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Jealousy, Waters of

Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

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(מֵי הִמָּרַים הִמְאָרְרַים, Numbers 5:19, bitter waters that cur se, Sept. ὕδωρ τοῦἐλεγμοῦ τοῦ ἐπικαταρωμένου, Vulg. aquee istce amarissinzce in quas maledicta congessi, A.V. "this bitter water that causeth the curse"). (See Acoluthi. De aquis amaris maledictionems inferentibus [Lips. 1862]). When a Hebrew wife was suspected of adultery, her husband brought her first before the judges, and, if she still asserted her innocence, 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, etc.). The further details are thus described by Dr. Clarke (Com. ad loc.) from the rabbinical authorities (comp.Wagenseil's Sota, pass.): "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; and 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 payment 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 mean time 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 immediately, with all the ignominious circumstances related in the curses."

This ordeal appears to have contained the essence of an oath varied for the purpose of peculiar solemnity, so that a woman would naturally hesitate to take such an oath, understood to be an appeal to heaven of the most solemn kind, and also to be accompanied, in case of perjury, by most painful and fatal effects. The drinking appears to have been a symbolical action. When "the priest wrote the curses in a book," and washed those curses into the water which was to be drunk, the water was understood to be impregnated as it were, or to be tinctured with the curse, the acrimony of which it received; so that now it was metaphorically bitter, containing the curse in it. The drinking of this curse, though conditionally effective or non-effective, could not but have a great effect on the woman's mind, and an answerable effect on the husband's jealousy, which it was designed to cure and to dissipate. We read of no instance in which the trial took place; and, if the administration of the ordeal were really infrequent, we may regard that as an evidence of its practical utility, for it would seem that the trial and its result were so dreadful that the guilty rather confessed their crime, as they were earnestly exhorted to do, than go through it. The rabbins say that a woman who confessed in such circumstances was not put to death, but only divorced without dowry. It has been well remarked that this species of ordeal could not injure the innocent at all, or punish the guilty except by a miracle, whereas in the ordeals by fire, etc., in the Dark Ages, the innocent could scarcely escape except by a miracle. (See ADULTERY).

Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Jealousy, Waters of'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​tce/​j/jealousy-waters-of.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.
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