Included among the laws and rituals to ensure that the Israelite camp remain pure and undefiled is this test for infidelity. Female infidelity is regarded as especially serious, since it threatens the purity of the lineage of the family, tribe, and nation. The ordeal is similar to other water ordeals described in ancient Near Eastern literature, each of them providing some kind of test, usually abusive, to which the woman must submit.
In contemporary perspective, the ordeal is clearly sexist, since it applies only to the woman. This was probably not because of a lower view of women or even because of issues of betrayed love and intimacy, but because of the importance of family identity and the family name, passed on through the offspring. Still, it was no doubt then, too, a debasing ritual, just as it appears to the modern reader. Perhaps the only positive thing to be said is that it was not merely the word of the husband that could convict the woman. In the mind of that culture, the ordeal puts the matter before God, and the woman might be proven innocent.
11 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 12Speak to the Israelites and say to them: If any mans wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him, 13if a man has had intercourse with her but it is hidden from her husband, so that she is undetected though she has defiled herself, and there is no witness against her since she was not caught in the act; 14if a spirit of jealousy comes on him, and he is jealous of his wife who has defiled herself; or if a spirit of jealousy comes on him, and he is jealous of his wife, though she has not defiled herself; 15then the man shall bring his wife to the priest. And he shall bring the offering required for her, one-tenth of an ephah of barley flour. He shall pour no oil on it and put no frankincense on it, for it is a grain-offering of jealousy, a grain-offering of remembrance, bringing iniquity to remembrance.
16 Then the priest shall bring her near, and set her before the Lord; 17the 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. 18The priest shall set the woman before the Lord, dishevel the womans hair, and place in her hands the grain-offering of remembrance, which is the grain-offering of jealousy. In his own hand the priest shall have the water of bitterness that brings the curse. 19Then the priest shall make her take an oath, saying, If no man has lain with you, if you have not turned aside to uncleanness while under your husbands authority, be immune to this water of bitterness that brings the curse. 20But if you have gone astray while under your husbands authority, if you have defiled yourself and some man other than your husband has had intercourse with you 21let the priest make the woman take the oath of the curse and say to the womanthe Lord make you an execration and an oath among your people, when the Lord makes your uterus drop, your womb discharge; 22now may this water that brings the curse enter your bowels and make your womb discharge, your uterus drop! And the woman shall say, Amen. Amen.
23 Then the priest shall put these curses in writing, and wash them off into the water of bitterness. 24He shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that brings the curse, and the water that brings the curse shall enter her and cause bitter pain. 25The priest shall take the grain-offering of jealousy out of the womans hand, and shall elevate the grain-offering before the Lord and bring it to the altar; 26and the priest shall take a handful of the grain-offering, as its memorial portion, and turn it into smoke on the altar, and afterwards shall make the woman drink the water. 27When he has made her drink the water, then, if she has defiled herself and has been unfaithful to her husband, the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain, and her womb shall discharge, her uterus drop, and the woman shall become an execration among her people. 28But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be immune and be able to conceive children.
29 This is the law in cases of jealousy, when a wife, while under her husbands authority, goes astray and defiles herself, 30or when a spirit of jealousy comes on a man and he is jealous of his wife; then he shall set the woman before the Lord, and the priest shall apply this entire law to her. 31The man shall be free from iniquity, but the woman shall bear her iniquity.
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org