In my series on the biblical laws concerning love and marriage I have already examined the price of honor for a defiled virgin due to fornication  and the laws concerning the marriage of a captive prisoner of war . Today, though, I would like to focus on a different law that on the surface appears to be hostile to women but turns out upon closer examination to be more favorable to women and also a canny exploitation of human psychology.
The law in question is called in many bibles “Concerning Unfaithful Wives,” which is a biased way of looking at the law. A more accurate summary of the law would be “Concerning Jealous Husbands,” since the law itself concerns a special trial by ordeal ordained by God for ancient Israel for situations where a jealous husband suspected his wife of adultery, where God Himself promised to resolve the case in such a way as would be publicly known. This fact helps us understand how a law that on its face would appear to be sexist ends up being quite favorable to a woman, given the assumptions that God is a just and fair judge who judges without partiality and is omniscient concerning what goes on behind closed doors.
The Law Concerning Jealous Husbands
Numbers 5:11-31 provides a very detailed law concerning a trial by ordeal in which God promised to adjudicate the truth of the matter concerning a jealous husband’s suspicions about his wife’s infidelity. The trial by ordeal set up here depends on God as a judge showing through a specific means whether a wife was or was not guilty of the crime of adultery in a case where the adulterers were not caught in flagrante delicto by witnesses, the normal way in which cases were judged in Israel. In this particular trial by ordeal, God and Jesus Christ served as the two witnesses needed to convict the guilty party of the crime of adultery, their verdict made known through a curious curse.
Numbers 5:11-15 sets up the situation where this particular trial by ordeal would be used: “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘If any man’s wife goes astray and behaves unfaithfully toward him, and a man lies with her carnally, and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband, and it is concealed that she has defiled herself, and there was no witness against her, nor was she caught–if the spirit of jealousy comes upon him and he becomes jealous of his wife, who has defiled herself; or if the spirit of jealousy comes upon him and he becomes jealous of his wife, although she has not defiled herself–then the man shall bring his wife to the priest. He shall bring the offering required for her, one-tenth of an ephah of barley meal; he shall pour no oil on it and put no frankincense on it, because it is a grain offering of jealousy, an offering for remembering, for bringing iniquity to remembrance.’ ” ”
This passage provides the setup of a bad situation. A man becomes jealous of his wife, suspecting her to be unfaithful. In order to reveal whether his jealousy was justified or not, he had to pay a special grain offering on her behalf with no oil or frankincense because it was an offering of the uncovering of iniquity rather than a grain offering that is a sweet aroma to God. This offering was to be provided whenever a jealous husband sought a verdict from God concerning his wife’s faithfulness, whether she was guilty of it or not.
Numbers 5:16-22 describes the ordeal that was to follow the grain offering of jealousy: “And the priest shall bring her near, and set her before the Lord. The priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel, and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water. Then the priest shall stand the woman before the Lord, uncover the woman’s head, and put the offering for remembering in her hands, which is the grain offering of jealousy. And the priest shall have in his hand the bitter water that brings a curse. And the priest shall put her under oath, and shall say to the woman, “If no man has lain with you, and if you have not gone astray to uncleanness while under your husband’s authority, be free from this bitter water that brings a curse. But if you have gone astray while under your husband’s authority, and if you have defiled yourself and some man other than your husband has lain with you”–then the priest shall put the woman under the oath of the curse, and he shall say to the woman–“the Lord make you a curse and an oath among your people, when the Lord makes your thigh rot and your belly swell, and may the water that causes your belly swell and your thigh rot.” Then the woman shall say, “Amen, so be it.”
This particular trial by ordeal was full of symbolic action. The ‘holy water,’ dust from the tabernacle, and offering of jealousy being placed in the woman’s hand were meant to impress her, the husband, and the entire congregation of Israel with the severity of the sin of adultery. We may think adultery a light sin in these corrupt days, but to God the sanctity of marriage is vitally important. Unfaithfulness to one’s covenantal relationships is a matter that God abhors, and his deep interest in protecting the sanctity of marriage, given the importance of religious purity in the eyes of God for those who seek to enter into the wedding supper of Christ, makes this trial by ordeal unique in the scriptures. Additionally, the curse is to make the thighs rot and the belly swell, curses that would be visible and symbolic of the sexual nature of the sin (thighs here may be a euphemism for genitals, as is common in scripture–see for example Genesis 24:9) as well as the threat of adultery to the recognition of a husband’s paternity of his wife’s children (here belly may mean womb). The symbolic action was designed so that all participants and witnesses of the trial by ordeal understood the symbolic importance of the faithfulness of Israelites to their marriage vows, and the importance God held in the faithfulness of his betrothed bride (Israel).
Numbers 5:23-28 provides God’s promised verdict in this trial by ordeal: “Then the priest shall write these curses in a book, and he shall scrape them off into the bitter water. And he shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and the water that brings a curse shall enter her to become bitter. Then the priest shall take the grain offering of jealousy from the woman’s hand, shall wave the offering before the Lord, and bring it to the altar; and the priest shall take a handful of the offering, as a memorial portion, burn it on the altar, and afterward make the woman drink the water. When he has made her drink the water, then it shall be, if he has defiled herself and behaved unfaithfully toward her husband, that the water that brings a curse will enter her and become bitter, and her belly will swell, her thigh will rot, and the woman will become a curse among her people. But if the woman has not defiled herself, and is clean, then she shall be free and may conceive children.”
This passage continues the symbolic actions, as a book of the curse, which becomes bitter in the stomach, is a reminder of the penalty of the heinous sin of adultery. Additionally, the burning of part of the grain offering to add to the bitter water was also a sign of the importance of fidelity to God. God’s promised verdict is a visible curse upon the thigh (again, probably “genitals”) and belly (probably “womb”) of the woman which would make her an obvious and visible curse to the entire nation of Israel. However, if she was innocent then she would be without harm and able to conceive children, and thus demonstrated to the entire congregation of Israel as a faithful wife who had not betrayed her jealous husband.
Numbers 5:29-31 closes this law: “This is the law of jealousy, when a wife while under her husband’s authority, goes astray and defiles herself, or when the spirit of jealousy comes upon a man, and he becomes jealous of his wife; then he shall stand the woman before the Lord, and the priest shall execute all this law upon her. Then the man shall be free from iniquity, but that woman shall bear her guilt.”
This closing brings up some important points that will be discussed shortly in greater detail. One of the worst fears a husband has, and one of the situations that causes the most ridicule, is to be made a ‘cuckold’ by an unfaithful wife. An unfaithful wife attacks the honor and authority of a husband, and the paternity of his children, and therefore is a serious problem that must be dealt with in a godly society to prevent marriage from losing its legitimacy. Likewise, this law provides a protection to an innocent wife accused by a jealous husband by providing a means by which her innocence may be vindicated publicly without a jealous husband, in the absence of evidence, taking matters into his own hands. The law provides a way for the jealous husband to be guiltless since he has not beaten or harmed (or even murdered) his wife merely because of suspicion, as is the case in nations under barbaric Sharia law.
Examining The Issues of the Law of Jealousy
The law of jealousy outlined here in Numbers 5 raises some serious questions about its fairness. Is the law a sexist one, targeting women unfairly while leaving men to be free to commit adultery? Furthermore, what relevance does this law have for Christians today, in the absence of a physical temple or tabernacle? Additionally, how does this law compare to our modern lassiez-faire attitude toward adultery and the legal system of heathen societies like Rome and the Muslim Sharia law which allow a husband to kill a wife he suspects is unfaithful?
First, why does this law only target the wives of jealous husbands? Is it not sexist to have a law where women are punished and not men? Why is there no trial by ordeal for the husbands of jealous wives? This law, rather than being sexist, recognizes a fundamentally asymmetrical aspect of human existence. In a society like ancient Israel, and even today, there is no doubt as to the maternity of a child. Whether someone is pregnant with their own child or is a surrogate mother for someone else’s child, there is no doubt where the egg comes from. There is, however, the potential for doubt concerning the paternity of a child. Given the obligations of fathers to support their children (and to inherit the wealth of the family, a key aspect of Israelite and even modern society), the need to ensure that the husband is the father of the children in his household has long been considered a matter of extreme importance in family law. English law going back centuries considers the husband to automatically be the legal father responsible for child support in case of divorce, but this law may be in jeopardy due to the widespread nature of DNA testing which allows jealous husbands to test the paternity of their children in the absence of a trial by ordeal. Eventually (hopefully soon), the common law will be corrected to protect the interests of husbands with adulterous wives, thereby reducing a major loophole in the current legal doctrine of the West. The first reason the law of Numbers 5 is not sexist is because it is the paternity of children, and not the maternity, that is in doubt in the case of infidelity.
The second reason why this law is not sexist is more profound and less obvious. In a sense, all of Israel, male or female, was in the position to God of the wife with the jealous husband. God Himself proclaims that He is a jealous God (Exodus 20:5) who abhors idolatry because it amounts to unfaithfulness to the covenantal vow of obedience. In a sense, we are all ‘married’ to God by our vows at baptism, and our unfaithfulness is an act of adultery. Since we are all, therefore, in the position of the potentially unfaithful wife who has concealed her treachery, the trial by ordeal is a reminder that we are all accountable to God, who is faithful to us and therefore not under the curse of the law. Since both men and women are symbolically under this law by virtue of our betrothal to God, the law is not sexist because it applies to both men and women concerning their faithfulness to God’s laws.
It is in this sense that this law is relevant to Christians in the absence of a temple or tabernacle establishment. Despite the fact that we literally do not drink the water of a curse, promiscuity threatens the ability of women to conceive in the modern world due to the scourge of HPV. Sexually transmitted diseases commonly disfigure the genitals or create otherwise visible marks (at least periodically) that someone is a ‘curse’ to his or her people. And such curses are not limited to either men or women, but apply to all. Despite our actions, we still pay a heavy price for our unfaithfulness and our inability to control our sexuality within biblical limits. Additionally, in a symbolic sense we are still under this law. If we are unfaithful to God, we will be cursed and our families and enterprises will not prosper. God will judge us as ‘unfaithful’ spouses and give us the penalty due to adulterers (for idolatry is but a type of adultery, treason against one whom one is bound to by covenant).
Given the relevance and importance of this law for today both in symbolic and in literal terms, let us grapple with the issue of sexism in Roman and Muslim law. In both Rome and the Sharia law, a husband was able to punish a wife he suspected of infidelity. These heathen law systems recognize no protection for the innocent (unlike God’s law which is deeply interested in protecting the innocent, as is the case here by removing the enforcement of the law from the jealous husband to God Himself), and they do not provide sufficient evidentiary requirements to prevent miscarriages of judgment. Additionally, the Roman laws, by making the husband the enforcer of the law, made women the property of the men under whose authority they rested rather than (as was the case in this Israelite law) as equal citizens under the protection of the law and not merely its sanctions. By protecting the interests of innocent woman and removing the enforcement from the jealous husband, the biblical law provided justice to both the husband and wife, justice that is denied in our current corrupt legal system as well as the corrupt systems of Roman or Sharia law.
Let us therefore examine a law such as the law concerning jealous husbands as a way in which God protected the rights and interests of both women and men. A husband who was jealous without a cause would be shamed when his wife was found to be innocent by the trial of ordeal. Likewise, a husband could be assured by God Himself that if his wife was unfaithful God would punish her directly and free him from guilt. It was in the interest of a faithful wife to have her faithfulness vindicated publicly so that her husband would cease to mistrust her, thus threatening to destroy the happiness of their marriage (which cannot work without mutual trust and respect). Likewise, it was in the interest of a husband to have an unfaithful wife punished, to protect his own honor and reputation as well as the paternity of his children who would inherit his wealth and his name. This law protected both interests.
It is a sad fact of this modern world that jealous husbands may insult their wives with names such as ‘slut’ or ‘whore,’ or may even beat them because they think their wives to be unfaithful. This law protected women from such abuse by providing a way in which their actions could be revealed by God Himself. Likewise, it protected men from deceitful and faithless wives who committed adultery and merely pretended to be ‘the good wife’ at home. As Jesus Christ is a jealous husband to one wife (“Israel”), God is deeply concerned with protecting the sanctity of marriage and the covenantal bond given His own covenantal loyalty to His people who believe and trust in Him.
Therefore, what appears initially to be a quaint but irrelevant law of a barbaric nature is found to be, upon closer examination, to be a law of considerable subtlety and justice. This is as one would expect if one comes to the Bible to look for justice and truth rather than with misguided preconceived notions about the biblical law being barbaric or unfair, as is commonly the case among mistaken antinomians. The law concerning jealous husbands preserved the sanctity of marriage against the threat of adultery, defended the interests of both wives and husbands, and kept jealous husbands from being able to punish their wives personally and harshly, serving as a model of godliness and justice that we would do well to emulate in this present day and age.