A Test for Adultery – Numbers 3-5

Read Numbers 3-5

God’s people are still camped at Sinai and God instructs them what to do when someone violates His holy standards. One issue related to His holiness and purity is adultery. As part of this issue, what if a husband suspects his wife of adultery but he has no proof?

As you read this section, modern people have all kinds of questions: Why is this trial only for women? What happens if a wife suspects her husband of adultery? Does she have to drink this concoction every time her husband suffers under delusions of betrayal? Let’s take a closer look at what is being said.

What Happens if a Wife Suspects Her Husband?

Adultery was strictly forbidden in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:14) for both men and women. Although the Old Testament was set in a patriarchal society, men were not to “get away” with adultery anymore than women; both were equally accountable to God. While there were laws to protect females in other situations, there is no reciprocal law if a woman suspected her husband of adultery.

Was This Trial Only for Women?

This law should not make us throw our hands up, thinking the Bible is only the product of misogynistic males (as is common thinking in our day). This law actually served to protect women from unjust accusations. Let’s say you are married to a jealous husband who continually barks his doubts about your faithfulness. The wife now has recourse to respond to her husband’s accusations. He can either close his accusing mouth or go through with the procedure at the tabernacle. Of course, for the couple to go publically together to the tabernacle, he would have to have strong inclination of her guilt. And if he were wrong, he would not only embarrass his wife (and possibly the mother of his children), but he too would be embarrassed in front of his friends. This trial actually offered Hebrew wives a resource to stop unfounded male insinuations.

Compare God’s Word against another ancient ethical system, the Code of Hammurabi. Laws 131-132 of Hammurabi’s Code (a Babylonian law code of ancient Mesopotamia), placed women in an unthinkable situation:

“If a man’s wife is accused by her husband, but she was not caught while lying with another man, she shall make an oath by the god and return home. 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.”

Essentially, to prove her innocence, she is forced to jump into deep water in Hammurabi’s Code. If she is guilty, she still drowns in this trial. In comparison to the scene presented in Numbers, there’s no real danger to the women (unless she is guilty), where the danger is substantial to the women in the Babylonian code no matter her actions. If God found her guilty of adultery in the tabernacle, she would lose the ability to have children (5:21-22) and possibly her life (Deuteronomy 22:22). While this was a terrible fate in ancient Hebrew culture, in comparison to Babylon’s laws, she would die even if she were innocent.

Was She Forced to Drink Every Time Her Husband Imagined Adultery?

There is no record anywhere in Scripture that this trial was performed. If it was enforced, we have reason to believe that a priest would not allow a continually jealous husband to repetitively test his wife. As with judges today, we must rely on their good sensibilities to carry out the ethical force of the law and apply the law with wisdom.