There are a lot of strange rules and rituals in Numbers, but this is one of the most troublesome. According to this passage, God prescribed a kind of trial-by-ordeal ritual for a wife suspected of infidelity. If the wife was innocent, nothing would happen. If she was guilty, she would miscarry and/or be unable to carry future pregnancies to term. Regardless of how this was supposed to work, it seems to raise a troublesome question. Does God command and/or cause the termination of a pregnancy under certain circumstances?
I won’t tell you what I think this passage means, but I will share what I do when I come across disturbing or confusing passages in the Bible. Believe me, this one isn’t the only one.
1. Read the passage in several different translations. Translating Hebrew and Greek into English isn’t an exact science, and even in the same language, the meaning of many words changes over time. Then there are euphemisms, the meanings of which might have been clear to ancient readers, but are incomprehensible to readers from a different time and place. (Sort of like a Federation Standard speaker trying to understand Tamarian, The Universal Translator wasn’t much help to Captain Picard.) In this particular passage, where some translations have the phrase “her womb shall miscarry, other translations have the more literal “her thigh shall fall away”. What’s that supposed to mean?
2. Try to understand what the passage might have meant in its original social and historical context. The Bible was written over many centuries and contains oral traditions that predate written language. Numbers, along with the other books of Moses, was written in a Middle Eastern, Bronze Age, patriarchal society where women and children were considered more as property than as people. It was very important that a man knew his children were biologically his own, because property was passed down through the male line.
3. Consult commentaries and online resources to see what others have had to say about the passage. This is a good way to pick up on the historical and cultural context, as well as different translation options. If possible, try to read several different opinions, including those that go against what you want the passage to say. Don’t just look for articles that back up what you already think.
4. Let the Bible comment on the Bible. What other passages in the Bible speak on this subject? Do they confirm or contradict your understanding of what this one is saying? In general, clear or repeated ideas trump obscure or isolated ones. This approach works best when you read the whole Bible consistently and repeatedly over a long period of time, preferably using a different translation each time.
5. The criterion by which the Bible should be interpreted is Jesus. If something is confusing or disturbing, look to the life and teachings of Jesus as your guide. As a Christian, I believe that God showed himself to us most fully in the person of Jesus. The Bible shows us a record of human interactions with and understandings of God, but it is not a fourth person in the Trinity. If you want to know what God is like, look to Jesus. In this instance, I remember that Jesus didn’t condemn the woman caught in adultery, but protected her from those who would condemn her for her sin. And that’s good news.