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Bible Dictionaries

Holman Bible Dictionary

Bitter Water

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The water drunk by a woman suspected of adultery (Numbers 5:11-31 ). If a man suspected his wife had been unfaithful to him but was not a witness to the act and could not produce witnesses to the act, the woman was taken to the priest who arranged an ordeal to determine the woman's innocence or guilt. When the man brought the woman to the priest, he brought an offering of jealousy or remembrance (a cereal offering of barley). The priest seated the woman before the sanctuary facing the altar. The woman's hair was unbound as a sign of her shame. The woman held the offering, and the priest held the vessel containing the bitter water. The bitter water was a combination of holy water and dust from the sanctuary floor. At this point the woman took an oath: if she was innocent, the water would not harm her; if she was guilty, then her “thigh would rot” and her “body swell.” The woman affirmed the oath with a double, “amen.” The priest wrote the curse (Numbers 5:21-22 ) on a parchment and washed the ink off the page into the water. The priest then took the offering and burned it upon the altar, after which the woman drank the bitter water. If she was innocent, she would not be harmed and would conceive children as a blessing. If she was guilty, the curse would take effect. The man bore no guilt if his suspicions proved false—that is, he had not willingly broken the ninth commandment against bearing false witness. The woman, on the other hand, bore the consequences of her guilt (Numbers 5:31 ).

Copyright Statement
These dictionary topics are from the Holman Bible Dictionary, published by Broadman & Holman, 1991. All rights reserved. Used by permission of Broadman & Holman.

Bibliography Information
Butler, Trent C. Editor. Entry for 'Bitter Water'. Holman Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hbd/b/bitter-water.html. 1991.

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