A friend of PT described four difficult questions that others have presented to her in discussions. Today I present Part 2 (of 3), answering the second of the four questions.
Why does it seem like women were dealt with more harshly in the Bible, especially under the Law? Here’s my second question: in Numbers 5:11–31, the test for adultery, it only mentions the punishment for a woman and somewhere in there it says if the husband has “a spirit of jealousy” – like, no proof or reason to suspect?? But I don’t see it mentioning what happens to the man that would have been involved if the wife was unfaithful? And prior to verse 11, it seems as if the man was unfaithful to God he just had to do some sacrifices.
As described in Part 1, there are two problems which can cloud our perspective in reading these examples. The first is not really reading the full context. The second is bringing modern assumptions into an ancient text. Neither is a right way to handle the Scripture and will increase a person’s confusion. I will continue referring to these as “point (1)” and “point (2)” throughout this series. Also as mentioned in the introduction to Part 1, please read any referenced Scriptures for yourself! You won’t know if I’m using them correctly otherwise.
Numbers, and the Law
I’m glad your question referenced the full passage within Numbers 5, and compared it to nearby text. That shows your interest in finding context. But sometimes context is larger than a passage. Numbers contains parts of the Law but not a full review. The moral laws, in particular, are taken up heavily in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Numbers has a narrower focus: lots of things are counted and ordered in this book. Only a few moral laws are addressed, possibly as reminders or clarifications for problems which arose after Leviticus was written.
So, let’s expand the context. Note that Numbers 2 describes the proper ordering of the camp of Israel. Chapters 3–4 describe the ordering of priests, Levites, and their assistants. Chapter 5 then begins with a brief review of the Law for leprosy. Why? Well, in spite of the instructions for leprosy in Leviticus 13, perhaps Israel had not been diligent and needed this reminder. Now that the camp layout and priestly duties had been reaffirmed, there was serious cleanup work to be done. Do we also see the symbolism that an outbreak of incurable disease represents? Sin, like disease, will become publicly known at some point. It spreads among a group, and it requires separation to stop the transfer. Someone cut off by leprosy was outside the place where God was dwelling with His people, unless God intervened and healed the leper. In type, all of us are cut off by sin until God intervenes with redemption.
Next, we have self-awareness of unresolved sin, and what to do about it:
“And the LORD spoke to Moses saying, ‘Speak to the people of Israel, When a man or woman commits any of the sins that people commit by breaking faith with the LORD, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess his sin that he has committed. And he shall make full restitution for the wrong, adding a fifth to it…in addition to the ram of atonement’…” (Num. 5:5–8).
A two-part remedy was provided. To restore things on earth, confession and restitution were required. To restore the relationship with God, a sacrifice was required, because every sacrifice provided under the Law looked forward to God’s permanent redemption sacrifice, the Lord Jesus Christ (see Heb. 10:1–18.) This provision was for men and women (v. 6), although in Israelite society, a woman would normally be under the headship and protection of her father’s or her husband’s house. For a woman’s sin, that man was responsible to provide a sacrifice and ensure it was brought to the priest. But the Law is larger than this passage, and this was never a pay-to-play card for adultery. Adultery was addressed in Leviticus 20 and would be addressed again in Deuteronomy 22. The judgment for adultery (i.e. sexual immorality that violated a marriage), when confirmed by witnesses, was death for both parties!
Last in this chapter, verses 11–31 provide a way to expose hidden sin, suspected within one’s family. There is no proof, so an extraordinary test will be performed.
The Law for Israel, amidst lawless nations
Part of your question seems to ask: why have the Law, if it doesn’t fix the inequalities of a patriarchal society? Reference point (2) again. God chose Israel out of the nations at a particular time and place. We must respect that context. The Law given to Israel by God around 3,500 years ago will not conform to humanly-devised ideas imported from the 21st century. In Part 1 of this series, I discussed how sin has brought corruption into family headship order, and how that conflict extends into all authority relationships. Across time, most human societies have tended patriarchal, and some have been characterized by domineering, abusive behavior.
Such was the case when Israel was separated out of the nations, where in general, women had few or no rights. Scripture doesn’t give a complete picture of the nations but it shows enough to reveal their terrible state. Even in some extreme patriarchal societies today, a man suspecting his wife of adultery could divorce her without alimony, or even kill her(!), with social approval and few legal consequences.
Under the Law, Israel was held to a higher standard. The Law did not create sin. Sin was going to be a problem either way. The Law was introduced to bring an awareness of sin. It had rules to restrain the flesh and provide a righteous balance in judgment. The human condition cannot be fixed by rules, something the Law served to prove (see Rom. 7:7–13). But the Law was a standard suitable to the time and place and it was obviously better than what the nations were doing. It had careful procedures requiring evidence and witnesses. It brought in spiritual discernment, impartial judges, and conviction of sin through the priests and sacrifices.
The test and its outcome
Now, in reviewing your question, I think you have misread one part of this passage: it does not comment on whether the husband’s suspicions were reasonable. Instead, it said he had to go to the tabernacle and publicly test his theory. Returning to point (2) again: in modern cultures we do not always value personal reputation the same way ancient societies would value it. Before modern banking and finance, a man’s good name was the only thing he had for a credit card and social status. If the man went to the priest and his wife was proven to be innocent, his reputation would be publicly devalued with long-term consequences. A modern reader might not pick up on this, but any Israelite would have recognized the risk.
The priest, as an impartial judge, took consecrated water and mingled it with dust from the tabernacle floor. He wrote curses on a scroll, and washed the scroll’s ink into the mix (vv. 17, 23). The wife must drink it. If she was innocent of adultery at any time while married to her husband, she would be freed from suspicion. If she had committed adultery, she would suffer terrible abdominal distress leading to infertility.
But how could this occur? We could speculate about toxic contamination, but even if that played a role, the test would be inconsistent unless God divinely directed the result. So, it required faith that God was in control of the process and would give a righteous answer.
It is also interesting that if the woman was guilty, she would become infertile. The lack of human witnesses to prove the adultery meant she would not be executed, but she would be stripped from ever bearing a child. She then had no hope of being chosen in the line of the promised Messiah, which was a big deal. She would not be able to secretly bear another man’s son, who would then be in line to take the family inheritance. Tribal lineage and family inheritance were also a big deal in Israelite society, since their blessings were connected with land ownership.
We may read a passage like this and think it was weird. But people would have these conflicts whether the Law existed or not. This test was provided to restrain unreasonable, fleshly behavior and ensure a definite answer would be received. In all of this was an ever-present warning about God’s view of sin.
Concluding Part 2…
One final thing, so we can close on a higher note. If you, as I, trust in Jesus Christ as savior, then we both can thank God that Christ has died for us and redeemed us from that curse of the Law (Gal. 3:10–14). In Him I have a new life that naturally desires to please Him! If you have trouble figuring out anything else about the Law, please start here: the Law’s rituals served their purpose but their judgment has passed in Christ’s finished sacrifice. You have direct access to God with no more intermediate priests or complicated rituals. Christ is your savior and your advocate. When you fall, He restores.
Lord willing, I will respond to your two remaining questions next week, in the final Part 3 of this series.