Numbers 5: Literally bizarre, metaphorically clear

I read through Numbers 5 the other morning and was not bothered this time by the bizarre adultery ritual. I'm not bothered by it, because I see it as metaphor for the ancient people of Israel. I put the entire section at the bottom of the post for reference.

The prophet Jeremiah, among other prophets, uses the metaphor of the adulterous wife to describe Israel's relationship with God, who calls himself her husband. The curse is not unlike the curses Israel threatens itself with in the subsequent book of Deuteronomy. The swollen abdomen aspect of the curse in verses 21 and 22 is a picture of starvation that Jerusalem did encounter several times when under siege due to God's judgment for their idoloatry (infidelity to God, adultery). The biggest clue of allegory to me is in verse 23, where the curses are written down then scraped off the scroll into the cup of bitter water. Jeremiah and John's Apocalypse both refer to the cup of God's wrath. One other aspect is that this law does not have a provision for a wife who thinks she has been cheated on. Only God can be the ever faithful husband.

In my opinion, this provision in Numbers has to be about the spiritual relationship between God and Israel and not about civil law in Israel. This is a relief to me, because, as literal law, this is repugnant literal law which seems more like voodoo than something of the one true God fully revealed in Jesus Christ.


11 The Lord spoke to Moses: 12 “Speak to the Israelites and tell them, ‘If any man’s wife goes astray and behaves unfaithfully toward him, 13 and a man has sexual relations with her without her husband knowing it, and it is hidden that she has defiled herself, since there was no witness against her, nor was she caught— 14 and if jealous feelings come over him and he becomes suspicious of his wife, when she is defiled; or if jealous feelings come over him and he becomes suspicious of his wife, when she is not defiled— 15 then the man must bring his wife to the priest, and he must bring the offering required for her, one tenth of an ephah of barley meal; he must not pour olive oil on it or put frankincense on it, because it is a grain offering of suspicion, a grain offering for remembering, for bringing iniquity to remembrance. 16 “‘Then the priest will bring her near and have her stand before the Lord. 

17 The priest will then take holy water in a pottery jar, and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle, and put it into the water. 18 Then the priest will have the woman stand before the Lord, uncover the woman’s head, and put the grain offering for remembering in her hands, which is the grain offering of suspicion. The priest will hold in his hand the bitter water that brings a curse. 19 Then the priest will put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has had sexual relations with you, and if you have not gone astray and become defiled while under your husband’s authority, may you be free from this bitter water that brings a curse. 20 But if you have gone astray while under your husband’s authority, and if you have defiled yourself and some man other than your husband has had sexual relations with you….” 21 Then the priest will put the woman under the oath of the curse and will say to her, “The Lord make you an attested curse among your people, if the Lord makes your thigh fall away and your abdomen swell; 22 and this water that causes the curse will go into your stomach, and make your abdomen swell and your thigh rot.” Then the woman must say, “Amen, amen.”
 23 “‘Then the priest will write these curses on a scroll and then scrape them off into the bitter water. 24 He will make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and the water that brings a curse will enter her to produce bitterness. 25 The priest will take the grain offering of suspicion from the woman’s hand, wave the grain offering before the Lord, and bring it to the altar. 26 Then the priest will take a handful of the grain offering as its memorial portion, burn it on the altar, and afterward make the woman drink the water. 27 When he has made her drink the water, then, if she has defiled herself and behaved unfaithfully toward her husband, the water that brings a curse will enter her to produce bitterness—her abdomen will swell, her thigh will fall away, and the woman will become a curse among her people. 28 But if the woman has not defiled herself, and is clean, then she will be free of ill effects and will be able to bear children. 

 29 “‘This is the law for cases of jealousy, when a wife, while under her husband’s authority, goes astray and defiles herself, 30 or when jealous feelings come over a man and he becomes suspicious of his wife; then he must have the woman stand before the Lord, and the priest will carry out all this law upon her. 31 Then the man will be free from iniquity, but that woman will bear the consequences of her iniquity.’” Numbers 5:11-31 NET

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