The Book of Numbers is a history of the wanderings of the people of Israel in the desert after their liberation from slavery in Egypt. It is organized in two parts. The first section, 1:1 – 9:14, concerns how the people are to worship God and relate to one another as God’s people. The second section, 9:15-16:50 concerns the failure of the first generation of Israelites to possess the Promised Land and the consequences resulting from that. One of the oddest passages in Numbers and perhaps in all the Bible comes in the first section. It describes a test that can be done to determine if a wife has been unfaithful to her husband (Numbers 5:11-29).
A Strange Ritual
The woman suspected of adultery is to be brought to the priest who prepares an offering of grain and incense and oil. He then makes a mixture of holy water and dust from the tabernacle floor. After loosening the woman’s hair, placing the offering in her hand and placing her under oath, he is to write on a scroll the curses upon those who commit adultery and then wash the words off in the holy water and dust mixture. The woman then drinks this concoction. If she’s guilty she will get sick, if she’s innocent she will not.
This is the kind of passage detractors of scripture love to keep in their pocket for just the right gotcha moment. “Oh, you believe the Bible is inerrant? Well,what about…THIS! You don’t believe this nonsense do you?” Well, do you? What are we to make of this strange sounding ritual? Is the Bible teaching that jealous husbands should use some kind of magic spell to test their wives’ faithfulness?
The Interpretive Key
They key to correctly understanding this passage is in verse 11 “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,…” Everything that follows was spoken to Moses directly by God. This was not some man-made ritual developed by a primitive, superstitious society. This wasn’t the Old Testament equivalent of throwing suspected witches into the water to see if they float. This was a test designed and ordained by God Himself. As such, it could be trusted to be accurate 100% of the time – exposing the guilty and protecting the innocent.
The Application for Today
So if that’s true, that God ordained and commanded this test, are we to perform it still today? Let’s look at what’s required for the test: A priest from the tribe of Levi (v. 15), the tabernacle, since dust from its floor is required (v. 17), holy water (v. 17) and an altar on which to burn some of the grain offering (v. 26). None of these things exists today. The tabernacle became obsolete when the temple was built and the temple along with the Levitical priesthood and the sacrifices became obsolete with the coming of Jesus Christ (Hebrews 9 & 10). The relationship God had with national Israel in the Old Testament is unique in history. No nation is or ever will be their modern equivalent. God’s people this side of the cross are identified by their possession of His Spirit, not their ethnicity or the real estate they occupy (Revelation 5:9). As a result, they now hail from many nations and live under the authority of a variety of political systems (Galatians 3:28). Therefore, Old Testament ways of dealing with transgressions of the law under the theocratic political system of Israel are not directly transferable to New Testament believers.
So, do I believe this “nonsense?” Yes. I believe it was a method given by God uniquely to the nation of Israel in the Old Testament as a valid way to determine guilt or innocence in cases of suspected adultery. Today, it provides information on how God interacted with His people during the Old Covenant and highlights the seriousness of sin. But, this ritual is not applicable to God’s people today. God’s displeasure with the sin of adultery remains (Matthew 5:27-28) but this particular method of dealing with suspected adultery is unique to the time and circumstances in which God gave it.