat her words: the curses that she had asked to be visited upon her and that had been washed into the water that she drank.

The priest’s having offered the sacrifice before the woman was required to drink the potion was another way of invoking the Lord’s presence and judgment. The place of the sacrifice in the ritual also made clear that we are not talking about any magic effect here. [Ashley, 134] We are talking about something the Lord will do, a response he will make.

It is interesting that the guilty wife is not condemned to death, the punishment ordered for adulterers caught red-handed (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22). But she will remain childless, a far greater catastrophe in the ancient world than even in our world today.

The system was designed as much to protect the innocent as to convict the guilty. The husband had to know that he might be exposed for a fool if he brought his accusations and they proved to be unfounded. God can make the bitter water sweet, as he did for Israel at Marah, but one of the curses of the covenant is barrenness and he has promised to enforce that curse when his people are unfaithful.

In other words, the husband is not to be discouraged from acting on his suspicions by the prospect of punishment for himself if he should prove to be in error in suspecting his wife of infidelity. This is not a system of jurisprudence in which the principle of “loser pays” applies.

Now the simple fact that separates our text this evening from all others in the Bible is that this is the only case in biblical law where a judicial decision depended upon a miracle. [Milgrom, 348] The biblical law laid down extensive rules for determining the weight to give to particular sorts of testimony, the number of witnesses necessary to bring in a guilty verdict, and so on. The law clearly anticipated the possibility that the guilty might go free for lack of evidence to convict. Only here do we have a procedure in which the Lord intervenes directly and supernaturally in the outcome of what is in effect a case at bar.

One thing that is very important for modern readers to notice is the protection that this ritual provided for women. It was not enough for a husband to suspect his wife. Only the Lord could reveal her guilt and if he did not she was vindicated. Without evidence he could not bring her to court and his suspicions could not be acted upon unless demonstrated to be valid. This was a way to ensure that a woman was not unjustly condemned for a crime she had not committed in a culture in which women were even less powerful and more vulnerable than they are in our modern world. Modern folk, likely to be very critical of an institution like this ritual of the jealous husband, should remember who was primarily protected by it: the weak and the vulnerable.

What is more, while the modern reader of Numbers 5 is likely to detect superstition here there is nothing explicitly or implicitly magical in the ritual itself. The water would not harm unless Yahweh himself uncovered the woman’s guilt by this means. This ritual wouldn’t have accomplished anything if the Lord did not, in fact, choose to make use of it. Certainly it accomplished nothing intrinsically, by itself, ex opere operato, by the performance of the ritual in and of itself. It worked only as God made it work. Indeed, if he did not make it work, the woman was ipso facto vindicated whether or not she was guilty.

We have a much harder time appreciating ritual than did ancient Near Eastern people and, indeed, a great many people in the world today. We tend to be suspicious of ritual, even though we still practice rituals of every kind, whether when inaugurating a president, graduating a college student, or marrying a bride and groom. Rituals express the importance that a society attaches to events or institutions. But they are not a machine. The ritual itself no more guarantees a particular outcome than does a prayer. It is the act of God that counts as the phrase “before the Lord” in v. 16 is intended to remind us. [Wenham, TOTC, 82-83] This entire ritual is, in fact, an act of faith in God, almost an enacted prayer. The matter was left entirely in the Lord’s hands and the husband and the wife both waited upon his verdict. This is remarkable really. The Lord alone could adjudicate the matter because there was no evidence of guilt. And the people were commanded to leave it in his hands. He has the greatest concern for his own holiness and he will act according to his interests. He will reveal the matter if he pleases. If he does not, the woman is found innocent.

Like it or not there are others in the Bible who are punished directly by the Lord for their breach of his purity and holiness. Nadab and Abihu violated the Lord’s holiness by offering incense that was improperly burned and were struck dead for their sin. At the time of the attack on Jericho Achan violated the purity of Israel’s camp by stealing some articles from the conquered city that had been devoted to destruction on account of the unholiness of the Canaanite people. The Lord uncovered Achan’s sin and he was executed with his family. Uzzah was struck dead because he touched the ark when it was being transported to the sanctuary in Jerusalem in David’s day. The king of Judah, Uzziah, also known as Azariah, burned incense in the temple, an act to be performed by priests only, and was given leprosy as a punishment for his violation of the holiness of Yahweh’s sanctuary. In the New Testament, Ananias and Sapphira were executed for lying in regard to a gift they purported to give to God and King Herod, as we read in Acts 12, was executed by the Lord for blasphemy. God has and will sometimes intervene directly in matters of crime and punishment when his own holiness is at stake. He certainly does not always do so – that is clear in the Bible – but he has and no doubt in many more cases than are explicitly mentioned in Holy Scripture. It is interesting, for example, that in the case law regarding sexual sin in Leviticus 20 (vv. 20-21) we also read that certain sexual sinners will be punished by being rendered infertile. This is clearly a generalization. Not all such sinners became infertile then as not all of them do now. But it is a threat of punishment for such sin and a threat that the punishment will fit the crime. There is perhaps a principle of generalization at work here as well, as later in Numbers 32:23 where we read that our sins will find us out. Surely they do not always find us out in this life – though they will at the Last Judgment – but it is a fair warning. The Lord can and does often find out our sins and expose us to the disgrace of them.

It is important to remember that we do not know how long this particular ritual was practiced in Israel’s history with God’s blessing. At a later time in Jewish history when it continued to be practiced under the supervision of the rabbis the practice was actually suspended, it seems as at least one rabbi says because adultery was so openly practiced at that time among the Jews that there was no need for a ritual that was designed to punish secret adulterers. [Milgrom, 348] In any case, it couldn’t be practiced hypocritically or unjustly because only God could give the guilty verdict. That is, no one could be falsely condemned by means of this ritual, though, to be sure, if God chose not to honor the ritual because of the general sinfulness of his people – as he did, for example, in the case of other of their rituals, such as sacrifice and prayer – the result would be only that the guilty escaped punishment, not that the innocent were convicted and punished.

What the ritual further served to do was underline the warning, given in several different ways in Numbers, that the sins of God’s people will be found out. It is, of course, possible to get away with a great deal of wrong because no one sees you do it. But God sees and knows. And he assures us in his Word that our sins will find us out. God can uncover guilt whenever and however he chooses. A people being put on notice that they must be and remain holy because God is holy need to realize that God will know of their unholiness whether or not other men do.

But finally, and perhaps most importantly, the ritual drives home the point of the importance of sexual and marital faithfulness to holiness of life and to the blessing of God. In the ANE adultery was a great sin. There is plenty of evidence of that in the archaeological materials. It is evidence of the fact that people know instinctively that a society cannot survive the corruption and eventual destruction of the institution of marriage. Too much of human life depends upon that institution and its sanctity as the modern West is now finding to its dismay. Of one thing any pundit can be certain: when the history of the West and the end of its civilization comes to be written, the sexual revolution will be seen to have played a far greater role in its death than political or military or economic factors.

But in the Old Testament adultery was a still greater sin than it was regarded to be in the rest of the ANE. Its place in the Ten Commandments – the covenant document itself that bound Israel to Yahweh – and its use as a figure for spiritual infidelity, for Israel’s worship for other gods highlight the especially egregious character of this particular sin. Marriage, in other words, had a divine dimension and adultery was therefore directly a sin against God and against his grace in bringing Israel into covenant with himself. [Ashley, 125-126] Israel’s fall was the result of her adultery, both maritally and spiritually as the prophets of the Old Testament made a point of emphasizing. [Milgrom, 349] Yahweh often represented himself to Israel as the jealous and the offended husband! But lest we mistake the point, adultery is described in the New Testament as fully as virulent and vicious a sin as ever it was in the Old Testament. Unfaithfulness in marriage – while a sin that can be forgiven – is incompatible with life in the kingdom of God. Adulterers must be driven out of the church (1 Cor. 5) and there will be no fornicators in heaven (Rev. 21:8; 22:15).

What is interesting is that in several places in the prophets the wrath of God is likened to a cup that Israel must drink. And in some of those places where that image is employed it is Israel’s spiritual adultery that is particularly in view. In Ezekiel 23, for example, we read of Judah’s lewdness and her prostitution, her lusting after the nations and defiling herself with their idols. Then we hear that for that she will have to drink the cup of ruin and desolation.

There is a wonderful side to all of this, of course. The drinking of the cup links this divine judgment with the Lord Jesus’ bearing of divine punishment in our place. Remember Jesus spoke of drinking the cup of the Lord’s wrath and meant by it his suffering in our place for our sin. So the image we have first here in Numbers 5 of a cup being drunk that brings the judgment and punishment of God – his curse against a person because of her sin – becomes eventually the image of our Savior’s suffering and death in our place, bearing the punishment due us for our sins. Imagine a husband in that scene painted for us there at the sanctuary in Numbers 5. You can imagine a short story written along these lines or a movie made of this particular anecdote. The wife stands there in disgrace, her hair undone, accused of sin. What is more, she is guilty. Perhaps the husband knows it even though he cannot prove it. But he loves his wife. Her sin notwithstanding he loves her so. He wonders why he ever brought her here, why he insisted on this. But, of course, he remembers it was the Law of God that instructed him to do this. But when the priest demands that she drink the cup with the water and the dust and the curses mixed together in it, he grabs it from her hand and downs it himself. It is not a perfect illustration, but every Christian gets the point. We were guilty and sure to be condemned and made to suffer for our sin, but Jesus drank the cup for us.

Still let’s be clear about this. The point of Numbers 5:11-31 is not first Christ’s drinking the cup for us; it is the unholiness of adultery, the ruin that such a sin brings upon a person and a people, the certainty that that sin will be found out, and the incompatibility of that sin with the presence and the blessing of the living God. We are in a passage dealing with the absolute necessity of the holiness of God’s people, the holiness of their lives.

I saw on the television the other day an ad for a movie soon to be released, a comedy, the premise of which is that on a young woman’s wedding day three men show up, each of whom might be her father. This is what passes for comedy in Hollywood these days. We have so mainstreamed sexual promiscuity and the inevitability of multiple sexual liaisons that we are now untroubled by laughing over the consequences: a child who doesn’t know who her father is; men who have fathered children to whom they have paid no attention through all the years of their childhood; women and men who have to suffer the complications of meeting again the sexual partners of their past. There is, in fact, nothing remotely funny about any of this. It is not amusing to grow up not knowing who your father is and to have a father who has paid no attention to you throughout your life. It is utterly dehumanizing to treat men and women as sexual animals whose physical desire has been disconnected from everything fine, noble, lovely, and permanent in human life.

What has this disconnection produced in our culture: misery of every kind. There are estimated to be some 65 million people living in America today with a viral STD. One in four American teens will contract an STD in any given year. Billions are spent on the medical treatment of sexually transmitted diseases. Some STDs, as we know, have permanent and incurable effects. More than half of Americans will have an STD at some point in their life. And it is estimated that eventually 80% of American women will have acquired the HPV infection. Some estimates place the number of Americans living with genital herpes at 25%. In the language of Numbers 5 in the NIV, we have become a people with swollen abdomens and wasting thighs. In the member with which we sinned we have received the punishment.

Divorce rates are, of course, at unprecedented levels, and the emotional and spiritual harm to children and ruin that they will carry into their adulthood is revealed with dismal regularity as one study after another confirms the obvious: children are not better off when their world is torn apart. Fewer young adults are marrying for fear of repeating their parents’ failure and the pain that went with it. More are co-habiting though the trend is old enough for us to know now as a society that co-habitation is a sure way to guarantee the precise fate one is attempting thereby to avoid: unstable relationships that cause unbearable pain for both the individuals and their children.

And, just as we might suspect from Numbers 5:27-28, we are in the West becoming as a result of our sexual infidelity an infertile people who are in the process of surrendering the world to nations and peoples who are still capable of having children. The Lord prosper them; we do not deserve to prosper.

You and I, and you young people, live in a world that has mainstreamed sexual infidelity. Sexual activity outside of a committed marriage is now so commonplace as to be utterly uncontroversial in our culture and I fear the young people listening to me have no idea how rapidly this situation has come to pass. When I was in high school you were confronted with a solid wall of opposition to sexual promiscuity. Your teacher was against it, your parents were against it, the television sitcom was against it but now, a single generation later, no one is speaking against the practice of sex outside of marriage. But human life was not designed to work this way and, far more important, it will not work this way because God will not let it work this way. He remains as offended by and as angry with sexual sin today as he was in the days of Moses. It was essential for Israel in the wilderness to know whether an adulteress or adulterer was in her midst because God knew and cared so much.

Americans, and Christians among them, worry about the impact of $4 gasoline or Islamic radicalism on their national power and greatness. If they had a clue they would worry far more about our society’s sexual ethics and the divine wrath promised against sexual sinners.