My wife has been researching her genealogy. She recently discovered that one of her direct ancestors was accused of witchcraft in Puritan New England. The accuser was a jealous and vengeful neighbor. The ancestor spent two months in a jail cell, which sounds quite horrible enough. In the end, a jury pronounced her innocent. I can't help but think that she was one of the lucky ones. After all, how can you prove that you are not a witch? At least this ancestor was not subjected to a trial by ordeal.
In Leviticus 20:10, we read that the punishment for adultery was death for both parties. As I understand it, in that patriarchal society, the rules for what constituted adultery were different for men and women. It all had to do with the woman's marital status. A married man who had sex with a single woman was not guilty of adultery. If a man, regardless of his marital status, had sex with another man's wife, they were both guilty of adultery.
Adultery, literally adulterating the substance of another man's marriage, had as much to do with property rights and inheritance as anything. Adultery was a crime against a man. Conviction and punishment depended upon the testimony of witnesses. The adulterers had to be caught in the act.
Numbers 5 begins with instructions that unclean persons are to be put outside of the Israelite camp until they are restored to a state of cleanness. Verses 5-10 concern confession of crimes and the payment of restitution. Then, at verse 11, begins a description of the procedure for dealing with a woman who is suspected of adultery, but against whom no witnesses can be found. It is nothing other than a trial by ordeal.
How does a woman prove that she is not having an undetected affair?
The suspicious husband takes his wife (and a grain offering) to the priest. The priest loosens the woman's hair (like a whore?) and makes her invoke curses upon herself. Then he gives her the "water of bitterness" to drink.
What is this bitter water? It is "holy" water, perhaps from the laver in which the priests wash their hands and feet. Already we know that the water is not clean, not in the hygienic sense. There was probably oil, animal blood, dirt, and maybe dung washed off into this water. Added to the water is some dust from the Tabernacle floor. Next, the priests writes the curses against the woman. What the words are written on is unspecified, but the words are washed off in the water of bitterness and the woman is made to drink it--literally drinking the words of the curse.
If the woman's "uterus drops," or her belly distends, or she miscarries, or something....if the water of bitterness makes her infertile, then she was guilty. If she is innocent, YHWH is supposed to protect her from the harmful effects of the bitter water.
Was there actually anything in the water to cause the physical effects mentioned? I don't know. If not, then the whole process was a sham, maybe designed to make the woman confess. If so, then the procedure was nothing less than deliberate poisoning. Either way, it is horrifying.
The possibilities for tampering with the process to insure an outcome are significant.
One of the study Bibles I consulted insists that this whole business is not magic. I question that assertion. Trial by ordeal, designed to provoke divine intervention for the innocent, is almost by definition magic.
Some small consolation may be drawn from the fact that the woman involved could not be put to death merely because of her husband's suspicions. Should the woman be "proven" innocent, the breach in family relationships that would almost surely result from this process is hard to contemplate. There are no instances recorded in the Bible of the water of bitterness ever actually being used.
Women who suspected their husbands of infidelity had no apparent recourse. Remember, adultery in that patriarchal culture was a crime against a man.
Whatever else may be said about the water of bitterness, it is right for us, modern people that we are, to react with repugnance, revulsion, and rejection of the process itself and the cultural assumptions underlying it.
Let me pause here to raise a theological question. If the Bible is, in some sense, the word of God, might passages like this be God's provocations? Might God be asking us to engage our brains, our hearts, our sense of moral outrage? Might God be picking an argument? Abraham trusted God and it was counted as righteousness toward him. Abraham also argued with God over the fate of Sodom. It was the kind of argument that only persons who trust one another can engage in. I still wish that Abraham would have argued with God about the sacrifice of Isaac. Maybe God, as I have said before, wanted that too.
Chapter 6 takes a brighter turn. It begins with instructions for the nazirites. Nazirites (the word means something like "those consecrated" or "those set apart")were laypeople who took a vow of special service to the Lord, usually for a limited period of time.
Nazirites were to let their hair grow for the duration of their vow. They were to avoid wine (probably all alcoholic beverages) and all grape products.* At the completion of their vow, the nazirites shave their heads and make certain sacrifices at the Tabernacle. Vows, as always, are taken very seriously.
Chapter 6 ends with instructions for the blessing that Aaron, and his successor high priests, are to pronounce over the people. The words of this Aaronic blessing are still spoken in synagogues and churches today:
The Lord bless you and keep you;the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
A few weeks ago, I got a haircut. That evening I drank a glass of wine. There was a box of raisins on the kitchen counter, leftover from my wife's baking Irish soda bread. So, I grabbed a handful of raisins. As I popped one into my mouth I thought, "It's a good thing I'm not under a Nazirite vow." This is how you know that I am a Bible geek.
Next: Numbers 7