For today’s reading, I know the section concerning the test for the unfaithful wife (Numbers 5:11-31) stands out for many of us and begs explanation. This might seem an unfair embarrassment for wives and proof that sexism was not only alive and well in Israel, but codified in their laws. Let me do my best in very short space to help explain why that isn’t so.
This “test” ensures a number of things: 1) Jealousy doesn’t destroy unnecessarily. Often enough, jealous or insecure people will harm others through violence or abuse. In a situation where a husband is jealous, ultimately the husband has to rely on God and the justice of Israel instead of his own hands. 2) This action only harms a guilty woman. Irrespective of whether you condone an adulterous woman receiving punishment at all, only women who commit adultery would be harmed by this procedure. Though the water was likely bitter, only God’s miraculous affliction can harm a guilty woman in this scenario. If nothing happens, the woman gets off free–and if you doubt God exists, it means that women never were harmed by this rite. 3) This procedure thus allows for the vindication of a woman accused by a jealous husband.
I could say more to help assuage concerns, but let me end by noting the similarity between this ritual and the way Moses destroyed the golden calf in Exodus 32:20: he ground it into dust and made the people drink it. The test of Numbers 5 symbolizes the similarity between Israel’s idolatry, their spiritual adultery, and physical adultery. Every time a woman would go through such measures, Israel would face a grave reflection of their past. If a woman were innocent, she would be showing herself to reflect Israel at its finest. The purpose of this ritual is justice, but it also allows a woman falsely accused to display, through her faithfulness, God’s favor on the righteous.