No matter how much I get excited reading about Jesus and his scandalous, transgressive, and liberative actions in his time on earth, there are just some texts in scripture I’d rather not think about. I see liberation and freedom and justice and equality in everything Jesus does, meeting the culture of his time where they are, and then pushing them to do and be better. But do these arcs of liberation and freedom start with Jesus or is there space to see them earlier in Scripture?
As someone who thinks the gospel pretty much starts with Hagar--an enslaved, immigrant, woman of color, who was a rape survivor--being the only person in Scripture to name God, I can’t just ignore other texts in the Old Testament that are uncomfortable or worse--downright triggering or hurtful. And of course, the Old Testament doesn’t have a monopoly on hurtful and confusing texts either, but it’s safe to say that more of them are probably there than in the New Testament.
One of the first texts submitted to the project survey is one I’d forgotten about completely. It is a difficult and unjust passage on first read, and often on second and third reads as well. As such I think it is a good passage to start off our discussions of texts that have often been misunderstood and more frequently misused and therefore are triggering to read because they seem so harsh.
This is also a good text to discuss the methodology I intend to use when it comes to this project and which I think is ultimately the most helpful way to approach the texts of Scripture.
In Numbers chapter 5, we find that a man who suspects his wife of adultery can drag her before a priest at the temple for a trial by ordeal (we’ll circle back to this). This is so unjust and one-sided that it would seem the Bible is just blatantly promoting injustice, and those of us on the side of justice and equality and the thriving of all people automatically recoil at such a suggestion.
Before we dig into this text itself, I’d like to describe my framework and process.
I don’t take any text of the Bible by itself with the exception of two and we’ll discuss those in a moment. In other words, each text must be examined to see where it fits into the totality of the story that Scripture is trying to tell us.
I immediately look at the text in context and try to understand the culture of that day. What you almost invariably find is that even what looks harsh to us is in fact God pushing culture towards justice and liberation and equality by meeting people where they are at and then moving them more towards God’s ideal. I call this looking for the arcs of justice and liberation in Scripture. Because once you learn to see them, they are clearly there, sometimes it just takes some digging.
I don’t view this as trying to “justify” the Bible or make it fit my own social ideology, I literally think this is already there. I’m working off the belief that the Bible is at its most basic a story of God’s interactions with people. It is also a very old text that must be understood from the context and the very different culture in which it was written. It’s also the only text people in our current era try to cut and paste teachings from with no understanding of the culture behind it and thus no understanding of the direction God is moving.
With those things in mind, let’s look at the two scriptures I’ll quote without a whole big process around them. The first is “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, love your neighbor as yourselves, on this hangs all of Scripture.” Now that’s my paraphrase of Matthew 22:34-40. Jesus is answering what is the greatest commandment and he first ties love of God irrevocably with love of neighbor, and second says “on these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” When Jesus was speaking, the only scripture written at the time was the Hebrew Bible, which we in the church have adapted largely wholesale into what we call the Old Testament. The Hebrew Bible is also called the Tanakh, which is an acronym for the law (Torah), the prophets (Nevi’im), and the writings (Ketuvim). So saying on this hangs all the law and the prophets is a shorthand for saying “all of Scripture hangs on this.” And therefore I think it’s safe to say all of Scripture written afterwards has to hang on that too. So that one saying is the lens by which we can view all of Scripture as well as our own actions today.
The second verse is Micah 6:8 “Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.” This one ties mercy and justice together with humility, and ensures that if we take it seriously, we can never have a definition of justice that doesn’t include mercy, and therefore casts a very different light on just what we mean by justice.
All that sets up the background for how to approach our first text with this troubling account of a trial by ordeal and a punishment many have thought to be either an abortion or a miscarraige. So let’s take a closer look at the text and the culture, and see what insights are afforded us.
This story is framed as a “trial by ordeal.” A trial by ordeal is one where a person suspected of something is put through something terrible with the presupposition that their innocence will protect them. A suitably “recent” (in the grand scheme of things) example of this in the United States would be the Salem Witch Trials where women suspected of witchcraft were drowned and burned at the stake. I find it horribly ironic that basically it would take magic or a miracle of some sort to prove the innocence of such women and yet the magical thinking of the people exacting this torture and death is never suspect. But I digress.
Under the Code of Hammurabi, a suitably contemporary context for our text, a woman suspected of adultery was to throw herself into a river. So here you have a trial by ordeal that is much more likely to result in injury or death than simply drinking some dusty water in the tabernacle. And of course the punishment for proven adultery in the context of our Scripture was stoning by the community, something we see the religious leaders of the day try to enact again a woman in the presence of Jesus in the gospel of John.
So what is set up here in Numbers 5, while it fits into the trial by ordeal genre, is actually not a physical ordeal. This trial cannot harm her. In fact it would take magical or miraculous intervention for drinking dusty water to have any ill effects at all. Also important to note is that the husband cannot enact even the dusty water potion on his own, but it must be administered by the priest. This places the priest in the position of mediator and in fact protector in that the dusty water potion administered is all that this law allows to be done to the woman on the basis of her husband’s suspicion. Now of course there’s not an accompanying provision for what to do when a woman suspects her husband of adultery, this is actually something that Jesus points out in his famous passage on divorce. Instead of just trying to say that divorce should never happen, Jesus was saying that it was unjust that a man could simply divorce his wife, thereby leaving her defenceless in the society of that day, and instead said that either the husband or the wife could divorce over infidelity, thereby elevating the status of women and correcting a gross oversight of the laws of that day (Mark 10:2-12).
One author noted that perhaps the point of this is to actually focus on the role of the priest, foreshadowing Jesus as great high priest, metaphors we find in the New Testament that draws heavily on the role of priest that the people of Jesus’ time would be familiar with, so they had a structure or a scaffolding so to speak to hang this idea of God-in-the-flesh and what his function was supposed to be.1
Of course later in the New Testament we find that idea of priesthood extended to all who follow Jesus,2 a flattening of the structure and providing us with insight as to where the arc of justice that begins with a protection of the wife from the jealous husband in Numbers might actually have implications for us today. Let’s put a pin in that and finish our examination of the Numbers text first, and we’ll circle back to the implications.
The idea that the curse could cause infertility leaves a danger that an infertile woman is perceived as cursed because of how this is set up, so it’s obviously not perfect, however, the dusty water the woman drinks cannot actually cause infertility. Also because the “innocence” of the woman is proved by her ability to conceive, it is safe to say the “guilt” response of the curse is infertility3 not a forced miscarriage or abortion as many people have wondered when reading this passage. To be really specific, the reference to the thigh dropping is analogous to other references where the thigh in the man is used as a euphemism for sexual organs. And while this is the only place that same euphemism is used for women, the context suggests a failing of the sexual organs, or in other words, an inability to conceive.4
Also of note is one commentator's observation that leaving the temple with his wife’s hair unbound etc, would be a source of shame to the man, meaning that “this seems to be the kind of law that would never actually be put into practice.”5
But if the ordeal is invoked by the husband, it is important to note the presence of a mediator, the punishment being left up to God, and the protection of the woman from the community who might very well have otherwise put her to death.6
So while our current sensibilities may leave us wanting a more just relationship structure, it is important to see that Scripture, especially in what we call the Old Testament, is a mostly linear “historically oriented revelation”7 that shows us God’s interactions with people in context. And examining this context what I have so far invariably found is that God meets people where they are, and then pushes them to shift towards a direction of justice and equity for everyone. The further you get, the more pronounced this is, creating what I referred to earlier as the arcs of justice and liberation in Scripture.
So if we want to apply a difficult passage like this to our lives, we have to look at what God is doing. And rather than coming up with a contemporary version of a ritual for a spouse we suspect of cheating, the proper question to ask ourselves is in what ways can we--now cast by Peter as a royal priesthood ourselves--stand as mediators between the powerful and the oppressed and do our best to protect the oppressed from harm.
1 Peter 2
see also Timothy R. Ashley, Numbers, NICOT, p. 133
Ibid, p. 132
Stephen L. Sherwood, Numbers, Berit Olam, p. 146
Timothy Ashley, p. 135
Douglas Stuart, Old Testament Exegesis, p. 12
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My intent for the Poisoned Bible Project is to release a new episode on the first Sunday of each month. This will be somewhat dependant on my book progress as I am in conversation with a publisher regarding Inward Apocalypse, and I now need to finish a draft of the manuscript by mid October, which is then likely (fingers crossed!) to result in a contract as this comapany prefers full manuscripts to prospals even on non-fiction. But I believe at my current output levels, it will be possible to write the rest of the manuscript on schedule and still produce one of these a month! So stay tuned, and I’ll be releasing at least one newsletter per month as well with thoughts on current events, most likely on the third sunday of the month.