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Fausset's Bible Dictionary
Water of Jealousy
Numbers 5:11-31. The appointed test of a wife's infidelity; an instance of the special providence which ruled the Israelite theocracy (Numbers 5). An ordeal which could not injure the innocent at all (for the ingredients were in themselves harmless), or punish the guilty except by miracle; whereas in the ordeals by fire in the dark ages the innocent could scarcely escape except by miracle. The husband brought the woman before the priest, bearing the tenth of an ephah of barley meal, which was thrown on the blazing altar. As she stood holding the offering, so the priest held an earthen vessel of holy water mixed with the dust of the floor of the sanctuary, and declared her freedom from hurt if innocent, but cursed her if guilty; he then wrote the curses in a book and washed them INTO (so translated Numbers 5:23) the bitter water, which the woman had then to drink, answering "amen" to the curse.
If innocent she obtained conception (Numbers 5:28). Thus the law provided a legal vent for jealousy, mitigating its violent outbursts, so terrible in orientals, protecting the woman if innocent, and punishing her by divine interposition if guilty. Dust is the emblem of condemnation (Genesis 3:14; Micah 7:17; compare John 8:6; John 8:8). Her drinking the water symbolized her full acceptance of the conditional curse (Ezekiel 3:1-3; Jeremiah 15:16; Revelation 10:9) and its actual operation on her if guilty (Psalms 109:18). The oath and the solemn ritual accompanying would deter a guilty woman from facing it. No instance is recorded of the use of this ordeal, as probably the husband of an .adulteress generally preferred the castor method, namely, to divorce the guilty wife.
The Talmud says the trial lapsed into disuse 40 years before the destruction of Jerusalem, and that because adultery was so common God would no longer inflict upon women the curses (compare Hosea 4:14). The Egyptian romance of Setnau (the third century B.C.) illustrates it; Ptahneferka takes a leaf of papyrus and on it copies a magical formula, then dissolves the writing in water, drinks the decoction, and knows in consequence all it contains. Moses probably, as in other cases, under God's direction modified existing usages. A trial by red water among West Africans somewhat accords with the Mosaic institution.
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Fausset, Andrew R. Entry for 'Water of Jealousy'. Fausset's Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/fbd/w/water-of-jealousy.html. 1949.