After years of Bible reading and Bible study, I have concluded that when one runs across something in Scripture that is weird, it is probably something important. Most likely, it merits a closer look and some serious consideration.
One of the strangest things I noticed in my daily Bible reading last year is Numbers chapter 5. It has been labeled the ordeal of bitter waters, and at first glance, it is an absolutely bizarre passage.
What’s so strange about it?
Allow me to summarize the text. Numbers 5:11-31 provide instructions for the Old Testament Jewish husband who found himself struggling with jealousy due to suspicion regarding a wife who may, or may not, have been unfaithful to him. The passage outlines a peculiar procedure in which the suspected adulteress is subjected to a crucible of sorts. It was a trial by ordeal, and in this case, it has commonly become known as the ordeal of bitter waters.
The husband who suspected infidelity on the part of his wife, albeit she had not been taken in the act and there was no evidence and no witnesses, would bring his wife to the Tabernacle and the priest. The woman would kneel in the Tabernacle while holding a jealousy offering in her hands. The priest would scrape a little dirt from the Tabernacle floor and mix it with water. He would then write curses that presumably would affect a guilty adulteress upon a piece of parchment with some kind of ink.
The curses in the form of wet ink would be washed off the page into the water with the dirt from the Tabernacle floor. Then the accused woman would be made to drink the “bitter waters.” If she was guilty, the Bible says that her thigh would rot and her belly would swell (King James Version.) If she were innocent, she would suffer no adverse effects from drinking the bitter waters.
Rotting thigh and swelling belly is a peculiar language, and there has been a great deal of speculation about what exactly is meant by those words. Some modern translations have even rendered the text to suggest that the bitter waters would cause a miscarriage if the woman were pregnant.
Some, of a more liberal theological persuasion, have even used this passage as justification for the practice of abortion. However, the general consensus does not align with the miscarriage rendering of the text, and there is no evidence to indicate God was providing instructions for Old Testament abortions. Instead, the implication seems to be that a guilty woman would become sick and ultimately infertile due to the sickness.
It seems cruel and heavy-handed toward women.
That is precisely how I felt about this passage when I first read it, but upon further consideration, I found that quite the opposite was true. In a patriarchal, male-dominated society, a woman would have had little recourse under the weight of such grave accusations of infidelity.
If she was pregnant and the husband suspected he was not the father, there was no such thing as DNA paternity testing to clear her name and settle the matter. The accused woman would have been subject to the judgment of a bunch of men if God had not intervened with this bizarre protocol.
What we have is a picture of God’s grace.
God will do strange and beautiful things to extend His grace to those in dire straits. The fact is that dirty water with a bit of pink in it would have no adverse physical effects on a woman whatsoever, naturally speaking. The only way anything wrong could have happened to the accused is if God Himself intervened with some form of punishment.
Of course, God knew that, but neither the jealous husband nor the priests would have understood it. What God did, in this case, was remove men from the position of judge over the woman, stepping in as a righteous Judge Himself. God was carefully watching over women who would have otherwise been defenseless under the circumstances.
There are a couple of lessons we can learn from this peculiar passage. First, whenever we encounter something in Scripture that seems beyond our understanding, we need to dig deeper. When we prayerfully dig deeper into the text earnestly, seeking to understand the meaning, the reader will often discover the truth that will encourage and edify.
Second, it has always been, and it will always be, the pattern of God to run to the rescue of those who cannot rescue themselves. God has been demonstrating His love and grace toward humanity like this for thousands of years, and God is still extending His grace right now.
Josh attended seminary through Rock of Ages Baptist Bible Institute out of Cleveland, TN. He has held about every position one could hold in a local church: Sunday school teacher, Children’s Church Preacher, Bus Ministry Director/Worker, Missions Director, Choir Director, Song Leader, Janitor, etc. In October of 2005, he was ordained as an Assistant Pastor at Rest Haven Baptist Church, and that’s where he served until God called him into the Pastorate at Enon Baptist Church in Alto, GA at the age of 32. He stepped out by faith in obedience to God’s instructions and quickly received a call from Blessed Hope Baptist Church in Free Home, GA where he now serves as Pastor. In his free time, Josh enjoys spending quality time with his wife (who is his high school sweetheart) and three children: Zoey, Ava, and Jack, as well as reading, writing, hunting, cooking, weight lifting, and martial arts.