Numbers 5
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The preceding chapters are mainly concerned with the Levites, and are more or less connected by a unity of subject. But this and the following chapter contain a miscellaneous collection of regulations on a variety of matters, belonging, in all probability, to different strata of priestly tradition, Numbers 5:1-4. Unclean persons to be excluded from the camp. Numbers 5:5-10. Payments in compensation for wrongs, vv.11–31. The Ordeal of Jealousy.

And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
1–4. Exclusion of unclean persons. The compiler has very suitably placed this in connexion with the careful arrangements enjoined in the preceding chapter to preserve the sacredness of the Dwelling of Jehovah. Because of His presence the whole camp (‘in the midst whereof I dwell’) was sacred, and all pollution must be rigorously avoided (cf. Leviticus 15:31). The same principle is applied, in Numbers 35:33 f., to the whole land of Canaan.

Command the children of Israel, that they put out of the camp every leper, and every one that hath an issue, and whosoever is defiled by the dead:
2. Three forms of uncleanness are here mentioned, all of which are dealt with in detail elsewhere, and all are considered contagious in their ceremonial pollution:—leprosy (Leviticus 13), discharges (Leviticus 15), and contact with the dead (Numbers 19).

Both male and female shall ye put out, without the camp shall ye put them; that they defile not their camps, in the midst whereof I dwell.
And the children of Israel did so, and put them out without the camp: as the LORD spake unto Moses, so did the children of Israel.
And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
5–10. Payments in compensation for wrongs.

Part of this section (Numbers 5:6-8) is supplementary to the regulations in Leviticus 6:1-7. It is there laid down that if anyone incur guilt through wronging his neighbour by robbery, or oppression, by appropriating something committed to his keeping as a deposit, or by concealing the fact that he has found lost property, he must confess, and restore the property plus one-fifth, and offer to God as an atonement for his sin a guilt-offering of a ram. It is, to use a modern phrase, ‘conscience money.’ In the present passage it is further provided that if the neighbour whom he has wronged be dead, and there be no gô’çl (see note below) to whom the property can be restored, it is to be paid to the priest. The ram of the guilt-offering is, of course, to be offered as well.

Speak unto the children of Israel, When a man or woman shall commit any sin that men commit, to do a trespass against the LORD, and that person be guilty;
6. to da a trespass against the Lord] in acting unfaithfully towards Jehovah. To sin against one’s fellow men involves breaking faith with God; cf. Leviticus 6:2.

Then they shall confess their sin which they have done: and he shall recompense his trespass with the principal thereof, and add unto it the fifth part thereof, and give it unto him against whom he hath trespassed.
7. make restitution for his guilt] lit. ‘restore his guilt,’ abstract for concrete; he shall restore that which he guiltily holds in possession; and similarly in Numbers 5:8.

the fifth part] The same compensation is enjoined in other cases—the eating of sacred food unwittingly (Leviticus 22:14), the redemption of an unclean animal that has been vowed (Leviticus 27:11-13), or that is a firstling (id. 27), and the redemption of tithe (id. 31).

But if the man have no kinsman to recompense the trespass unto, let the trespass be recompensed unto the LORD, even to the priest; beside the ram of the atonement, whereby an atonement shall be made for him.
8. The verse deals with the case in which the injured person dies before restitution has been made to him, and leaves no representative.

kinsman] Heb. gô’çl. A technical term of considerable importance in Israelite law. A man’s next of kin was (1) a full brother, (2) failing him, an uncle on the father’s side, (3) failing him, a first cousin on the father’s side, (4) failing him, any near kinsman. His duties were manifold. In civil law: (a) to buy back the family estate of his kinsman, which the latter had sold through poverty (Leviticus 25:25, Ruth 4:1-6). He also had the refusal of it before it was sold (Jeremiah 32:8-12). (b) To buy back the person of his kinsman, if the latter had sold himself as a slave through poverty (Leviticus 25:47 ff.). In both these cases his action may be denoted by the word ‘redeem.’ (c) To receive restitution due to his deceased kinsman (here). In criminal law: to claim satisfaction for the blood of his murdered kinsman, in which case he was known as the gô’çl haddâm, ‘avenger of blood.’

unto the Lord shall be the priest’s] lit. ‘shall be for Jehovah for the priest.’ The priest shall receive it as the representative of Jehovah.

the ram of the atonement] The guilt-offering described in Leviticus 6:6.

And every offering of all the holy things of the children of Israel, which they bring unto the priest, shall be his.
9. every heave-offering] every contribution. The Heb. terûmâh is derived from a root signifying ‘to lift up, or off,’ and denotes that which is lifted off from a larger mass, and separated or contributed for sacred purposes. LXX. in the Pentateuch renders it by ἀφαιρεμα. It is used of gifts taken from the produce of the earth (Numbers 15:19-21 (P ), Deuteronomy 12:6; Deuteronomy 12:11), of money, spoils, &c. dedicated to Jehovah (Numbers 31:19; Numbers 31:41; Numbers 31:52), of the Levites’ tithe (Numbers 18:24), of the priests’ share of the tithe (Numbers 18:26-29), of materials for the Tabernacle (Exodus 25:2 f., Numbers 35:5; Numbers 35:21; Numbers 35:24) and for the second temple (Ezra 8:25), of the half shekel for defraying the expenses of the Tabernacle services (Exodus 30:13 ff.), and even of land reserved for the priests and Levites (Ezekiel 45:1; Ezekiel 45:6, &c.). As applied to animal sacrifices, the term is employed only of the shoulder of the peace-offering (Numbers 6:20, Exodus 29:27, Leviticus 7:34; Leviticus 10:14 f.). See Driver’s article ‘Offer’ in Hastings’ DB. iii. 588.

And every man's hallowed things shall be his: whatsoever any man giveth the priest, it shall be his.
10. every man’s holy things shall be his] i.e. the priest’s. The verse gives a general description of all priestly dues; (1) every holy thing that is, from any cause, due to Jehovah, shall go to the priest as His representative, and (2) every gift which a man may make to any particular priest shall belong to that priest.

And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
11–31. The Ordeal of Jealousy.

Though in its present form a late priestly composition this section is evidently based upon very ancient material. Its contents find no parallel in the other Pentateuchal codes; but the custom of trial by ordeal was a very ancient feature in Israelite life, as it was in the life of many other nations, and it still has a wide prevalence, especially in Africa. The forms of ordeal differ greatly—drinking a potion (as here), being thrown into water (as in the case of suspected witches in the middle ages in Europe), walking upon heated metal, or holding it in the hand, or very frequently invoking upon oneself a curse which will come true in the event of guilt. The latter, as well as the potion, forms part of the ordeal in the present passage1 [Note: References to ordeals in other nations are given in Gray’s Numbers, pp. 44 f.] . Another Biblical instance of an ordeal appears in the story of Korah (Numbers 16:16-18), and the practice perhaps underlies Psalm 109:18, Proverbs 6:27 f. The essential element in all cases is that the accused is subjected to a test, the visible results of which will be a conclusive divine sentence of innocence or guilt.

In the present instance a woman is suspected of adultery which cannot be legally proved, and her husband’s jealousy is roused. He brings her to the priest with an accompanying offering of flour. The priest places her ‘before Jehovah,’ and after dictating a curse upon herself which the woman endorses by responding ‘Amen, Amen,’ he causes her to drink a potion, consisting of holy water with two added ingredients—dust from the floor of the Tabernacle, and the written words of the curse which have been washed off into the water. If she is guilty of the charge, the potion will have a harmful effect upon her body which will prevent her being delivered of a child, but if she is innocent it will do her no harm and she will conceive seed.

Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, If any man's wife go aside, and commit a trespass against him,
And a man lie with her carnally, and it be hid from the eyes of her husband, and be kept close, and she be defiled, and there be no witness against her, neither she be taken with the manner;
13. and be kept close &c.] and she be undetected, though she has defiled herself.

since she was not
taken in the act] On the evidence of two witnesses at least (Deuteronomy 17:6; Deuteronomy 19:15) the woman and the man would be put to death (Leviticus 20:10 (P ), Deuteronomy 22:22); cf. John 8:4 f.

14b. The merest suspicion on the husband’s part might render her liable to the ordeal.

And the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be defiled: or if the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be not defiled:
Then shall the man bring his wife unto the priest, and he shall bring her offering for her, the tenth part of an ephah of barley meal; he shall pour no oil upon it, nor put frankincense thereon; for it is an offering of jealousy, an offering of memorial, bringing iniquity to remembrance.
15. the tenth part of an ephah] A little under 7 pints. An ephah was a dry measure equivalent to the liquid measure bath; both were equal to 1/10th homer. See Isaiah 5:10.

barley meal] The coarsest farinaceous food, ordinarily used by the poorer classes (Jdg 7:13, John 6:9; John 6:13), and given to animals (1 Kings 4:28). It would frequently be used as an offering in early days, but the mention of it is unique in P , which probably shews that it was an integral part of a primitive ceremony on which P’s account is based. Elsewhere in P ‘fine meal’ is always prescribed.

he shall pour no oil upon it &c.] Perhaps because symbols of joy and festivity were excluded by the grievous nature of the woman’s alleged crime. Oil and frankincense were also forbidden in the case of a poor man’s sin-offering (Leviticus 5:11).

And the priest shall bring her near, and set her before the LORD:
16. before Jehovah] Probably at the altar of burnt-offering; it was impossible for her to be admitted into the Tabernacle.

And the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel; and of the dust that is in the floor of the tabernacle the priest shall take, and put it into the water:
17. holy water] A unique expression. The writer may have thought that the water should be taken from the sacred laver, which, according to a late stratum of P , stood in the court. LXX. , however, has ὕδωρ καθαρὸν ζῶν—‘pure living water,’ which suggests that in the primitive ritual ‘running water’ was prescribed (cf. Numbers 19:17, Leviticus 14:5 f.). It is possible that ‘running water’ was the original reading, and that it was altered by a later hand.

the dust &c.] This was sacred dust, which would increase the sacredness of the potion, and so make it more dangerous for one who was unworthy to drink it.

And the priest shall set the woman before the LORD, and uncover the woman's head, and put the offering of memorial in her hands, which is the jealousy offering: and the priest shall have in his hand the bitter water that causeth the curse:
18. The hair is let loose as a sign of mourning for her shame.

the water of bitterness] the water which causes physical pain.

And the priest shall charge her by an oath, and say unto the woman, If no man have lain with thee, and if thou hast not gone aside to uncleanness with another instead of thy husband, be thou free from this bitter water that causeth the curse:
19. being under thy husband] i.e. under his authority; cf. Ezekiel 23:5 ‘when she was mine’ (R.V. ), lit. ‘under me.’

But if thou hast gone aside to another instead of thy husband, and if thou be defiled, and some man have lain with thee beside thine husband:
Then the priest shall charge the woman with an oath of cursing, and the priest shall say unto the woman, The LORD make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when the LORD doth make thy thigh to rot, and thy belly to swell;
And this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, to make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to rot: And the woman shall say, Amen, amen.
And the priest shall write these curses in a book, and he shall blot them out with the bitter water:
23. a book] The Heb. term sçpher denotes anything which can receive writing, e.g. a strip of parchment. Here it is something from which the written words of the curse can be washed or wiped out into the water. The curse is considered to be in this manner literally conveyed to the potion. The eating of written charms is a frequent practice in Thibet and India for the cure of disease. In Egypt ‘the most approved mode of charming away sickness or disease is to write certain passages of the Korân on the inner surface of an earthenware cup or bowl; then to pour in some water, and stir it until the writing is quite washed off: when the water, with the sacred words thus infused in it, is to be drunk by the patient’ (Waddell, The Buddhism of Tibet, quoted by Gray, p. 54).

And he shall cause the woman to drink the bitter water that causeth the curse: and the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter.
24. and become bitter] lit. ‘for bitterness,’ i.e. proving injurious.

Then the priest shall take the jealousy offering out of the woman's hand, and shall wave the offering before the LORD, and offer it upon the altar:
25. shall wave the meal-offering] The word ‘wave’ probably does not bear its technical meaning (explained in note on Numbers 6:20), but denotes simply to ‘offer.’ See Numbers 8:11; Numbers 8:13; Numbers 8:15; Numbers 8:21.

And the priest shall take an handful of the offering, even the memorial thereof, and burn it upon the altar, and afterward shall cause the woman to drink the water.
26. an handful of the meal-offering] In accordance with the general regulation laid down in Leviticus 2:2.

as the memorial-offering thereof] The technical term ’azkârâh is confined to P . It is used of the frankincense burned for the Presence-bread (Leviticus 24:7), the meal of the poor man’s sin-offering (Leviticus 5:11 f.), and the meal-offering (here, Leviticus 2:2; Leviticus 2:9; Leviticus 2:16; Leviticus 6:15). The burning of the incense or meal in each case was to bring the worshipper before God’s memory. Cf. Exodus 28:29.

and afterward &c.] Strictly interpreted this is a second draught which the woman is made to take. But a second draught is very improbable. There has apparently been some accidental disarrangement of the text. Notice that Numbers 5:27 b repeats the substance of Numbers 5:24.

And when he hath made her to drink the water, then it shall come to pass, that, if she be defiled, and have done trespass against her husband, that the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter, and her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall rot: and the woman shall be a curse among her people.
And if the woman be not defiled, but be clean; then she shall be free, and shall conceive seed.
28. she shall be free] she shall be acquitted; proved innocent.

This is the law of jealousies, when a wife goeth aside to another instead of her husband, and is defiled;
Or when the spirit of jealousy cometh upon him, and he be jealous over his wife, and shall set the woman before the LORD, and the priest shall execute upon her all this law.
Then shall the man be guiltless from iniquity, and this woman shall bear her iniquity.
31. The husband shall be held innocent in any case, and the woman shall, if guilty, suffer the consequences of guilt.

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