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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 5

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verses 1-4

The purity of the camp 5:1-4

"The purpose of the writer is to show that at this point in the narrative, Israel’s leaders, Moses and Aaron, were following God’s will and the people were following them obediently. This theme will not continue long, however. The narrative will soon turn a corner and begin to show that the people quickly deviated from God’s way and, with their leaders, Moses and Aaron, failed to continue to trust in God." [Note: Sailhamer, p. 376.]

God ordered that individuals who were ceremonially unclean should not live within their tribal communities but should reside on the outskirts of the camp during their uncleanness. The reason for this regulation was not any discrimination against these people based on personal inferiority. It was the need to separate the unclean, as long as they were unclean, from the holy God of Israel who dwelt in the center of the camp. The closer one lived to God the greater was his or her need for personal holiness.

"The Rabbis had a saying which has come down to the modern Western world via the preaching of John Wesley and Matthew Henry, ’Cleanliness is next to godliness,’ which catches this suggestion of inseparability." [Note: Riggans, p. 43.]

Verses 1-31

2. Commands and rituals to observe in preparation for entering the land chs. 5-9

God gave the following laws to maintain holiness in the nation so He could continue to dwell among His people and bless them. This was particularly important since Israel would soon depart from Sinai to enter the Promised Land in which she would need to be holy to be victorious over her enemies. These were requirements for the whole nation, not just the priests.

"Between covenant promise and covenant possession lay a process of rigorous journey through hostile opposition of terrain and terror. Israel had to understand that occupation of the land could be achieved only through much travail, for Canaan, like creation itself, was under alien dominion and it had to be wrested away by force, by the strong arm of Yahweh, who would fight on behalf of His people." [Note: Merrill, "A Theology . . .," p. 60.]

Holiness among the people chs. 5-6

These chapters are similar to what we read in Leviticus in that they explain the importance of holiness among the Israelites.

Verses 5-10

Treachery against others and God 5:5-10

To emphasize the importance of maintaining proper interpersonal relationships within the camp, Moses repeated the law concerning the restitution of and compensation for a trespass against one’s neighbor here (cf. Leviticus 5:14 to Leviticus 6:7). The expression "sins of mankind" (Numbers 5:6) can refer to sins committed by a human being and to sins committed against a human being. [Note: Maarsingh, p. 22.] The context favors the latter option.

Added instructions covered another case. This was a person who could not fulfill his responsibilities because the person against whom he had committed the trespass, or that person’s near kinsman, had died or did not exist. In this case the guilty party had to make restitution and compensation to the priests (Numbers 5:8).

Trespasses against one’s neighbor (cf. Leviticus 6:1-7) needed atonement because they constituted acts of "unfaithfulness" to God (Numbers 5:6). The Israelites had to maintain proper horizontal relationships with their brethren to maintain a proper vertical relationship with Yahweh (cf. Matthew 5:23-24).

"The point is clear-wrongs committed against God’s people were considered wrongs committed against God himself." [Note: Sailhamer, p. 376. Cf. Psalms 51:4.]

Verses 11-31

The law of jealousy 5:11-31

The point of this section is the importance of maintaining purity in the marriage relationship to preserve God’s blessing on Israel.

In Numbers 5:11-15 the writer explained the first steps an Israelite man who suspected his wife of unfaithfulness should take. The offering (Numbers 5:15) was a special meal offering. Usually the grain used in the meal offering was wheat ground into fine flour, but in this instance the man presented barley flour. Barley cost only half as much as wheat (2 Kings 7:1; 2 Kings 7:16; 2 Kings 7:18). It was the food of the poor and the cattle in the ancient Near East (Judges 7:13; 1 Kings 5:8 [sic Numbers 4:28]; 2 Kings 4:42; Ezekiel 4:12). It may have represented, ". . . the questionable repute in which the woman stood, or the ambiguous, suspicious character of her conduct." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 3:31.]

The meal offering was, of course, representative of the works that an individual presented to God. In this case it was also an offering that the man gave in "jealousy" as a "memorial" or remembrance. He presented it to bring his wife’s crime to the Lord’s remembrance that He might judge it.

The "earthenware vessel" into which the priest poured the water from the laver was of little value relative to the other utensils of the sanctuary. It was, therefore, a fit receptacle for this test. The "dust" he added to the water probably symbolized the curse of sin. It is what causes humans grief as we toil for a living because of sin’s curse.

"Since this dust has been in God’s presence, it is holy. As has been said before, one who is unclean is in great danger in the presence of the holy." [Note: Ashley, p. 129.]

The release of the woman’s hair, normally bound up, represented the temporary loss of her glory (i.e., her good reputation). Other possibilities are that it symbolized her openness, [Note: Allen, p. 746.] mourning, [Note: Merrill, "Numbers," in The Old . . ., p. 107.] or uncleanness. [Note: Ashley, p. 129.]

M. R. DeHaan offered a natural, as opposed to a supernatural, explanation of what happened in this trial by ordeal that has captured the imagination of some evangelicals. He believed that the treated water that the woman drank reacted to the chemical composition of the juices in her digestive system that had become abnormal because of her guilt. Science has established that certain emotions and nervous disturbances change the chemical composition of our body secretions. While this might be what produced the symptoms described in the text, DeHaan erred, I believe, in interpreting the "dust" (Numbers 5:17) that the priest mixed with the water as a "bitter herb."

"We believe that, if we knew the identity of the bitter herb which Moses used, the same test would work today." [Note: M. R. DeHaan, The Chemistry of the Blood and Other Stirring Messages, p. 48.]

The physical symptoms of God’s judgment on the woman if she was guilty (Numbers 5:23; Numbers 5:27) point to a special affliction rather than one of the natural diseases that overtook the Israelites. Josephus said it was ordinary dropsy. [Note: Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 3:11:6.] This seems unlikely in view of how Moses described her condition. Merrill believed her sense of guilt produced a psychosomatic reaction. [Note: Merrill, "Numbers," The Bible . . ., p. 222; and idem, "Numbers," in The Old . . ., p. 107.] Noordtzij concluded that the woman’s pregnancy resulted in a miscarriage because the bitter water destroyed the fetus. [Note: Noordtzij, p. 57.] It is interesting, whatever the cause, that the punishment fell on the organs that had been the instruments of the woman’s sin.

"The thigh is often used as a euphemism for the sexual organs." [Note: Riggans, p. 50. Cf. Genesis 24:2, 9; 47:29.]

"The most probable explanation for the phrase [’and make your abdomen swell and your thigh waste away’] . . . is that the woman suffers a collapse of the sexual organs known as a prolapsed uterus. In this condition, which may occur after multiple pregnancies, the pelvis floor (weakened by the pregnancies) collapses, and the uterus literally falls down. It may lodge in the vagina, or it may actually fall out of the body through the vagina. If it does so, it becomes edematous and swells up like a balloon. Conception becomes impossible, and the woman’s procreative life has effectively ended . . ." [Note: Tikva Frymer-Kensky, "The Strange Case of the Suspected Sotah (Numbers Numbers 5:11-31)," Vetus Testamentum 34:1 (January 1984):20-21. See also the same author’s more popularly written article, "The Trial Before God of an Accused Adultress," Bible Review 2:3 (Fall 1986):46-49, which, by the way, provides supporting evidence for the widespread prohibition of polygamy in the ancient Near East. Other helpful resources are Michael Fishbane, "Accusations of Adultery: A Study of Law and Scribal Practice in Numbers 5:11-31," Hebrew Union College Annual 45 (1974):25-45; Herbert Chanan Brichto, "The Case of the Sota and a Reconsideration of Biblical ’Law,’" Hebrew Union College Annual 46 (1975):55-70; W. McKane, "Poison, Trial by Ordeal and the Cup of Wrath," Vetus Testamentum 30:4 (October 1980):474-92; and Ashley, pp. 132-33.]

Numbers 5:23-28 explain additional acts that were to take place before the woman drank the water. They are not in chronological sequence with Numbers 5:16-22. Drinking the water was the last step in the ritual, which took place in the tabernacle courtyard.

"The thought expressed here is that that which is written is dissolved in the water and imparts to the water the power inherent in the words so that the water can accomplish that of which the words speak (we must remember that to Israel and the ancient Near Eastern world words were more than sounds; they had power)." [Note: Noordtzij, p. 56.]

"The ritual trial of the Sotah [suspected adulteress] ended with the drinking of the potion. Nothing further was done, and we can assume that the woman went home to await the results at some future time." [Note: Frymer-Kensky, "The Strange . . .," p. 22.]

The man that Moses referred to in Numbers 5:31 is the man who accused his wife of unfaithfulness. He incurred no guilt before God for being jealous of his wife’s fidelity.

This case raises some questions. Why was only the woman punished if she had been unfaithful? The answer seems to be that her male companion in sin was unknown. If she had been unfaithful and the adulterer was identifiable, both partners should have suffered death by stoning (Leviticus 20:10).

What about a wife who suspected that her husband had been unfaithful to her? Did she not have the same recourse as the husband? Evidently she did not. The Israelites were to observe God’s revealed line of authority consistently. A man was directly responsible to God, but a woman was directly responsible to her father (if unmarried) or her husband (if married). Thus a wife was responsible to her husband in a sense in which the husband was not responsible to his wife. This does not mean that marital infidelity was a worse sin for a wife than it was for a husband. It simply explains how God wanted the Israelites to handle infidelity in the case of a wife. Perhaps God Himself retained the responsibility for judging a husband who was unfaithful to his wife (cf. Hebrews 13:4).

This procedure protected the wife of an extremely jealous husband who might continually accuse her. He would suffer shame by her innocence since this was a public ceremony.

"This legislation forbids human punishment of a woman on the basis of suspicion alone, and, in fact, protects her from what could be a death sentence at the hands of the community." [Note: Ashley, p. 135.]

"Marital deceit is a matter of such seriousness that the truth must be discovered. It is harmful to the sanctity of the community at large, and destructive of one of the bases of community life." [Note: Budd, p. 66.]

". . . this particular case law is included here because it gives another illustration of God’s personal involvement in the restitution for the sin of the nation. Within God’s covenant with Israel, there could be no hidden sin among God’s people nor any hidden suspicion of sin.

"The law of jealousy shows that through the role of the priest, God was actively at work in the nation and that no sin of any sort could be tolerated among God’s holy people." [Note: Sailhamer, p. 377.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Numbers 5". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/numbers-5.html. 2012.
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