All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. - 2 Timothy 3:16-17

True Justice for the Defenseless

In Numbers 5:11–31, we find the Lord giving little-known and seemingly strange instructions to Israel on how to deal with cases of a jealous husband who suspects his wife of adultery.

In such situations, the wife has no means of defending herself, because the whole process of judgment is in the hands of men. Since the woman does not have equal status with her husband, she will be judged guilty on the suspicion of her husband. The weight of shame, guilt, and trial will rest squarely upon her. However, the Lord elaborates a process that results in true justice for such cases.

Guilty and Not Guilty

Two different situations are given. The first is when a wife is unfaithful, but there are no witnesses or evidence of wrongdoing. The other is when a wife has remained faithful, but her husband becomes suspicious and jealous, despite the lack of proof.

In mercy to the woman, the husband is instructed to bring her to the priest with a grain offering that consisted of one-tenth of an ephad of barley meal (approximately two quarts).

Barley meal is a coarse food used only by the poor, and in this case is indicative of the coarseness and grossness of the possible sin. No oil or frankincense is to be added to the offering, since this is a very serious matter and not a festive occasion, when both would be added.

The Waters of Bitterness

The priest uses water that is probably taken from the laver in the courtyard, and adds dust from the tabernacle floor, mixing both in an earthen vessel. This is the cheapest of vessels, and again corresponds to the coarseness of the flour and grossness of the sin. The literal Hebrew translation for this mixture is the “waters of bitterness,” yet such a small amount of dust probably does not give it a bitter flavor. Instead, it is more likely an indication that, for a guilty person, there will be bitter results.

The priest stands the woman before the Lord, uncovers her head as a sign of shame, and places the grain offering in her hand. He holds the holy water in his hand, then places her under oath saying that if she is innocent, nothing negative will happen; but if guilty, the Lord will make her a curse among her people and cause her thigh to waste away and her abdomen to swell. The woman says, “Amen, so be it.”

The priest writes the curses on a scroll, then washes or scrapes them off into the water and gives it to the woman to drink. The grain offering is then waved before the Lord and taken to the altar, where a portion is burned. Finally, the Lord takes over by producing incontestable visible effects of guiltiness, or no effects at all—clearly passing a verdict of innocence.

Ultimately, the Lord has brought the trial of this accused woman to His supreme court, and brought real justice to both the guilty and innocent. He has shamed man’s injustice in the earthly legal system, while elevating the status of women with true justice.

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