Author Michael S. Heiser
When’s the last time you heard a sermon on Numbers 5:11–31?
One of the things I enjoy telling people in conversations about Bible study is that “if it’s weird, it’s important.” This passage certainly qualifies in both respects. The strangeness of the passage is easily detectable, but only careful Bible study makes its importance apparent.
Numbers 5:11–31 describes a water ritual to determine the guilt or innocence of a woman suspected of adultery. A husband is to bring the wife under suspicion to the priest, along with a required grain offering that will “bring iniquity to remembrance.” The priest in turn prepares a jar of water mixed with dust from the tabernacle (5:16–17). To this mixture is added the curses against her written “in a book” (5:23). Either the curses were written and erased, so that the erasures are swept into the water mixture, or the ink is washed off into the water mixture. The woman is compelled to drink the concoction after saying “Amen, Amen” in response to the priest’s invocation of blessing or cursing upon her, depending on her innocence or guilt. If she is guilty, the ingested mixture will cause pain and sterility; if there is no such reaction, she is deemed innocent (5:27–31).¹
Since the instructions in Num 5 were given by God (5:11), the water ordeal is a means of divination, whereby it is expected that God will use the ritual to answer a question human beings cannot. That the Israelites could use such divination comes as no surprise, as the high priest had the Urim and Thummim at his disposal, and various biblical characters utilize the casting of lots for discerning the mind of God on a matter (Josh 18:6-8; Prov 16:33; Acts 1:26).²
This passage provides a useful starting point for discussing why biblical characters were permitted to practice divination at all, when elsewhere such methods are condemned (e.g., Deut 18:9–14).³ But let’s instead focus on one practical implication of this passage.
Students of the Bible know that adultery was punishable by death in ancient Israel (Lev 20:10–11). Surprisingly, death is not the penalty for the guilty woman in Num 5:11-31. The normal word for adultery (na’af, נאף)—the word used in connection with the death penalty—does not occur in this passage, further distancing it from being a capital crime. Why these discrepancies?
The answer lies in the fact that the guilty woman was not discovered in the act of adultery (5:13). Since this is the case, the community and, particularly, the angry husband, is effectively prohibited by the law of the water ordeal from taking matters into their own hands. This would serve as a protection for women suspected of adultery, or who might be the target of someone’s animosity or jealousy. The point is that secret adultery can and will be punished only by God.
¹There are explicit parallels to this procedure in the literature of the ancient Near Eastern world of biblical times. For example, one of the laws in Hammurabi’s code (COS 2.31) concerns a river ordeal for a woman accused of adultery.
²Urim and Thummim: The exact nature of the Urim and Thummim and how they were used is unknown. A literalized translation of the terms would be “lights and perfections.” The Urim and Thummim are distinguished from the casting of lots as a method of divination in the traditional Hebrew text (the Masoretic Text) of 1 Sam 14:36–42, though this is often obscured by English translations that follow the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint (e.g., ESV).
³See Michael S. Heiser, “The Old Testament Response to Ancient Near Eastern Pagan Divination Practices.”