Spilled water

The following post by Shiloh Project co-director Johanna Stiebertfollows on from an earlier recent post on marriage, the Bible and violence.

In this post, I want to focus on one specific text of the Hebrew Bible: Numbers 5:11-31, which prescribes what to do if a husband suspects his wife of adultery. I will demonstrate how this text not only describes but also legitimates gender-based violence in marriage. Moreover, while scholars describe the law as ‘particularly perplexing’ (Friedman 2012, 371), or comment that we may be ‘understandably puzzled by this unique episode’ (Britt 2007, 05.7), Numbers 5 is also in some ways disturbingly familiar, even today.

Numbers 5:11-31 is unusually detailed. It is emphatically about violence in the context of marriage and it clearly describes religious violence – given that the ritual is performed in front of a priest, at the Tabernacle, and repeatedly alludes to holy water, offerings, and God.

It seems Numbers 5 is not widely known or widely referred to in contemporary Christian contexts. In Judaism, being part of the Torah, the first and most holy and authoritative portion of the sacred scriptures, it is read annually in the Shabbat reading cycle. But there are no intra-biblical references or allusions to performance of the elaborate ritual. With its emphasis on quasi-magical ritual performed in a Tabernacle, or Temple, that no longer exists, it is a passage that could be said to be particularly obscure, even irrelevant. And yet, in the Talmud, the influence of Numbers 5 extends well beyond the time that the ritual was declared void (see Haberman 2000).

Gendered Injustice and Divine Legitimation of the Ritual

The ritual of Numbers 5:11-31 is gender-specific, applying only to a womansuspected of adultery. Elsewhere in the Torah, adultery is depicted as a grievous crime and the death penalty is stipulated as punishment for bothparties involved – the man andthe woman (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22-29). It must be added, though, that here too, indications are that adultery is a lopsided matter, which occurs when a womanis either married or betrothed and has sexual relations with someone other than her husband. A married man, on the other hand, can have sex with other women, without committing adultery, as long as the women are not married or betrothed to another man.Also notable about Numbers 5 is that, from the outset, there is insistent reference to religious authority: the ritual is ascribed to the word of God using the holy name (YHWH), is transmitted to Moses, his preeminent prophet, and is to be administered by the priest.

The priest is particularly active in the execution of the ritual. The woman is brought to the priest and it is he who positions her ‘before the Lord’ (v.16), who takes sacred water and prepares a potion (v.17), who dishevels the woman’s hair and places a ‘jealousy offering’ in her hand (v.18), who holds the potion (v.18), who adjures and administers a curse (vv.19-22), who puts curses in writing (v.23), who makes the woman drink the potion (v.24), and who burns the offering (vv.25-26). The woman, by contrast, is active only insofar as saying ‘amen, amen’ to the curse pronounced on her. Otherwise, everything is done toher.For Susanna Towers, ‘[t]he embedding of her consent to the curse reinforce[s] the passive role she plays in the ritual’ (2014, see here). Brian Britt, similarly, concludes that the woman ‘is treated like a living mannequin by the men’ (2007, 05.3, see here).

For feminist commentator Alice Bach, the emphasis on men’s control of the woman in Numbers 5 reflects male anxiety about female erotic desire. Bach interprets the text to assert ‘dominance over women’s bodies’ and to assure a husband ‘that his honor could be restored if he had so much as a suspicion that his wife had been fooling around’ (1999, 506). Ishay Rosen-Zvi agrees that the ritual constitutes ‘the ultimate cure for male fears, presenting the rebellious woman as passive, controlled, publicly exposed and ultimately stripped of all her seductive powers’ (2006, 276, see here).

Gender-Based Violence and its Religious Legitimation

Important to emphasize is the violence of this text. There is physical violence, or injury to the body: hence, if the woman is guilty, the potion will ensure ‘that her belly will distend and her thigh … sag’ (5:27). This is expressed as the consequence of the woman being a curse and an imprecation among her people, and seems to happen directly upon ingesting the potion prepared by the priest (5:21-22). Alongside this, there is also the possibility of psychological and emotional violence, given that the woman is suspected of a crime and subjected to an ordeal in which she is exposed and put on trial in a sacred and possibly public setting. She is also at risk of social exclusion and ostracism if she is found guilty of adultery (5:27).

Richard Friedman discusses several commentators who argue that because a potion ‘of “holy” water, dust from the Tabernacle floor, and ink from words on a parchment… cannot be guaranteed to produce prolapsed uteri or any other particular condition in all guilty adulteresses… the law’s effect was precisely to find all women not guilty and thus to prevent “lynchings”’ (2012: 372, see here). In other words, the law is sometimes considered as having the ultimately benign purpose of both assuaging a jealous husband by having an elaborate ritual that validates and also allays his anxieties and, simultaneously, not harming (allegedly) and even protecting the woman. For a number of reasons, I find this unlikely.

First, there is Mary Douglas’s question: ‘is it plausible to argue that [lawmakers] tend to codify nonsense – arbitrary enactments?’ (1984, 47). I agree with her that it is not. Whoever may have recorded and transmitted the text in Numbers 5:11-31, for them to record and transmit a text so detailed and precise, in the full knowledge that the ritual described is basically a smokescreen to protect women from their husbands’ jealousy, is highly improbable.

Second, it is also unlikely that if such a ritual was practiced, it did no harm to the woman – even if the potion was no more than a placebo. Her husband suspects her of adultery and this suspicion is brought to the priest and possibly made known also to other members in the community – this alone is likely to cause the woman great distress. If the societies in the background of Hebrew Bible texts are indeed shame cultures – as proposed by numerous commentators – the woman’s distress would have been acute. Additionally, there is the elaborate and formal ritual and the fear of punishment. If the ritual is able to assuage the husband, its curse and punishments are likely to have been believed in – or, at the very least, sufficient gravitas and dignity would need to have been conferred on the ritual for it to have any efficacy in restoring either the woman’s public standing or the husband’s emotional equilibrium.

I find it disturbing that some interpreters consider the ritual to be protectiveof the woman. If that is the case, not only does protection come with elaborate accommodation to husbands’ jealousies but it also comes at considerable cost to the woman. The question arises: is such ‘protection’ worth having?

Presumption of Guilt

In a number of ways, the ritual is very much stacked against the woman. It is supposed to determine her guilt and yet, while the potion may eithercause her harm orexonerate her should she be innocent, leaving her ‘unharmed’ and able to retain seed (that is, remain pregnant or become pregnant) (vv.27-28), the opening statement presumesher guilt. The reference is to a woman who hasgone astray (from ś-t-h) and who has broken faith (m-‘-l)with her husband (v.12). This is then elaborated upon: the straying refers to another man who has had sex with the woman (male initiative is presumed – š-k-bis a verb that males perform). The sexual activity has involved šikbat-zera‘(‘lying of seed’), presumably penetrative sex and ejaculation (v.13), and this has been hidden from the eyes of the husband. Moreover, the woman, we are told, has kept secret that she was defiled or that she has defiled herself (the verb is from t-m-’ and in nifal form, which can indicate either a passive or a reflexive voice),but there was no witness to the event, nor was she forced (v.13). So, a man other than her husband had sex with her but shedefiled herself. She is accused of secrecy and somehow (though it is not clear how) it is supposed that she was not forced. On the one hand, her agency is undermined by her passive role (the man took initiative – but she has becomedefiled or defiled herself). But her passivity does not remove responsibility. She alone is responsible for what was done to her.

In Numbers 5 the woman’s collusion is, to begin with, assumed: if she had sex with another man, the only possibility under consideration is that there was no physical force. No physical force is equated with compliance, possibly complicity. There is no other witness. Strikingly, establishing the identity of the other man, an adulterer, is not a preoccupation. Unlike in Deuteronomy 22, hisresponsibility, hiscrime or hispunishment, is of no interest to either the woman’s husband or the lawmakers. Attention is on the woman alone – she is the sole focus of her husband’s jealousy, she is the sole reason that a ‘spirit of jealousy’ has come upon him. The possibility  that the woman is innocent of this charge is acknowledged, but only after the possibility of her adultery has been fully laid out (v.14).


The Hebrew words for ‘jealous’ and ‘jealousy’ are from q-n-’, which is also sometimes translated ‘ardent/ardour’ or ‘zealous/zeal’. There is reference elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible to jealous husbands (Proverbs 6:34) and to the emotional intensity of jealousy (Proverbs 27:4; Ecclesiastes 4:4; 9:6). Britt identifies it as ‘an exclusively male passion’ (2007, 05.6). Interestingly, the word is applied regularly to God, often with reference to divine violence and revenge: ‘zeal of YHWH of Hosts’ (2 Kgs 19:31; see also Exod. 20:5; Deut. 5:9; 29:19; 32:19-22; Josh. 24:19; Isa. 9:6; 26:11; 37:32; 42:13; 59:17; 63:15; Ezek. 5:13; 35:11; 36:5-6; 38:19; Zeph. 1:18; 3:8; Zech. 1:14; 8:2; Ps. 79:5.

Sometimes jealousy is associated also with others in authority: approvingly, for instance, in a divine pronouncement about the (violent!) zeal of Phinehas the priest (Numbers 25:11). Jealousy may be self-destructive (Gen. 30:1; Prov. 3:31; 23:17; 24:1, 19), or plain destructive and occasionally futile (Job 5:2; Eccl. 4:4; 9:6; Pss 37:1; 73:2-3; Prov. 14:30) and decidedly negative (Gen. 37:11; Isa. 11:13) but it is also associated with, or valorized as, great love (Song 8:6; Isa. 63:15) or ardour forYHWH (2 Kgs 10:16; cf. Pss 69:10; 119:139).

So, while there are some biblical passages that depict human jealousies in pejorative terms, as futile, ill-advised, or destructive, a number of points serve to underpin and legitimate the husband’s jealousy and the religious violence that results from it:

  • first, the positive association of jealousy with love, and with men of God (such as with Phinehas) but above all with God himself
  • second, the sense of righteous anger, anxiety and outrage leveled at adultery and women’s infidelity
  • third, the prominent depiction of God himself as either angry avenger or – more pointedly – as spurned husband of an unfaithful wife exacting effusive and violent punishment that is depicted as justified.

In the God-as-husband metaphor, familiar from prophetic writing, God’s jealous rage is depicted as a legitimate and proportionate response to the people’s excessive sinning, which is likened to a depraved woman’s adultery. This leads up to violent punishment for the metaphorical woman, with Ezek. 16:38, 42 and 23:25 providing the most sustained examples. God and Phinehas can behave violently, and their violence is depicted as justifiable, even legitimate. Jealousy, moreover, is a mark of ardent love or devotion – even if it can turn nasty when disappointed. In a troubling way, therefore, the jealousy of Numbers 5 masks and downplays the violent damage it causes.

The closing words of the passage confirm that this is what is to be done when a man is jealous. The role of both YHWH and priest are restated once more and the closing verse pronounces that the husband is clear of guilt while the woman shall suffer for her guilt.

Reading Numbers 5 in the Context of Present-Day Rape Culture

One thing that is familiar about this passage is the association between, on the one hand, jealousy and, on the other, violence exerted against an intimate partner. Jealousy – in particular male jealousy – is prevalent in contemporary reports of domestic violence and intimate partner violence (cf. Britt 2007, 05.6).

A second affinity between the ritual of Numbers 5 and contemporary settings pertains to exposure in courts of law. In Numbers 5 the woman is treated as guilty of adultery until proven innocent; similarly, so-called complainants in sexual assault cases that go to court – and most do not –often report feeling as though theywere the ones on trial (which they are not), rather than the defendant. and under scrutiny. In Numbers 5, the woman is brought before YHWH and her head is bared, her hair loosened or disheveled, which appears to be an action designed to serve no purpose other than embarrass, expose, or humiliate her; in the court rooms today, women bringing forward cases of rape are also exposed in ways that are likewise highly distressing. Recent cases have, for instance, included a woman having to hold up her underwear in the court room, the disclosure of a rape victim’s sexual history and testimony from former lovers to undermine her capacity for consent, and the possibility of investigating complainants’ entire phone text history and social media presence, inclusive of private messaging, with the possible intention of casting aspersions on their character.

How can we account for or make sense of such parallels? Are they coincidental? Has the violence described in the Bible and transmitted in a text of such long-standing religious authority contributed to patterns of violence in our present? Do both signify variants of rape culture? Or, do we simply see what we recognize?

Britt suggests four possible options in going forward with a text like Numbers 5:

to ignore the text, reject it, neutralize it, or subvert it.

I agree with Britt that ignoring or rejecting the text ‘offer[s] nothing to those who cannot overlook the influence or authority of the Bible’ (2007, 05.2).

Neutralizing readings might be those that dismiss Numbers 5 as an archaic relic, or that excuse it, by arguing that in placing punishment in the hands of God, women are protected from jealous men. Yet, as I stated above, this fails to acknowledge the violence of the text, including the collusion of religious violence. (It is in some ways the equivalent of saying ‘it’s not really so bad’ when it actually is.) As Britt also draws out, neutralizing a text only qualifies or brackets out its meaning.

The way that Britt chooses to address Numbers 5 is subversion: hence, he offers two reading strategies, influenced by Luce Irigaray and Judith Butler: the first reversesthe thrust of the text, throwing suspicion on the accusing husband and the second parodiesthe text by reading it alongside the exchange of sandals ceremony of Ruth 4. I like the cleverness of intertextual play in Britt’s argument but I am not seeking, like him, to change the text into something else.

My purpose is above all to call out and rail at the violence of the text, because it is so clearly a text of religious violence and of violence in marriage – and yet all too rarely called out by biblical readers and interpreters for being such.

Numbers 5 is not unequivocally about rape (although it does not rule out that the woman might have been raped – not being physically forced or injured does not mean rape did not occur – see here) but it is suggestive of rape culture – of gender-based violence that ranges from accusations and humiliations to physical harm. This spectral violence, moreover, is legitimated – on the grounds that the accuser (the husband), who is exonerated from all guilt, cannot help himself (given his intense jealousy). High religious authority – God and the priest – further legitimates the violence inherent within this religious ritual.

The effect of this is toxic, including in contemporary contexts, where, for all the professed oddity of the text, aspects of it – namely the directionality of gender-based violence (i.e. most often perpetrated by men against women), the victim-blaming, and the humiliating public exposure – echo with uncomfortable familiarity. I maintain that it is important to call out, to question and to resist such a text. Numbers 5 may not be the best known or the most directly influential of biblical traditions, but it exemplifies well the strata and expressions of violence familiar and resonant up to the present day.

Works Cited

Bach, Alice. 1999. ‘Good to the Last Drop: Viewing the Sotah (Numbers 5:11-31) as the Glass Half Empty and Wondering How to View It Half Full’. In Women in the Hebrew Bible: A Reader.Edited by Alice Bach. New York and London: Routledge, pp.503–22. ISBN 978-0415915618.

Britt, Brian. 2007. ‘Male Jealousy and the Suspected Sotah: Toward a Counter-Reading of Numbers 5:11-31’. The Bible and Critical Theory3/1: 05.1-05.19. DOI: 10.2104/bc070005. Available online: file:///C:/Users/User/Downloads/124-480-1-PB.pdf

Douglas, Mary. 1984[1966]. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London, New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-203-12938-5.

Friedman, Richard Elliott. 2012. ‘The Sotah:Why Is This Case Different From All Other Cases?’ In Let Us Go Up to Zion: Essays in Honour of H. G. M. Williamson on the Occasion of his Sixty-Fifth Birthday(Vetus Testamentum Supplements 153). Edited by Iain Provan and Mark Boda. Leiden: Brill, pp.371–82. ISBN: 978-90-04-22658-6. DOI:

Haberman, Bonna Devora. 2000. ‘The Suspected Adulteress: A Study of Textual Embodiment’. Prooftexts20: 12–42.

Rosen-Zvi, Ishay. 2006. ‘Measure for Measure as Hermeneutical Tool in Early Rabbinic Literature: The Case of Tosefta Sotah’. Journal of Jewish Studies57/2: 269–86. Available online:

Towers, Susanna Clare. 2014. ‘An Analysis of Philo’s Exegesis of the Sotah Ritual’. Women in Judaism: A Multidisciplinary E-Journal11/1. ISSN: 1209-9392. Available online:


Tags : Brian Brittintimate partner violenceNumbers 5Rape CultureReligion and Rape Culture conferenceSotah
Johanna Stiebert

The author Johanna Stiebert

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