When we read the Old Testament laws, it can seem like women get a raw deal. It’s hard to see a gracious God behind the laws that deal with rape, incest, and adultery, like the law we find in Numbers 5. But, as we take a closer look, we see that God has abundant mercy for women on display—even in these laws.
In Genesis 3:15, God warned that Satan would be at war with the woman because, though sin had entered the world through her, so too would the Savior. Consequently, we see gendered oppression play out regularly in the pages of the Bible. And when we come to a passage like Numbers 5, it may even seem that God’s law is contributing to this oppression. But as we come to understand the historical context of the passage, we see that this seemingly harsh law was actually a protection for women and it highlights the beauty of the gospel.
Identifying the Injustice
Numbers 5:11–31 tells of a jealous husband and the wife he suspects committed adultery. There were no witnesses to the adultery, and the wife had not been caught in the act (v. 13). Instead, the singular initiation to the ritual prescribed in this passage was a “feeling” (CSB) or “spirit” (NASB) of jealousy that overcame the husband (v. 14). The jealous husband was to bring his wife before the priest, who would test her with a mixture of “holy water” and dust from the tabernacle floor (v. 17).
Two aspects of this passage tend to elicit our concern and confusion. First, only the woman was singled out for punishment for a two-party violation of the marriage covenant. Even if the wife had, in fact, participated in adultery that broke covenant with both her husband and God, the woman alone bearing the consequences without mention of her male partner is unfair.
Second, this law accommodates an unjust accusation by a jealous husband against his wife. The husband isn’t condemned for violating love by making an unjust accusation. Instead, God prescribes a trial—a trial that seems odd.
His statutes are worth engaging even when we’re unsure of their goodness, because we trust God’s character.
But it’s the Lord, YHWH, the great I AM, who gave Moses these instructions (v. 11). This Lord “gives wondrous advice” and his instructions are full of “great wisdom” (Isa. 28:29, CSB). Could there be wisdom in Numbers 5 for people living in that time and place, facing those temptations? This Lord is also “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex. 34:6). Could God be showing his compassion for the woman caught in the crosshairs of a jealous husband through these instructions? Indeed, God is good and his laws are good (Ps. 119:68). Because we trust God’s character, his statutes are worth engaging even when we don’t understand their goodness.
Understanding the Trial
The ritual prescribed in Numbers 5 is known as a trial by ordeal. Most American readers are familiar with these from the Salem witch trials of early American history, but there’s a long history of such trials throughout various cultures. Most ancient trials by ordeal had a common theme: the belief that the gods would protect an innocent person from being harmed.
In a similar situation to the one in Numbers 5, the Code of Hammurabi (the Mesopotamian law of Moses’s day that had likely bled into surrounding cultures) specified, “If a finger has been pointed at a man’s wife because of another man, but she has not been caught lying with the other man, she shall leap into the River for the sake of her husband.” In the context of the ancient world of Moses’s day, a husband was understood to have full authority over his wife and, if she were accused of adultery, he would have been well within his cultural rights to divorce her without cause or even put her to death as Hammurabi prescribed.
Only a miracle would save the innocent in a trial by ordeal carried out in Salem or Mesopotamia. But in God’s law, it would be a miracle if an innocent woman was proven guilty by the trial. She was naturally protected by the process, not threatened by it. There was nothing intrinsic in the water or dust that would harm her if she were an adulteress. Only God could bring the curse upon her.
In God’s household, if a husband accused a wife without evidence, God instructed Moses to bring the situation to the priest to mediate. The accuser with all the cultural power couldn’t decide the consequences for himself. He had to submit to another who stood in protection of the wife and determined her guilt or innocence by a process before God, not by simple suspicion or accusation.
Here’s the first whisper of the good news of Jesus.
Finding a Better Angle
While the odd procedures of the trial can easily become the focus of the passage, we’d do better to focus on the mediation of the priest, who points to the long story of Scripture ultimately fulfilled by Christ. Viewed from this angle, we see that God, the just Judge, stepped in through the mediation of the priest to protect the woman against unjust accusations and the types of trials in surrounding cultures that would have resulted in her certain death.
God, the just Judge, stepped in through the mediation of the priest to protect the woman against unjust accusation.
Numbers 5, then, afforded wives priestly protection from accusation and misuse, though in a partial way—it didn’t change the heart of the husband sinning against his wife through unjust accusation. This very injustice shows us our need for something more than the law could provide. This very injustice whispers of that better thing in Jesus that the law teaches us we need. Rather than producing righteousness in the hearts of God’s children, the law was a tutor that pointed Israel to their ultimate need for Christ. Paul teaches, “The law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24).
Looking to Christ
In the Gospels, we see Numbers 5 fulfilled in Christ as he stepped in to halt even the just condemnation of the woman caught in adultery in John 8 and as he silenced the shameful accusations against the sinful woman of Luke 7. Ultimately, Jesus on the cross silenced both the just and the unjust accusations of Satan against us all.
Christ brought our case before God the Father, Judge over all the earth, protecting us from unjust accusations and paying the penalty for the just ones. Jesus became “a curse . . . among [the] people” in our place (Num. 5:21), for “cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Gal. 3:13). Numbers 5 then is an important tutor that points us to the one Mediator between God and humankind who silences all accusations for all time against those who believe.
Apart from its context in the long story of Jesus in Scripture, Numbers 5 is troubling and confusing. But understood as a tutor showing us our need for Jesus, this law is transformed into something truly beautiful. As Jesus instructs us in the Gospels, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matt. 5:17).