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Would You Swallow This Literalism?

I have never read anything in an official church publication that has made me more angry than Cliff Goldstein’s piece, in the April 24 Adventist Review.

He bases his essay, “Justice From the Dust,” on the following “test” found in Numbers 5 (NIV).


Then the Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him by sleeping with another man, and this is hidden from her husband and her impurity is undetected (since there is no witness against her and she has not been caught in the act), and if feelings of jealousy come over her husband and he suspects his wife and she is impure—or if he is jealous and suspects her even though she is not impure—then he is to take his wife to the priest. He must also take an offering of a tenth of an ephah (about 2 quarts) of barley flour on her behalf. He must not pour oil on it or put incense on it, because it is a grain offering for jealousy, a reminder offering to draw attention to guilt.

” ‘The priest shall bring her and have her stand before the Lord. Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water. After the priest has had the woman stand before the Lord, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the reminder offering, the grain offering for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse. Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has slept with you and you have not gone astray and become impure while married to your husband, may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you. But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have defiled yourself by sleeping with a man other than your husband”—here the priest is to put the woman under this curse of the oath—”may the Lord cause your people to curse and denounce you when he causes your thigh [sexual organs] to waste away [causes you to have a miscarrying womb and barrenness]. May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells and your thigh [sexual organs] waste away”.

” ‘Then the woman is to say, “Amen. So be it.”

” ‘The priest is to write these curses on a scroll and then wash them off into the bitter water. He shall have the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and this water will enter her and cause bitter suffering. The priest is to take from her hands the grain offering for jealousy, wave it before the LORD and bring it to the altar. The priest is then to take a handful of the grain offering as a memorial offering and burn it on the altar; after that, he is to have the woman drink the water. If she has defiled herself and been unfaithful to her husband, then when she is made to drink the water that brings a curse, it will go into her and cause bitter suffering; her abdomen will swell and her thigh [sexual organs] waste away [she will have barrenness and a miscarrying womb] and she will become accursed among her people. If, however, the woman has not defiled herself and is free from impurity, she will be cleared of guilt and will be able to have children.

” ‘This, then, is the law of jealousy when a woman goes astray and defiles herself while married to her husband, or when feelings of jealousy come over a man because he suspects his wife. The priest is to have her stand before the Lord and is to apply this entire law to her. The husband will be innocent of any wrongdoing, but the woman will bear the consequences of her sin.’ “

After referencing these words, Goldstein comments that:

“In an overtly patriarchal society, where men can be cruel, harsh, and oppressive, a woman, a wife, isn’t allowed to be victimized by a duplicitous husband who, for whatever reason, decides to get rid of her by hurling false charges of adultery (or maybe, and with no malice, he truly fears her guilt).

“Whatever the reason for the accusation, this ancient ritual shows that the woman is protected by God Himself. In something so serious she was not left to the mercy, or lack thereof, of testosterone-laden good ol’ boys, or of false witnesses, or of those who could be bribed or in cahoots with the husband.

“No, the deciding judge was the Lord of Israel, the God who created the heavens and the earth, and who redeemed Israel from the Egyptians. He Himself guaranteed that her fate would not be trifled with. Whether innocent or guilty, the woman was assured a divine verdict from the One who knows and sees it all.

“Besides showing how seriously the Lord takes adultery, this ritual shows how seriously the Lord regards justice, too. In the vast camp of Israel, the Creator made it a point to ensure fairness for women who, if left to the discretion of sinful men, might be falsely condemned instead.

“Whatever other lessons may be in them, these verses declare to us how much God cares about fairness and honesty in dealing with those at our mercy.

Goldstein’s essay is hopelessly misogynistic. He seems unable to understand that for price of two quarts of barley, this “test” makes it possible for a husband to equate his wife’s inability to have children with adultery, expose her to public humiliation, “become accursed among her people”, and expose her to serious illness or death, merely by claiming an unsupported “feeling of jealously”.

The wife’s inability to have children before or after this “test” could now be taken as proof that the woman had committed adultery.

This “test” was humiliating in that it was a public demonstration that the wife was not loved, valued, or trusted.

Because the “results” of the test could not be determined for at least nine months unless she became seriously ill during that time period, she had to be considered “accursed”, a pariah, whose possible “sin” jeopardized the security of her family and clan.

Finally, it is hard for me to imagine dirt more likely to be contaminated with deadly organisms than “dust from the tabernacle floor”, fouled as it was by the sandals of men who routinely butchered animals and sprinkled blood against the curtain of the Most Holy Place.

At a time when a miscarriage incurred as the result of a fight between men was not considered a “serious injury”; (Exodus 21)

At a time when a man could sell his daughter into servitude; (Exodus 21}

At a time when a woman that could not provide “proof of her virginity” after the marriage ceremony could be stoned to death by the men of her town; (Deuteronomy 22)

At a time when a man “happened” to meet a virgin in town that was pledged to be married and “slept” with her”, she could be stoned to death if no one heard her screams for help; (Deuteronomy 22)

At a time when a man who raped a virgin who was not pledged to be married was only required to pay the girl’s father her bride’s price of fifty shekels of silver; (Deuteronomy 22)

At a time when if two men are fighting and the wife of one of them came to rescue her husband from his assailant, and she seized him “by his private parts”, her offending hand was to be amputated; (Deuteronomy 25)

It is absurd to argue that women were “protected.” Cliff, why do you suppose Jesus showed up down here?


Andy Hanson is Professor of Education at California State University, Chico.

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