A God Close By
by Don R. Camp
The baseline conviction of the faith community of Israel
was that God was intimately involved in their lives. David
would write in Psalm 139:
O Lord, you have searched me
and known me!
2 You know when I sit down
and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
3 You search out my path and
my lying down
and are acquainted with all my
4 Even before a word is on
behold, O Lord,
you know it altogether.
5 You hem me in, behind and
and lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too
wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.
That conviction was so deep that they believed that God ordered
their steps, that God was intimately involved in their lives. The song writer
expresses that faith in Psalm 37:
steps of a man are established by the Lord,
when he delights in his way.
Honestly, that sense of God as a God close by rather than a God
far away is foreign to many of us. We think of God as distant. We
go to church to be in his presence, but we seldom think of God as
present in the ordinary things of life, the cleaning up after
dinner or getting the car serviced moments.
The non-believer finds the idea of God as a God close by even more
foreign. It seems to them superstitious or quaint. But the
man and women of the faith community of Israel saw God that way.
They saw God as the one who guarded all their ways and would lift
them up so their foot would not strike a stone and one who would
adjudicate between them in difficult issues.
This conviction that God knew them intimately and cared for them
deeply was the context for the instructions regarding the jealous
husband in Numbers 5.
The occasion is a husband's suspicion that his wife has committed
adultery with another man, though he has no direct evidence (vv.
11-13). Feelings of jealousy are aroused and he wants to determine
if his wife is guilty of being unfaithful to him. He wants
The process is for that husband to bring his wife to the priest
who will apply a test. The process was designed to determine
guilt or the innocence (v. 14). The passage assumes neither guilt
nor innocence nor does it favor the husband over the wife.
The husband was to bring about 3 gallons of grain as an offering
to the Lord. His wife was to be presented to the priest along with
the offering held in her hands. It was an act of worship. The
priest would "set
the woman before the Lord and unbind the hair of the
woman's head." This was a reminder that God would be the judge
and that nothing was hidden from him.
The unbinding of the hair was something that a woman would only
do in the presence of her husband in the most intimate of
moments. It symbolized in this particular moment before God that
she was hiding nothing from him. Her life was open for him to
The priest would bring holy water and mix with it dust from
the floor of the Tabernacle. Holy water is a term not found
elsewhere in the Old Testament. It suggest, however, that it is
water made holy by its being dedicated to the Lord. But it is also
described as "bitter water." That either alludes to the water of
Marah (Exodus 15:23) where the water tasted bitter or to the
bitterness of this moment of a wife under trial.
Neither "holy water" nor the dust of the Tabernacle floor implies
that there is anything in the mixture that would physically cause
harm or anything more than a bad taste. So bitterness likely is
figurative implying the bitterness of the situation, either being
falsely accused or the consequences that might obtain.
The priest would require the accused wife to take an oath that
included a promise of exoneration if she is not guilty and a
promise that she would be a curse in her community and that she
would experience problems related to her reproductive organs
described as "make[ing] your womb swell and your thigh fall
away" and finally a promise of bareness in the future.
Some read into this description an induced miscarriage or a God
authorized abortion. The New International Version unfortunately
gives us the reading of verse 27 that "her womb will
miscarry." But that reading goes beyond the description in
the passage, and it goes beyond the meaning of the Hebrew word alah
which is the word for curse. It is the same word as found in 5:23.
In the Old Testament childlessness was considered a curse, and
that is probably what is intended here as well as the fact that
she would be considered cursed by her community. It does not imply
miscarriage, and it is not translated as miscarriage in other
The term swelling of the womb seems to be simply
descriptive. It would not necessarily refer to a miscarriage, and
there is no other Old testament passage that connects the swelling
of the womb or belly with miscarriage or abortion.
"Thigh" is a euphemism for reproductive organs. "Falling away" has
many possible meanings from the literal of falling upon the ground
to the figurative to perish or experience calamity. It seems more
reasonable to read this passage as figurative of bareness or the
inability to bear children rather than miscarriage or abortion.
Since the consequences would include the inability to ever bear
children, it appears that it would be something other than a
miscarriage; a miscarriage rarely results in infertility or
physical damage that results in infertility. Even if this test
were designed to induce miscarriage, the results would have been
the same for the innocent as for the guilty, and that is denied by
the fact that nothing would happen if the wife were innocent. The
innocent wife would experience none of this. But the fact is
there is no implication that the wife is pregnant at all. So it is
more reasonable to read this as some affliction of the
reproductive organs that would result in the inability to bear
children rather than a miscarriage.
The accused wife was to drink the water. If she was guilty these
consequences would happen to her.
If she was not guilty she would experience none of these things.
She would be exonerated totally. Her husband, however, would be
considered to be a false accuser. That is what verse 31
implies. And a false accusation, even if done without
intention was serious. It would bring dishonor upon the husband.
So what is going on?
For one thing we can assume that this was an extremely serious
These people believed in God. They believed they
could hide nothing from God. This accused wife may be able to hide
her guilt from her husband and from the priest. But she would not
ever think she could hide it from God. And since she has sworn in
an oath before God her submission to his decision, she expects
that if guilty she would suffer the consequences and if she is
innocent she would not.
We can assume that the wife would know if she was guilty or
If she was innocent she would go through this ritual
with confidence that God would exonerate her. If she was guilty,
she would go through the ritual with certainty that God would
punish her according to the oath. What she did not believe in was
magic. She believed in God.
We can assume also that there was nothing in the water that
would poison her or cause an abortion or any of swelling of the
belly or the falling away of the thigh.
We can assume that
because her guilt is not assumed and, therefore, this is not a
punishment. It is a test. It is not a trial by fire where
surviving is not expected and would require an intervention of
God. It is a true test. But it is also an appeal to God for a
decision that neither the husband nor priest could make.
From a purely humanistic point of view this situation could well
cause, through psychosomatic means, either nothing at all if the
wife believed that God would not judge her or the specified
consequences if she knew she was guilty and believed God would
judge her. We can do those things to ourselves, and the buildup to
the test would have increased the possibility of a psychosomatic
But this is not a God-less and humanistic context. It is in the
context of a faith community in which the assumption is that God
is and that God acts in human affairs. So a truly biblical
explanation is that God does determine the outcome. This is not a
trial by psychosomatic responses. It is not a trial by fire. It is
So bottom line:
It is not about abortion, though the death
of an unborn child is as much the prerogative of God as my death
at whatever age he chooses. That is clearly the stance of the of a
faith community. But there is nothing in this passage that implies
pregnancy or abortion. Neither is there an assumption of the
wife's guilt. The results of the test are entirely in God's hands.
The chance that the husband is improperly accusing her is,
however, present. That false accusation would bring dishonor on
the husband and is a check upon rashly accusing his wife.