Those words from the 1969 Elvis hit (which has been covered by everyone from Waylon Jennings to Dwight Yokum to Fine Young Cannibals to Clay Aiken) are rattling around in my head this morning… and it’s Moses fault. In Numbers 5, Moses gives instructions on what a husband is to do if he suspects that his wife has been cheating on him-- he has a suspicious mind but no witnesses or proof. What was a husband to do in a patriarchal culture in which he holds all the power if he suspected that his wife was guilty of infidelity? Well, in most ancient cultures, the answer was “Anything he wants.” But that was not the case in Israel. Later Rabbis would allow divorce for any reason where the husband found anything “displeasing to him” (Deut 24:1), but in Numbers 5, the mere suspicion of infidelity was not enough to cause a wife to be charged with adultery.
What Moses gives here is a complicated “trial by ordeal” involving the offering of a grain sacrifice, the mixing of holy water with dust from the tabernacle floor, a priest pronouncing curses over the women who is accused, and the writing of those curses on a scroll over which the bitter water was poured. Then the accused wife drank the bitter water-- and if she was guilty, her abdomen would swell and her thigh fall away (or her womb shrink or she would miscarry; the exact details aren’t so clear and vary by translation, though none seem very pleasant). If nothing happened after she drank the bitter water (other than wrinkling up her nose after she drank), then she was to be accepted by all-- including her husband-- as innocent. In other words, God Himself would take care of punishing those guilty of hidden sin.
Does this “trial by ordeal” sounds barbaric? Purity was extremely important in God’s order of things. Sin was not something committed only against other people; ultimately it was against God (see Deut 5:5-10). Adultery was a threat to the whole community and was an affront to the holiness of God, and for that reason, the man or woman convicted of adultery faced the penalty of death (Lev 20:10). But the mere suspicion of adultery was not the same thing as someone being convicted. So God included this “trial by ordeal” basically to protect women from being spuriously accused by their husbands. If they were guilty, God would decide their guilt through miraculous intervention.
Interestingly, a similar (though completely different) “trial by ordeal” was used for women accused of witchcraft in the Middle Ages. The accused would be tied hand and foot and thrown into a river. If they floated, then they were guilty of witchcraft. If they sank and drowned, then they were declared innocent… and dead. In other words, an accusation was a presumption of guilt. In Numbers 5, there a presumption of innocence and a willingness to leave justice in the hands of God.
It would have been easy in ancient Israel for community gossip to cause a husband to suspect his wife of unfaithfulness. Gossip and innuendo can be dangerous and deadly in the modern church as well. Israel was taught to trust God to bring about justice… and we are taught the same thing (Rom 12:19). We don’t have an elaborate “trial by ordeal” ceremony. What we have is a cross and the grace of God that was extended to us… and that we are to extend to one another.