5 Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 6 “Speak to the children of Israel: ‘When a man or woman commits any sin that men commit in unfaithfulness against the LORD, and that person is guilty, 7 then he shall confess the sin which he has committed. He shall make restitution for his trespass in full, plus one-fifth of it, and give it to the one he has wronged. 8 But if the man has no relative to whom restitution may be made for the wrong, the restitution for the wrong must go to the LORD for the priest, in addition to the ram of the atonement with which atonement is made for him. 9 Every offering of all the holy things of the children of Israel, which they bring to the priest, shall be his. 10 And every man’s holy things shall be his; whatever any man gives the priest shall be his.’”
– Numbers 5:5-10
11 And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 1213 and a man lies with her carnally, and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband, and it is concealed that she has defiled herself, and “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘If any man’s wife goes astray and behaves unfaithfully toward him, there was no witness against her, nor was she caught— 14 if the spirit of jealousy comes upon him and he becomes jealous of his wife, who has defiled herself; or if the spirit of jealousy comes upon him and he becomes jealous of his wife, although she has not defiled herself— 15 then the man shall bring his wife to the priest…
16 ‘And the priest shall bring her near, and set her before the LORD. 17 The priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel, and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water. 18 Then the priest shall stand the woman before the LORD, uncover the woman’s head, and put the offering for remembering in her hands, which is the grain offering of jealousy. And the priest shall have in his hand the bitter water that brings a curse. 19 And the priest shall put her under oath, and say to the woman, “If no man has lain with you, and if you have not gone astray to uncleanness while under your husband’s authority, be free from this bitter water that brings a curse. 20 But if you have gone astray while under your husband’s authority, and if you have defiled yourself and some man other than your husband has lain with you”— 21 then the priest shall put the woman under the oath of the curse, and he shall say to the woman—“the LORD make you a curse and an oath among your people, when the LORD makes your thigh rot and your belly swell; 22 and may this water that causes the curse go into your stomach, and make your belly swell and your thigh rot.”
Then the woman shall say, “Amen, so be it.”
23 ‘Then the priest shall write these curses in a book, and he shall scrape them off into the bitter water. 24 And he shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and the water that brings the curse shall enter her to become bitter. 25 Then the priest shall take the grain offering of jealousy from the woman’s hand, shall wave the offering before the LORD, and bring it to the altar; 26 and the priest shall take a handful of the offering, as its memorial portion, burn it on the altar, and afterward make the woman drink the water. 27 When he has made her drink the water, then it shall be, if she has defiled herself and behaved unfaithfully toward her husband, that the water that brings a curse will enter her and become bitter, and her belly will swell, her thigh will rot, and the woman will become a curse among her people.
– Numbers 5:11-27
Numbers 5, like chapters one through four, is arranged chiastically. Here is the chiasm:
A. Contaminated Men and Women Excommunicated (vv. 1- 4)
B. Certain Spiritual Unfaithfulness [Men and Women] (vv. 5-6)
C. Confession and Rituals for the Spiritually Unfaithful to Perform (vv. 7-10)
D. Uncertain Unfaithfulness to Husband (vv. 11-14)
C’. Prescribed Male Rituals (v. 15)
B’. Prescribed Female Ritual (vv. 16-26)
A’. Adulterous Woman to be Cursed By Israel [Socially Excommunicated] (v. 27 & vv.29-31)
At the opposite ends of the chiasm, that is points A. and A’., the curse/contamination/uncleanness is explicit, but as we move toward the center, the sin is concealed. So I ask the question:
Is this passage concerned primarily with the unfaithfulness of a wife toward her husband?
I would vouch to say that it is and it isn’t. You see, excommunicating those who are obviously unclean is easy. Confession of one’s sin is a little more difficult. But discovering whether or not someone has sin in their lives is a matter only the Word of God can discover. Hence, the LORD says:
23 ‘Then the priest shall write these curses in a book, and he shall scrape them off into the bitter water. 24 And he shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and the water that brings the curse shall enter her to become bitter.
27 When he has made her drink the water, then it shall be, if she has defiled herself and behaved unfaithfully toward her husband, that the water that brings a curse will enter her and become bitter, and her belly will swell, her thigh will rot, and the woman will become a curse among her people.
While the ritual very likely did accomplish this “belly swelling” and “thigh rotting,” I think what God would have to see is this principle:
Our response to the Words of God (here given as the curse upon the unfaithful woman) exposes what’s otherwise hidden to others.
We can openly confess our sin and seek reconciliation/restitution (vv. 7-10), or the Word of God can expose us for what we are/for the sin in our lives.
A Word About the Curse
There are some who would criticize this passage as being unnecessarily harsh, but looking at the overall context helps adjust our sinful way of seeing things. For confession and reconciliation precede the woman’s concealment of her sin leading up to her judgment. The threat of such a horrible curse should be enough to drive us to not even think of concealing our sin before God and one another, especially since confession is something we can all do. Yet, we are more like the woman who is actually guilty, refusing to acknowledge our sin, until the Word of God exposes what is hidden within us.
The unfaithful woman who conceals her sin, interestingly, runs antithetically parallel to the unfaithful men and women of Israel who confess and seek reconciliation. Is it not obvious that the Holy Spirit is drawing a parallel between God’s bride and the man’s bride? Between what God’s people should look like (i.e. confessing and seeking restitution, think of Zaccheus, cf. Luke 19:1-10), and what they shouldn’t look like (i.e. concealing, hiding, lying)?
For believers and non-believers alike, the principle is the same:
…the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.
But for the non-believer, this should, like the curses given to the unfaithful woman, be enough to lead you to Christ to seek His forgiveness through confession, to be reconciled to the very Creator of all. For His Word will eventually expose what sin lies within you.
Whereas the believer should be driven to Christ, our Savior, to seek His grace in our time of need. Hence, the writer of Hebrews goes on to say:
Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
– Hebrews 4:12-16