Numbers: More Rules, Rituals, and a Troublesome Command

 

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him so that another man has sexual relations with her, and this is hidden from her husband and her impurity is undetected (since there is no witness against her and she has not been caught in the act), and if feelings of jealousy come over her husband and he suspects his wife and she is impure—or if he is jealous and suspects her even though she is not impure—  then he is to take his wife to the priest. He must also take an offering of a tenth of an ephah of barley flour on her behalf. He must not pour olive oil on it or put incense on it, because it is a grain offering for jealousy, a reminder-offering to draw attention to wrongdoing. The priest shall bring her and have her stand before the Lord.  Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water.  After the priest has had the woman stand before the Lord, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the reminder-offering, the grain offering for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse.  Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has had sexual relations with you and you have not gone astray and become impure while married to your husband, may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you.  But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have made yourself impure by having sexual relations with a man other than your husband”—  here the priest is to put the woman under this curse—“may the Lord cause you to become a curse among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell.  May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries. Then the woman is to say, “Amen. So be it.”The priest is to write these curses on a scroll and then wash them off into the bitter water.  He shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and this water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering will enter her. The priest is to take from her hands the grain offering for jealousy, wave it before the Lord and bring it to the altar.  The priest is then to take a handful of the grain offering as a memorial offering and burn it on the altar; after that, he is to have the woman drink the water. If she has made herself impure and been unfaithful to her husband, this will be the result: When she is made to drink the water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering, it will enter her, her abdomen will swell and her womb will miscarry, and she will become a curse.  If, however, the woman has not made herself impure, but is clean, she will be cleared of guilt and will be able to have children.

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.