The Bible Says What? A suspected adulteress should drink ‘bitter water’

The Bible Says What? A suspected adulteress should drink ‘bitter water’

Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers takes a controversial topic from the Torah and looks at a progressive response

A husband suspects his wife has been unfaithful. Maybe she was and there were no witnesses to confirm it, or maybe he’s the jealous type (interestingly the Zohar suggests love without jealousy is not true love!). Either way, a marriage is in danger.

In Numbers 5, the Torah suggests a trial, the Sotah, potentially to save the marriage. The husband presents his wife to the priest in the Temple, along with an offering of barley flour.

The priest takes dirt off the floor, mixes it with water, uncovers her hair and puts the offering in her hands.

He then speaks “the curse of adjuration” before writing it down, and then rubbing it off into the already dirty waters.

The woman drinks the water (probably fairly unpleasant, but hopefully not fatal) and the physical effects on her are said to indicate her guilt or innocence.

It is unclear from the Rabbinic literature if this trial ever took place, and no replacement for it is suggested following the destruction of the Temple.

Yet perhaps there’s an interesting lesson in here that might be missed if, like me, you are disturbed at the way this woman is publicly humiliated and forced to participate in a strange, one-sided, and potentially dangerous ritual, in order to allay her husband’s jealousy.

The curses uttered by the priest and written down contain the name of God – the four letter tetragrammaton. In no other place in Torah is it suggested that we actively seek to destroy The Name.

Perhaps the Torah is happy for us to destroy the four-letter name in order to heal the damage done by the husband’s suspicious mind, and return a marriage to shalom bayit (domestic harmony).

God’s name is precious, but happiness and trust in a person’s most intimate relationship is essential.

Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers is Reform Judaism’s community educator

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