One of the benefits of reading the Bible from cover to cover is that you come across passages that have little chance of ending up in a sermon or Bible study near you. Such is the case with the regulations concerning the jealous husband in Numbers 5:11-31.
Here’s a summary: a man who suspects his wife of unfaithfulness but lacks proof may take her to the priest, carrying along a grain offering. The priest has the woman stand before the Lord, loosens her hair and hands her the bowl of grain to hold. He takes some holy water in a clay jar and adds dust from the tabernacle floor to it. He then writes an oath-imprecation on a scroll and recites the words for the woman who is to respond, “Amen, amen.”
The priest washes the ink off the scroll into the water and gives it to the woman to drink. He then takes a handful of the grain offering and offers it on the altar. If the woman was innocent, nothing would happen. If she was guilty, the words of the oath-imprecation stated that her thigh would waste away and her abdomen would swell (whatever that means).
If you’re puzzled and perplexed (or worse), you’re in good company.
First, it would be helpful to consider that other contemporary procedures for dealing with suspected infidelity included jumping into a river and swimming a certain distance, and plunging a hand into hot water. It’s easy to see how the innocent would be harmed by such tests. Conversely, the woman of Numbers 5 drinks dusty, inky—and harmless—water.
Second, take note of the husband’s role. All he did was bring his wife and some barley flour to the priest. He doesn’t take the punishment into his own hands (which often would end rather badly for the woman). Additionally, if his suspicions were off, he suffered nothing (5:31).
Thus, rather than being discriminatory with respect to the woman, this procedure actually protected her from her jealous husband and male-dominated society.
Third, note the theocentricity of this passage. The ritual is instituted by God. The woman is brought to God. God alone metes out the punishment. Some commentators have noted that this is the only case in Israelite judicial law where the verdict rests on a miracle. That God is a primary actor in the ritual removes any tones of superstition or magic.
So, if you’re willing to see it, you can observe in this passage a picture of YHWH making provisions for the vulnerable in society. Or you may see a retrograde ritual that demeans women. You decide.