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!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
    and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
    behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
    and lay your hand upon me.
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:

The 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 justice.

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 know.

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 versions.

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 moment. 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 not. 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 reaction.

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 not magic.

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.