Adultery and Ordeals:
The Sotah Ritual in Ancient Israel
The ritual of the sotah from the book of Numbers is a fascinating passage to read in the Hebrew Bible. For one thing, this ritual deals with the idea of a man being able to bring his wife to trial, even if he has no evidence against her. While such an instance might be seen as negative treatment of women, others might explain it as the Israelites constant concern over the idea of impurity.Another interesting aspect of the sotah rite is that it is the only example of an ordeal similar to those practiced in other cultures of the Ancient Near East. While other ordeals are told mostly in story form, Num. 5:11-31 is the only instance in which the actual process of an ordeal is laid out point by point. Finally, the ritual merits attention due to its continued practice even after the Temple was destroyed, as is depicted in the Talmud. These reasons and more are evidence as to why this small 20 verse passage has been subject to such scrutiny and study over the course of the years.
Adultery in the Hebrew Bible
The ritual for the errant woman in Numbers 5:11-31 is only one of many instances in the Old Testament that deals with the crime of adultery. The crime is described throughout the books in the Hebrew Bible, such as Genesis 20:6, Lev. 18:20, Ezek. 18:6, Ps. 51:6, and Mal. 3:5. A variety of texts discuss the evil of adultery. The Israelites held the act in such harsh light, that a commandment against committing adultery is found in the Decalogue. This certainly indicates that extra-martial affairs were viewed in a severe manner.
In the Hebrew Bible, adultery is considered a capital crime, punishable by the population stoning the adulterous wife and her lover to death. Deut. 22:20 commands this communal punishment in order to sweep away evil from Israel. The question remains as to why this crime was considered to be such a transgression. Several explanations exist to account for the seriousness of the crime.
A significant aspect of life in the Ancient Near East was the importance of the family line. One of the most frightening ideas in the Bible is the punishment of karet, an Israelites being cut off from the community. This is understood as early death and childlessness, or the death of ones descendants . Such an event could result from an unfaithful wife conceiving a son with the adulterer. In this case, the real husband would unknowingly raise a child who is not of his line. Because of this, the series of descendants would be disrupted, and the husbands lineage might die out.
This idea of karet is useful in understanding one aspect of the sotah ritual. If the woman is guilty of adultery, the bitter water is supposed to cause her thigh to sag and your belly to distend. This is generally interpreted as meaning that she would become unable to conceive a child.On the other hand, if the woman is innocent, Numbers 5:27-28 states: weniqqeth wenizreh zara. She will be cleared and she shall retain seed. Not only is the woman proven innocent, but also she does not loose the ability to bear children. By being able to continue to bear children, she continues the bloodline of the family, and therefore does not suffer the possibility of ending the family line, associated with the idea of karet. The examples of a guilty woman apparently experiencing a forced abortion from the water ordeal and an innocent woman retaining her seed both relate to the previously mentioned concept of karet.
Another reason behind the Israelites aversion to this crime is the belief in the importance of purity. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the reader can find examples of G-d both telling the Israelites not to do various things for fear of them becoming impure, as well as to do other things, in order to regain their purity. The fact that adultery causes impurity is attested to in several areas of the HB, including Lev. 18:20 and Ezek. 18:6. Not only does the act render both participants impure, but adultery is one of the sexual crimes mentioned in Leviticus 18 which would cause the land to spew out its inhabitants.
This idea of purity also comes into play in understanding the sotah. The concept of purity versus impurity comes into play twice during this ceremony. Numbers 5:14 states, but if a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about the wife who has defiled herself; or if a fit of jealousy comes over one and his wrought up about his wife although she has not defiled herself It is interesting to note that the verse uses the terms defiled herself. Instead of perhaps repeating the phrases from the beginning of the passage, about breaking the faith and going astray from her husband, the text focuses on the idea of a woman becoming impure because of her transgression. This defilement might be explained by a prohibition found in Deut 26:1-4 in which an Israelite man is forbidden to remarry his divorced wife if she has had sex with another man. it is possible that sexual union with a defiled wife would also have been thought to pollute the land. A suspicious husband might therefore have been obligated to bring his wife to the test in order to avoid such defilement,Aside from simply allaying his fears, a husband may have simply been doing his duty to the community by avoiding any possibility of becoming impure.
Also along the same lines of impurity is the presence of the grain offering brought by the husband on behalf of his wife. In the present case, the sacrificial offering was also an instrument of purification, functioning most like a hattat sin offering.According to Levine, the woman on trial was asking G-d to pronounce her pure. The idea that G-d is ready to pronounce judgment on the now pure woman by accepting the sacrifice as a sign plays heavily into the idea of the importance of purity among the Israelites.
One final, and rather important reason behind the extremely negative context in Israel viewed the crime was that it was a direct offense against G-d himself. In the Decalogue, of the Ten Commandments prescribed by G-d Himself, two of the commandments specifically mention the offense. The Seventh commandment states, You shall not commit adultery, and the Tenth commandment states, You shall not covet your neighbors wifeThe first mention is relatively straight forward, and it is only emphasized by the texts words about not only coveting ones neighbors property, but it specifies the coveting of his wife. The punishment for the crime of adultery is the stoning of both parties . Although several other Ancient Near Eastern cultures are not as clear on the matter, Biblical law does not provide leniency. This is due to the fact that the author of the laws is G-d himself, and since He forbids the practice, it is a sin against Him, as well as the husband . Failure to follow through with the punishment is also offensive to G-d, as can be seen in several areas of the Hebrew Bible. if you reject My laws and spurn My rules, so that you do not observe all My commandments and you break My covenant, I in turn will do this to you: I will wreak misery upon you consumption and fever, which causes the eyes to pine and the body to languish; you shall sow your seed to no purpose, for your enemies shall eat it.While such a statement does not deal directly with adultery, it still applies to punishment if the Israelites fail to obey any of G-ds laws.
This idea of adultery being even more of an affront to G-d than to man is also apparent in the Numbers ritual. Verses 16 and 18 both discuss the priest bringing the woman to stand before G-d. Here she stands at the mercy of divine judgment, because her crime is in fact, against Him.This image of G-d as the divine judge is found again later in the passage in verse 21. Here, the priest describes what punishment will be exacted on the woman if she is guilty. may the LORD make you a curse and an imprecation among your people, as the LORD causes your thigh to sag and your belly to distend Not only is the woman judged by G-d, but in this instance, she is also punished by Him, and not at the hands of man.
The Sotah as an Ordeal
Several common themes appear throughout the religions of the Ancient Near East. One predominant idea is the concept of a divine judge who witnesses everything and can therefore reach a fair verdict. Even the religion of Ancient Israel contained this view. The idea of YWHW existing everywhere and seeing everything fits well into this idea, and is recounted throughout the Hebrew Bible. For example, the Book of Proverbs states: The eyes of the LORD are everywhere, observing the bad and the good. Divine judgment appears in several areas of the Hebrew Bible in cases where it is near impossible for a mortal judge to reach an accurate verdict, usually due to a lack of witnesses. These instances are referred to as ordeals. In an ordeal, the accused is subjected to a physical test, the outcome of which decides his guilt or innocence.
The ritual concerning an errant wife certainly constitutes as an ordeal. The trial takes place when there is a lack of witnesses as to a womans unfaithfulness, and so the outcome is placed in the hands of G-d. The husband brings his wife before a priest, where she swears an oath in the presence of G-d that she has not been unfaithful. The priest presents the wife with a concoction of holy water, dust from the Tabernacle floor, and a piece of paper upon which a curse is written. The curse dissolves in the water, and the woman drinks it.If the woman is guilty G-d will cause the bitter water to make the womans thighs to sag and her belly to distend. Such a trial definitely constitutes as an ordeal. A physical test is inflicted on the accused due to a lack of witnesses, and through the result of the trial, divine judgment is passed.
Another example of an ordeal found in the Hebrew Bible is the events surrounding the rebellion of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram in Numbers 16. While this example does not describe the ritual procedure for a specific ordeal, it does describes a specific event during which a person, or in this case a group of people, are subjected to a trial by ordeal. In this passage, Korah, Dathan, and Abiram organize a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, concerning their discontent as to the brothers being more holy than the rest of the community. Moses places the decision as to who is chosen by the Lord in the hands of G-d. Two different ordeals then take place. In the first, Moses challenges Korah and his community to bring incense before the Lord, in order that the Lord might make his judgment. In the second case, Moses warns the community to stand away from Korah and his household. The physical trial in this case, was rather morbid, in that the result of the trial concerned the manner of the rebels death. If these men die the common death of all men, and be visited after the visitation of all men, then the Lord hath not sent me. But if the Lord make a new thing, and the ground open her mouth, and swallow them up, with all that appertain unto them, and they go down alive into the pit, then ye shall understand that these men have despised the Lord, The results of both trials, respectively, were that a fire came from the Lord and consumed the two hundred and fifty men of Korahs rebellion who offered incense, and that Korahs household was swallowed by the earth. The two accounts are fragmented, and are most likely two separate stories combined into one, but proper story telling aside, both of these instances fit the guidelines as ordeals. In both cases a physical trial was declared to choose whether or not the party performing the action was guilty, and both instances resulted in a heavenly verdict in which G-d punished the guilty through them failing their ordeals.
The similarities between the ritual of the shota and the trial(s) of Korah and his followers are relatively few. For the most part, the only similarity is that both contain specific events necessary for an ordeal. An example is the presence of an offering in both events. The unfaithful wife must present an epah of barley flour, and the two hundred and fifty men of Korahs rebellion are told to bring their incense pans to present an offering. Such a gift was necessary in order for the deity to pay attention to the supplicant. In any approach to the Deity, whether directly for purposes of worship, or for other forms of access, one could not come empty handed. Here the objective was to seek G-ds judgment, to learn the truth in the absence of evidence. G-d, the divine judge, knows the hidden facts, and through the outcome of the ordeal will bring them to light,
Another example is the specific instructions as to how the community will know G-ds judgment. During the shota ritual, the priest tells the woman if a man other than your husband has had carnal relations with youas the LORD causes your thigh to sag and your belly to distend, Similarly, as mentioned above, Moses spoke to the community and explained that the rebellion of Korah would be decided based upon whether or not the earth opened and swallowed Korahs household. This would indicate G-ds disfavor with Korah, and his favor of Moses.
A number of dissimilarities also exist between the two examples of ordeals. One major difference is the presentation of the two events. The ritual of the shota is presented point by point. It begins with a clear reasoning of a man suspecting his wife of being unfaithful. It follows with a list of things that must be done: grain offering; bring wife to priest; woman takes oath; woman drinks bitter water; etc. The Korah rebellion, however, is related in the form of a story. It does not present a ritual to be carried out over and over again when ever the situation arises. The ritual existed to punish one set of rebels, during one event, through out all of the Ancient Israelite history.
Another difference between the two is that the ritual for the errant wife had a clear target: namely the unfaithful wife. The ordeal concerning the rebellion of Korah and his followers does not have any one specific target. On the one hand, it might appear that it is Korah, Dathan, and Abiram who are being targeted, as well as the members of the community who joined with them. However, the story can also be read that it was in fact Moses or Aaron who are being tested by the ordeals. Do this: You, Korah and all your band, take fire pans, and tomorrow put fire in them and lay incense on them before the LORD. Then the man whom the LORD chooses, he shall be the holy one,Later in the verse, Moses repeats this direction but includes Aaron, the priest being challenged by Korah and his followers. This indicates that Aaron could also have been on trial, perhaps more to prove himself as worthy of his role than to prove himself innocent.
The idea of divine judgment through ordeals appears several times throughout the Hebrew Bible. Whether the ordeal takes the form of a prescribed ritual, or if it appears as a one time event, the Ancient Israelites greatly believed in leaving the difficult judicial decisions to G-d, an all-knowing and all-seeing being. The Israelites displayed this belief not only in the Torah itself, but also in several other books of the Hebrew Bible, particularly Psalms and Proverbs. Thou knowest my downsitting and mine uprising, Thou understandest my thought afar off. Thou measurest my going about and my lying down, and art acquainted with all my ways. For there is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O the Lord, Thou knowest it altogether.
The Sotah in the Talmud
The sotah ritual in Numbers was discussed in detail during the rabbinic period. In fact, an entire tractate of the Talmud is dedicated to analyzing the various aspects of the trial and describing how the ritual should be understood in post-biblical times. It is easy to attack the rabbis of the Talmud as being misogynistic in their discussions concerning the rite of the sotah, but upon closer examination it becomes evident that the rabbis were actually trying to protect women from being falsely accused or taken advantage of. Just as one might argue that the ritual in Numbers is in reality aiding women by subjecting them to a trial that scientifically speaking will not result in a guilty verdict, so might one assert that the rabbis further the intention of the author of Numbers by attempting to limit the ability for a husband to subject his wife to the sotah ritual. This is apparent in the requirements for a women being brought to trial, the idea of merit protecting a guilty woman from the results of the bitter water, and the fact that the rabbis eventually banned the ritual from being practiced.
A first example of why the rabbis might be seen as trying to protect women is the evidence necessary for a man to accuse his wife of being unfaithful. The book of Numbers states, If any man's wife go aside, and act unfaithfully against him, and a man lie with her carnally, and it be hid from the eyes of her husband, she being defiled secretly, and there be no witness against her, neither she be taken in the act; and the spirit of jealousy come upon himBased upon this statement, a husband could bring his wife to the Temple and subject her to a humiliating ordeal with no more than a fit of jealousy as reason. In order to bring a certain amount of fairness to the trial, the rabbis altered the ritual by requiring the husband to present two specific pieces of evidence in order to subject the wife to the ritual. A husband must warn his wife before hand not to go off alone with a specific person. Also, the husband must provide the warning with two witnesses present. Then in order to prove that the wife was, in fact, alone with the prohibited man long enough to have sex, the event must be witnessed by at least one person.These requirements are quite a change from the original idea found in Numbers 5. The purpose of the rabbis actions was most likely to limit the accusations of adulterous wives to be limited to those most likely to be truly guilty. The rabbis sharply reduced the number of instances in which a man could subject his wife to the ordeal of the bitter waters because they recognized that, by their standards, this section of the Torah treats women unfairly,The rabbis even took the idea of trying to limit the possibility of a woman being unfairly accused, that they inflicted harsh penalties on those who falsely testified that they had witnessed a woman in an adulterous affair.
A second example of how the rabbis attempted to protect women from being taken advantage of manifests itself in the idea of the protection of merit. In Numbers 5, the result of the trial is relatively black and white. If a woman is innocent she will be free from harm, but if she is guilty then serious damage will be done to her sexual organs. The tractate of the Talmud concerning the sotah ritual, however, offers the idea of a guilty woman being protected from the result of the ordeal by an accumulation of good deeds. Depending on the extent of the merit, the results of the guilty verdict will be held off for one, two, or three years.A reader of the Talmud should be struck by the fact that this statement makes the ordeal almost pointless.
In this way the redactor rendered the ordeal of no use at all. What would a husband gain from having his wife drink the waters if they would not immediately prove her guilt or innocence? The point of the ritual, according to the Torah, was to calm his jealousy if she were innocent and punish her if she were guilty. The minute the notion of deferred punishment is introduced, the ordeal neither punishes her nor yields the information sought to pacify him.
On top of the above restrictions making it quite difficult for a husband to mount a convincing case against his wife, the argument of a delayed punishment makes the whole pursuit a waste of time. From a modern point of view, it is as though a judge suspended the sentence of a convicted felon immediately after trial. In the end, it is as though the trial had never taken place. So, even if the woman was truly guilty and her husband could provide the required witnesses, he was discouraged from proceeding with the trial due to the uncertainty about whether or not the guilty party would be punished.
Finally the fact must be recognized that in the end, the rabbis abolished the sotah ritual entirely. The rabbis again showed their desire for some hint of fairness between the sexes by holding men to the same standards that they held women. Rabban Yohanan b. Zakkai declared that he would not punish wives for a crime that their husbands were committing.While the rabbis of the Talmud were far from being egalitarian, they still presented a few examples of limited equality. the later rabbis and also the redactors of the Balvi and Yerushalmi felt the need to explain the Mishnas abolition in a different way all together, as a response to the hypocrisy of a ritual that permitted guilty but unpunished husbands to punish a guilty wife, The advantage of banning the ritual is, of course, that there will be no more sotah ordeals to threaten women. Now that the ritual was banned, husbands required more evidence than they could most likely have obtained, even if the previous two barriers had not hindered him. This thus prevented innocent wives from undergoing the humiliation of the mere process leading up to the trial itself. This was a last ditch effort to try to level the playing field of marriage between men and women.
The idea that the rabbis made the ritual so difficult to bring about should also be examined in a light other than them taking pity on women. One reason, for example, could be the simple lack of a Temple. After the 2nd Temple was destroyed, many rituals had to be altered to take into account the absence of the holy place. For example, prayer corresponds to the daily sacrificial offerings in the Temple in Jerusalem: in the morning, at twilight, and at the burning of the remains of the sacrifices at night.
The sotah ritual of Numbers 5:11-31 is an extremely difficult passage to study. What can be established is that the idea of adultery was of great concern to both Ancient Israelites as well as Jews of the rabbinic period. The facts that sotah ritual was included in the Torah, and that the then rabbis continued to pay attention to it even after the Temple was destroyed are both proof to the crimes severity. Its use of vocabulary that appears solely within this passage, the obscure ways in which certain parts of the passage are written, and other aspects of the ritual make it a complex matter to research. It appears that every topic that is researched simply continues to raise even more questions than can be answered.
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