Theblogogy - The Blog of Theology and Questions

The Blog of Theology and Questions

Monday, March 26, 2018

Bible ??? - Jealous Husband

Numbers 5 is a really odd passage (at least, starting in verse 11).

Here we have the law concerning a jealous husband (a guy who thinks his wife has been sleeping with someone else). And while the passage reads really ... well ... awkwardly to us today -- cursing the woman, absolving the guy of guilt, priests putting dust in bowls -- further study reveals it is radically better than the culture of the day. This law protects women.

The context indicates that the husband is jealous because his wife has been accused of sleeping around before, but now she's pregnant and he doesn't think the kid is his. So he takes his wife to the priest.

The priest does a bunch of stuff, including having the woman hold a bowl and putting both dust from the Tabernacle floor and the ink from a written curse into it. Then, the priest has the woman drink the water while he pronounces a curse.

The dust from the Tabernacle floor links the woman and her behavior to the community and the place of worship. Her actions are serious and impact more than just her and her husband.

The curse is a "trial by ordeal" where God must intervene in the case. But unlike traditional trials by ordeal -- the Salem Witch Trials where the woman was guilty if she floated and was innocent if she drowned -- this one presumes the woman is innocent. Only if she is guilty will the curse come on her. What's more: The curse doesn't bring her death. Instead, it makes her miscarry and she becomes infertile (a huge blow in the Ancient Near East and any agrarian culture). This, I think, links to David and Bathsheba losing their child of unfaithfulness (see 2 Samuel 11-12).

In this period, men could divorce their wives for just about anything. Here, God prohibits such actions. If a woman were divorced, her options were limited:
  1. Get remarried to a man who thinks she's been unfaithful
  2. Live with a relative who thinks she's been unfaithful
  3. Become a prostitute, and actually be unfaithful

Not so among the Israelites. It didn't matter how a man felt; if his wife was innocent, he had to continue to provide for her.

To us -- far removed from the original context -- this passage can sound really sexist. I was so excited to learn that it shows such a high regard for women, protecting them from the selfishness I know I can so often exhibit.