The echo in Numbers 5 ritual and the woman caught in adultery in John 8

“if a man has had intercourse with her but it is hidden from her husband, so that she is undetected though she has defiled herself, and there is no witness against her since she was not caught in the act; then the man shall bring his wife to the priest. And he shall bring the offering required for her, one-tenth of an ephah of barley flour. He shall pour no oil on it and put no frankincense on it, for it is a grain offering of jealousy, a grain offering of remembrance, bringing iniquity to remembrance……the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel, and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water. The priest shall set the woman before the Lord, dishevel the woman’s hair, and place in her hands the grain offering of remembrance, which is the grain offering of jealousy. In his own hand the priest shall have the water of bitterness that brings the curse. Then the priest shall make her take an oath, saying, “If no man has lain with you, if you have not turned aside to uncleanness while under your husband’s authority, be immune to this water of bitterness that brings the curse. But if you have gone astray while under your husband’s authority, if you have defiled yourself and some man other than your husband has had intercourse with you,” —let the priest make the woman take the oath of the curse and say to the woman—“the Lord make you an execration and an oath among your people, when the Lord makes your uterus drop, your womb discharge; now may this water that brings the curse enter your bowels and make your womb discharge, your uterus drop!” And the woman shall say, “Amen. Amen.” Then the priest shall put these curses in writing, and wash them off into the water of bitterness. He shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that brings the curse, and the water that brings the curse shall enter her and cause bitter pain.”

Numbers 5:13, 15, 17-24

“The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

John 8:3-11

God is love, he has always been and always will be. He created us out of love. And it is with this in mind we must come to the Hebrew Scriptures. I propose that Numbers 5 narrative is an echo of the story of Jesus and the women supposedly caught in adultery.

Firstly, if someone is caught in adultery then both parties are to be called out and stoned, according to the law. If this woman was caught in the act, where is the man?? Second, Jesus writes on the ground, the dust where he walks. This is holy ground: Jesus is Yahweh incarnate and where he is, it is holy; just as the dust the priest take from the tabernacle and put in the water. Aside from this fact, grabbing some dirt and making a drink, if we think rationally about this, is not going to do anything. Drinking dirt certainly wouldn’t induce miscarriage. This act is a ritual. The Israelites would have seen rituals as very real, think the snake on a pole. That snake isn’t a graven image, it’s a ritual. It’s faith in Yahweh to do as he says to be saved from death, it’s an act of faith and trust that Yahweh will save them. So that same attitude, mixed with the superstitious mindset culture, would of taken this ritual of drinking water from the priest very seriously. Most in the world still have this understanding of the spiritual realm and their “power”. But really we know that this is nothing but the loving kindness of God. This water would have never caused miscarriage, I don’t believe. I think that IF a woman had had an affair (because this ritual is mainly to deal with a husband’s fear and “spirit of jealousy”) then drinking that drink would put the fear of God in her and I imagine she wouldn’t do it again. God’s mercy would undoubtedly lead her to repentance. The consequences of her actions would be the need to carry a secret to the grave with a child who was illegitimate, that would be punishment enough. And if she had not had an affair she would feel safe as she knows God knows the truth and he would keep her safe.

I see echos with the woman brought to Jesus. She may of had an affair, she may had not and they were using her. But his kindness towards her is his mercy, no doubt leading her to repentance and “go sin no more”.

When reading the Hebrew Scriptures try and see echoes of our over familiar ideas of a grace-filled Jesus. See God in the law as merciful and loving. Realise that God is the same yesterday, today and forever. He is our loving dad that just wants to be reconciled to us. He wants his people to be the example of his love to the world.

Published by Amy Farrer

Wife & mum of three. Graduate theology student in Kingdom Theology.

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