Matthew 5:17 Ministries

The Law of Jealousy – Numbers 5:11-31

Focus Passage:

Numbers 5:11–31 (CJB)
11 ADONAI said to Moshe, 12 “Tell the people of Isra’el, ‘If a man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him; 13 that is, if another man goes to bed with her without her husband’s knowledge, so that she becomes impure secretly, and there is no witness against her, and she was not caught in the act; 14 then, if a spirit of jealousy comes over him, and he is jealous of his wife, and she has become impure—or, for that matter, if the spirit of jealousy comes over him, and he is jealous of his wife, and she has not become impure—15 he is to bring his wife to the cohen, along with the offering for her, two quarts of barley flour on which he has not poured olive oil or put frankincense, because it is a grain offering for jealousy, a grain offering for remembering, for recalling guilt to mind. 16 The cohen will bring her forward and place her before ADONAI. 17 The cohen will put holy water in a clay pot, and then the cohen will take some of the dust on the floor of the tabernacle and put it in the water. 18 The cohen will place the woman before ADONAI, unbind the woman’s hair and put the grain offering for remembering in her hands, the grain offering for jealousy; while the cohen has in his hand the water of embitterment and cursing. 19 The cohen will make her swear by saying to her, “If no man has gone to bed with you, if you have not gone astray to make yourself unclean while under your husband’s authority, then be free from this water of embitterment and cursing. 20 But if you have in fact gone astray while under your husband’s authority and become unclean, because some man other than your husband has gone to bed with you …” 21 then the cohen is to make the woman swear with an oath that includes a curse; the cohen will say to the woman, “… may ADONAI make you an object of cursing and condemnation among your people by making your private parts shrivel and your abdomen swell up! 22 May this water that causes the curse go into your inner parts and make your abdomen swell and your private parts shrivel up!”—and the woman is to respond, “Amen! Amen!” 23 The cohen is to write these curses on a scroll, wash them off into the water of embitterment 24 and make the woman drink the water of embitterment and cursing—the water of cursing will enter her and become bitter. 25 Then the cohen is to remove the grain offering for jealousy from the woman’s hand, wave the grain offering before ADONAI and bring it to the altar. 26 The cohen is to take a handful of the grain offering as its reminder portion and make it go up in smoke on the altar; afterwards, he is to make the woman drink the water. 27 When he has made her drink the water, then, if she is unclean and has been unfaithful to her husband, the water that causes the curse will enter her and become bitter, so that her abdomen swells and her private parts shrivel up; and the woman will become an object of cursing among her people. 28 But if the woman is not unclean but clean, she will be innocent and have children. 29 This is the law for jealousy: when either a wife under her husband’s authority goes astray and becomes unclean, 30 or the spirit of jealousy comes over a husband and he becomes jealous of his wife, then he is to place the woman before ADONAI, and the cohen is to deal with her in accordance with all of this law. 31 The husband will be clear of guilt, but the wife will bear the consequences of her guilt.’ ”

The ordeal of jealousy

In the many sacrifices described in Leviticus, the prayers of the participants are hardly ever recorded; we have just the rubrics. Here both the blessings and the ritual are registered, making the interpretation of the ceremony relatively straightforward. It is a ritual to determine the guilt or innocence of a woman suspected of adultery and to punish the guilty while leaving the innocent unscathed.

It is not immediately apparent what this law has to do with its context. It seems out of place in a section concerned with purifying the camp and the people. Closer inspection shows that this ritual is indeed related to the preceding laws. Adulterous wives are chosen for special attention because adultery pollutes those involved, making them unclean (verses 13f., 19f., 28f.; Lev. 18:20, 25, 27). They should therefore be eliminated from the camp (verse 3f.). Second, both adultery and the offenses described in verses 5–11 are described as breaking faith (verse 6) or acting unfaithfully (verses 12, 27).

The same Hebrew word (māʿal) is used in both cases: false oaths break faith with G-d, and adulterers break faith with their spouses. Thirdly, it may be noted that Leviticus 19:20–22 prescribes a guilt offering for adultery with a slave girl. This association with guilt offerings links these three consecutive sections (5:5–10; 11–31 and 6:1–21; NB verse 12). A fourth point of contact with verses 5–10 is that this ordeal is an elaborate oath to establish a wife’s fidelity.

Such oaths were also used to determine rights in property claims ( Exod. 22:7–13) and are alluded to in verse 6, ‘breaking faith.’ Whereas in the case of debt repayment, we have a guilty man owning up to misusing an oath, in this ordeal, we have a suspicious husband imposing a solemn oath on his wife. Finally, throughout Scripture, the covenant relationship between G-d and his people is compared with marriage.

The Process

The case commences with a wife who has allegedly had an adulterous affair with another man that she hides from her husband. There have been no witnesses to this abrogation of marital sanctity, so the two have not been caught. The law prescribed death as a penalty for both partners in an adulterous relationship (Lev 20:10). Men and women are equally accountable before G-d for sexual relationships outside marriage. Only later does the husband suspect that his wife has been unfaithful, based upon some observed but here undefined circumstances.

The case law addresses the issue of the adjudication of the other man with whom the woman was involved. The case presumes the woman’s guilt in the initial section, whereas the summary allows for the perceived jealousy of the husband in initiating the procedure. The claim assumes that an innocent woman, unjustly accused by her husband, need not be apprehensive of the outcome and will be able to live free of guilt and condemnation. On the opposite gender side of the issue, the wife has no reciprocal proviso for bringing charges against a suspected unfaithful husband.

Several Pentateuchal passages address issues in which women have legal recourse against men. In Deut 25:5–10, a woman could bring a case against a brother-in-law who failed to fulfill his role in levirate marriage. A violated virgin would be specially provided for by the abusive male (Deut 22:25–29).
The test for the unfaithfulness of the suspected wife involves a trial by ordeal for the woman before a chosen priest of the sanctuary. The following steps are taken to address the potential covenant abrogation:

Stage 1

  1. Husband Takes Wife to Priest
    Grain offering for jealousy (minḥat qĕnāʾōt)
  • 1/10 ephah of barley flour on her behalf (no oil or incense)
    = REMINDER offering—Draw attention to the guilt
  1. Priest Presents Woman to the Lord
    Takes HOLY WATER in a clay jar
    Adds DUST from tabernacle floor to water
    Loosens woman’s hair
    Places REMINDER offering in her hands
    Holds bitter water
    The priest puts the woman under oath:
    “If no other man has slept with you and you have not gone astray.… May this water not harm you.”
    But, “If you have … may make the water swell/waste….”
    (curse of a barren and miscarrying womb)
  2. The woman responds, “Amen, So be it.”
    Stage 2
  3. Priest Writes the Curse on a Scroll, Then
    Washes off words into the bitter water
    Prepares the water of cursing, bitter suffering
    She takes the reminder offering from her hands
    Waves offering before the Lord,
    Brings to the Altar
    Burns one handful on the altar as a memorial offering
  4. Woman Drinks WATER w/DUST & WORDS OF CURSE
    If guilty >> Barrenness, miscarriage, accursed
    If not guilty >> Clear from guilt, able to conceive
    Law of Jealousy
    Two Circumstances:
    Adultery of Wife Presumed or Unknown Husband Suspects Wife of Adultery

The Outcomes

Hence, the central moment comes when the woman takes an oath before the priest and G-d, who is the only one who knows the truth of the situation and must ultimately carry out the appropriate justice. “Make your abdomen swell and your thigh waste away” (NASB). The “thigh” is believed to be a euphemism for the procreative organs (e.g., Gen 24:2, 9) and thus refers to the physical inability to beget children. Furthermore, she would experience societal pressure of denouncement and shame.

The woman in her barren state would be physically hindered from experiencing an essential element of the Abrahamic covenant of blessing. The woman then takes this potential burden upon herself by confirming the oath with the twofold “Amen, Amen.” This is the first occurrence of the term in the Bible, used here to enhance the veritability of the oath taken by the woman.

If the woman is proven innocent through this trial, she is rendered ceremonially cleansed and free from accusation and guilt. Her innocence is established by her continued health and ability to bear children (lit. “bear seed”). Childlessness in the societies of the ancient Near East was believed to be a curse and subjected one to shame and ridicule, embarrassment and reproach from others.

The Torah of the jealousy rehearses the essentials of the judicial process in dealing with marital infidelity of one’s wife. Examples of text and law summary abound in the Book of Numbers and throughout the Tanakh. First, the two circumstances of the trial arise are delineated, as noted above. The variation from the introduction is that of the man who initiates the judicial process out of his own feelings of jealousy.

The man is free from correction or punishment if the wife is proved innocent. If the woman is proved guilty, the punishment lies solely in the hands of G-d. Therefore, the purity and sanctity of the community are thereby assured, so that the nation may be prepared to move forth from Sinai to the Promised Land and experience G-d’s fullest blessing. The three purification issues point are key in community life: physical purity, right interpersonal relationships, and marital fidelity.

The Controversy

Feminists often ignorantly claim that the Torah unfairly singles out women. On the other hand, Talmud says the rite (including priestly interrogation and rough treatment of women) was never practiced. Any objections by liberal feminists generally come from a place of hateful arrogance or lack of knowledge. Also, Critics label this test a barbaric, superstitious ritual involving sorcery (Deuteronomy 18:9–13). Others such as pro-choice supporters suggest that it depicts the sanctioning of abortion. Neither view is correct. Those who claim the passage depicts abortion insert concepts not even hinted at in the text. 

Pregnancy is not part of the requirement for the ritual. Nor is pregnancy mentioned anywhere in the process.  At worst, the passage implies future infertility. The ritual was not a remedy for an unwanted pregnancy—it was a test for adultery. Traditional interpretations of the ritual even restricted it from being performed on pregnant women (Mishnah Sotah 4:3). Anyone that suggest this is a reference to abortions is simply either mistaken, or attempting to further an immoral politcal agenda.


The ritual depicted in Numbers 5:11-31 is an allowance to human nature and to that cultural context, and it had the effect of greatly reducing the damage done to women. That’s not an endorsement of jealousy or suspicion. Nor does it include anything reasonably interpreted as an abortion. Unless G-d supernaturally intervened, the rite described in this passage would declare a woman innocent by default.

While certainly strage, the ritual protected women from husbands who could be overly aggressive or hasty in their judgments. It offered a safe outlet for male jealousy and prevented emotional or physical abuse. It kept Israelites from visiting pagan temples. And it would have nearly always exonerated the woman in question. Many seemingly strange rules of the Tankah helped mediate a sinful, fallen culture. And such is the case with the the Law of Jealousy.

Adonai forgave penitent adulterers (e.g. John 8:2–11; Luke 7:37–50). But his ‘Go and sin no more’ is echoed in the clear warnings in the epistles that persistence in sexual immorality excludes men from the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 5:9). Such people must be driven out of the assembly (1 Cor. 5:11–13). Fornicators are among those shut out from the holy city (Rev. 21:8; 22:15). Thus Numbers 5, Paul and Revelation make the same point: unfaithfulness in marriage is incompatible with membership of the people of G-d.