an allegory of bitter water

May 7, 2010 at 9:08 pm 23 comments

“If a man and a woman commit adultery, kill them both.” (Leviticus 20, my paraphrase)

A man accused his wife of cheating on him. “How can you say that?” she cried, “you have never had cause to doubt my faithfulness to you!” Despite her pleas of innocence, the husband remained adamant. “Are you calling my honor into question?” he shouted. “I will not be subject to this kind of insubordination!” In jealousy and anger, he dragged her to see the pastor of their church to seek help.

The pastor forced the woman to stand before him, alone, and told her to unpin her hair. The woman did so, her long hair flowing down around her face. The woman felt vulnerable, shamed, and afraid. “Fetch the water from my office,” the pastor whispered to an assistant. The assistant returned with a pitcher of vile, muddy-looking water.

“You will need to drink this water,” the pastor explained. “If you truly are innocent,” he said, “everything will be fine. But if not, you will become violently ill. So ill in fact, you will never be able to have children again. And also know,” he added, “should all this come to pass, your family and your church will shun you, you will live as an outcast, even in your own home.”

The pastor wrote down notes of the proceedings on a piece of cardboard, using a stylus of charcoal. With some water from a cup, he rinsed the words off, into the pitcher of muddy water. “Do you agree to this course of action?” he asked. The wife remained silent, tears streaking her face. The pastor repeated his question, his voice rising. The woman nodded her head softly. “Do you agree?” the pastor almost shouted. “Say it!”

“Yes,” the woman choked out, more a sob than an actual word.

“Drink, now,” commanded the pastor. Seeing no other option, the wife took a gulp of the water directly from the pitcher. She gagged twice before she could swallow. Her shirt was stained by the brown liquid which ran down her chin.

“Go,” said the pastor. The woman took a couple of steps back and rejoined her husband. The pastor intoned, “I hope there are no ill-consequences from this experience. I wish you many happy days together, and many children. I wish you peace. I trust we never need repeat this experience.”

Before the couple left, he pulled the husband aside. “Fear not,” he told him. “As you already know, I will ensure nobody condemns you for coming here today.” At this, the husband breathed a sigh of relief. It had not been easy, but he knew he had done the right thing.

my (amateur) commentary:
If you are not familiar with this story, it follows the outline of chapter 5 of the book of Numbers. Many Old Testament practices which sound terrible to us today are explained by apologists as the bible’s depiction of sinful people, in no way condoning the actions. I am sure that is true in many cases. This one cannot be written off so easily though, it is clearly described as God’s instruction to Israel.

The best apologetic I have read, in support of a beneficial purpose for this passage, explains that contemporary cultures were far worse, so this was a merciful commandment given to Israel by a loving God. For example, you wouldn’t want to undergo the trial of being bound and thrown into the Euphrates River to prove your innocence!

I do not find that answer satisfying though. Even if it was progressive for the time, it still seems unnecessarily harsh. Is that just my culture-bound judgement? It seems more likely to me the passage is a cultural artifact of an ancient tribe, rather than a divine message to a chosen people.

On a more positive note, this practice was not embraced by the Christian tradition. John 7:53-8:11 (the “Pericope Adulterae“) tells the story of Jesus graciously protecting a woman caught in adultery, seemingly in stark contrast to Numbers, chapter 5. “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.

There is a general consensus among biblical scholars that the Pericope Adulterae were not part of the original text of the gospel of John. If a later insertion however, it is a relatively early one (c. 4th century CE), and signifies a moderation of the Old Testament theme. And either way, I suppose there is no reason one can’t choose to believe the events actually occurred, regardless of when they were added.


Entry filed under: bible, Christianity. Tags: , , , .

I am strong if YOU are strong doubting the unicorn

23 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Temaskian  |  May 7, 2010 at 10:39 pm

    Yes, I do remember reading that passage from the OT. Love the way you’ve transposed the passage into our context. You have a vivid imagination.

    I imagine most of them will be alright after drinking the muddy water. Small price to pay for being cleared of the accusation of adultery, if you really did it. :-D

    Not so good if you happened to get sick after that and were in actual fact, innocent.

  • 2. The Woeful Budgie  |  May 8, 2010 at 11:40 am

    “The best apologetic I have read, in support of a beneficial purpose for this passage, explains that contemporary cultures were far worse, so this was a merciful commandment given to Israel by a loving God.”

    Huh. For all the evangelical bitching about the “moral relativism” of our modern culture, it’s funny to see them attributing the same sort of relativistic reasoning to their God, who is supposed to be the unchanging source of objective truth and morality.

    I’ll chime in with Temaskian, though: great job on the allegory. I enjoyed reading it. There’s a bit of a Real Live Preacher vibe to it, I think. :)

  • 3. The Wise Fool  |  May 8, 2010 at 3:00 pm

    Good job! I had covered that passage about a month ago, but in a more matter-of-fact or perhaps even abrasive manner, depending on your beliefs. As the Budgie mentions, you’ve covered it with a genuine preacher flair, and done it well. It reminded me of one of the preachers I often hear on the radio, Dr. Charles Stanley.

    I am with you that a better-than-its-contemporaries approach seems very inconsistent with God, who is purported to be our model for perfection. This passage (and many other passages) certainly stands against our modern moral sensitivities.

    So if God is perfect, and His Law is perfect, an honest believer today should be questioning whether or not their modern morality is out of tune with the will of God. However, I must admit that am grateful that the overwhelming majority of them do not. Because otherwise, we might run into a shortage of stones… ;-)

  • 4. Jay  |  May 10, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    @The Wise Fool –

    Nice commentary there. I was going to mention the interpretation of the bitter water as an abortifacient.

    Considering how many people claim to follow the Bible and interpret it literally, it’s surprising how many exceptions get carved out and ignored.

  • 5. atimetorend  |  May 10, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    Thanks all for the kind comments. I wasn’t trying to emulate anyone’s style, but I’ve read enough Real Live Preacher, it could have rubbed off a bit. :^)

    @The Woeful Budgie, yes, the “best apologetic I have read” in that regard” is really special pleading at its heart. I don’t think Numbers 5 makes it into very many Sunday sermons on the mercy and kindness of God.

    I considered the miscarriage/abortifacient angle a bit and removed a line to that effect right before I posted. From what I found it sounds speculative, as the whole curse, “thigh waste away” and “stomach bloat” seems ambiguous. Not that I wouldn’t take a bit of artistic license, but I figured the whole affair already sounded bad enough already. But it certainly makes sense, if the physical effects of the curse prevent childbirth, abortion of pregnancy sounds reasonable.

    Interestingly, the same apologetic I quoted was a response to the charge of abortion, based on the fact that the passage never mentions the woman is pregnant. So, no argument from silence allowed. But go figure, the woman would then have just been convicted of adultery…

  • 6. Sabio Lantz  |  May 11, 2010 at 6:04 am

    Wow, I am impressed. I thought you were quoting another author until I read the comments. Well done.

    “And either way, I suppose there is no reason one can’t choose to believe the events actually occurred, regardless of when they were added.”
    –ATTR concerning the Jesus and the Adultress

    I feel this statement reflect a common attitude of liberal Christians. They keep reading translations which don’t reflect what we really now understand of the Bible. For in a good translation, this should be extracted and but in only as a footnote, but instead, it is still included in the text with some text footnoting it, but leaving it in the text.

    Jesus is sugar-coated in our translations. He is the guy who said he came to bring sword, who said we are to hate our parents in order to love him, who speaks of hell. This is just another story to soften him. Who is the real Jesus? We have no clue. He wanted every letter and iota of the law fulfilled — including killing for adultery, no?

    So THAT is why it might not be him and why we should not just casually let this in. The sugar-coated Jesus needs to be exposed.


  • 7. Sew  |  May 11, 2010 at 7:43 am

    What kind of test did the unfaithful husband have to undergo?

    Yeah, this is a tough one to “swallow.”

  • 8. atimetorend  |  May 11, 2010 at 7:19 pm

    @Sabio, I partly agree with you, it should be clearly marked out as an addition if that is the overwhelming consensus. I wish they would mark more of the later insertions (and books) that way. I did check a couple of versions I have here. Both the NIV and ESV clearly mark the section out with a clear dividing line and add this note in line with the text:
    [The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:11]

    The NASB adds the footnote, John 7:53-8:11 is not found in most of the old mss, but it is not nearly so clear.

    Not sure I have a problem with a softer and gentler Jesus. It’s better than Numbers 5. :^)

  • 9. atimetorend  |  May 11, 2010 at 7:26 pm

    @atimetosew: Nothing happens to the unfaithful husband, I think. That’s what I was hinting at with the pastor’s aside in the last paragraph. Numbers 5:31 says, “Moreover, the man will be free from guilt, but that woman shall bear her guilt.” So it is all good for him. I expect that means that if his wife is guilty he is free from guilt, in which case the passage does not cover what happens if the wife is deemed innocent.

    And where on earth did you learn to use awful puns??? Yeah, yeah, guilty as charged… :^)

  • 10. atimetorend  |  May 11, 2010 at 7:32 pm

    Mistake, the NIV and TNIV have the identical note. The ESV puts in line with the text:
    [The earliest manuscripts do not include John 7:53-8:11]

  • 11. Lorena  |  May 11, 2010 at 10:27 pm

    For some reason, even though Jesus said a few right things and improved much on the OT stuff, to me he still comes across as nasty, not as sweet, as many Christians describe him.

    Great writing, BTW. The right pictures were appearing in my mind all along. Very good.

  • 12. Sabio Lantz  |  May 12, 2010 at 5:21 am

    @ ATTR

    (1) Yeah, I want the text OUT of the main flow –> put it entirely as a footnote. Leaving it in the text is a form of legitimization, and everyone knows it. (thanks for looking at your versions)

    (2) I think you misunderstood Sew. She meant, “What if a wife suspected a husband of an affair? What would the rabbi make HIM do.”
    But we all know the answer and I think Sew’s question was rightfully rhetorical.

  • 13. Sabio Lantz  |  May 12, 2010 at 5:27 am

    @ Sew

    A big concept in Judaism and Christianity (and in many ancient worlds) is shared guilt – community punishment. We are ALL guilty because of Eve, for instance. Or lots of OT stories of God destroying entire nations. Think of the Acts story of the Holy Spirit killing a husband and a wife for cheating on their tithes. Heck, see, it would be my wife who manages our money so I would not be guilty — but the Holy Ghost would probably take me out too! That is why I don’t want to go to church — I would suffer on account of my wife.

    (just had to put a word in for guys in this male-negative post of ATTR’s)

  • 14. atimetorend  |  May 12, 2010 at 6:09 am

    Sabio, you are right, I misread atimetosew’s question. Not the first time I have neglected to listen carefully to her, thanks for straightening that out. :^)

  • 15. atimetorend  |  May 12, 2010 at 6:53 am

    Thanks Lorena! And I agree, Jesus has his harsh side as well. Maybe that’s why these verses were being added in all those years later?

  • 16. annielaurie  |  May 12, 2010 at 9:00 am

    Hi- I just found your blog from your wife’s blog. I really like your writing and will be reading in my google reader now. This post particularly caught my eye because I had just read this account from Numbers in a “read thru the Bible” plan I have been following and struggled to make any sense of it whatsoever (as I struggled to make sense of most of Numbers). Then when you reference the Pericope Adulterae I was more intrigued by the comparison you made, because my husband just wrote a paper for a hermeneutics class on this passage, and even though I was reading Numbers 5 at the same time I was editing his paper, I didnt make the connection you did, but its a great connection to make and goes along with other examples of how Jesus “reinterpreted” much of the old Jewish law during his life and ministry. Thanks for sharing what you’re thinking here on your blog. I will definitely be reading!

  • 17. atimetorend  |  May 12, 2010 at 11:49 am

    Hi Annie, thanks for stopping by and commenting. There are a lot of things to be thankful for in those reinterpretations (like not stoning people), regardless of the presuppositions and hermeneutics employed in understanding them.

  • 18. Temaskian  |  May 12, 2010 at 11:42 pm


    I had the same feeling about Jesus; that he was a rather nasty person, as in, he really spoke his mind, and was often politically incorrect, and not mindful of what the authorities think. I guess only people who read the gospels carefully would have this impression.

    The sweet parts of Jesus are not so much portrayed in the bible, as in worship songs. People get confused between the two. That’s why it’s always singing before preaching. It makes the bible more loving when in fact, it’s not.

  • 19. OneSmallStep  |  May 13, 2010 at 7:31 pm

    **in support of a beneficial purpose for this passage, explains that contemporary cultures were far worse, so this was a merciful commandment given to Israel by a loving God.**

    That’s like saying that losing an arm for calling someone an idiot is merciful because other cultures make you lose both arms *and* both legs.

    I don’t want to undergo either experience.

  • 20. atimetorend  |  May 13, 2010 at 8:30 pm

    That would be bad, I wouldn’t want to undergo that either.

  • 21. Gender Roles #0.1: Background « The Clever Badger  |  May 27, 2010 at 5:57 am

    […] Time to Rend has a well-written discussion of the Bitter Water passages from the Book of Numbers.  (NOTE:  somehow I managed to miss carrying this link over […]

  • 22. pf  |  August 9, 2010 at 2:13 pm


    I think to say Jesus was “nasty” is a bit harsh — implies he was hurtful or destructive or double-dealing. I would say he was a very uncomprising and harsh person.

  • 23. Temaskian  |  August 10, 2010 at 12:37 pm


    Think I agree. Harsh might be a better word.

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