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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary
the violation of the marriage bed. The law of Moses punished with death both the man and the woman who were guilty of this crime, Leviticus 20:10 . If a woman was betrothed to a man, and was guilty of this infamous crime before the marriage was completed, she was, in this case, along with her paramour, to be stoned, Deuteronomy 22:22-24 . When any man among the Jews, prompted by jealousy, suspected his wife of the crime of adultery, he brought her first before the judges, and informed them that in consequence of his suspicions, he had privately admonished her, but that she was regardless of his admonitions. If before the judges she asserted her innocency, he required that she should drink the waters of jealousy, that God might by these means discover what she attempted to conceal, Numbers 5:12 , &c. The man then produced his witnesses, and they were heard. After this, both the man and the woman were conveyed to Jerusalem, and placed before the sanhedrim; the judges of which, by threats and other means, endeavoured to confound the woman, and make her confess. If she persisted in denying the fact, she was led to the eastern gate of the court of Israel, stripped of her own clothes, and dressed in black, before great numbers of her own sex. The priest then told her that if she was really innocent, she had nothing to fear; but if guilty, she might expect to suffer all that the law had denounced against her, to which she answered, "Amen, amen." The priest then wrote the terms of the law in this form:—"If a strange man hath not come near you, and you are not polluted by forsaking the bed of your husband, these bitter waters, which I have cursed, will not hurt you: but if you have polluted yourself by coming near to another man, and gone astray from your husband,—may you be accursed of the Lord, and become an example for all his people; may your thigh rot, and your belly swell till it burst; may these cursed waters enter into your belly, and being swelled therewith, may your thighs putrefy."
After this, the priest filled a pitcher out of the brazen vessel, near the altar of burnt offerings, cast some dust of the pavement into it, mingled something with it as bitter as wormwood, and then read the curses, and received her answer of Amen. Another priest, in the meantime, tore off her clothes as low as her bosom—made her head bare—untied the tresses of her hair—fastened her clothes, which were thus torn, with a girdle under her breast, and then presented her with the tenth part of an ephah, or about three pints, of barley meal. The other priest then gave her the waters of jealousy, or bitterness, to drink; and as soon as the woman had swallowed them, he gave her the meal in a vessel like a frying-pan into her hand. This was stirred before the Lord, and part of it thrown into the fire of the altar. If the wife was innocent, she returned with her husband, and the waters, so far from injuring her, increased her health, and made her more fruitful; but if she was guilty, she grew pale immediately, her eyes swelled; and, lest she should pollute the temple, she was instantly carried out, with these symptoms upon her, and died instantly, with all the ignominious circumstances related in the curses.
On this law of Moses, Michaelis has the following remarks:—
"This oath was, perhaps, a relic of some more severe and barbarous consuetudinary laws, whose rigours Moses mitigated; as he did in many other cases, where an established usage could not be conveniently abolished altogether. Among ourselves, in barbarous times, the ordeal, or trial by fire, was, notwithstanding the purity of our married people, in common use; and this, in point of equity,
was much the same in effect, as if the husband had had the right to insist on his wife submitting to the hazardous trial of her purity, by drinking a poisoned potion; which, according to an ancient superstition, could never hurt her if she was innocent. And, in fact, such a right is not altogether unexampled; for, according to Oldendorp's History of the Mission of the Evangelical Brethren, in the Caribbee Islands, it is actually in use among some of the savage nations in the interior parts of Western Africa.
"Now, when in place of a poisoned potion like this, which very few husbands can be very willing to have administered to their wives, we see, as among the Hebrews, an imprecation-drink, whose avenger God himself promises to become, we cannot but be struck with the contrast of wisdom and clemency which such a
contrivance manifests. In the one case, (and herein consists their great distinction,) innocence can only be preserved by a miracle; while on the other, guilt only is revealed and punished by the hand of God himself.
"By one of the clauses of the oath of purgation, (and had not the legislator been perfectly assured of this divine mission, the insertion of any such clause would have been a very bold step indeed,) a visible and corporeal punishment was specified, which the person swearing imprecated on herself, and which God himself was understood as engaging to execute. To have given so accurate a definition of the punishment that God meant to inflict, and still more one that consisted of such a rare disease, would have been a step of incomprehensible boldness in a legislator who pretended to have a divine mission, if he was not, with the most assured conviction, conscious of its reality.
"Seldom, however, very seldom, was it likely that Providence would have an opportunity of inflicting the punishment in question. For the oath was so regulated, that a woman of the utmost effrontery could scarcely have taken it without changing colour to such a degree as to betray herself.
"In the first place, it was not administered to the woman in her own house, but she was under the necessity of going to that place of the land where God in a special manner had his abode, and took it there. Now, the solemnity of the place, unfamiliarized to her by daily business or resort, would have a great effect upon her mind. In the next place there was offered unto God what was termed an execration offering, not in order to propitiate his mercy, but to invoke his vengeance on the guilty. Here the process was extremely slow, which gave her more time for reflection than to a guilty person could be acceptable, and that, too, amidst a multitude of unusual ceremonies. For the priest conducted her to the front of the sanctuary, and took holy water, that is, water out of the priests' laver, which stood before it, together with some earth off its floor, which was likewise deemed holy; and having put the earth in the water, he then proceeded to uncover the woman's head, that her face might be seen, and every change on her countenance during the administration of the oath accurately observed: and this was a circumstance which, in the east, where the women are always veiled, must have had a great effect; because a woman, accustomed to wear a veil, could, on so extraordinary an occasion, have had far less command of her eyes and her countenance than a European adulteress, who is generally a perfect mistress in all the arts of dissimulation, would display. To render the scene still more awful, the tresses of her hair were loosened, and then the execration offering was put into her hand, while the priest held in his the imprecation water. This is commonly termed the bitter water; but we must not understand this as if the water had really been bitter; for how could it have been so? The earth of the floor of the tabernacle could not make it bitter. Among the Hebrews, and other oriental nations, the word bitter was rather used for curse: and, strictly speaking, the phrase does not mean bitter water, but the water of bitterness, that is, of curses. The priest now pronounced the oath, which was in all points so framed that it could excite no terrors in the breast of an innocent woman; for it expressly consisted in this, that the imprecation water should not harm her if she was innocent. It would seem as if the priest here made a stop, and again left the woman some time to consider whether she would proceed with the oath. This I infer from the circumstance of his speech not being directly continued in Numbers 5:21 st, which is rather the apodosis of what goes before; and from the detail proceeding anew in the words of the historian, Then, shall the priest pronounce the rest of the oath and the curses to the woman; and proceed thus. —After this stop he pronounced the curses, and the woman was obliged to declare her acquiescence in them by a repeated Amen. Nor was the solemn scene yet altogether at an end; but rather, as it were commenced anew. For the priest had yet to write the curses in a book, which I suppose he did at great deliberation; having done so, he washed them out again in the very imprecation water, which the woman had now to drink; and this water being now presented to her, she was obliged to drink it, with this warning and assurance, in the name of God, that if she was guilty, it would prove within her an absolute curse, Now, what must have been her feelings, while drinking, if not conscious of purity? In my opinion she must have conceived that she already felt an alteration in the state of her body, and the germ, as it were of the disease springing within her. Conscience and imagination would conspire together, and render it almost impossible for her to drink it out. Finally, the execration offering was taken out of her hand, and
burnt upon the altar. I cannot but think that, under the sanction of such a pugatorium, perjury must have been a very rare occurrence indeed. If it happened but once in an age, God had bound himself to punish it; and if this took place but once, (if but one woman who had taken the oath was attacked with that rare disease which it threatened,) it was quite enough to serve as a determent to all
others for at least one generation."
This procedure had also the effect of keeping in mind, among the Jews, God's high displeasure against this violation of his law; and though some lax moralists have been found, in modern times, to palliate it, yet the Christian will always remember the solemn denunciations of the New Testament against a crime so aggravated, whether considered in its effects upon the domestic relations, upon the moral character of the guilty parties, or upon society at large,—"Whoremongers and adulterers God will judge."
ADULTERY, in the prophetic scriptures, is often metaphorically taken, and signifies idolatry, and apostasy from God, by which men basely defile themselves, and wickedly violate their ecclesiastical and covenant relation to God, Hosea 2:2; Ezekiel 16.
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Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Adultery'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/wtd/a/adultery.html. 1831-2.