Numbers 5 Commentary

Laws for uncleanness and repayment (5:1-10)

The laws grouped together in Chapter 5 deal with problems likely to arise where people lived close to each other in a community such as Israel’s. People who were ceremonially unclean, whether through disease or any other cause, were put outside the camp. The religious significance of this was that it demonstrated that defilement could not be tolerated in a community where the holy God dwelt. The practical benefit was that it helped prevent the spread of infectious disease (5:1-4; see notes on Lev 13:1- 15:33).

When people through carelessness caused harm or loss to others, they had to confess their wrong, present a sin offering and pay back the loss, together with a fine amounting to one fifth of its value. If the wronged person or a near relative could not be found, the offender had to make the repayment and the fine to the priests instead (5-10; see notes on Lev 5:14-6:7).

Suspicion of adultery (5:11-31)

If a man suspected his wife of having sexual relations with another man but he had no evidence, he had to bring her to the priest, along with a small sin offering, to determine whether she was guilty (11-15; cf. Lev 5:11). The test that the priest conducted was known as a trial by ordeal.

The priest announced the curse that rested on an unfaithful wife, wrote this curse down in ink, then washed the ink into a bowl of holy water that also contained dust taken from the tabernacle floor. The woman acknowledged the curse by taking the sin offering in her hands and swearing an oath. Then the priest offered the offering, after which the woman drank the water (16-26).

Such a ritual must have had great emotional effect, for by drinking the water the woman was taking into herself symbols of God’s holy presence (dust from the tabernacle floor) and his curse on sin (the ink). But the innocent had nothing to fear, because the water was only slightly dirty and would not normally cause any illness. If, however, the woman was suddenly attacked by violent pains, it showed she was guilty (27-31).

Many ancient peoples (including, it seems, Israel) used trials by ordeal to determine guilt or innocence for a variety of offences. God took this well known custom, purified it from the idolatry and injustice that usually characterized it, and used it to impress upon his people the purity and faithfulness he required in the marriage bond. Heathen trials by ordeal were mostly cruel and certain to bring a verdict of guilt unless the most unlikely happened. By contrast, the Israelite trial described here was physically harmless and in no way biased against the accused.

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