ORDEAL, the generic term for the various ways and means by which divine judgment would be ascertained. The most common form of ordeal, which survived long into the Middle Ages and beyond, was entirely unknown to biblical as well as to later Jewish law: namely, the exposing of an accused person to physical dangers which were supposed to be harmless to him if he were innocent but which were considered conclusive proof of divine condemnation if he suffered harm. The only remnant of this kind of ordeal may be found in the *Ordeal of Jealousy. It is an early talmudic tradition (Sot. 9:9) that these "waters of bitterness" ceased to be effective when adulterers proliferated. Traces of a similar ordeal by water may be found in the water that Moses made the Israelites drink after he had sprinkled it with powder ground from the golden calf (Ex. 32:20), the talmudic tradition being that this was the method used to detect the guilty. Another widespread method of ascertaining God's judgment was the curse. A written curse had first to be erased into the "water of bitterness" to be swallowed by the woman suspected of adultery (Num. 5:23), so that either the curse or the water or both could be instrumental in the ordeal. The curse is interchangeable with, and a forerunner of, the *oath: he who takes the oath before God (cf. Ex. 22:7–8, 10) brings God's curse on himself if he perjures himself (cf. I Kings 8:31–32; II Chron. 6:22–23). On hearing the oath sworn at His altar, God judges – condemning the wicked and justifying the righteous (see also Zech. 5:3–4; et al.). There is a statement that when atonement was made for general sinfulness (Lev. 16:21–22), God would, by changing red into white, reveal His forgiveness, or by not changing the color indicate unforgiveness (Yoma 6:8; 67a). In many instances, God's judgment was, of course, executed directly, manifesting itself in the very act of divine punishment (e.g., Num. 16:5–7, 31–35; Deut. 11:6; I Kings 18:38).
J. Kohler, in: Zeitschrift fuer vergleichende Rechtswissenschaft, 5 (1884), 368–76; J.G. Frazer, Folklore in the Old Testament, 3 (1919), 304–414; J. Morgenstern, in: HUCA Jubilee Volume 1875–1925 (1925), 113–43; R. Press, in: ZAW, 51 (1933), 121–40, 227–55; ET (19513), 182–5; EM, 1 (1950), 179–83; 5 (1968), 1003f.
[Haim Hermann Cohn]
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.