According to Numbers 5:11–31, a woman suspected of adultery that cannot be legally proved is to be brought by her husband to the priest for an ordeal of jealousy. The priest takes "holy water" (according to Sot. 2:2, from the laver) and mixes into it some earth from the floor of the Tabernacle. He then assures the woman that if she is innocent she will be immune to harm from the water, but warns her that if guilty her "belly shall distend" from the potion and "her thigh sag" (the exact sense is unknown). After this adjuration, he writes down the oath, dissolves the writing in the water, and makes the woman drink of it. Accordingly, the water is called mayim meʾarerim, "the water that induces the spell." The ordeal has to be accompanied by a meal offering of a specific type. It is composed of barley without oil and frankincense (cf. Lev. 5:11) and is called "an offering of remembrance which recalls wrongdoing" (Num. 5:15).
The law in its present form contains repetitions (16b = 18a, 19a = 21a, 21b = 22a, 24a = 26b = 27a), which appear to be redundant, and seeming inconsistencies. Thus verse 21, inserted between the protasis and apodosis, disrupts the adjuration, while verse 24, which prescribes giving the drink before offering the meal (5:25), contradicts the express order of verse 26. These inconsistencies are reflected in the Mishnah. Whether the meal offering precedes drinking the water, as stated in verse 26, or the drinking comes before the meal offering, as in verses 24–25, is a matter of dispute (Sot. 3:2). Moreover, the interpolation in verse 21a gave rise to a disagreement over the extent of the written oath (Sot. 2:3). According to R. Judah, the priest had to write down only the oath appearing in verses 21–22; according to R. Yose, all of verses 19–22 had to be written; the prevailing opinion, however, is that the priest wrote down the adjuration of verses 19, 20, and 22 and the oath in verse 21 without the introductory directions concerning the
These textual difficulties suggest that two literary strands have been interwoven in this chapter. One strand prescribed only an oral conditional adjuration (5:19–20, 22), whereas the other prescribed the recital of a curse and its writing, and the dissolving of the written curse in the water (5:21, 23). The latter strand also prescribed the offering of the meal (5:15, 25–26). The beginning of verse 27 is an editorial resumption (Wiederaufnahme) of verse 24, necessitated by the interpolation of verses 25–26. There is no way of deciding which of the two strands is original or earlier. It may be that the author had both before him when he composed the law. Yet the strand prescribing the writing of the curse shows signs of more advanced religious conceptions. God is made responsible for the curse (5:21), whereas according to the other source the water itself induces it (5:22). Furthermore, the word of God is made the agency of the curse, in the form of the writing dissolved in the water.
An ancient water ordeal consisting of an oral adjuration but no written oath is attested in a Mari text (Archives Royales de Mari, X, no. 9, lines 9–15). A heavenly scene is described in which a command is given to dissolve some earth from the gate in water and give it to drink to the (minor) gods who take an oath not to harm (or betray) Mari and its commissioner. Another analogue is found in the so-called "Hittite instructions for the temple officials." Somebody suspected of having used up the firstlings before giving them to the gods has to "drink the horn of the god of life"; if he is found guilty he will perish together with his family (Sturtevant-Bechtel in bibl., 164–165, no. 18, 4:52–53). In Mesopotamia a water ordeal consisted of being thrown into the river: the guilty sank, the innocent floated (cf. Code of Hammurapi; in Pritchard, Texts, 166, law 2). A similar procedure is attested in a letter from Mari where two suspected persons are to be submitted to the ordeal by river (see Dossin in bibl.). The river ordeal is actually applied in Mesopotamia to the case of jealousy. Thus the Code of Hammurapi (Pritchard, Texts, 171, law 132) states that "if a finger has been pointed at a married woman with regard to another man and she is not caught lying with the other man she shall leap into the river for her husband." The specification of "not being caught lying with the other man" is instructive for the understanding of the Hebrew clause: we-hiʾloʾ nitpasah (Num. 5:13b). The Babylonian parallel inclines the balance in favor of the rendering "she had not been caught in the act" (cf. Ibn Ezra to 5:13b) rather than "she had not been forced" (cf. Rashi to 5:13b).
R. Press, in: ZAW, 51 (1933), 122–6; E.H. Sturtevant and G. Bechtel, A Hittite Chrestomathy (1935), 164–5; G.R. Driver and J. Miles, The Babylonian Laws, 1 (1952), 63–65, 284; G. Dossin, in: Comptes rendus Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres (1958), 387ff.; W.L. Moran, in: Biblica, 50 (1969), 50–52.