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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 5

Pett's Commentary on the BiblePett's Commentary



The Mobilisation of the Army of Israel, and the Preparation of the Levites For Their Work of Bearing the Ark and Dwellingplace of Yahweh (1:1-4:49).

The first stage towards entry into the land had to be the mobilisation of the army of Israel, both of its fighting men, and of its ‘servants of the dwellingplace of Yahweh’. That is what is in mind in the first four chapters.

The description of this follows a general chiastic pattern indicated by the letters a to d and can be divided up as follows:

a The taking of the sum of the tribes and their responsibility (to war) (Numbers 1:1-46).

b The Levites’ responsibility for the Dwellingplace (Numbers 1:47-54).

c Positioning and arrangements for travel of the people (Numbers 2:1-32).

d The consecration of the priests to Yahweh (Numbers 3:1-4).

d The dedication of the Levites to the priests and to Yahweh (Numbers 3:5-13)

c Positioning and arrangements for travel of the Levites (Numbers 3:14-51).

b The priests’ responsibility for the Dwellingplace (Numbers 4:5-15).

a The taking of the sum of the Levites and their responsibilities (Numbers 4:1-4; Numbers 4:21-49).

Provision For The Purity of the Camp And Yahweh’s Own Provision For That Purity (5:1-9:14).

Vital if Yahweh was to dwell among His people, and speak to them, and shine His light on them, was that they be holy. The provision for the holiness of the camp can be divided between the responsibility of the people to seek holiness and purity (Numbers 5:1 to Numbers 7:88) and the response of Yahweh in providing them (Numbers 7:89 to Numbers 9:14).

1). The Responsibility Of The Whole People (5:1-7:88).

a First was the responsibility to keep the camp ritually clean and whole by expulsion of all that was unclean that would defile the camp (Numbers 5:1-4), dealing with moral offences that caused dissension and would defile the camp (Numbers 5:5-10), and the maintenance of marital relationships with the consequent removal of the defilement of secret adultery (Numbers 5:11-31).

b Second was the responsibility for the lay people to consider the opportunity for individual dedication of themselves as Nazirites to Yahweh (Numbers 6:1-21), at least for a time, putting themselves almost on a par with the priests from a point of view of consecration to God, although not enabling them to perform priestly functions. By this they could increase the holiness of the camp and contribute to it becoming ‘a kingdom of priests’ (Exodus 19:6).

c Third was for the priests to dispense Yahweh’s blessing of His people with His Name (Numbers 6:22-27), establishing them as His holy people and ensuring the holiness of the camp.

d Fourth was for the princes to provide the gifts and offerings necessary for the dedication of the altar and for the maintaining of the holiness of the Sanctuary on behalf of the whole of Israel (Numbers 7:1-88).

2). The Response of the Sanctuary (7:89-9:14).

d In response the Voice of Yahweh would speak to Moses from the Mercy Seat (Numbers 7:89). The King would make His response to the offerings of the princes by acting as their Guide through the supreme leader.

c Second would come the lighting of the lamps in the Sanctuary, symbolising the light of Yahweh among His people, and as it shone on the show bread which represented His people, it indicated His blessing on them, and the light of His face shining on them. Through the lampstand, the light of His face was revealed as shining permanently on His people (Numbers 8:1-4 compare Numbers 6:25; 2 Corinthians 4:1-6).

b Third would come the compulsory dedication of the Levites to the service of Yahweh (Numbers 8:5-26). This on the Godward side parallels the dedication of the Nazirites among the people, contributing to the holiness of the camp.

a And fourthly would come the compulsory keeping of the Passover of deliverance by all who were clean (Numbers 9:1-14). Having cleansed the camp (Numbers 5:1-31) they were in a position to enjoy the Passover. This glad feast reminded them of how Yahweh watched over them and protected them, because they were atoned for by the shedding of blood in accordance with His commandment. And as their deliverance had begun with the Passover, so would their going forward now begin with the Passover, a reminder that the Yahweh Who had revealed His power in Egypt was still with them.

Note the parallels. The cleansing of the camp (Numbers 5:1-31) results in their being able to celebrate the Passover of deliverance as a ‘clean’ people (Numbers 9:1-14), The dedication of the people as Nazirites, increasing the holiness of the camp (Numbers 6:1-21), is paralleled by the permanent dedication of the Levites as holy on their behalf (Numbers 8:5-26). The blessing of the priests and their desire for the light of His countenance to shine on Israel (Numbers 6:22-27) is paralleled by the shining of the lamp in the Dwellingplace on the showbread which represented Israel, depicting a greater reality (Numbers 8:1-4). While the submission of the princes and their dedication of the altar (Numbers 7:1-88) is responded to by the Voice of Yahweh from between the Cherubim speaking to their supreme leader (Numbers 7:89).

Chapter 5 The Necessity For the Purity and Sinlessness of the Camp.

Now that preparations had been made for the forces of Israel to advance in proper order on the land and establish Yahweh’s rule there, and for the Priests and Levites to ensure the safety and carriage of Yahweh’s Dwellingplace which they were bearing there, the next essential was to ensure the purity of the camp. For sin and uncleanness (unwholesomeness) in the camp could prevent all that Yahweh would seek to do, and would mean that He could not dwell among them, and it was important that full recognition should be given to this.

These next chapters thus focus in on this question. The first necessity was for the removal of all that was unclean and unwholesome so as to ensure the purity of the camp, the second was to deal with the question of sins against Yahweh and against neighbours so as to ensure harmony and removal of causes of offence in the camp, and the third was so as to ensure right relationships and faithfulness at the heart of families, by maintaining relationships between husband and wife, and preventing or eradicating grievous sin against Yahweh which defiled the camp. These are dealt with in this chapter. This was then to lead on to a consideration of the need for periods of ‘full separation’ to Yahweh so that His will might have pre-eminence in their lives, increasing the holiness of the camp (Numbers 6:1-21), the need for the blessing of Yahweh that they might be holy (Numbers 6:22-27) and the dedicating of the altar by the princes for the maintaining of the holiness of the people (Numbers 7:1-88).

These sections from Numbers 5:1 to Numbers 7:88 may be summarised as follows:

a Removal of ritual uncleanness by casting it from the camp (Numbers 5:1-4).

b Removal of moral uncleanness through the activity of the priests (Numbers 5:5-10)

c Removal of sexual uncleanness. The woman’s hair is let down (Numbers 5:11-31).

c Seeking of moral and spiritual holiness. The Nazirite has to grow his hair long. Note how the long hair of the woman parallels the long hair of the Nazirite but for a contrasting reason (Numbers 6:1-21)

b Seeking moral and spiritual welfare through the blessing of the priests (Numbers 6:22-27)

a Seeking the people’s ritual cleanness through the dedication of the altar (Numbers 7:1-88).

Chapter 5 may then be split as follows:

a Ritual cleansing of the camp from defilement by uncleanness (Numbers 5:1-4).

b Cleansing of the camp from trespasses against Yahweh and against neighbours (Numbers 5:5-10).

a Cleansing of the camp from defilement caused by secret adultery (Numbers 5:11-31).

Verses 1-4

The Ritual Cleansing of the Camp (Numbers 5:1-4 ).

The first essential was a symbolic purifying of the camp. This symbolic act at this particular time was in order to stress the importance of keeping the camp clean and wholesome so that Yahweh might dwell in it. It went beyond what would be the norm, for once the point was established some types of uncleanness could be dealt with by exclusion within the camp.


a Yahweh commands that the unclean be put out of the camp (Numbers 5:1-2).

b Both unclean males and females to be put out of the camp (Numbers 5:3 a).

b The purpose is that they might not defile the camp where Yahweh dwells (Numbers 5:3 b).

a The children of Israel put the unclean out of the camp as Yahweh commanded (Numbers 5:4).

Numbers 5:1-3

‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, “Command the children of Israel, that they put out of the camp every seriously skin diseased person, and every one who has an issue, and whoever is unclean by the dead. Both male and female shall you put out. Outside the camp shall you put them, so that they do not defile their camp, in the midst of which I dwell.’

The first stage was to empty the camp of all those with serious skin diseases. Full details of the restrictions and requirements concerning this were to be found in Leviticus 13-14. (See Numbers 12:10-16 for a practical example). Those so afflicted would have to live in tents or caves outside the camp and would only be allowed to re-enter the camp in accordance with those regulations and with the permission of the priests when they could declare them clean. All who touched them, or certain things connected with them, would become unclean.

They would no doubt be catered for by their ‘families’. They were not spiritually ‘cut off’. They could offer sacrifices through the mediation of others, and could pray towards the Dwellingplace, and towards Heaven. It was still ‘their camp’. Their being there was simply a recognition that only what was fully wholesome could dwell in God’s presence (from which in fact all were restricted to some degree. Even the priests could not enter the Most Holy Place. It was a matter of degrees and giving the right overall impression about God)

The second stage was to empty the camp of all those with an ‘issue’ from the sex organs. This was in order to bring home to the whole camp that Yahweh saw such an issue as making men and women ritually unclean. All who touched them, or came in contact with certain things connected with them, would also become unclean.

Behind this lay the fact that while Yahweh had created man to reproduce (Genesis 1:28), man had brought sin into the world and therefore reproduced in sin (Genesis 5:3-8 - Adam begat a son who would die). Sex itself was not looked on as sinful, it was indeed a requirement for all men (even priests. Without it the priesthood would not have continued), but it was seen as coming short of the best, of full wholesomeness. Possibly included in the idea was that by it man lost something of his own ‘life source’. He gave out something of himself, thus diminishing himself. But what is made clear is that when men sought Yahweh’s favour abstention from sexual activity was a pre-requirement (Exodus 19:15; 1 Samuel 21:4-5; 1 Corinthians 7:5).

However, having said that, normal sexual discharge would only result in uncleanness until the evening and may therefore well not be in mind here. The thought is probably rather of those with more permanent discharges, which were seen as more serious.

In all this we have the paradox that sexual activity was seen as a requirement for man so that he might fulfil his calling, and yet was seen as tainted and not fully wholesome because of what it reproduced (although in normal cases the uncleanness was but for the remainder of the day). But the Bible never encourages asceticism, only self-control for a time for the fulfilment of greater purposes. Paul warns strongly against abstaining from sexual activity, except for a time (1 Corinthians 7:5), unless a person is made in such a way that he can ‘live without sin’ without it, although he does allow that because we are in the last days there may be grounds for abstention for those so gifted (1 Corinthians 7:7; 1 Corinthians 7:9; 1 Corinthians 7:26; 1 Corinthians 7:32). But he states firmly that husband and wife have a responsibility to each other to satisfy each other’s sexual needs (1 Corinthians 7:3-5). To fail to do so deliberately is seen as gross sin.

These exclusions were to be seen as the short, sharp shock. Once the camp was purified those who could demonstrate that they were now clean would presumably be allowed back in once the problem of the issue was, if necessary, dealt with in accordance with Leviticus 15:0. Their issues could include venereal and other similar genital diseases. This was almost certainly only intended to cover the longer term ‘issues’ which did not become clean by evening.

Once the camp had become used to dealing with such issues and had organised themselves so as to provide places of seclusion these uncleannesses would be able to be dealt with within the camp by remaining within a separate section in their tents (see Leviticus 15:0 where there is no mention of exclusion, only from the company of those who were ‘clean’).

The third stage was to remove from the camp all who were unclean through touching, or having other contact with, the dead. This would bring home to all the seriousness of such ‘uncleanness’. Physical contact with the dead was considered to be so serious that were it not to be cleansed with the water of uncleanness it would be seen as itself requiring death (Numbers 19:13; Numbers 19:20). All who entered a tent where there was death would be unclean. For examples of such uncleanness see Numbers 19:11; Numbers 19:14; Numbers 19:16. The point here is that death was the opposite of all that the living God was seen to be.

It can easily be observed that these exclusions would strongly contribute towards the physical health of society, but that is not how God explained them to the people. The maintenance of ritual cleanness would be a far greater impetus to them. And it taught the need for what was seemly and wholesome.

Ritual uncleanness of any kind was seen as a serious matter. Contact with someone who was unclean could render a person unclean, and so unable to approach Yahweh’s Dwellingplace. Thus it was necessary that those who could make others unclean be secluded or excluded as far as the camp was concerned, otherwise uncleanness would spread though the camp. And no unclean person could approach the Sanctuary on pain of death. Fortunately, in respect of most ritual uncleanness the remedy was simply to wait on Yahweh until the evening, having first washed with water in order to remove earthiness before entering into such waiting. Time was the ‘healer’. But more persistent uncleanness required more detailed treatment.

In view of widespread misunderstanding we should perhaps point out that water on its own is never said to ritually cleanse. After washing the person still remains ‘unclean’. The washing removes man’s ‘earthiness’ so that he can approach God. It is the time of waiting that ritually cleanses. Apart from ‘the water of uncleanness’ (seeNumbers 19:0; Numbers 19:0; Ezekiel 36:25 where it is ‘cleansed water’) water is never said to cleanse, except poetically.

Numbers 5:4

‘And the children of Israel did so, and put them out outside the camp. As Yahweh spoke to Moses, so did the children of Israel.’

The children of Israel did what Yahweh required. They put all who were at that time unclean with serious skin diseases or with issues or with the taint of death outside the camp so that the camp was made pure. It must be remembered in this respect that it would take time for the people to become familiar with the cult ritual with regard to uncleanness. Thus this was a necessary first lesson for them. Their very doing of it would require instruction concerning it, and the further allowing of some back into the camp eventually would also require instruction. Thus would the people learn Yahweh’s requirements for the future. Until that instruction was fully absorbed, outside the camp was the only place for all such unfortunate people.

The main lesson the people would learn from these exclusions was that God was holy and that nothing defiling could live where He was. They would recognise the need for a pure and holy life, a wholesome life, a life which avoided all that was imperfect, if He was to dwell among them. It would in the course of this prevent the spreading of much communicable disease, and it would encourage wholesomeness.

Verses 5-10

Maintaining Harmony In The Camp: Confession and Restitution For Sin and the Need For Atonement (Numbers 5:5-10 ).

Not only ritual uncleanness but a trespass against another would ‘defile the camp’ and prevent Yahweh dwelling there, and cause dissension within the camp. This was especially true when another had suffered loss by the trespass. This was to be dealt with as prescribed, and if the wronged person was dead restitution must still be made, either to a relative or to Yahweh. The camp must be kept in harmony and in a state of rightness, without dissension, or unfairness, with all in its proper place so that Yahweh could walk there.


a A man or woman sins and commits a trespass against Yahweh. This is a trespass that has defrauded another and is thus a taking from Yahweh (Numbers 5:5-6).

b They must confess what they have done and give recompense to the one whom they have defrauded (Numbers 5:7).

c If the man or his kinsman is not available then he must recompense it to Yahweh (Numbers 5:8 a).

c He must offer the ram of atonement whereby atonement is made for him to Yahweh (Numbers 5:8 b).

b Every offering of holy things brought to the priest is his, (this is the offerer’s recompense to Yahweh) (Numbers 5:9).

a Every man’s ‘made holy’ thing shall be the priest’s, a giving to Yahweh (this is the exact opposite of a trespass which takes from Yahweh) (Numbers 5:10).

Numbers 5:5-7

‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, When a man or woman shall commit any sin that men commit, so as to trespass against Yahweh, and that person shall be guilty, then he shall confess his sin which he has done. And he shall make restitution for his guilt in full, and add to it the fifth part of it, and give it to him in respect of whom he has been guilty.” ’

All sin separates from God but for most sin the offerings and sacrifices provided the regular solution. However, in cases where the sin had caused loss by others and/or disruption with others, thus resulting in disharmony within the camp either physically or spiritually, special requirements were in place. These are dealt with in Leviticus 6:2-3; compare Exodus 22:1. This was to be a time of making right before setting out on their journey towards the land, a provision for keeping right on their journey, and a provision for keeping all in spiritual harmony once they were settled in the land. To Yahweh harmony among His people was an essential.

The sin in mind is first seen as a trespass against Yahweh. It is an indication that when we hurt Yahweh’s people, we hurt Him. It is seen as ‘a sin that men commit’, something which is a part of man’s natural behaviour when he is not controlled by Yahweh and His Instruction. God was under no false illusions about the sinfulness of men’s hearts. But the special uniqueness of this kind of trespass was that it directly affected others. It disrupted the holiness of the camp.

Leviticus 6:2-3 describes such sins in terms of ‘if any one sin, and commit a trespass against Yahweh, and deal falsely with his neighbour in a matter of a deposit, or of bargaining, or of robbery, or have oppressed his neighbour, or have found that which was lost, and deal falsely with regard to it, and swear to a lie.’ The sins in mind are those of dishonesty with respect to a deposit not repaid when it should have been, the making of a false or unfair bargain, a deliberate theft (compare Exodus 22:1), the sin of oppressing or crowding a neighbour for financial gain, that of finding something that was lost and keeping it, or the making of a lie on oath. All had in one way or another caused loss to a neighbour.

Those who had done such things were to consider their position and act accordingly. First they were to openly admit what they had done and the guilt that was theirs because of it. Then they were to make recompense to the person against whom they had ‘trespassed’ together with an additional one fifth for compensation. If the person was dead then recompense could be made to a kinsman (the whole family had suffered because of the trespass). The one who had sinned would also have to offer a guilt offering (Leviticus 6:0).

Numbers 5:8

But if the man has no kinsman to whom restitution may be made for the guilt, the restitution for guilt which is made to Yahweh shall be the priest’s, besides the ram of the atonement, by which atonement shall be made for him.”

And if there was no kinsman alive then the recompense and the compensation was to be paid to Yahweh, that is, to the Priest. On top of this restoration and compensation, atonement had to be made. Yahweh too had been robbed and mistreated, and His holiness had been trespassed on. Thus a ram had to be offered as a guilt offering as described in Leviticus 6:6-7. Thus would there be a death for the sin, and its consequences would be removed from the sinner.

The principle here is very important. What causes disharmony with man causes disharmony with God, and that is equally true when the disharmony is only known to God. Sin disrupts God’s holiness and must therefore be fully dealt with so as, as far as possible, to remove all its traces.

Numbers 5:9

And every heave-offering (or ‘contribution offering’) of all the holy things of the children of Israel, which they present to the priest, shall be his.”

We may see this in terms of its contrast with Numbers 5:7. Not only was recompense to be made to the sinned against party, but it was also to be made to Yahweh Who had also been sinned against. Thus the contribution offering from the ram for atonement came to the priest as Yahweh’s recompense.

But it may also be seen as generally referring to any attempt to withhold the contribution offerings from the priests. The heave-offerings or contribution offerings were those parts of an offering or sacrifice which were the priest’s perquisite. There was to be no withholding them from the priest in any way. It was for the priest to decide what he would do with it as long as it was something which was right before God. So when men failed to offer the right offerings and sacrifices they robbed the priest (see Numbers 18:8-19; Leviticus 6:16 and often; Deuteronomy 18:1-8).

Numbers 5:10

And every man’s hallowed things shall be his. Whatever any man gives the priest, it shall be his.”

This last was also true of anything that men and women had vowed to Yahweh. Whatever had been made holy to Yahweh by a vow (see 30; Leviticus 27:0) belonged to the priest and must be dealt with honestly (compare Psalms 15:4). Any failure in this regard would affect the whole camp. That was the negative side.

But the positive is that this is in contrast to the behaviour of the man who had trespassed. He had defrauded his neighbour. But the man who sanctifies something to Yahweh and offers it as a holy gift is doing the opposite. He is demonstrating an open and generous heart. And such gifts also belong to the priests. For whatever is given to the priests is his.

Jesus in the New Testament brought home something of this situation. He said to those who followed Him that if they were bringing their gift to the altar (to God) and were suddenly convicted of something by which they had offended someone else, they were first to put right the situation before they offered their gift. Reconciliation with their neighbour must take place before offering worship. The implication is that as far as God was concerned worship had little value while the position continued (Matthew 5:23-24). He further pointed out that it might also prevent the neighbour’s retaliation which could be costly (Numbers 5:26-27; Galatians 5:15).

Verses 11-12

Maintaining Harmony In The Camp: The Law of Jealousy (Numbers 5:11-31 ).

Primary with regard to trespasses against a neighbour was to trespass against his wife. This was an especially heinous trespass which deeply defiled the camp, and if proved would incur the death penalty. It was of vital importance for the holiness of the camp and the wellbeing of Israel that marriage relationships be kept strong and vibrant, and that sexual relations took place only between husband and wife. Nothing was considered to be more disruptive to society than a marriage torn by suspicions and division, and rights of inheritance had to be preserved so as to ensure that the inheritance went to the true heir. Furthermore adultery defiled the camp. If it was not dealt with Yahweh could not dwell there.

On the one hand this was one area above all where the ‘trespasser’ would retain a firm silence. He/she would not be likely to reveal their guilt, for to admit to such a trespass would basically be to commit suicide. It incurred the death penalty. On the other there was the problem of the disruption that could be caused in the camp by even the suspicion of adultery, and the affect it could have on Yahweh’s earthly dwelling with them. Suspicion of adultery could not only cause great distress to the suspicious husband, it could cause even greater distress to an innocent wife. She may be refused the right to produce children. She may even be driven to suicide or back into her parent’s home as a deserted wife. This could then cause bitterness between two families which could divide the community. It was a position fraught with danger. And it defiled the camp.

The ‘law of jealousy’, which might at first seem unfair to the wife, catered for such a situation. In a society where women were closely guarded, and where secrecy was difficult because of the crowded lifestyle, the spirit of jealousy would usually have some foundation. But whether it had or not, once it was really raised it would not easily lie down. It would be seen as important that there be some way of resolving it. And this is provided here, under the supervision of Yahweh.

We must recognise that this law was not discriminatory against women. If there was discrimination anywhere it was in the fact that a man was not actually forbidden to have more than one wife, and therefore could not be found in this position, although if he was caught in adultery he would be put to death. This law actually demonstrated concern that an innocent woman should not go through life seen as guilty, and with the bearing of children refused to her (which in those days would have been seen as a huge punishment both by her and by others). Yahweh was as concerned to free the innocent woman from blame as He was to convict the guilty. But the whole procedure does bring out how heinous God sees sexual sin to be. It is seen as a sin which goes against the very basis of creation (Genesis 2:24). It defiles the company of the people of God. It is a high handed sin, a flaunting in the face of God, a sin against the very basis of society from the beginning, a capital crime, a crime deserving of death. It is not for nothing that the Scriptures forbid official office in the church to those who have had more than one sexual partner (repeated three times for emphasis (1 Timothy 3:2; 1 Timothy 3:12; Titus 1:6)).

However what follows is not neutral. While the possibly innocent wife is kept in mind it is the adulterous wife who is the main target of the passage. The aim is to root out the defilement caused by secret adultery.


a A man’s wife goes aside and commits adultery secretly (Numbers 5:11-12).

b The adultery is hidden from her husband and there is no witness (Numbers 5:13).

c The spirit of jealousy comes on the man whether she is defiled or not (Numbers 5:14).

d The man brings his wife to the priest with an offering of memorial (Numbers 5:15).

e The woman brought near and the priest makes the water of testing (Numbers 5:16-17).

f The woman is made to stand before Yahweh as prepared by the priest (Numbers 5:18).

g The priest charges her with an oath to speak truly (Numbers 5:19-20).

g The priest charges the woman with an oath of cursing (Numbers 5:21-22).

f The woman is made to drink the water of testing before Yahweh (Numbers 5:23-24).

e The priest takes the jealousy offering from the hand of the woman (Numbers 5:25).

d The priest bring the man’s offering of memorial before Yahweh and makes her drink the water (Numbers 5:26).

c If the woman is defiled her body will swell and she shall be a curse (Numbers 5:27).

b If she is innocent she will be revealed as clean and shall be free of blame for hidden adultery (Numbers 5:28).

a This is the law of jealousy for when a woman goes aside and commits adultery, or is suspected of it, freeing her husband from any guilt in regard to it (Numbers 5:29-31).

The Case of a Man’s Wife Who Goes Aside and Commits Adultery Secretly (Numbers 5:11-12 ).

Numbers 5:11

‘And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying,’

Once again it is emphasised that we have here Yahweh’s word to Moses.

Numbers 5:12

Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them, If any man’s wife go aside, and commit a trespass against him, and a man lie with her carnally.”

The case is laid out. Adulterous women in the camp must be sought out and dealt with. The example is of a woman who has genuinely betrayed her husband. She had defrauded her husband. She had ‘committed a trespass’ against him for which nothing could compensate. She had lain with another man in secret. By it she had become defiled even though there was no witness against her and she was not ‘caught in the act’. Furthermore through her defilement the holy camp of Israel had been defiled. A defiled person was among them. Covenant unity and purity had been spoiled. It was a serious situation. Of course, while no one had any suspicion on the matter nothing could be done. Such secret sins would have to be left in the hands of Yahweh, and the daily offerings and the Day of Atonement would atone for the defilement as far as Israel was concerned. But once there was genuine suspicion that it might be so the case must be followed up and dealt with.

This provision actually enhances women’s status. It was seen that under God child producing was primarily her domain. It was her God-given responsibility. It was her prime responsibility to guard all that was connected with it. While man ruled the world, the woman ruled the cradle, and in that lay the whole significance of creation.

Verse 13

The Adultery is Hidden from Her Husband and There Is No Witness (Numbers 5:13 ).

Numbers 5:13

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, and she be not taken in the act,”

The emphasis here is on the fact that this grave sin has been kept hidden, although Yahweh will know about it. Her husband does not know, she deliberately keeps it hidden, there is no witness against her and she has not been caught in the act. But she has been defiled. And because she is defiled the camp is defiled. All may suffer because of her sin.

All of us need to recognise that when we carry around secret sin we defile wherever we go. Many a church’s witness is marred by the secret sin of its members.

Verse 14

The Spirit of Jealousy Comes On the Man Whether She Is Defiled or Not (Numbers 5:14 )

Numbers 5:14

And the spirit of jealousy come on him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be defiled, or if the spirit of jealousy come on him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be not defiled,”

What if there were suspicion that it had happened? It must be borne in mind that this is not written just in order to cater to the suspicions of jealous husbands. The point here is that the husband has a genuine suspicion that the camp of Israel has been defiled. And he is therefore right to be concerned about it because he is aware that Yahweh dwells in the camp and will be aware of it. He is jealous not for himself but for the honour of Yahweh.

It is, however, fairly pointed out by this passage that his suspicions are not to be taken as proof of guilt. It is recognised that they may arise whether the woman was guilty or not. The woman is not to be prejudged. But it is also recognised that ‘the spirit of jealousy’, the sense that the man has that there has been a capital crime which has defiled the camp and shamed him, is something that must be dealt with for everyone’s sake, not least the suspected woman whose life could become impossible. The ‘spirit of jealousy’ does not just refer to a man ‘feeling suspicious and jealous’. It signifies a spirit of deep concern that a sin against Yahweh had been committed which was grievous to Him. It was expressing a concern for the maintenance of the purity of Yahweh’s camp because of what Yahweh is. Yahweh is jealous for righteousness, it says, and we must share in His jealousy.

Verse 15

The Man is To Bring His Wife to the Priest With An Offering of Memorial (Numbers 5:15 ).

Numbers 5:15

Then shall the man bring his wife to the priest, and shall bring her oblation for her, the tenth part of an ephah of barley meal. He shall pour no oil on it, nor put frankincense on it, for it is a grain offering of jealousy, a grain offering of memorial, bringing iniquity to remembrance.”

The man must then bring his wife to the priest. We must see it as very likely that the priest, probably experienced in such things, would discuss the matter before acting in order to discover what grounds there were for the suspicion. He would not want to be involved in something which just arose from a family quarrel, a case that might soon be dropped. The task he was being asked to perform was a sacred one. Serious questions would be asked.

But once he was convinced that there may be genuine grounds for suspicion the husband would then have to present him with a grain offering. This was not a worship offering, for no oil (signifying blessedness) or frankincense (signifying worship) was to be included. It was of a similar nature to the individual sin offering for a poor person (Leviticus 5:11). But it was even lower than that for the grain here was to be the cheapest of grains, the tenth part of an ephah of barley meal. Barley was cheap (2 Kings 7:1), the food for the poor and for animals.

It was ‘a grain offering of jealousy’, that is a representation before Yahweh of his sense that he had been betrayed and that Yahweh had been betrayed and that his wife had sinned wickedly and had defiled the camp. But the aim was not atonement. He was seeking righteousness and the removal of the defilement on the whole of Israel. The offering was to draw Yahweh’s attention to the situation, bringing the supposed sin into remembrance (aware that Yahweh would already know about it), and assuring Him that they were concerned about it too. It was a ‘grain offering of memorial’.

Verses 16-17

The Woman Is To Be Brought Near Before Yahweh and the Priest Then Makes the Water of Testing (Numbers 5:16-17 )

Numbers 5:16

‘And the priest shall bring her near, and set her before Yahweh.’

The priest was then to arrange for the woman to be brought to the courtyard of the Sanctuary, and he would bring her before the door of the Tent of Meeting, ‘before Yahweh’.

This would be a huge moment for the woman. It would fill her with great awe. She would probably never have been so close to Yahweh’s ‘physical’ presence as she was then. Yet if she was innocent she would probably not be afraid. Like all who were standing round she would be convinced that Yahweh would know the truth and would do the right thing. And in her view that would be to clear her name. So while awed she would not be terrified. Only the guilty would be terrified. She may well even have been pleased to have this opportunity to be able to do this, for if she was cleared her husband would have to treat her rightly. But if she was guilty she would be very much afraid. She would know that the all seeing eye of Yahweh would be looking into her. Nothing could be hidden from Him.

Numbers 5:17

‘And the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel, and of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle the priest shall take, and put it into the water.’

We are nowhere else told about ‘holy water’, unless it is water from the laver in the courtyard of the Dwellingplace with which the priests washed their hands and feet (Exodus 30:19) prior to entering the Holy Place. But it is more probable that this was ‘the water (for the removal of) of uncleanness’ (Numbers 19:9; Numbers 19:17; Numbers 31:23) which was prepared from the ashes ever kept at the ready in case it was needed (Numbers 19:9). In Numbers 31:23 also it was seen as removing defilement. Ezekiel calls this ‘clean water’ (Ezekiel 36:25) which makes men clean.

Mixed with the holy water was ‘holy’ dust from the floor of the Dwellingplace, which the priest must take and put within the water, and later on there would be added to it whatever ‘ink’ was used in the writing of ‘the book’ containing the words of cursing (Numbers 5:23). Suggestions have been made that such a mixture may well have had ingredients in it which reacted on chemical secretions produced in the body by a sense of guilt. As we do not know for sure what those constituents would be it is something that cannot be tested. But in the end what came on the woman would be determined by Yahweh.

The whole was put in an earthenware vessel, the cheapest and lowest level of vessels. Everything to do with this ceremony was at the lowest level. The offering was the equivalent of a poor man’s sin offering; barley was offered instead of wheat; the holy water was put in an earthenware vessel. It was an indication of how God looks at sexual unfaithfulness. This was no glad act of worship. It was a deeply sad state of affairs.

The whole stress is on the holiness of the mixture. The water was ‘holy’, set apart to the unique service of God. Dust from the floor of the Holy Place would certainly be seen as holy. It was the place where in an earthly sense God dwelt. It would be seen as bringing the holiness of the Sanctuary to confront the woman. Thus the mixture would be seen as a God-mixture. Such a mixture could be expected to react violently against defilement within.

The dust is probably not therefore to be connected with the Garden of Eden, unless as the dust of man in his innocence, the dust from which man was formed (Genesis 2:7), the dust that took man back to the dawn of creation when woman was first given her responsibility, the dust of innocence. Others have connected it with the dust that the serpent would ‘eat’. But dust from the Holy Place could hardly be seen as suitable for the serpent. Still others have seen it as a deliberate reminder of the dust to which she would return if guilty, as if God were saying, ‘dust you are and to dust you will return’ (Genesis 3:19). But the main stress is almost certainly on the fact that it was from the Sanctuary. It was from holy ground.

Verse 18

The Woman is Made to Stand Before Yahweh as Prepared For It By the Priest (Numbers 5:18 ).

Numbers 5:18

‘And the priest shall set the woman before Yahweh, and let the hair of the woman’s head go loose, and put the grain offering of memorial in her hands, which is the grain offering of jealousy, and the priest shall have in his hand the water of bitterness which causes the curse.’

It is repeated that the woman was set ‘before Yahweh’. That was the most important part of the process and was repeated so that it might be stamped on the listener’s mind when the account was read out. All should know that it was Yahweh Who would judge her, not man.

The woman’s hair was then let loose. This symbolically revealed to Yahweh, and more emphatically to those watching, what the charge against the woman was and why she was there. Hair hanging loose was an indication of uncleanness (Leviticus 13:45) and of the fact that she was laid bare before Yahweh. She was being seen by Him as no one ever saw her publicly, with all pretence removed. Then the grain offering of memorial, the reminder to Yahweh of what the woman had done, if she had really done it, was put into her hands. Why the grain was of barley we can only guess. But it was ‘the grain offering of jealousy’. It was the indication to Yahweh of the fact of what her husband feared about her. He thought that she was cheap and low. The thought is possibly also that God was determining whether her faith was a sham. Was her life like barley, of low quality? Like the hair loosed it was the sign of a woman laid bare. If she were innocent it would not be held against her, and Yahweh would not be jealous.

Alternatively the hair loosed might have been seen as taking her back to man’s primitive state for her to be judged afresh as man had been judged when accused of sinning in the Garden, with the barley seen as wild grain found in the Garden. It may have been seen as going back to the days before man’s increasing sophistication caused the dressing of the hair, to the very beginning. Thus did woman stand once more to be judged by God for possible secret sin as had her ancestress Eve before her.

Or the hair might have been hanging loose in readiness for it to be cut if necessary as a sign of desolation and mourning (Jeremiah 7:29).

The priest then took in his hand ‘the water of bitterness which causes the curse’. It was not yet fully ready for use but the woman and all who were watching would know what it was. That water brought a curse on any guilty person who drank of it. The whole purpose of all this symbolism was to bring home to the woman, if she was guilty, how great her guilt was. She was no longer bringing her purity, or lack of it, before men, she was bringing it before God. (See Zechariah 3:1-3 for a similar idea).

Verses 19-20

The Priest Now Charges Her With an Oath to Speak Truly (Numbers 5:19-20 ).

Numbers 5:19-20

‘And the priest shall cause her to swear, and shall say to the woman, If no man has lain with you, and if you have not gone aside to uncleanness, being under your husband, be you free from this water of bitterness which causes the curse. But if you have gone aside, being under your husband, and if you are defiled, and some man has lain with you apart from your husband ---.’

The procedure is now described. First the priest required her to swear, probably to her innocence. This would be the first test as to whether she was guilty or not. Standing there before Yahweh, with the priest solemnly holding the water of bitterness before her, and the barley grain offering in her hand and her hair hanging loose she would be a brazen woman indeed who could swear a false oath knowing that God would shortly bring judgment on her. This first procedure brings out that there was a genuine hope of proving her innocence. After all she had presumably either been protesting that she was innocent, or was, either through confusion, pride or guilt, saying nothing.

Then the priest would say, “If no man has lain with you, and if you have not gone aside to uncleanness, being under your husband, be you free from this water of bitterness which causes the curse. But if you have gone aside, being under your husband, and if you are defiled, and some man has lain with you apart from your husband ---.’ Note the charge. As one who is under her husband as his helpmeet, had she been faithful to him or not? If she had she would get away scot free. The water would not bring the curse on her. But if she had not been faithful she was defiled, and was therefore defiling the camp. Note how the charge was left hanging in the air awaiting the second oath. It was to be continued once she had sworn the second oath, the oath of cursing.

Verses 21-22

The Priest Charges the Woman with An Oath of Cursing (Numbers 5:21-22 ).

Numbers 5:21-22

‘Then the priest shall cause the woman to swear with the oath of cursing, and the priest shall say to the woman, “Yahweh make you a curse and an oath among your people, when Yahweh makes your thigh to fall away, and your body to swell, and this water which causes the curse shall go into your bowels, and make your body to swell, and your thigh to fall away.” And the woman shall say, “Amen, Amen.” ’

Having previously received her oath of innocence he would now call on her to swear the oath of cursing (the parallelism confirms that there are two oaths). This probably began something like, ‘If I have been unfaithful to my husband, let this water of bitterness cause the curse to come upon me.’

The priest would then continue his words where he had broken off previously, “Yahweh make you a curse and an oath among your people, when Yahweh makes your thigh to fall away, and your body to swell, and this water which causes the curse shall go into your bowels, and make your body to swell, and your thigh to fall away.” The reference to her ‘thigh’ almost certainly means her sexual organs. It was customary not to mention them by name, especially in public. The point is that if she was guilty she would by her words have called on herself the curse which would go into her bowels, and make her body swell, and her sexual organs be affected. This would then be evidence to all who heard of it that she was guilty and she would become a curse among them as unable to produce children. Furthermore her wickedness would in future be used as an oath because it was so heinous (just as someone might swear by Sodom when arguing innocence or when threatening reprisal).

The woman was then to respond fervently, ‘Amen. Amen. May it be so, may it be so.’ In other words, ‘Let this thing surely be’. The willingness with which she said it would count for more than a thousand protestations of innocence.

Verses 23-24

The Woman Is To Be Made to Drink Of The Water of Testing Before Yahweh (Numbers 5:23-24 ).

Numbers 5:23

‘And the priest shall write these curses in a book, and he shall blot them out into the water of bitterness,’

The priest was then to write the curse on papyrus or clay or stone, after which he would by some known method cause the ink of the curse to go into the water of bitterness, blotting them from the book, possibly by pouring some of the holy water on it, or by using a scraper. Thus the curse would become a part of ‘the water of bitterness’.

Numbers 5:24

‘And he shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness which causes the curse, and the water which causes the curse shall enter into her and be bitter.”

Then he was to make the woman drink ‘the water of bitterness which causes the curse’ in front of Yahweh and the water would be absorbed by her body and would be bitter. This may simply mean that if she was guilty it would have bitter effects. If however, the ingredients did make it bitter then the very bitterness would bring home the efficacy of the curse if she was guilty. She would feel that it was working already. Whatever else came from the ceremony it would be playing heavily on her conscience. Few guilty women would be able to go this far without confessing their guilt.

It is probable that we are to see Numbers 5:17-24 as repeated from a manual containing instructions for the procedure to be followed. Thus the writer is citing the words of the manual. If so that would mean that Numbers 5:24 simply consisted of words repeated from the manual and not a description of what the priest actually did at the time. That would come in Numbers 5:25-26. Even if not, such repetition for emphasis is typical of ancient writings. The idea would then be to come quickly to the conclusion before going back and giving further detail, something which regularly happens elsewhere in Scripture (compare for example Judges 6:24-27). This standard practise for a time misled scholars into seeing evidence for different sources.

Verse 25

The Priest Then Takes the Jealousy Offering Of barley Grain From the Hand of the Woman (Numbers 5:25 )

Numbers 5:25

‘And the priest shall take the grain offering of jealousy out of the woman’s hand, and shall wave the grain offering before Yahweh, and bring it to the altar,’

Then before she drank the liquid the priest was to take the grain offering for jealousy from the woman’s hand and wave it before Yahweh and bring it to the altar. The waving before Yahweh demonstrated that His attention had been drawn to it, and that it was being given to Him.

Verse 26

The Priest Bring the Man’s Offering of Memorial Before Yahweh and Burns It On The Altar. Then He Makes Her Drink the Water (Numbers 5:26 ).

Numbers 5:26

‘And the priest shall take a handful of the grain offering, as its memorial, and burn it on the altar, and afterwards he shall make the woman drink the water.’

The priest would then offer a memorial portion of the grain offering directly to Yahweh by burning it on the altar, after which he would make the woman drink the water. The grain offering was seen as directly drawing Yahweh’s attention to the situation, and its quality would indicate the decision that had to be made. Was she innocent or not? The woman would know that if she was innocent the offering would act as an atoning sacrifice. If she was guilty it would call on her the wrath of God for a false offering, caused because she had not confessed her guilt. Everything was now left in the hands of Yahweh.

“A handful of the grain offering, as its memorial.” Compare ‘the grain offering for memorial’ in Numbers 5:15. The handful represented a ‘drawing attention to’ (memorial) of the whole.

Verse 27

If The Woman Is Defiled Her Body Will Swell and She Will Be Accursed Among The People (Numbers 5:27 ).

Numbers 5:27

‘And when he has made her drink the water, then it shall come about, if she be defiled, and have committed a trespass against her husband, that the water which causes the curse shall enter into her and be bitter, and her body shall swell, and her thigh shall fall away, and the woman shall be a curse among her people.’

Having made her drink the water, the ceremony was then over and the consequences were left to God. She would leave the court of the Dwellingplace ostensibly an innocent woman, but all would know that if she was really guilty this would be revealed by what would follow. For if she was guilty and if she was defiled and was defiling the camp, the water would enter her and would be bitter, and, probably because of her deep sense of guilt, would also make her body swell and her uterus fall away and she would become a curse among the people. Being a curse among her people may simply mean that she was seen as cursed because she could produce no more children. Or it may signify her rejection by all decent people.

The psychosomatic effect on a guilty woman of going through this ceremony as well as of lying before Yahweh would be horrendous and would certainly have huge effects on the responses of her body. It would probably cause what she expected to happen actually to happen.

The result described could possibly signify that the woman had suffered a prolapsed uterus. In such a condition, which often occurs after multiple pregnancies, the pelvic floor collapses (in that case weakened by the pregnancies, and possibly in this case deeply affected and weakened by the trauma of her experience), and the uterus literally falls down. It may lodge in the vagina, or it may actually fall out of the body through the vagina. (It regularly happens to cattle and vets have to push it back in). If it does so, it becomes oedematous and swells up like a balloon. Conception becomes impossible, and the woman's procreative life is effectively over.

Alternatively the thought may be of a cancerous growth which would distend her stomach, affect her ability to bear children and make her infertile, and finally destroy her. Such cancerous growths do sometimes result from traumatic experiences.

Others have thought in terms of a phantom pregnancy which makes the body swell up, but that does not seem dramatic enough for what is described here. Others have seen it as a serious miscarriage, or thrombophlebitis. But the point is that it would produce effects which would prevent her from further defiling sexual behaviour in the future, and would prevent her from childbirth.

In the parallel in the chiasmus this condition contrasts with the spirit of jealousy which had taken hold of the husband. If his jealousy was justified this will be the result.

Verse 28

If The Woman Is innocent She Will Be Revealed As Clean and Will Be Free of Any Blame for Hidden Adultery Before God and Men (Numbers 5:28 ).

Numbers 5:28

‘And if the woman be not defiled, but be clean, then she shall be free, and shall conceive seed.’

But if she was innocent, if the woman was not defiled and was clean, then she would be free of the charge and free of the consequences of guilt and she would be able to have children again. Her reproductive abilities would not have been harmed. She would be without a stain on her character, and her husband would be expected to accept her back fully and bear children by her. She would be seen as having proved that there had been no hidden adultery.

Verses 29-31

This Is the Law of Jealousy For When a Woman Goes Aside and Commits Adultery, or Is Suspected of It, Freeing Her Husband From Any Guilt in Regard to It (Numbers 5:29-31 )

Numbers 5:29-30

‘This is the law of jealousy, when a wife, being under her husband, goes aside, and is defiled, or when the spirit of jealousy comes on a man, and he is jealous of his wife, then shall he set the woman before Yahweh, and the priest shall execute on her all this law.’

What has been said is now summarised. It has described the procedure that follows when a woman is thought to have been unfaithful to the husband. Or when the husband has good cause to think that she has been unfaithful and is ‘jealous’ for the holiness of Yahweh. Then she would be set before Yahweh and the priest would carry out this instruction to the full. It should be noted that this law was actually on the side of the woman. Strictly speaking no harm should come to her through it if she was innocent.

Numbers 5:31

‘And the man shall be free from iniquity, and that woman shall bear her iniquity.’

We must stress again that the idea is not simply of a jealous husband. The idea is of a husband genuinely concerned lest the camp had been defiled and Yahweh grieved. Thus once it was over the man would be free from the iniquity of not having done anything about hidden adultery (for if she was guilty his whole house would have been defiled by her defilement and he would have done his duty). And the woman would ‘bear her iniquity’. Either she would be cleared and have nothing to bear, or she would bear it by being condemned by Yahweh in the way described above.

The message for us is clear. It brings home how seriously God views such behaviour. This was one sin that God would not allow to simply lie down and remain hidden. It stresses that for a Christian there can be no sex outside of marriage. Such is firmly forbidden. Nor can there be divorce, unless the other partner has already committed adultery. As with this ceremony we must remember that what we do we do in the presence of God, and God is deeply concerned about it.

Bibliographical Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Numbers 5". "Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/pet/numbers-5.html. 2013.
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