11 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 12 “Speak to the people of Israel, If any man’s wife goes astray and breaks faith with him, 13 if a man lies with her sexually, and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband, and she is undetected though she has defiled herself, and there is no witness against her, since she was not taken in the act, 14 and if the spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife who has defiled herself, or if the spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife, though she has not defiled herself, 15 then the man shall bring his wife to the priest and bring the offering required of her, a tenth of an ephah of barley flour. He shall pour no oil on it and put no frankincense on it, for it is a grain offering of jealousy, a grain offering of remembrance, bringing iniquity to remembrance.
16 “And the priest shall bring her near and set her before the Lord. 17 And the priest shall take holy water in an earthenware vessel and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water. 18 And the priest shall set the woman before the Lord and unbind the hair of the woman’s head and place in her hands the grain offering of remembrance, which is the grain offering of jealousy. And in his hand the priest shall have the water of bitterness that brings the curse. 19 Then the priest shall make her take an oath, saying, ‘If no man has lain with you, and if you have not turned aside to uncleanness while you were under your husband’s authority, be free from this water of bitterness that brings the curse. 20 But if you have gone astray, though you are under your husband’s authority, and if you have defiled yourself, and some man other than your husband has lain with you, 21 then’ (let the priest make the woman take the oath of the curse, and say to the woman) ‘the Lord make you a curse and an oath among your people, when the Lord makes your thigh fall away and your body swell. 22 May this water that brings the curse pass into your bowels and make your womb swell and your thigh fall away.’ And the woman shall say, ‘Amen, Amen.’
23 “Then the priest shall write these curses in a book and wash them off into the water of bitterness. 24 And he shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that brings the curse, and the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain. 25 And the priest shall take the grain offering of jealousy out of the woman’s hand and shall wave the grain offering before the Lord and bring it to the altar. 26 And the priest shall take a handful of the grain offering, as its memorial portion, and burn it on the altar, and afterward shall make the woman drink the water. 27 And when he has made her drink the water, then, if she has defiled herself and has broken faith with her husband, the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain, and her womb shall swell, and her thigh shall fall away, and the woman shall become a curse among her people. 28 But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be free and shall conceive children.
29 “This is the law in cases of jealousy, when a wife, though under her husband’s authority, goes astray and defiles herself, 30 or when the spirit of jealousy comes over a man and he is jealous of his wife. Then he shall set the woman before the Lord, and the priest shall carry out for her all this law. 31 The man shall be free from iniquity, but the woman shall bear her iniquity.” – Numbers 5:11-31 ESV
It was literally impossible for the Israelites to maintain their holiness and purity before God. Sin and sickness, both inevitable outcomes of living in a fallen world, were going to be a constant part of their lives. And because God dwelt in their midst, the ramifications of their sinfulness and sickness were serious. Disease and disobedience both separated the people from God. The very existence of disease was a direct result of sin’s entrance into the world.
Ultimately, disease and disobedience both lead to death. God gave Moses strict instructions about what to do with those who found themselves suffering from potentially contagious diseases; they were to be removed from the camp. This was not an indication that their illness was due to a specific sin they had committed, but a recognition that sickness was the inevitable byproduct of sin’s presence in the world. God expected His people to remain pure, both spiritually and physically, if they wanted to enter into His presence. But as always, God provided a means by which they could be restored to a right relationship with Him, in spite of sickness or sin.
In today’s passage, we see that God even expected the marriages of His people to be pure and above reproach. To our modern sensibilities, these verses contain some rather bizarre and disturbing counsel for dealing with marital unfaithfulness. But while it may be easy to fixate on the almost cultic nature of God’s instructions, it’s important that we not miss the motivation behind them.
God provides Moses with detailed instructions for determining whether a man’s wife was guilty of adultery. It’s interesting to note that in the “test” God provided, the hidden sin of the woman, when revealed, would result in sickness. In this case, her sickness would be proof of her sin. And it’s no coincidence that the resulting sickness attacked the very organs that had been used to commit the sin in the first place. There is much about this passage that is difficult to understand, but it is clear that God was dealing with sin among His people in a powerful and pronounced way. This “test,” when witnessed by others, would prove to be an effective deterrent to further adultery in the camp.
In the closing part of chapter 6, God gives Moses a blessing to pronounce over the people.
The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. – Numbers 6:24-26 ESV
This simple, yet profound blessing reminds us that, ultimately, it was God’s desire to bless His people. And one of the greatest blessings God could bestow on the people of Israel was the guarantee of His abiding presence. But for God to remain within their midst, He had to deal justly and firmly with the sins committed by them. It was up to God to provide them with peace when their repeated sins and inevitable exposures to disease would leave them alienated from Him.
God alone is the instigator, arbiter, and maintainer of the relationship He has with mankind. It is He who seeks us and not the other way around. Left to our own devices, man will always seek a god of his own choosing. And man will tend to make the relationship with his god based on his own performance and acts of self-righteousness.
Humanity has always lived under the delusion that life can be lived apart from God. Even those who long for God, believe that He is little more than an objective to be pursued, a giver of gifts whose favor must be earned. They make God the means rather than the end. He becomes little more than a resource to get what they really want: peace, prosperity, contentment, happiness, fulfillment, and significance. This is why men make gods out of anything that even remotely seems to promise those things. But we can’t earn favor with God. And we can’t turn God into some kind of divine lottery ticket that we hope will grant us our heart’s wildest desires.
It was impossible for the people of Israel to live up to God’s exacting standards. They would and did continually fail. But God had provided a means of atoning for their inevitable sins and dealing with the inescapable reality of sickness. It is interesting to think about the fact that sickness was hard to hide. Skin disorders and diseases would inevitably reveal themselves to the rest of the faith community. And as soon as the sickness became apparent, it had to be dealt with. But sin can remain hidden for a long time, unobserved, and invisible to the faith community. Sin was like cancer that was undetected among the people of God, slowly spreading and infecting the body over time.
The passage in Numbers 6 contains some rather disturbing and difficult-to-understand directives for dealing with marital unfaithfulness. What God commands almost sounds like a form of witchcraft. It involves the mixing of strange potions and the incantation of curses. There are offerings made and mystical symptoms to be observed.
The whole thing comes across as something the pagan nations might practice. But this was the will of God for His people. It was a divinely ordained process for exposing sin in a marriage that could easily infect the entire faith community.
“Marital deceit is a matter of such seriousness that the truth must be discovered. It is harmful to the sanctity of the community at large, and destructive of one of the bases of community life.” – Philip J. Budd, Numbers
God takes sin seriously and He expected His children to do the same. There was no place for sinful activity among the people of God. But He knew it would inevitably take place. That is why He established strict guidelines for exposing sin so that the people might continue to enjoy His abiding presence and power in their midst.
“. . . this particular case law is included here because it gives another illustration of God’s personal involvement in the restitution for the sin of the nation. Within God’s covenant with Israel, there could be no hidden sin among God’s people nor any hidden suspicion of sin.
“The law of jealousy shows that through the role of the priest, God was actively at work in the nation and that no sin of any sort could be tolerated among God’s holy people.” – John H. Sailhamer, “The Mosaic Law and the Theology of the Pentateuch.” Westminster Theological Journal 53 (Fall 1991):241-61.
Sin carries a cost. It promises joy and fulfillment but rarely delivers. And hidden sin is one of the most egregious and dangerous. It may lie undetected but its influence continues to spread throughout the body of Christ. We may fool all those around us, but our all-knowing, all-seeing God cannot be deceived or duped. And because He cares for His people, He will see that sin is exposed and expunged. Out of His deep desire to bless His children, God lovingly purifies their lives from the damaging effects of sin.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.