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Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature

Water of Jealousy

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(Numbers 5:11-31, מֵי הִמָּרַים, waters of bitterness," sometimes with הִמְּאָרְרים added, as causing a curse; Sept. ὕδωρ τοῦ ἐλεγμοῦ ; Philo, 2, 310, πότος ἐλέγχου ). This was probably not the "water of separation" for purification, mixed with the ashes of the red heifer, for, as its ceremonial property was to defile the pure and to purify the unclean (Numbers 19:21) who touched it, it could hardly be used in a rite the object of which was to establish the innocence of the upright or discover the guilt of the sinner without the symbolism jarring. Perhaps water from the laver of the sanctuary is intended.. The ritual prescribed consisted in the husband's bringing the woman before the priest, and the essential part of it is unquestionably the oath, to which the "water" was subsidiary, symbolical, and ministerial. With her he was to bring the tenth part of an ephah of barley-meal as an offering. Perhaps the whole is to be regarded from a judicial point of view, and this "offering" in the light of a court fee. Yet being an offering to "bring iniquity to remembrance" (Numbers 5:15), it is ceremonially rated as a "sin-offering;" hence no oil is to be mixed with the meal before burning it, nor any frankincense to be placed upon it when burned, which same rule was applied to "sin-offerings" generally (Leviticus 5:11). With meat-offerings, on the contrary, the mixture of oil and the imposition of frankincense were prescribed (Leviticus 2:1-2; Leviticus 7:14-15).

God himself was suddenly invoked to judge, and his presence recognized by throwing a handful of the barley meal on the blazing altar in the course of the rite. In the first instance, however, the priest "set her before the Lord" with the offering in her hand. The Mishna (Sotah) prescribes that she be clothed in black with a rope girdle around her waist; and from the direction that the priest shall uncover her head" (Numbers 5:18) it would seem she came in veiled, probably also in black. As she stood holding the offering, so the priest stood holding an earthen vessel of holy water mixed with the dust from the floor of the sanctuary, and, declaring her free from all evil consequences if innocent, solemnly devoted her in the name of Jehovah to be "a curse and an oath among her people," if guilty, further describing the exact consequences ascribed to the operation of the water in the "members" which she had "yielded as servants to uncleanness" (Numbers 5:21-22; Numbers 5:27; comp. Romans 6:19; and Theodoret, Quaest. 10 in Numbers). The words לִנְפַּיל נֹפֶלֶת נ פְלָה rendered in the A.V. by the word rot," rather indicate, according to Gesenius, s.v. נָפִל, to "become or make lean." Michaelis thought ovarian dropsy was intended by the symptoms. Josephus says, τοῦ ετ σκέ λους ἐκπεσόντος αὐτῇ, καὶ τήν κοιλίαν ὑδερου κατα λαμβάνοντος (Ant. 3, 11, 6).

The priest then "wrote these curses in a book, and blotted them out with the bitter water," and, having thrown, probably at this stage of the proceedings, the handful of meal on the altar, "caused the woman to drink" the potion thus drugged, she, moreover, answering to the words of his imprecation, "Amen, Amen." Josephus adds, if the suspicion was unfounded, she obtained conception; if true, she died infamously. This accords with the sacred text, if she "be clean, then shall she be free and shall conceive seed" (Numbers 5:28), words which seem to mean that when restored to her husband's affection she should be blessed with fruitfulness; or that, if conception had taken place before her appearance, it would have its proper issue in child-bearing, which, if she had been unfaithful, would be intercepted by the operation of the curse. It may be supposed that a husband would not be forward to publish his suspicions of his own injury, unless there were symptoms of apparent conception and a risk of a child by another being presented to him as his own. This is somewhat supported by the rendering in the A.V. of the words נַתְפָּשָׂה וְהַוא לאֹ, (Numbers 5:13) by "neither she be taken with the manner," the italicized words being added as explanatory, without any to correspond in the original, and pointing to the sudden cessation of "the manner" or "custom of women "(Genesis 18:11; Genesis 31:35), i.e. the menstrual flux, suggesting, in the case of a woman not past the age of child-bearing, that conception had taken place. If this be the sense of the original, the suspicions of the husband would be so far based upon a fact.

It seems, however, also possible that the words may be an extension of the sense of those immediately preceding, וְעֵד אֵין בָּהּ, when the connected tenor would be, "and there be no witness against her, and she be not taken," i.e. taken in the fact; comp. John 8:4, αὕτη γυνὴ κατειλήφθη ἐπαυτοφώρῳ μοιχευομένη . In the case of pregnancy the woman's natural apprehensions regarding her own gestation would operate very strongly to make her shrink from the potion if guilty. For plainly the effect of such a ceremonial on the nervous system of one so circumstanced might easily go far to imperil her life even without the precise symptoms ascribed to the water. Meanwhile the rule would operate beneficially for the woman if innocent, who would be, during this interval, under the protection of the court to which the husband had himself appealed, and so far secure against any violent consequence of his jealousy, which had thus found a vent recognized by law. Further, by thus interposing a period of probation the fierceness of the conjugal jealousy might cool. On comparing this argument with the further restrictions laid down in the treatise Sotah tending to limit the application of this rite, there seems grave reason to doubt whether recourse was ever had to it in fact. (See ADULTERY).

The custom of writing on a parchment words cabalistic or medical relating to a particular case, and then washing them off, and giving the patient the water of this ablution to drink, has descended among Oriental superstitions to the present day, and a sick Arab would probably think this the most natural way of "taking" a prescription. See, on the general subject, Groddeck, De Vett. Hebr. Purgat. Castitatis, in Ugolino, Thesaur. The custom of such an ordeal was probably traditional in Moses' time, and by fencing it round with the wholesome awe inspired by the solemnity of the prescribed ritual, the lawgiver would deprive it to a great extent of its barbarous tendency, and would probably restrain the husband from some of the ferocious extremities to which he might otherwise be driven by a sudden fit of jealousy, so powerful in the Oriental mind. On the whole, it is to be taken, like the permission to divorce by a written instrument, rather as the mitigation of a custom ordinarily harsh, and as a barrier placed in the way of uncalculating vindictiveness. Viewing the regulations concerning matrimony as a whole, we shall find the same principle animating them in all their parts-that of providing: a legal channel for the course of natural feelings where irrepressible, but at the same time of surrounding their outlet with institutions apt to mitigate their intensity, and so assisting the gradual formation of a gentler temper in the bosom of the nation. The precept was given "because of the hardness of their hearts," but, with the design and the tendency f softening them. (See some remarks in Spencer, De Leg. Hebr.) (See JEALOUSY); (See ORDEAL).


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

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Saturday, November 16th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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