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Friday, June 21st, 2024
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 5

Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New TestamentsSutcliffe's Commentary

Verses 1-31

Numbers 5:2 . Defiled by the dead. They were unclean seven days. The whole of Shem’s race in India, keep this custom to the present day.

Numbers 5:6 . Any sin that men commit; through ignorance, or inadvertency. This law is more largely illustrated in the sixth chapter of Leviticus.

Numbers 5:7 . They shall confess their sin. This law respects all kinds of fraud in business, and in all the intercourse of life, among the depraved and unregenerate race of men. There can be no peace of conscience without confession and restitution. The law is holy, for God is holy. It is noble and manly in those who have defrauded the king’s revenue, to come forward and make restitution. But justly does a heathen complain of the knave that wears a mask:

Spem vultu simulat, premit alto corde dolorem

Nil conscire sibi, nullâ pallescere culpa.

Daring and bold in face, but sad in heart;

He owns no shame, for crimes affect no smart.

Numbers 5:12 . If any man’s wife go aside, and commit adultery, the law enjoined that she and her seducer should be stoned. When there was no witness, she must drink the bitter waters. All Shem’s race in Asia have their ordeals, of red hot iron or of boiling water; and all Ham’s race in Africa are compelled to drink the red draught, which kills in the course of twelve hours.

Numbers 5:17 . Holy water. That is water from the laver. The dust mixed among it would of course contain a portion of the scattered ashes of the altar, which would give the water a saline or bitter taste. Besides, this water had washed off the curse, written on the table with gall and ink.

Numbers 5:27 . Her thigh shall rot. The modesty of the Hebrew language puts one part of the body for another. How remarkable are the judgments of God, that he visits the crimes of impurity with rottenness in the flesh, and particularly in the members here implied.

Numbers 5:31 . The man shall be guiltless; which he would not have been, had he suffered his wife to proceed in her course. This woman shall bear her iniquity; shall die of disease; and if not stoned, shall be excommunicated from the synagogue. See Josephus.


Having considered the law of the leper, and of trespasses in the book of Leviticus, we proceed at once to the miraculous test instituted of God to preserve the Israelites from the most dreadful crime of adultery. And let us well remark, that a spirit of unfounded jealousy on any subject, or against any person, is cautiously to be checked and discouraged. But a quiet and well disposed man, sustaining an imaginary dishonour of this kind, afflicts himself with all the calamities of a real dishonour, and greatly augments his anguish by concealing the wound. His imagination roves, his passions are all successively excited by the objects of fear, hatred and grief. He wears out health by tracing every thought, and marking every incident; the joys of life are all imbittered; sleep departs from his eyes, and melancholy gloom settles on all his soul. Perhaps for a moment he affects to disbelieve, and immediately abandons his hope to indulge in grief. How detestable is the man, how vile is the woman, who can actually bring a deserving character into this suffering situation!

A spirit of jealousy may also be an impression from the Lord. Hence he most graciously favoured his own peculiar people with a miraculous test of a woman’s innocence, or of her guilt. This extraordinary institution relieved the husband, by allowing him to open his mind; it also afforded an injured woman the infallible means of attesting her innocence before the Lord and his church. Striking the guilty with swelling, burning, rottenness, and the rapid approaches of death, it produced confession and repentance, that the soul might be saved in the day of the Lord. On the public, the effects would not be less salutary. Who would blindly follow the basest of passions, while the vengeance of the Lord was at the door? A good woman is a crown of glory to her husband, but a wicked woman makes him ashamed, and is like corruption in his bones. However salutary the institution was, when wickedness increased before the Babylonian captivity it fell into total disuse; for the prevalence of vice, and the loss of discipline, are companions in apostasy.

It may here be asked, why this test was not established for men as well as for women? In general it is not well to ask more than is revealed; but in this case reason seems adequate to decide the question on several grounds, for women being the weaker vessel are apt to be more suspicious than men. A woman going astray might bring an alien child to inherit her husband’s wealth; but the law was chiefly intended to protect a woman from the cruel treatment of a jealous husband. And a wicked man undetected is but reserved for a heavier scourge.

To the christian church no such tests of guilt or of innocence are given; for we have before us the perfect example of Christ, and the spotless lustre of his doctrine. Consequently, purity is required of all his members. Not only the adulterer, but he who indulges an unchaste desire is, without repentance, excluded from the kingdom of God. And what man is able to prove from the new testament, that repentance will be accepted without confession, and without reparation and its fruits? Let men consider this before they rush into sins so hateful in the sight of God, and opposed to every code of civil law. May all the Israel of God be chaste and holy as the bride of Christ, that he may betroth us in righteousness for ever.

Bibliographical Information
Sutcliffe, Joseph. "Commentary on Numbers 5". Sutcliffe's Commentary on the Old and New Testaments. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/jsc/numbers-5.html. 1835.
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