Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, April 18th, 2024
the Third Week after Easter
We are taking food to Ukrainians still living near the front lines. You can help by getting your church involved.
Click to donate today!

Bible Commentaries
Numbers 5

Lange's Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal and HomileticalLange's Commentary

Verses 1-31

Exclusion of Lepers and all Persons Levitically Unclean from the Holy Camp. Camp Laws for Those Morally Guilty

Numbers 5:1-10

1And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, 2Command 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: 3Both 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. 4And 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.

5And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, 6Speak 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; 7Then they shall confess their sin which they have done: and he shall recompense his 1trespass 2with the principal thereof, and add unto it the fifth part thereof, and give it unto him against whom he hath trespassed. 8But if the man have no kinsman to recompense the atrespass unto, 3let the trespass be recompensed unto the Lord, even to the priest; 4beside 9the ram of the atonement, whereby an atonement shall be made for him. And every 5offering of all the holy things of the children of Israel, which they bring unto the priest, shall be his. 10And every man’s hallowed things shall be his: whatsoever any man giveth the priest, it shall be his.


In this section it becomes especially clear, that the component parts of the Book of Numbers appear under the concrete view-point, that the military encampment of God shall be kept sacred, particularly, too, because it should be free from every censure, and so be invincible. For as regards the matter composing this chapter, the greater part has formed the substance of previous writings. The first section, Numbers 5:1-4, appears already in Leviticus 11-15. The second section, Numbers 5:5-10, is for the most part in the passage on the sin-offering, Leviticus 5:14-19; comp. Numbers 7:1-10. Thus the concrete reference, or the formal totality of the representation of the idea of this book demanded the apparent repetition, as this in fact obtains everywhere in the books of the Bible. It is not the materials that determine their formal disposition; but the power of the form reigns, organizes and animates the materials, as the soul does the body. In this its characteristic trait the Scriptures contrast with the many short-comings of more recent and modern criticism. Because men do not know the formative power of biblical ideas, they rummage the materials of the Bible helter-skelter, and endlessly, e.g. in respect to the Pentateuch, Job, the four Gospels, the relation between the Epistles to the Ephesians and to the Colossians.

In general, we may regard these concrete constructions as giving emphasis to previous constructions. The military camp is the congregation of God in higher potency.

Numbers 5:1-4. The period of exclusion was for the menstruous seven days; for momentary uncleanness, for bloody flux, an indefinite period, according to the continuance of the malady. “Only those named were affected by the law, not such as were rendered unclean only for the current day. Women confined were, according to Leviticus 12:0, called unclean, but apart from holy things were not said to defile.” [“God was not acting as a physician and merely consulting the health of the people, but exercised them in purity. For by joining with the lepers those who had an issue, etc., he instructs the people simply to keep away from all uncleanness.” Calvin. Their camps.—The plural is supposed to refer to the successive encampments (Bush). Others, both Jewish and Christian commentators, understand the reference to be to the arrangement of the encampment into three camps: (1) the Tabernacle, (2) the Levites, (3) the rest of Israel. Their would then refer to numbers (2) and (3). See Bush in loc.—Tr.]

Numbers 5:5-10. Any sin that men commit [e. g. Lev. 5:21, 22 (Leviticus 6:2-3)—Tr.], to do a trespass against the LORD; so that restitution may hot be dispensed with [comp. Lev. 5:23–26 (Leviticus 6:4-7)]. Here the specification of Lev. 5:23 (Leviticus 6:24) sqq. is supplemented by supposing a case where the man to whom restitution ought to be made is not present. From the words: if the man have no kinsman (goel) to whom restitution may be made for guilt, Keil [also Calvin.—Tr.] infers that it is assumed that the offended person himself is no longer alive. It is nearer the mark to see a goel [redeemer] in the qualified receiver of the debt (be it the offended person himself or a kinsman). The redeemer or receiver becomes here, in some measure, the freer of the guilty person that has confessed the consciousness of his guilt. When, therefore, this one is wanting, the indemnity is to be paid to the priest, except the sin-offering, which is paid to God. Jehovah gives the indemnity to the priest. This then leads to the more general specification, that so-called heave-offerings [comp. Exodus 25:1-9] or votive gifts may be made to the priest. These gifts could be personal, so that they needed not to flow into the Temple treasury. By this it was made possible for these cases of guilt to be treated more confidentially, which also gave the greater encouragement to the confession of guilt and to restitution.


Marriage Inviolable in the Sacred Army. The Offering of Jealousy. The Water of Cursing

Numbers 5:11-31

11And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, 12Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, If any man’s wife go aside, and commit a trespass against him, 13And 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 6 with the manner; 14And 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: 15Then shall the man bring his wife unto the priest, and he shall bring her 7offering 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 8offering of jealousy, an coffering of memorial, bringing iniquity to remembrance. 16And the priest shall bring her near, and set her before he Lord: 17And the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel; and of the dust that Isaiah 9:0 in the floor of the tabernacle the priest shall take, and put it into the water: 18And the priest shall set the woman before the Lord, and uncover the woman’s head, and put the coffering of memorial in her hands, which is the jealousy coffering: and the priest shall have in his hand the bitter water that causeth the curse: 19And 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 10 11with another instead of thy husband, be thou free from this bitter water that causeth the curse: 20But if thou hast gone aside1 2to another instead of thy husband, and if thou be defiled, and some man have lain with thee besides thine husband: 21Then the priest shall charge the woman with 12an 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 1314rot, and thy belly to swell; 22And this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, to make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to frot. And the woman shall say, Amen, amen. 23And the priest shall write these curses in a book, and he shall blot them out 15with the bitter water: 24And 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, 16 and become bitter. 25Then the priest shall take the jealousy coffering out of the woman’s hand, and shall wave the coffering before the Lord, and 17offer it upon the altar: 26And the priest shall take a handful of the coffering, even the memorial thereof, and burn it upon the altar, and afterward shall cause the woman to drink the water. 27And 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, h and become bitter, and her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall frot: and the woman shall be a curse among her people. 28And if the woman be not defiled, but be clean; then she shall be free, and 18shall conceive 29seed. This is the law of jealousies, when a wife goeth aside1 2to another instead of her husband, and is defiled; 30Or 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. 31Then shall the an be guiltless from iniquity, and this woman shall bear, her iniquity.


[Numbers 5:13. “Καὶ κοιμηθῇ τις μετ’ αὐτῆς κοίτην σπέρματος.” lxx. “Et coierit aliquis cum ea coitu seminis.” Calvin.

Numbers 5:20. ויתן אותך, etc. Καὶ ἔδωκέ τις τὴν κοίτην αὐτοῦ ἐν σοί. LXX. Dederitque aliquis in te semen suum. Calvin.

The euphemism of the A. V. and of Dr. Lange’s translator, Pastor Fay, in rendering these verses may not endanger the correct understanding of the passage, as would be the case in Leviticus 15:18, where a literal rendering is given. See the Comm. there. But still it is safe not to attempt to be more delicate than God’s written word.—Tr.]


a) The offering of jealousy. This law is so unique and peculiar that it is no wonder that theological literature has busied itself a great deal with the subject (see a list of the literature in Knobel, p. 20; Keil, p. 210. Especially deserving of notice is Oehler’s article in Herzog’s R. Enc. XIX., p. 472, Eiferopfer). Knobel expresses surprise that this ordinance should be put just here. Other modern “critical” deliverances can infer nothing better than that the extraordinary representations of this biblical passage afford an evident proof against the doctrine of inspiration. But both views spring from a want of penetration into the idea of this ordinance. As regards the place of this passage, it, as well as the two that precede [Numbers 5:1-4; Numbers 5-10], has to do with preserving the purity of Jehovah’s military encampment. The jealous man, that suspects his wife of adultery, is a combatant of Jehovah’s, and as such should keep himself pure. But, while in a jealous mood, he might transgress in two ways. He might in an outburst of anger abuse or repudiate his wife on mere suspicion: or also, as a loose character, he might continue to indulge his sensual lust with the woman, though he regarded her as a courtezan. Either would conflict in the grossest way with the theocratic personal dignity. Also the woman, moved by the man’s arbitrariness, might capriciously surrender herself to the sensual pleasure. We have cause to deplore such a reciprocal effect as a great heathendom of disregard of personality within Christendom; especially among Romanish nations. Some of these, as the Spaniards, gratify their jealousy by revenge, while others, especially the French, suffer their suspicion to degenerate into an immoral tolerance that lets each do as he pleases. In either case marriage is desecrated, personality is degraded; and whereas, in the one case, the births of the woman must suffer injury from the anger of the man, in the other case, a condition of bastardy spreads through the nation, that injures the moral roots of its existence. Hence the giving of the law took another course in order to preserve the integrity of marriage, by permitting the writing of divorce, yet under discipline and oversight, and by not forbidding the man to maintain concubines. The woman, it is true, Seems to be at disadvantage by these legal enactments. Still she had her liberty if she remained unmarried, whereas the man also became a transgressor if he sinned with another man’s wife. But this stricter position of the woman does not rest on merely psychological reasons. The giving of the Law operated still more in favor of sacred births than of sacred marriages. By the moral refinement of the births Israel was to be elevated from generation to generation, till it attained the realization of ethical virginity (see John 1:12-13). Hence the holy legislation took in charge the natural right of jealousy, just as it did the matter of divorce. It did not, indeed, deal with the case where the woman could be convicted of her guilt, and so, on the other hand, fortifying the denial by a simple oath, could make the evil in this case only worse. Hence no other recourse than this was possible on legal ground. But the spirit of the legislation was quite conscious that even with this awful conjuration no absolute certainty was attained, but only a legal and social certainty. Moreover, it is assumed, not without reason, that the awful form of this cleansing procedure made it primarily a preventive measure that was not often carried into execution.

With respect to the significance of the particular parts of this transaction, it must assuredly be called an error when they are so often construed as if they would anticipate the punishment. The justice of the Scripture distinguishes between suspicion and certain judgment. Hence the justice of Joseph of Nazareth consisted in his seeking a middle course in his suspicion, and being unwilling to dismiss his betrothed with a public rebuke (see on Matthew 1:19). Thus it is a glaring assumption when the inferior sort of material of the offering, viz. barley meal, that was else used to feed cattle, is made to signify that the adulteress does not distinguish herself from the beasts (Philo), or that the woman has behaved like an irrational brute (Jonathan, etc.). The same is true in respect to the mingling of dust with the holy water that the woman must drink. To the interpretation just mentioned, Keil, as well as Knobel, objects that the woman bringing the offering might, in fact, be innocent. Yet further on he adopts the explanation: “Dust is poured into the water, not to signify that man is made of dust, and must return to dust again, but as an allusion to the serpent’s eating dust (Genesis 3:14), as a curse of sin, consequently as an image of deserving a curse, of the deepest shame and humiliation (Micah 7:17; Isaiah 49:23; Psalms 72:9).” The serpent, of course, sometimes feeds on the dust of the Temple; still it is not said that this was destined for its food. Oehler here agrees with Keil: “By drinking, the penetration of the curse into the inmost part of the body is effected (comp. the expression in Psalms 109:18). We say effected, not symbolized. For according to the simple meaning of the words in Numbers 5:27 the water is not merely to be regarded as a symbol and pledge, but the actual vehicle of the divine curse, Keil says very justly (p. 301), etc.” Is an hypothetical curse, that possibly may be not only without injurious effect, but may even bring about a blessing, to be called here directly a curse?

But besides these significations that forestall judgment, rabbinical exaggerations of a fabulous kind have especially obscured the passage. For instance, “the immediate effect” is thus described (Sota, III. 4): “Hardly had she drunk the bitter water, when, if she were unclean, her countenance began to turn yellow, her eyes protruded, and her veins burst,” etc. No wonder that the same treatise has it that, even before the decision, her veil and garments were torn off her, black clothes put on her, and a cord to girdle her breast.

b) The moving cause, Numbers 5:10-14. The somewhat cumbersome expression admits indeed the assumption that the man’s jealousy was well-founded, still without deciding. [The spirit of jealousy, Numbers 5:14. Comp. Proverbs 6:34.Song of Solomon 8:6.—Tr.].

c) The presentation of the woman before the priest with her offering, Numbers 5:15. The poor bond of union that still exists between both parties, is designated by the inferior offering, which still the man must provide, but the woman is to present. It is a meal offering, mincha, consisting of the tenth part of an epha of barley meal. Barley, worth only half as much as wheat, was the food of the poor, and even of the cattle. But these two, in their present relation, were a house that had become poor. They were to add neither oil nor frankincense, for it would be contrary to the truth, since, in such agitation, the life of the soul and the spirit of prayer are completely depressed, if both are not entirely wanting. This is indicated by the conclusion of the verse.

d) The priest’s procedure. 1) The adjuration or administering the oath, Numbers 5:16-22. The first efficacy lies in the slow deliberateness and formality of the solemn procedure, by which time is allowed to the woman for awakening, for confession. One may regard it as correct when the Talmud informs us: did she submit to confess, then her marriage letter (kethuba) was destroyed, by which she lost what her husband promised her at their marriage, but otherwise she departed without punishment. [How reconcile this with Leviticus 20:10, according to which an adulteress must suffer death? Keil judiciously states that “nothing is said about what was to be done” in case of implied confession.—Tr.] Therefore the priest placed her before the Lord at the altar of burnt-offering. In a mean earthen vessel he dipped holy water (wash-water of the fore-court? [see Translator’s note below]) such as served for sacred uses in the Temple [Tabernacle], and put into it dust from the floor of the Temple, yet that means a sacred dust, so reckoned along with the Temple, which, just as the water, must imbue with sacred dread a conscience sensible of guilt. Then the woman’s head is uncovered; she stands with flowing hair, not already as a great sinner, but as one provisorily shorn of her dignity, forsaken of her husband and all the world, whom one, moreover, may look in the eyes, and now the offering of rebuke is laid in her hands. She must hold it so a long while; the trembling hand of one conscious of guilt would readily let it fall. 2) Then follows the administration of the oath.—In very definite and drastic terms innocence and guilt are distinguished, and it is announced to her that the hypothetically bitter (see Numbers 5:27) and cursing water, which she must now drink, will do her no harm in case she is innocent, but that it will do her harm in case she is guilty. Before the hypothetical announcement of the curse, is again intimated a pause full of anxiety, according to the words: “has any man lain with thee besides thy husband?” Then follows the awful formula of the oath, which, in case she is guilty, loads with a curse on the one hand her memory among the nation, and on the other her body, her female organization, with which she has sinned. Thereupon she must declare her readiness to drink the water with the words amen, amen, by which she makes the oath her own. [“Some think the Amen being doubled, respects both parts of the adjuration, both that which freed her if innocent, and that which condemned her if guilty.” M. Henry.—Tr.]. Another pause. The priest writes the curse or form of oath on a tablet, and with the bitter water washes off the writing, so that she must in a symbolical way drink the very formula of oath. She drinks some of the water. 3) Now the priest completes the offering, and only after that she drinks all the water.

One must not mend this representation by condensation, since just its slow movement, with pauses, portrays the psychological intent of the action.
In regard to the corporeal side of the curse, it is indeed assumed that the effect will begin to appear at once, but not that it will at once be completed; a myth of the Talmud that negative criticism eagerly appropriates. It has been supposed that the threatened sickness was dropsy of the ovary, or else dropsy in general (see Keil in loc., Knobel, p. 23). Evidently a disease of females is meant, such as answers for a punishment of a sexual sin, and it is certain that even an inferior agitation of spirit in a woman can have such consequences. It is not easy to imagine how the “incorporated” curse, that Keil assumes, and which Oehler (Herzog, R.-Enc. XIX. p. 474) would have only to be completed by ethical ingredients, can be transformed into a blessing in the body of the innocent woman. As an apologetical analogy for a dogma, this analogy is very far-fetched, unless one would affirm that in conjunction with the agitation accompanying the consciousness of guilt the bitter water itself must become poison to the woman that drank it.

But it must be specially noticed that the innocent and yet sorely-tried woman could, in this situation, rise to a very exaltation of trust in God. Standing there with her loosened hair, she must become to her husband the object of utmost compassion. Were there added to that the appearance of a joyous, heroic courage, the tables would be turned; she triumphed over the husband. Hence nothing more was to be done to the man, when innocence had celebrated its victory over him. His jealousy was punished by being openly put to shame, and he must acknowledge her again as his married wife, whereas marriage intercourse was legally prohibited during his suspicion (according to Sota i. 3, “hindered by watching him!”) The innocent wife, on the other hand, receives notice of a blessing (Numbers 5:28), which on her part, also, is psychologically well-founded, which, however, the Talmud represents in an untrue fashion. The Gamara adds: “if previously her births were hard, afterwards they were easy; had she daughters before, she afterwards receives sons.”

It is an abstract procedure of supra-naturalism when one would eliminate from this law of jealousy the psychological and ethical ingredients. It has indeed a human relationship with the ordeals of the middle ages, but these have on their part also a relationship to the theocratic faith of revelation, on whose summit appears this significant, divine ordinance, testifying as it does to wonderful wisdom and acquaintance with the heart. The New Testament aspect of the matter is, that the woman threatened with fearful vengeance is taken under the protection of the sanctuary, as even now-a-days Christian authorities now and then take under their protection one threatened with Lynch-law by putting him in prison. The slow deliberateness of the proceeding may also serve to elucidate the fact that Christ wrote on the ground when the adulteress was brought before Him. Any way, He brought about a great, silent pause.
It has been assumed that this proceeding, which from the very first was hemmed about with many limitations (see Oehler, ibid. p. 476), was seldom used, and that later it was abolished (ibid.). But one could wish very much that the moral ideas corresponding to this typical law might everywhere make their light and right prevail.

[Numbers 5:17. Holy water. “Let my readers, however, consider whether He does not rather mean the water in which the ashes of the red heifer were sprinkled, and whereby solemn purifications were made (Numbers 19:1).” Calvin. This suggestion does not deserve to be ignored as it seems to be by all later commentaries. Seeing the varied uses to which that water was put, it would naturally be the next to be thought of for the present purpose, at least after the ceremony of the red heifer was once instituted. But the record of the latter institution being given in connection with events occurring on the subsequent march, is not proof that it was not instituted before. In the case of the ordinances in Numbers 5:1-10, we see that they were instituted before.

Numbers 5:28. וְנִזְרְעָה זַֽרַע, “and she shall be sown with seed.” The nearest meaning of the words would only suggest that the woman is to receive from her husband what is due to a wife (comp. Exodus 20:10; 1 Corinthians 7:3). The phrase may be taken as the expression for what is honorable, looking toward offspring, as שִׁכְבַת־זֶרַע Numbers 5:13, comp. Leviticus 19:20; Leviticus 15:18, refers to intercourse without such intent. Comp. Nahum 1:14. The phrase is ἅπ. λεγ.—Tr.].


Chap. 5. The preservation of the purity of God’s army. Jealousy as a legal suffering and as a passion. Jealousy, an obscure witness for the exclusiveness and sanctity of marriage. The power of conscience; both of a good and of a bad conscience.



[2]the very sum. De Wette; according to its full value, Bunsen; according to its total amount, Zunz.

[3]the guilt recompensed belongs to the Lord, for the priest.


[5]Or, heave offering.

[6]in the act.




[10]Or, being in the power of thy husband.

[11]Heb. under thy husband.


[13]Heb. fall.



[16]for bitterness.

[17]present it at.

[18][Heb. shall be sown with seed. Calvin.—Tr.]

Bibliographical Information
Lange, Johann Peter. "Commentary on Numbers 5". "Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lcc/numbers-5.html. 1857-84.
adsFree icon
Ads FreeProfile