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Not in an Ivory Tower

Like much of the rest of the Pentateuch, Numbers 5 and 6 contain puzzling laws. What are we to make of the leprosy laws? How are we to understand the laws of restitution, jealousy on the part of a husband, and the rites and laws of the nazir (one who makes a vow of consecration)? Why such strange laws? Can we even make sense of them and apply them to our current situation today?
As a child, I grew up believing that the Bible was handed down by God in a vacuum and thus contained specific guidance for all times. To me the Bible was timeless and all other nations around Israel had simply perverted what the Bible said. It jolted me to learn at age 14 that this simply was not the case. The Bible indeed is rooted in the experiences of people in real times and places. And much of it can only be dimly understood apart from its context.
Take, for instance, the law of leprosy in Numbers 5:1-4. Though most archaeologists have concluded that this is not the dreaded Hanson’s Disease that is found in Africa and other places, the term for it seems to encompass a skin disease involving scaly patches that was particularly dreadful. Yet the stigma attached to it was equal to if not more intense than that of modern leprosy. In Mesopotamia as well as Israel, persons bearing this skin disease were viewed as unclean and rejected by the gods. In Mesopotamia, various other illnesses or skin problems along with “leprosy”—including eczema, dropsy, pustules, and moles—may have been perceived as divine punishment. According to an omen from the Old Babylonian period, a “leper” was rejected by both his personal deity and human beings: those with this skin disease were forced into an exile and were generally viewed without hope of recovery. [See K. van der Toorn, Sin and Sanction in Israel and Mesopotamia: a Comparative Study (Assen and Maastricht, the Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1985), pp. 30, 31, 72, 73.]
In the Bible, however, there seems to be a perception that God might heal the person who had contracted this skin disease (Lev. 14). Nowhere do the larger chapters dealing with various such diseases (Lev. 13, 14) indicate that this disease was considered a punishment by God. The term used to designate it—“unclean”—had ritual implications; it did not necessarily indicate a person’s spiritual and moral standing (since it is used of a woman’s menstruation, childbirth, and various other to us normal situations).
Placing these verses, then, within the context of the ancient Near East may help us recognize that God is always at work within our frames of reference; He does not impose His ideal will and understanding on people. This is how we need to approach the very difficult and lengthy law of jealousy.
The law of jealousy deals with the case of a man whose wife has been unfaithful and/or he becomes jealous and believes she has been unfaithful. The law stipulates that he is to bring his wife to the priest with a grain offering without the customary oil and frankincense (cf. Lev. 2:1). The priest then was to place her before the Lord and perform a ritual involving “holy water in an earthen vessel” (Num. 5:17, NRSV). First he was to sprinkle dust from the tabernacle floor in it, then dishevel the woman’s hair, and finally place in the woman’s hands “the grain offering of remembrance” (v. 18). The priest would then make the woman take an oath that would either make her culpable or clear her, depending on whether or not she had actually been unfaithful to her husband.
Next, the priest was to write the curse, no doubt using papyrus and plant dye for ink, and then wash the ink into the holy water containing the temple dust. He would next take the grain offering from the woman, lift it up before the Lord, and make some of it smoke on the altar. The final action in the ritual was the woman’s drinking the water containing the tabernacle dust and ink dye.
By taking on this oath, the woman also took on the curse for unfaithfulness that would result in the Lord causing a physical response in her body. Just what that response was, is somewhat unclear. The Hebrew literally reads “when the Lord makes your thigh fall and your womb swell up” (v. 21)—possibly language for the process of a miscarriage or a reference to infertility. The NRSV translates: “when the Lord makes your uterus drop, your womb discharge.”
Whatever bodily response to the curse, the ritual is supposed to clarify the woman’s guilt or innocence. Anthropologists have a term for such a ritual—the trial by ordeal. In a case where it is impossible to determine guilt or innocence since there are no witnesses to the alleged act, recourse was taken to have the defendant tried through undergoing an ordeal that would be overseen by a god of judgment. This way, immediate judgment may be divinely attained. These trials by ordeal took place in most major ancient civilizations, including Mesopotamia. (Exceptions include China and Egypt.) [The material that follows on ordeals is taken from Tikva Simone Frymer-Kensky, “The Judicial Ordeal in the Ancient Near East” (2 vols.; Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1977).]
Mesopotamian ordeals are related to oaths but do not normally include an oath. By contrast, the ordeal of Numbers combines the ordeal with an oath, thus making sure that the outcome will be divinely guided and predicated on guilt or innocence.
Ordeals involving drinking water may be found in both the Hittite and Elamite societies. Just what these ordeals entailed in terms of drinking a potion is not wholly clear. The possibility, therefore, must be retained that these ordeals were physically harmless, unless the god of judgment took action to harm the individual. In Mesopotamia, the most favored ordeal was that of the river trial. Since the Euphrates River was viewed as a divine judge, the defendant was “go to the river.” Presumably, this means that s/he or she would throw her/himself into the Euphrates River. If a person started to drown, they were guilty. We have adequate evidence to know that this ordeal was actually practiced. Several laws, such as the Laws of Hammurabi (LH) §132 and the Middle Assyrian Laws (MAL) A §17, treat cases of women who were accused of adultery and require the river ordeal. However, only LH §132 requires the ordeal of the accused woman. In the case of MAL A §22, a man who travels with another man’s wife but claims not to know that she was married, he was to undergo the river ordeal. Finally, in Syro-Palestine, ordeals included the taking of sacred food or drink, the river ordeal, and trial by fire.
Since this is the backdrop to the law of jealousy in Numbers 5, we may conclude that several options were available. They easily could have applied the river ordeal and used the Jordan River. Trial by fire might have been another option. Either of these two types of ordeal might risk a person’s well-being or even their life. Therefore, the drinking choice for an ordeal was perhaps the most humane one available. I once asked a gastroenterologist if the potion of water, dust, and plant dye would hurt the one who drank it. He replied, “Probably not.”
Nevertheless, questions remain. Why was the woman selected for this ordeal instead of an unfaithful husband? MAL A 22 make it clear that a man in a questionable situation was to undergo the river ordeal. Why did not the Bible apply this to any unfaithful spouse, male or female? One answer is the suggestion that the laws of the Bible, as is true of most ancient Near Eastern law collections, are not comprehensive in scope. That is, laws do not exist for every situation that might occur, but rather provide samples for the judges to use and apply to many different situations. Since women were owned by their husbands, the husband would be the likely one to legally accuse his wife of unfaithfulness. Nor would such a law seem one-sided to a society in which women had little voice in legal affairs.
Truly the laws of Numbers, including the law of the nazir (“consecrated one”), have an ancient setting that, if understood, can enable us to see how practical and culturally contextualized the Old Testament is. The God of these laws does not superimpose His ideal will on His people. Rather, He operates within time and place, expecting that future generations, greatly removed from the ancient context, will look at these laws in terms of their adaptation. So once again, God meets people within their frames of reference and moves them forward no faster than they are able to follow. This God does not sit in an ivory tower and force people to fit His mould; rather, He adapts His eternal principles to the circumstances in which they are found.

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