Background of Numbers 5 or “Ordeal of Bitter Water”
A man suspecting his wife of infidelity can take her to the priest and make a formal accusation.
Numbers 5:11–28 addresses a procedure whereby a man who suspects his wife of infidelity can take her to the priest and make a formal accusation. The priest then performs a prescribed ritual that would result in a curse from God if the woman was unfaithful while claiming to be innocent before the priest and God. Any physical manifestations she suffered would determine her guilt. Although Scripture offers no example of this being carried out, we will see a famous passage that may have alluded to such actions.
According to Numbers 5, starting at verse 15, the priest was to take an earthenware cup with consecrated water and add dust from the tabernacle floor. The husband’s “grain offering of jealousy” was given to the priest who put it into the hands of the accused wife.
The priest then put the woman under oath and made her swear under penalty of a curse that she was innocent of adultery. After the wife swore her innocence, her oath was written on a scroll. Next, the priest put the scroll into the water until the ink came off into the water (at which point he removed the scroll from the cup). Then the priest took the grain offering from the woman, burnt it on the altar, and finally made her drink the bitter water. If innocent, then the “bitter water” would have no effect, but if guilty there would be a physical consequence.
A Closer Look at the Translations
Numbers 5:21–22 contains the potential curse that would befall the woman if she were guilty of adultery. We’ll look at a few translations to see where some people get the idea that this passage refers to a child in the womb.
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; 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.” (Numbers 5:21–22 NKJV)
(Then the priest shall have the woman swear with the oath of the curse, and the priest shall say to the woman), “the LORD make you a curse and an oath among your people by the LORD’S making your thigh waste away and your abdomen swell; and this water that brings a curse shall go into your stomach, and make your abdomen swell and your thigh waste away.” And the woman shall say, “Amen. Amen.” (NAS)
Here the priest is to put the woman under this curse—“may the LORD cause you to become a curse among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell. May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries.” Then the woman is to say, “Amen. So be it.” (NIV)
At this point the priest must put the woman under oath by saying, “May the people know that the LORD’s curse is upon you when he makes you infertile, causing your womb to shrivel and your abdomen to swell. Now may this water that brings the curse enter your body and cause your abdomen to swell and your womb to shrivel.” And the woman will be required to say, “Yes, let it be so.” (NLT)
(Let the priest make the woman take the oath of the curse, and say to the woman) “the LORD make you a curse and an oath among your people, when the LORD makes your thigh fall away and your body swell. May this water that brings the curse pass into your bowels and make your womb swell and your thigh fall away.” And the woman shall say, “Amen, Amen.” (ESV)
There is little question about the translation of the key terms in this passage, as can be seen in the general agreement of the different Bible versions. For example, the Hebrew word translated as “stomach,” “abdomen,” or “womb” is בטן (beten) and usually refers to a woman’s womb (Genesis 25:23; Judges 13:5), but it can also refer to a woman’s stomach (Song of Solomon 7:3). And leading lexicons define the Hebrew verb צבה (tsabeh) as “to swell.”
The vast majority of English translations seem to speak of the woman undergoing some sort of disfigurement if she were guilty.
The vast majority of English translations seem to speak of the woman undergoing some sort of disfigurement if she were guilty. Her thigh would waste away, and her abdomen would swell. We checked over a dozen Bible versions, and only two versions specifically mention a miscarriage in place of the thigh wasting away. The NRSV speaks of the “womb discharging,” and the 2011 update of the NIV states that her womb would “miscarry”—the 1984 edition matches the other versions mentioned above. The NCV offers a different understanding from the rest by stating that God would make her “body unable to give birth to another baby.”
Translation Work Can Be Tricky
So why would the NIV and NRSV state or imply that a guilty woman in this situation would miscarry when the Hebrew words for “thigh” and “falling away” or “wasting away” are used? The differences between these two versions and the others highlight one of the trickiest and riskiest aspects of translation work. That is, how should a phrase be translated if it is believed to be an idiom? In this case, the NIV and NRSV translators follow the lead of numerous commentators who believe that the language about the thigh falling away was a Hebrew idiom or euphemism for miscarriage. For example, Philip J. Budd stated the following:
It is unlikely that a disease as such is intended. Most commentators take the expressions to be euphemisms for a miscarriage and/or stillbirth. There is to be no fruit from an illicit union (cf. v 28). Jewish tradition, and probably the author himself, considered this a most fitting punishment for the sin in question.1
If this truly is an idiom or euphemism, then the majority of translations are giving their readers the wrong impression.
If the NIV and NRSV are correct, their translations will more accurately convey the meaning of the Hebrew text to their readers. If they are incorrect, their translations will badly misinform readers. But the converse is also true. That is, if this truly is an idiom or euphemism, then the majority of translations are giving their readers the wrong impression, even though they are technically translating the words accurately. In this case, the NIV and NRSV would be accurately conveying the meaning of the text.
To better understand this difficulty in translation work, let’s look at one rather humorous example before returning to the ramifications of the proper interpretation of Numbers 5:21–22. In Jeremiah 15:15, the prophet speaks of the Lord’s “enduring patience” (NKJV) or “forbearance” (ESV). But the Hebrew words literally speak of God as being “long of nose.” In fact, God describes himself as having a long nose in Exodus 34:6. That is, he is longsuffering. Conversely, a short-tempered person is described as having a short nose (Proverbs 14:17). In English we speak of this type of person as having a short fuse. When a man gets angry his nose flares and can turn red from blood rushing to it. Apparently, the idea conveyed by the Hebrew idiom of a long nose is that it takes more time for a long nose to turn red with anger than it does for a short nose. Hence, God is patient since it takes a long time for him to become angry, whereas an impatient person is compared to a nose that quickly turns red with anger.
The purpose of this example is to illustrate the difficulty of translation work, particularly if there is uncertainty about whether the text is using an idiom or euphemism. This brings us back to the situation in Numbers 5. Let’s take a look at the two main interpretations of this passage: perhaps we can call them the disfigurement and miscarriage views. The disfigurement position takes the description of the thigh falling and womb swelling literally, and the miscarriage position sees this as an idiomatic expression of miscarriage. We will see how neither option supports the claim that the Bible does not place special value on a baby in the womb.
Since the priest is instructed to examine some outward sign to confirm whether the woman is innocent or guilty, we need to identify how he could have done that.
Figuring out the proper interpretation of this passage involves several other questions that must be answered. First, why has the husband suspected and accused his wife of adultery? The text explains that this ritual was to be used when the woman was not caught in the act by her husband and no witnesses had come forward. Verse 14 mentions that a spirit of jealousy has come upon her husband. Maybe the husband was jealous for no reason, since verse 14 mentions that he could be jealous even though the wife has not defiled herself. But perhaps her attitude toward him had changed or something she did or said hinted at her guilt. Or perhaps she had conceived and her “baby bump” appeared, and the husband suspected the child was not his.
Second, since the priest is instructed to examine some outward sign to confirm whether the woman is innocent or guilty, we need to identify how he could have done that. If the disfigurement view is correct, then the priest specifically looked for the woman's belly to distend (swell) upon drinking the water that brings a curse and for some type of marking (such as sores or ulcers) or disfigurement of her thigh in order to declare her guilty. Or, in the absence of these, he declared her innocence.
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. But if the woman has not defiled herself, and is clean, then she shall be free and may conceive children. (Numbers 5:27–28, NKJV)
If the miscarriage view is accurate, then the priest need only see whether the woman miscarried. If she did not miscarry, the husband could be confident that his wife had been faithful to their marriage and that the unborn child was his. In both perspectives, if the woman were innocent, she would be able to have children after this ordeal. But if she were guilty, these verses strongly imply that she could no longer have children.
How Is This Ritual Relevant to the Modern Abortion Debate?
If the disfigurement view is accurate, then there is really no connection whatsoever to the modern debate over the sanctity of unborn babies because the passage would not even be about a pregnant woman. The closest it comes to such a topic is that a guilty woman would not be able to have any children after this.
If the miscarriage view is accurate, then we need to look a bit closer because at first glance it might seem as though the skeptic has a point. If the guilty woman was pregnant, and the punishment for her infidelity and lies was that her child would die in miscarriage, would it imply that God took the life in the woman’s womb? That would seem to be the case, but before dismissing this view for that reason, consider the following details from Scripture.
- After David committed adultery with Bathsheba and she conceived, the prophet Nathan confronted David and said, “
Because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD, the child who is born to you shall die.” (2 Samuel 12:14, ESV)
- Following his sin of taking forbidden items from Jericho, Achan was stoned and then burned along with his sons, daughters, and belongings. (Joshua 7:25)
- When Korah, Dathan, and Abiram rebelled against Moses’ God-ordained leadership, the Lord caused the earth to open up beneath Korah, Dathan, and Abiram along with their wives, sons, and little ones. (Numbers 16:27–33)
What do these situations have to do with our discussion? In each of these situations, children died as a result of their father’s sin. In David’s case, the child died one week after being born, and the other two examples may have included pregnant women in addition to those children already born. The point is that there are examples in the Old Testament where the sins of a father or mother led directly to the death of their child or children.
With that in mind, reconsider the miscarriage view of Numbers 5. The woman was pregnant through an adulterous relationship, a sin that normally carried the death penalty (Leviticus 20:10). But because no witnesses came forward, the woman was given an opportunity to clear her name and ease her husband’s suspicions by swearing before him, a priest, and God that she was innocent of adultery. If she lied in this situation, the subsequent miscarriage is clearly a result of her blatant rebellion of swearing falsely before the Lord in addition to her adultery, knowing the consequences. The words spoken by Nathan to David are fitting here as well: “
Because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD.” Hence, the responsibility for the child’s death rested squarely on the mother for her sins, as well as the adulterous father of the child. The priest did not surgically abort the woman’s child. Instead, in a case where witnesses could not be found to determine guilt or innocence, God revealed the woman’s guilt by causing her to miscarry and preventing her from ever conceiving again, which would have been viewed as a severe consequence in that culture.
So even if the miscarriage view is correct, it cannot be used as justification for abortion. The priest did not perform an abortion here. The persons responsible for the loss of the unborn child would be the child’s lying mother and the man engaged in an adulterous affair with her. Rather than supporting abortion, this passage shows us that God treats the unborn child the same as those who have already been born. That is, in certain situations, a child died because of his or her parents’ grave sin.
Why Such a Strange Ritual?
Some people object that this passage and some other rituals prescribed in the Mosaic Law are just too strange or bizarre for modern readers to take seriously. Part of the reason for objection is that these particular ceremonies are foreign to our culture. But imagine being an ancient Israelite transported to 21st century America. How strange might many of our customs seem to you? Graduation ceremonies, presidential inaugurations, and pro sports championship parades would likely seem rather bizarre and unnecessary, but most of us do not see them as strange at all. Likewise, the ancient Israelites would not have found these rituals to be strange. Their cultural milieu had similar rituals, so these were just part of the life they knew, and God had reasons for requiring such rites of the Israelites.
This procedure protected the family unit and protected the wife from shame.
This procedure was actually set up for at least two reasons. The first was to protect the family unit, and the other was to protect the wife from the shame of being cast out of a household and slanderously labeled as an adulteress. If she was found innocent, then she was free from guilt and “clean.” In context, this freedom meant that she was free of any guilty association in this case, and her husband could bring her back, knowing she had been faithful to him.
For his part, the man could not claim that he was dishonored. With his jealousy and suspicions assuaged, he may now feel confident in having children with his wife. But if he still decided to put her away and divorce her, the priests would have a record that it was not for infidelity, and she would be free to remarry and have children. Indeed, the husband who brought these false charges against his wife would have some shame attached to his actions and his name (see Deuteronomy 22:18–19 for the penalty of making a similar false accusation). This would serve as a deterrent for men making indiscriminate charges against their wives. It should also be noted that Numbers 5:29 –30 do not help us determine which position is in view. Verse 29 mentions that the wife went astray and defiled herself, but verse 30 mentions a spirit of jealousy on the husband’s part, which may have occurred even if the wife had not defiled herself (v. 14).
A Famous Near-Example
It’s quite possible that this ritual was considered for the most famous pregnancy in history. Matthew 1:18–19 states, “
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.” Naturally, Joseph initially believed that Mary had been unfaithful to him. After all, she was pregnant, and he knew he was not the father. Since he did not have proof of adultery in the form of eyewitnesses, stoning was not an option. It is quite possible that Joseph was concerned that Mary would have undergone the ritual described in Numbers 5, which he surely thought would have ended with Mary being exposed to public shame. Yet this righteous man instead sought to find a way to avoid subjecting her to such a fate. Of course, God sent an angel to inform Joseph that Mary’s pregnancy was of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:20), so Joseph did not need to doubt Mary’s virtue.
Neither interpretation provides any support for taking the life of an unborn child.
We have looked at two plausible interpretations of the curious passage in Numbers 5 that some people have cited as an argument for abortion. Yet neither interpretation provides any support for taking the life of an unborn child. The disfigurement view does not involve a pregnancy at all. The miscarriage view does indeed involve a pregnancy, but the sins of the parents (their adulterous relationship and her false oath before God and man) are wholly to blame for the resultant miscarriage.
The Bible consistently teaches that the life of the child in the womb is just as valuable as those who have already been born. Every human being, both male and female and from the moment of fertilization, is made in God’s image, regardless of one’s level of development, physical or mental ability, ethnicity, or age. These truths will be vividly displayed in the Creation Museum’s upcoming exhibit, Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, opening later this year. This spectacular exhibit will celebrate human life from the moment of fertilization, showcasing our Creator’s unmatched handiwork, respectfully addressing sensitive issues in our culture, and showing the message of hope and forgiveness through the gospel of Jesus Christ.