The Most Embarrassing Chapter in the Bible
Anyone who reads the Bible carefully will find something they don’t like very much. It was written in times and cultures very different from our own. And the one who inspired it is most commonly described as Holy – which means, among other things, much different from anyone else.
In light of this, it’s good to expect to be troubled. It’s good to cultivate a humble attitude toward Scripture and to withhold any quick judgment of the troubling parts. For years, maintaining this attitude was most difficult for me in the test for adultery, found in Numbers 5, which I considered the most embarrassing chapter in the Bible.
In summary, the husband who suspected his wife of having committed adultery was told to take her to the priest, along with an offering. The priest was instructed to take some holy water and add to it dust from the tabernacle floor. Then, the woman took an oath, swearing her innocence. After that, the priest wrote out the curses she agreed to accept if guilty and washed these into the dust water, which the woman drank. If she was guilty, she would experience some terrible physical pain and trouble. If she was innocent, she would not.
There are several things that made me wish this chapter were not in the Bible. First, the test was only for suspected women, which seemed to support a double standard regarding marital fidelity. Second, the test reminded me of the medieval test for witches (wonderfully caricatured by Monty Python), in which a woman was thrown into water with a rope tied around her waist. If the woman sank, she was regarded as innocent. If she floated, she was found guilty. This comparison made the test in Numbers 5 seem like some crazy, medieval superstition.
Then a few years ago, I heard a woman who lived and worked in the Middle East talk about how this story would be understood in her culture – a culture in which husbands’ jealousy and suspicion against their wives was endemic. She said she knew women who would welcome a test like this as an opportunity to get official vindication from false accusations.
As I read what others had written about the test, I came to see that, while water mixed with tabernacle dust and curse ink might be an unpleasant drink, it was not likely to cause the symptoms associated with guilt. Those symptoms would only occur if God acted directly in judgment. From a natural standpoint, the test presumes innocence, and apart from divine intervention, provides an official declaration of innocence.
In Matthew 19, Jesus makes the case for permanent marriage. Some Pharisees ask, “Why then did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?” Jesus replied that we know God’s intention for permanent marriage from creation. He said that Moses’ instructions about divorce in Deuteronomy 24 were given to protect women because God knew that men were hard-hearted and would not live up to his intentions. I have come to see the adultery test in Numbers 5 as a similar provision. I now appreciate it as a protective measure for women vulnerable to abuse by hard-hearted men.
There were several lessons for me in this discovery. I saw that in the very spot where I found God’s word embarrassing, he was demonstrating his kind concern for the vulnerable. And I was encouraged to continue cultivating a humble attitude toward Scripture and to withhold any quick judgment of the troubling parts.