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An allegory of bitter water

By atimetorend --

Prelude
"If a man and a woman commit adultery, kill them both." (Leviticus 20, paraphrased)
Allegory

A man accused his wife of cheating on him. "How can you say that?" she cried, "you have never had cause to doubt my faithfulness to you!" Despite her pleas of innocence, the husband remained adamant. "Are you calling my honor into question?" he shouted. "I will not be subject to this kind of insubordination!" In jealousy and anger, he dragged her to see the pastor of their church to seek help.

The pastor forced the woman to stand before him, alone, and told her to unpin her hair. The woman did so, her long hair flowing down around her face. The woman felt vulnerable, shamed, and afraid. "Fetch the water from my office," the pastor whispered to an assistant. The assistant returned with a pitcher of vile, muddy-looking water.

"You will need to drink this water," the pastor explained. "If you truly are innocent," he said, "everything will be fine. But if not, you will become violently ill. So ill in fact, you will never be able to have children again. And also know," he added, "should all this come to pass, your family and your church will shun you, you will live as an outcast, even in your own home."

The pastor wrote down notes of the proceedings on a piece of cardboard, using a stylus of charcoal. With some water from a cup, he rinsed the words off, into the pitcher of muddy water. "Do you agree to this course of action?" he asked. The wife remained silent, tears streaking her face. The pastor repeated his question, his voice rising. The woman nodded her head softly. "Do you agree?" the pastor almost shouted. "Say it!"

"Yes," the woman choked out, more a sob than an actual word.

"Drink, now," commanded the pastor. Seeing no other option, the wife took a gulp of the water directly from the pitcher. She gagged twice before she could swallow. Her shirt was stained by the brown liquid which ran down her chin.

"Go," said the pastor. The woman took a couple of steps back and rejoined her husband. The pastor intoned, "I hope there are no ill-consequences from this experience. I wish you many happy days together, and many children. I wish you peace. I trust we never need repeat this experience."

Before the couple left, he pulled the husband aside. "Fear not," he told him. "As you already know, I will ensure nobody condemns you for coming here today." At this, the husband breathed a sigh of relief. It had not been easy, but he knew he had done the right thing.

Commentary

If you are not familiar with this story, it follows the outline of chapter 5 of the book of Numbers. Many Old Testament practices which sound terrible to us today are explained by apologists as the bible’s depiction of sinful people, in no way condoning the actions. I am sure that is true in many cases. This one cannot be written off so easily though, it is clearly described as God’s instruction to Israel.

The best apologetic I have read, in support of a beneficial purpose for this passage, explains that contemporary cultures were far worse, so this was a merciful commandment given to Israel by a loving God. For example, you wouldn’t want to undergo the trial of being bound and thrown into the Euphrates River to prove your innocence!

I do not find that answer satisfying though. Even if it was progressive for the time, it still seems unnecessarily harsh. Is that just my culture-bound judgment? It seems more likely to me the passage is a cultural artifact of an ancient tribe, rather than a divine message to a chosen people.

On a more positive note, this practice was not embraced by the Christian tradition. John 7:53-8:11 (the "Pericope Adulterae") tells the story of Jesus graciously protecting a woman caught in adultery, seemingly in stark contrast to Numbers, chapter 5. "He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her."

There is a general consensus among biblical scholars that the Pericope Adulterae was not part of the original text of the gospel of John. If a later insertion however, it is a relatively early one (c. 4th century CE), and either way, it signifies a moderation of the Old Testament theme.


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