Does the Bible endorse trial by ordeal for a woman?

I’m a total history nerd. I am also an avid TV watcher so if there is a historical drama on offer, that’s totally in my wheelhouse. Usually in the dramas set in the Middle Ages, there’ll be some trial for a woman that she can’t possibly win. The Ducking Stool is a classic. A woman accused of witchcraft was plunged into deep water. If she floated to the surface, she was deemed to be a witch because, the theory went, that Satan rejected baptism. If she sank – and drowned – she was innocent. Another trial by ordeal was for men or women. The person would plunge their hand into a boiling cauldron to retrieve a stone. If the wounds were healed within three days, they were innocent. If not, they were guilty.

There is a passage in the book of Numbers that appears to describe just such an ordeal. Numbers 5:11-31 describes The Trial of an Unfaithful Wife (NIV) although it should be noted that the Holman translation calls it The Jealousy Ritual and the ESV names it The Test for Adultery which are both more useful. By calling it The Trial of an Unfaithful Wife, the guilt is already declared, which, exegetically, is a bit of a red herring.

And this is important. Because passages like these can be misunderstood and taken out of context. Then before you know it you have…well, a Ducking Stool. Or we might have an assumption that God is bizarrely capricious in his handling of women which distorts God’s nature, behavior and value of his image bearers. So its important to look more deeply into what this passage is saying and what God is communicating.

The scene is this: if a husband suspects his wife of having been unfaithful but has no proof, he takes her to the priest. Then, standing before God, the priest puts water and dust from the tabernacle floor into a vessel. The priest unbinds the woman’s hair, letting it hang loose, and recites a curse to befall her if she is guilty which afflicts her in the womb and makes her childless. The priest writes the words of the curse and then washes the words into the vessel with the water and dust. The woman drinks the water and then is affected by the curse if she is guilty.

There’s a lot there so lets step through it.

When the husband takes his wife to the priest, “He must also take an offering of a tenth of an ephah of barley flour on her behalf. He must not pour olive oil on it or put incense on it, because it is a grain offering for jealousy, a reminder-offering to draw attention to wrongdoing.” (Numbers 5:15).

This is key. This whole process is to establish guilt – either of the woman for adultery, or the husband for jealousy. Remember Leviticus 20:10 – because how would you not have Leviticus committed to memory? There, the punishment for adultery is death for both the man and the woman. Here, there have been no witnesses and so guilt must be established. What is interesting though is that the guilt of the woman is not the only outcome. Her innocence – and the jealousy of the husband – is an equally possible outcome.

Also important in this passage is its context. It sits within a group of passages all directed at keeping the purity of the Israelite camp. Throughout these passages, the sins are described in terms of faithlessness against God. Marriage is an echo of the covenant between God and his people. Fidelity and character are about the purity of the relationship as well as obedience and holiness before God.

Purity is echoed through the ritual. The grain offering is like the poorest man’s guilt offering in Leviticus 5:11 when a person has touched something unclean. Similarly, in Leviticus 13:45, anyone with a defiling disease, making them unclean, must wear their hair loose. This is about clean and unclean – not about sex and jealousy per se.

The intricacy of the ritual is in itself interesting. As noted by Wenham in his commentary on Numbers, rituals reveal what is valuable to a society. These rituals relate to the presence of God (the tabernacle water and dust) and to purity, as we noted above.

They also relate to justice.

The reason for the rituals is so that a woman cannot be found guilty of adultery on the suspicions of a husband. The woman is brought before God who is her only judge because he sees all sins whether in the light or in the dark.

The rituals also allow the woman to withdraw at each stage. Consider this: This is at a point in Israel’s history when God is travelling with his people in the camp as they wander the wilderness. A curse from God is not a glib threat. That is a curse that is going to happen. The step-through of the rituals allows a woman to confess if she is guilty. Because if the curse comes to pass, childlessness in ancient society was up there with the death penalty. Particularly as this would have been a fixed and public reminder of the guilt of the woman in a society in which honor was highly valued, and shame feared.

Lets start fine tuning this. This set of rituals is not about a weird treatment of women, it’s about the purity of the camp and relationship with God. These rituals are inherently protective of women rather than damning – it meant that a woman couldn’t be unjustly accused and punished just because her husband was jealous and suspicious.

If she was guilty then the punishment was equally as horrendous as the punishment laid out in Leviticus 20. If she was not guilty, she was subject to no curse and was publicly vindicated.

There remains one verse that it is worth looking into because it seems (to my modern eyes) unfair: “The husband will be innocent of any wrongdoing, but the woman will bear the consequences of her sin.” (v31). If she has sinned, the woman will bear the consequences. We might not like the consequences of the day but that is, in ancient terms, a justly applied punishment for a sin. If the woman is innocent and the husband is merely jealous and suspicious, he is innocent, even though he just put her through a very public accusation and trial process. This does not seem fair.

But this is where we need to take off our 21st century hats. I am looking at this through the lens of my life and my attitudes – all of which have been shaped by a history of ducking stools. I look at this passage reading into it from my point of view. And when we’re dealing with God’s word, that’s a very dangerous thing to do.

We need to go back to the big idea. This whole thing is about purity. Sure, a woman is protected from wrongful accusation along the way, but the over-riding purpose of all this is purity and holiness. In that context, the husband bringing his suspicions to the Lord is an honourable thing to do. He needs to ensure that his relationship, his house, and the camp are pure. Impurity has consequences. It takes one out of the presence of God. It’s that serious. So there are two issues: 1. The man brings his wife before God as a trial as a means of seeking purity. There is, in scripture, nothing wrong with this. 2. The man brings his wife before God for ignoble reasons, because he is petty and jealous. Scripture says that he is innocent of wrongdoing but again, in a society that has strong undercurrents of shame and honour, this would be a very public reminder of a husband’s jealousy. In a sense, it guards against frivolous accusations.

But jealousy itself is not a character trait to be sought after. Repeatedly in the Old Testament, we see exhortations to let go of envy and jealousy because of its focus on the self rather than God. Proverbs 14:30 tells us that envy rots the bones and Proverbs 27:4 tells us that jealousy is worse that anger and wrath. Anger and wrath burn brightly and for short periods of time. Jealousy makes a person bitter. These character traits are picked up in Jesus’ teaching in Mark 7:20-23:

“What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”

If the husband’s accusations are coming from a place of wickedness, God knows the heart and while he might be innocent of wrongdoing in bringing his wife to trial, there will be ongoing issues with his heart that have consequences for being in the presence of God.

But, just as with the wife who is brought before God as her judge, so the husband will be judged by him who sees and knows the heart.

I could talk about this passage all day. There are so many things to pick apart. Like the dust from the tabernacle floor and taking it into the body with the curse – like the Israelites being made to imbibe the dust of the golden calf they made in Exodus 32:20. Or the bitter cup that Jesus drank instead of us – God’s unfaithful bride. There is so much here! So if you have any questions, lets discuss! But in the meantime, I hope looking at these difficult passages of the Bible is helpful.

I have felt moved to write a series of blogs on passages of the Bible that can be confusing or disquieting for people. Other blogs in this grouping include the one on the monetary worth of women discussed in Leviticus and the passage that demands a woman be purified for twice as long after the birth of a girl than a boy, one on the Transfiguration and one on 1 Thessalonians in which glimpses of what happen when we die are discussed by Paul. If there is a passage that has always troubled you, feel free to contact me and I’ll take a look!

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