Bible Review 12:4, August 1996

A Husband’s Pride, A Mob’s Prejudice

The public ordeal undergone by a suspected adulteress in Numbers 5 was meant not to humiliate her but to protect her.

By Jacob Milgrom

Bible Review

Feminists have no difficulty pointing out obvious sexist passages in the Bible. In their arsenal of evidence they usually reserve the coup de grace for the case of the suspected adulteress (Numbers 5:11–51).

These are the facts of the case: An irate husband suspects that his wife has been unfaithful. Having no proof, his only recourse is to bring her to the Sanctuary, where she undergoes an ordeal. The priest makes her drink a potion consisting of sacred water to which have been added dust from the Sanctuary floor and scrapings from a parchment containing a curse. The curse spells out the consequences. If she is guilty, her reproductive organs will swell so she will not be able to conceive. If the water has no effect on her, she is declared innocent and will be blessed with seed.

Such humiliation! There is no evidence, only her husband’s suspicion. Her protests of innocence are ignored. Her husband’s “fit of jealousy” (Hebrew qin’ah) suffices to drag her to the Sanctuary, where she is forced to drink a cursed potion.

Ironically, feminists have chosen the worst possible witness. As I shall demonstrate, her public ordeal was meant not to humiliate her but to protect her, not to punish her but to defend her.

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