The Gospel for Christians

The Test for Adultery – Numbers 5:11-31

Posted on by Bryan Jay

I should warn you in advance that this is a very long post. I thought about breaking it up into smaller posts, but thought that might destroy the flow of thought. It would also be helpful if you would begin by reading the text: Numbers 5:11-31

Whenever you read anything in the Bible about sexual sin, don’t make the mistake of thinking that God is only talking about sex. Sexuality is a major theme in Scripture and it is about so much more than just the physical differences between the sexes and the physical relationships that men and women enter into.

Our sexuality was created by God for the purpose of displaying deep spiritual truths about our relationship as created beings with him as our Creator. So anytime we come across any part of scripture that references our sexuality we should look for those deep truths: what does this passage reveal about me? What does it reveal about God? And what does it reveal about my relationship with God?

Because sexuality is such a major theme and because we live in a fallen world in which we as creatures have rebelled against the Creator, it follows that adultery is also quite frequently referred to in the Bible. So when we encounter adultery in Scripture, in addition to considering the plain, surface meaning of the text, we should also look for truths about a problem much deeper than our sexual dysfunction, which is our unfaithfulness and rebellion against our Creator. Yes, “Thou shalt not commit adultery” does mean, “Don’t go to bed with someone who is not your wife.” But that sexual sin of adultery is a gaping wound through which we can look into our insides and see the real problem, which is our sin against God.

So this seemingly obscure passage in Numbers in which a wife suspected of adultery goes through an elaborate test to determine her guilt or innocence does have relevance to us. When we see here the unfaithful wife, we are seeing ourselves. The humiliation that this woman experiences when she fails the test and is publicly exposed as an unfaithful wife is our humiliation. It is what would be exposed to all of your friends and family if they could see your heart, apart from the cleansing blood of Jesus and the renewal that only he can work in your life.

The passage begins with a statement of when this ceremony/test was to be utilized. But before we look at that in verse 12, remember that we are reading here from the Mosaic Law, which was given (according to the apostle Paul) to lead us to Christ. So neither Christians, nor Jews, nor Muslims, or anyone at all for that matter, are still under the ceremonial obligations of this law. It was temporary, a shadow of something fuller that was coming. It was never meant to be the way to God, but rather to point to the One who said, “I am the Way and the Truth and the Life, no one comes to the Father except through me.” The Law points to Jesus and since Jesus has come, there is no longer any need for jealous husbands to bring their wives before the priest, but more about that later…

Verse 12 gives the condition in which this test was utilized: “If a man’s wife goes astray and breaks faith with him.” So adultery is a “straying” from the path. We could say, SIN is a straying from the path. It is going beyond the limits that God has laid down in order to bless us and our relationships. It is stepping out-of-bounds.

Adultery is also a “breaking of faith”. This phrase speaks of a covenant relationship between two people that is based on mutual trust and commitment. And then the specific manner of this straying and this breaking of faith is spelled out: the man’s wife has had a sexual relationship with someone other than her husband. No one has witnessed this and there is no concrete proof that it has occurred. There is only a suspicion… a “spirit of jealousy” that comes over the husband.

Let’s think about this jealousy for a bit. On the face of it, this whole passage sounds (to our modern ears) very demeaning of women and at the same time it seems to condone what to us appears to be a very suspicious and condemning and untrusting attitude on the part of the husband.

The nature of the sin: Unfaithfulness and rejection of authority.

So is this jealousy a good thing or a bad thing? If we look only at the hebrew word that is translated “jealousy” we don’t get a whole lot of help. The range of meaning of this word is very broad and it is used many times throughout the Old Testament. It can refer very negatively to the sin of envy or jealousy. For example, Joseph’s brothers were jealous of the favor he had with their father and so they sold him into slavery in Egypt.

But it also used many times to refer to God. For example, when God gave the Ten Commandments to Israel he said, “I the Lord your God am a jealous God.” And even right here in the book of Numbers, on an occasion when the Israelites had begun to worship the local Canaanite gods and commit adultery with the canaanite people, one of the priests, Phinehas, in obedience to God’s command, killed one of the Israelite leaders who was involved in the adultery.   And God says of him in Numbers 25:11

“Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy.”

In an imperfect way, the husband’s jealousy in Numbers 5:14 is a picture of the righteous jealousy that God ascribes to himself later on in the book in chapter 25, and then repeatedly all through the Old Testament.

But still this doesn’t sit right to our modern ears! Why is it the husband that has the right to accuse the wife, but there is no mention made of a wife suspecting her husband and bringing him to the priest and making him drink the water of bitterness?

First of all, we must be clear that this passage is not in any way teaching that the woman adulteress is guilty of a greater sin than the male adulterer. According to Leviticus 20:10, in cases where there was proof of adultery, both the guilty woman and the guilty man would be stoned to death. But there is something deeper here than just the sexual sin that also gives us insight into the nature of our sin against God.

Three times in the passage, it is mentioned that the woman is under her husband’s authority. In verses 19, 20, and 29. Now as soon as we start talking about authority, we run a very high risk of misunderstanding the text because our notions of what authority is and how it is exercised are so skewed by our sinfulness and by wrong conceptions of authority that we immediately start assuming all kinds of things that are not true. A man’s authority over his wife does not imply at all that he is inherently superior to her, any more than the Father is superior to the Son within the Trinity. Just as they are One God, and yet the Son submits to the Father, the man and his wife are one flesh, and the wife submits to the authority of her husband.

The point is that the relationship that God intended between the man and his wife in order to bless the wife has been thrown aside… cast off as something worthless. What was meant to be a source of joy and pleasure and satisfaction and fulfillment has been exchanged for something that can never satisfy, but will only lead to defilement, disgrace, and death.

The reason that only the woman is mentioned is because what we have here is a picture of each one of us in our relationship to God. God designed the husband/wife relationship to portray our relationship with him. In our sinful rebellion we have “broken faith” with the One in authority over us–the One who is the only source of joy and pleasure and satisfaction and fulfillment–and have gone astray after other lovers.

God’s jealousy, that Phinehas was commended for valuing, is a jealousy for his own glory. Yes, God was jealous for his relationship with his people, and the man here is jealous for his relationship with his wife, but it is deeper than that. God knows that it is only when he sits enthroned over a creation that is submitted to him that the creation will find fulfillment and satisfaction and eternal joy.

God is not judging the woman more harshly than the man by instituting this test. It is that the husband/wife relationship was designed by God to show us something about His relationship to us. Just as the wife is under the authority of the husband and thus receives all the blessings that God intended from that relationship, so we as God’s people are under his authority and it is only when we submit to him that we can experience all the joy and happiness and pleasure and fulfillment and satisfaction that he desires for us.

And one more thought to show that God is not picking on the woman here, but showing us something deeper about ourselves. We have to understand this passage in the broader scope of the book of Numbers. One of the themes of this book is that the Israelites… all of them, are sinful rebels who can never enter the promised land. All of them, men and women alike, are like this unfaithful wife.

This adulterous wife is a picture of Israel just as much as she is a picture of each of us. In the test that follows, you see the wife speaking an oath declaring that if she is indeed guilty, then the water of bitterness will bring a curse. Israel had spoken that oath! They had declared to God in Exodus 24:7-8 that they would keep his law. They would be faithful to him and not stray from him, but they were unable to do it. In Numbers 14, the people are on the verge of entering Canaan, but because of their fear and unbelief, they are not able to enter. And not only them, but even Moses himself is shown in Numbers to be unworthy of entering the promised Land. In chapter 20, he disobeys God and strikes the rock and as a consequence, God says that he will not enter. In chapter 12, Aaron and Miriam oppose Moses’ leadership and Miriam is struck with leprosy. They too die before entering the promised land. No one can get in! They are all too sinful, too rebellious, too adulterous!

There is only one major character in Numbers who at the end of the book is poised with the second generation of Israelites to enter the promised land. His name is Joshua in Hebrew, and in Greek… Jesus!   Only Jesus can enter the promised land!

Moving on in the passage, the woman is taken through the established procedure that God will use to establish either her guilt or her innocence. We won’t look in detail at each aspect of the test but here’s a quick summary of what we read in verses 15-28.

2. The Consequence of the sin: the woman becomes a curse.

  1. First there is a “grain offering of remembrance (not the typical grain offering because this one has no oil, no incense). Its purpose is to “bring iniquity to remembrance.”
  2. She is “set before the Lord” (v. 16)
  3. The water of bitterness that brings the curse is prepared (holy water with dust from tabernacle floor)
  4. Her hair is unbound, and the grain offering of jealousy is placed in her hands.
  5. She takes an oath, stating that if she is not guilty of the adultery, the curse will not come upon her, but if she has gone astray, she will be made a curse and an oath, and physical affliction will come upon her
  6. Woman says, “amen, amen” to the curse.
  7. The spoken curses are written on a book and then washed into the holy water.
  8. A handful of the grain offering is burned on the altar.
  9. Finally, the woman drinks the water, and if she is guilty the consequences come upon her, if she is not guilty, then they don’t.

Try to put yourself in the place of this adulterous woman after she has gone through this ritual and been exposed publicly by Jehovah God himself as the adulteress that she is.

Imagine the humiliation. There’s a lot here that we don’t fully understand because of the language and things we don’t know about the culture, but there is enough that we do understand to see that this guilty woman is forever disgraced. She is living in pain. There’s some debate over the nature of the physical affliction, but most scholars think that the terms here refer to childlessness, but not just a closed womb, but some painful condition that keeps her from ever bearing children again… something that is obvious to everyone. She not only has been cursed, she is a curse and an oath among her people (v. 27) Imagine being a curse. Imagine hearing people say, “May you be like ________. (insert your name!)”

Imagine being a curse!

3. Jesus drank for us this cup and became a curse for us.

But now imagine that the offended husband would go to his guilty wife, before this whole ritual takes place and say, “I’m going to become you. I am going to become a woman and sit before God in your place, and have my hair taken down in front of everyone. I’m going to bear the disgrace that you deserve. I’m going to be mocked and scorned as unfaithful and adulterous. I am going to drink the water of bitterness that brings the curse, and become that curse instead of you.

That is what Jesus did for us.

That’s why he said to Peter in John 18:11, “Put your sword into its sheath; shall I not drink the cup that the Father has given me?”

Galatians 3:13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—

We are all adulterers. If this test in Numbers 5 were to be applied to the heart of the wife in question, there would not have been a woman in Israel nor a man who could have escaped that curse. As Jesus himself said, and the apostle James repeated, we are a sinful and adulterous people.

Do you realize and feel the weight that what is described here is a description of your own guilt before God? Have you understood, and do you daily recognize, that you could never pass the test? You could never be vindicated before God as having been faithful to him, never having strayed?

The only way to escape eternal death and condemnation in hell is to receive the salvation that God offers to us through his Son, Jesus. Have you given your life to Jesus and received that salvation?

If you have already received that salvation, do you thank the Lord Jesus every day that he became a curse for you? That he bore your humiliation and disgrace and shame, so that you might be vindicated as one who passes the test?

4. The blessings of passing the test

Look at what is spoken upon the wife who is not adulterous, but who is vindicated by Jehovah God as having been faithful to her husband. Verse 28 But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be free and shall conceive children.”

IN Christ, we receive that condition of being undefiled and clean, and so the blessing that is spoken on this woman comes upon us. Jesus took our place and became a curse, so that we might take his place and be free and conceive children. Let’s look at those two ideas more closely.

First of all, we are free. Free of what?

Free of condemnation and accusation. After passing this test, no one could point their finger at this woman and say, “You were unfaithful. You broke the covenant with your husband.” Romans 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Free of guilt. After passing this test, this woman could know the lightness and freedom of being justified, (which is the opposite of condemnation. Condemnation is being declared “guilty”. Justification is being declared “not guilty.”)  Romans 3:24 says that those who trust in Jesus, are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus

Free of the humiliation and shame that we should feel. Had this woman failed the test her very name would have become an oath and a curse among her people. Her vindication meant that there was no basis for any humiliation or shame. Her honor was upheld. Romans 9:33 Whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.

And we are not only free FROM, but we are free TO…

Free to enjoy a restored relationship with our Husband, the Lord Jesus. Colossians 1:21-23 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, 23 if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister.

Free to extend grace and love to those around us who are guilty of the same things that we were guilty of before Christ saved us. Acts 1:8 But you will receive power, when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth.”

Free to fulfill the purpose for which God created us. And this is what I think is the significance of the second phrase in verse 28:  she shall be free and shall conceive children, I think it is pointing to God’s first command to Adam and Eve. God said, “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” Bearing children here is a picture of being restored to a position where we are able to bear fruit to God by fulfilling our destiny as his creatures.

1 Peter 2:9-10 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

God made you for a purpose, which is to bring him glory, and because of what Jesus did for you, you are free to fulfill that purpose: to declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

What are you doing with the freedom that Jesus bought for you by drinking your cup? Are you fulfilling the purpose for which God created you? All of us who have received the salvation that God gives us in Jesus should be asking him this question:

“Lord, I deserve to be in hell right now, under your eternal curse, but by your grace, I am here. Why, Lord? In light of all that you have done for me, show me Lord how I can declare your praises. There is no one like you, Lord, who would become a curse for me; who would take my guilt, who would take my shame, who would drink my cup. Thank you, precious Lord Jesus–my life, my hope, my joy, my all!

14 Responses to The Test for Adultery – Numbers 5:11-31

  1. Daniel says:

    This is an excellent post. Thank you so much for explaining this difficult subject for us!

  2. Dearani says:

    What a blessing! Just incredible. God’s word is forever a source of wonder to me. Praise Him!

  3. Susn says:

    Wonderfully enlightening. Thank you. God is Good!

  4. Sylvia Jackson says:

    Aweso.e word. Explanation of the topic so plain a child could comprehend.

  5. Godfrey says:

    You obviously purposefully left out the specific physical pain the adulterous woman was to suffer. That passage says the bitter water was to make her womb miscarry. It was an abortion. That was her punishment for adultery.

  6. Andrew says:

    No its not in regards to abortion that is incorrect that’s what corrupted bibles teach.
    I know this as i have personally been through the trial by ordeal or call it the test of adultery with a past ex girlfriend in a serious relationship. i know it says husband and wife but cheating is cheating and pathological lies are lies which is the same sin and act of betrayal. i have personally anointed a cup of holy water and i made her drink it for an exorcism but afterwards she cheated if you read KJV verse 27 it says it shall come to pass and it did and her body started to swell and her thigh did shrink dramatically she was in excruciating pain and was at the doctors and i tell you she did become bitter like a negative cynic, this all took place a year after she had cheated and i wasn’t sleeping with her as i was trying to end the relationship as she had become a curse to me so no pregnancy or miscarriage.
    interesting enough i have read so many posts and no one has actually explained the real experience first hand. i tell you the laws and commandments are still in use today in the spiritual realm nothing has changed except we now have Christs gospels and we can break the curses in his name.
    I can tell you for sure there was demonic involvement in the relationship, this isn’t just talking about a man getting jealous it is clear about the spirit of jealousy. for beginners angels bring blessings and demons bring curses they own sin. if you study the spirit of jealousy you will find Solomon talks about 7 female demons one being the spirit of jealousy all being under the authority of the seventh. also i cast the demon out of her i identified as a Jezebel spirit as Jesus explains a demon goes thru dry places seeking rest and finding none then returns with seven more wicked than itself and the last state of that person to be worst than the first. This is what happened and i lost count of suicide attempts her slashing her arms, ending up in a psych ward, dilated eyes, talking ancient foreign languages when she was asleep, had about 5 counsellors, diagnosed with multiple personality disorders. on antidepressants and anti psychotics. And I’m talking a woman who became a radical feminist extremist. you couldn’t reason with this thing at all she would not cooperate at all. i would call the police and see her turn psychopath it took 4 big cops just to hold her down and arrest her this isnt super human strength it is demonic strength. the house was getting smashed up. She was a complete abuser even her family disowned her and she lost custody of her child. she would pull out knifes and try and control and dominate. This curse is also demonic possession i had people at my house all attacked by demons we would see them they would speak and also physically attack us.
    Trust me the same sins are owned and operated by the same demons.
    The anointed water was made for the exorcism which at first was successful but thru her sins two years down the track and over run by demons the life giving water was turned around and became bitter/the cup of demons.
    now i know what the demons meant when they said to me before she ever met her secret lover they told me they were going to take the baby away. I never knew what they meant until reading numbers chapter 5.
    also as man and woman become one flesh they can become under the same curse it makes it harder to exercise your own demons than someone else. who has heard of a person exercising there own demons in the scriptures as in a man exercising his wife or son or something like that, i haven’t.
    the first exorcism we only just met but once we fell in love it was like how a frog gets put in cold water in a fry pan then the heat is turned up along with the curse.
    This woman was already cursed but led further into sins such as adultery being one of them.
    cant remember where it says this maybe it was king Solomon who said “who can over come the spirit of jealousy” even god himself is driven to a fury so is his image us men.
    i was able to overcome all of them but not that one, i think maybe that’s why there is a law in exception to cases of jealousy.

    I can now say hell has no fury like the bitterness of a scorned woman with 7 demons.
    This woman was the absolute soul murder and heart rape of a curse.

  7. Andrea says:

    Thank you for this wonderfully helpful explanation, Bryan! The time you spent studying these scriptures and searching the Lord’s heart for understanding has blessed me tremendously!

  8. Jenny says:

    I read this on 3/6/2015 and it was the first time I clearly and fully understood the gospel! I gave my life to Jesus in november 2014 and was pouring through the scripture and came accross this post and my first instinct was “Oh No God! This is how i thought you were- against women!” and I somehow by God’s grace stumbled upon this post and this is the first time I finaly understood what the Pastor meant about Jesus dieing on the cross- the reason for it- it all clicked after reading this post. Thank the Lord He used this post in that way. I wrote out my hope story yesterday and decided I wanted to find out the post that changed the way I understood the gospel and I had sent this post to my mom when i first read it and I was able to find it! Just wanted to share that, thanks again for this post and for the very clear explanation.

  9. Jenny says:

    I read this on 3/6/2015 and it was the first time I clearly and fully understood the gospel! I gave my life to Jesus in november 2014 and was pouring through the scripture and came accross this verse in numbers and my first instinct was “Oh No God! This is how i thought you were- against women!” and I somehow by God’s grace stumbled upon this post and this is the first time I finaly understood what the Pastor meant about Jesus dieing on the cross- the reason for it- it all clicked after reading this post. Thank the Lord He used this post in that way. I wrote out my hope story yesterday and decided I wanted to find out the post that changed the way I understood the gospel and I had sent this post to my mom when i first read it and I was able to find it! Just wanted to share that, thanks again for this post and for the very clear explanation.

  10. Cathy Bauer says:

    I was searching for commentaries on this passage and found this. Wow! I love seeing Jesus in the Old Testament! If people could only understand the Bible- how all the books though written at various times by various writers all point to Jesus! How they all have the same message. If their eyes would be opened- no one could dispute it is the Word of God, their souls would be saved. Anyway- thank you for sharing this with us. Just a beautiful picture of God’s love toward us.

  11. A woman says:

    What a way to make sense to this non-sense.
    Sir, all you wrote is propaganda, misleading stuff based on guilt. You are trying too hard to clean this mess.

  12. Anne Eames says:

    Your post and all the comments are very interesting and the description of Jesus taking the place of the woman as he does for us is beautifully full of the gospel message.
    However what I was searching for was to know how the test actually worked in a physical sense.
    How does the test work medically speaking?
    Also I have always felt great compassion for the woman. For the individual woman at that time all the depiction of how this relates to our relationship with God would not I think have been very comforting and was a brutal way of dealing with the husband’s suspicion.

  13. Connie Peacock says:

    I am writing a book on Numbers and came on this passage. Thank you for this helpful insight! I will give you credit for these ideas in my book.

  14. GB.SHOWRAIAH. says:

    praise the LORD HALLEL LU YAH

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