(Investigator 91, 2003 July)


Some critics call the morality of the Bible "utterly repugnant". In this article I will examine what one skeptic called the "most horrifying of all".

It was a test for adultery under the Law of Moses and applied to Israel during the 40 years in the desert after the Exodus.

If an Israelite man suspected his wife of sexual unfaithfulness but had no proof he brought her to the "tabernacle" or tent of worship. Then the following happened:

And the priest…shall take holy water in an earthen vessel, and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water…

Then the priest shall take an oath saying, 'If no man has lain with you…be free from this water of bitterness that brings the curse. But if you have gone astray…may this water that brings the curse pass into your bowels and make your body swell and your thigh fall away.' And the woman shall say, 'Amen.'

Then the priest…shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness…

And when he has made her drink the water, then, if she has defiled herself and has acted unfaithfully against her husband, the water…shall enter into her and cause bitter pain, and her body shall swell, and her thigh shall fall away, and the woman shall become an execration among her people.

But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be free and shall conceive children.
(Numbers 5:11-31)

The magazine of the Australian Skeptics says:

Much of the morality in the Bible is (or should be) utterly repugnant… Perhaps the most horrifying of all, if "a spirit of jealousy" came across a man, he could force his wife to drink a poisoned potion. If she died, her guilt was proven, but if she survived, she was presumed innocent (Numbers 5:11ff). After being found innocent, Numbers 5:28 states that the woman must then "be made pregnant with semen". (Is there any other way?)
(the skeptic. Volume 15. No. 1 p.4)


A few preliminary observations:

Firstly, the phrase "pregnant with semen" used in the Skeptic is a literal translation. The translation I quoted has "conceive". Nor is "pregnant with semen" a redundant phrase. It’s informative because many "primitive" peoples — even in the 20th century — did not realize the causal sequence whereby sexual intercourse precedes pregnancy.

Secondly, some scholars interpret repetitions in the text as proof an ancient editor combined several earlier sources. (Apparent repetitions are in verses 16 & 18, 19 & 21, 24, 26 & 27) Other scholars see it as repetition to make a point. (Ashley 1993) The repetition in Numbers 5 may also be due to the two possible situations — when the woman is innocent and when she is guilty.

Thirdly, there is no mention of a "poisoned potion". A bit of dust in water is not "poison". A testimonial, I read, of Hitler’s concentration camps described a starving inmate who eased his hunger pangs by swallowing sand — and lived decades after doing this!

Fourthly, the Bible presents the Law of Moses as a contract between God and Israel which applied to no other nation. (Psalm 147:19-20) The general reasons and principles behind specific commands remain valid but the specific clauses no longer apply. For example, one reason for the Law of Moses was health — to avoid the "diseases of Egypt" among Israelites. (Deuteronomy 7:15; 28:60) Human biology hasn’t changed since ancient times and what hurt people then will likely hurt people today. Proverbs and the New Testament also oppose immorality and give mental and physical hazards as reasons. However, the specific clauses and punishments in Moses’ Law do not apply today.


Medieval "trials by ordeal" are common knowledge. Such trials often killed the accused whether innocent or guilty. For example a woman accused of being a witch might be tied up and thrown into a river. If she drowned she was innocent; if she floated she was declared guilty and burned as a witch.

Can we legitimately compare the ritual in Numbers 5 to "trial by ordeal"?

Ashley (1993) comments:

The trial by ordeal was a common feature of the ancient world. This method was "an appeal to divine judgment to decide otherwise insoluble cases that cannot be allowed to remain unsolved." Thus the ordeal was related to divination as a method for discovering the divine will for a course of action. The most common ordeals in the ancient world seem to be by water (e.g., plunging into rivers), by heat (e.g., carrying a red-hot object or plunging the hand into boiling liquid), and by the action of some potion. These similarities have led virtually every modern commentator to call the ritual in Num. 5:11-31 a trial by ordeal…

The present ritual differs in important ways from the typical trial by ordeal. First, in the ancient Near Eastern ordeal the agent of the ordeal (the fire, water, etc.) was dangerous to innocent and guilty alike. Here the water probably poses no threat at all to the innocent party. Second, in the ordeal the accused had to survive something inherently harmful. If the accused was harmed by an inherently harmful agent, that person was guilty. Thus, the accused was guilty until proven innocent. Here the case is genuinely open, as vv. 12-14 show… Finally, the punishment in the ancient Near Eastern ordeal is manifest immediately. Here we have no statement of how long it will take for the liquid to do its work. (p. 123)

In the present case the whole matter, from beginning to end, is placed in God’s hands. There is no punishment on top of divine punishment… Rather, the divine punishment is limited to the "fallen thigh" and the "swollen belly," whatever those expressions may mean… (p. 124

Note, there was "no punishment on top of divine punishment…"

With matters left in the hands of God the woman returned to her family free of further censure.


Some Bibles speak of the woman’s thigh "falling" rather than rotting — i.e. "thy body to swell, and thy thigh to fall away…" (5:22)

What is meant? "Thigh" is a figure of speech and refers to the reproductive organs, and "body to swell" can mean pregnancy. Therefore one explanation is:

The same root nepel, "a falling," is rendered untimely birth in Job 3:16; Ps 58:8,9; Eccl 6:3. Thigh or loin (yarek) is used similarly as the seat of reproductive power, in Gen 46:26… So her thigh shall fall could mean "she will give birth." That napal, "fall," can mean "born" is clear from its usage in Isa 26:18… (The Wycliffe Bible Commentary)

By this interpretation the guilty woman gave birth prematurely and the baby died.

There are other interpretations:

1 It might be just a "curse", and no more, with no physical consequences, whatsoever, intended.

2 The "thigh" or reproductive organs "falling away" can mean the loss of their function i.e. the woman would be barren/childless.


After the wife drank the water with added dust and heard the curse what happened? 

She would have returned to her family.

Were there any further consequences?

Fear can kill. Walter B Cannon, a Havard Medical School physiologist, showed that a curse from a medicine man in primitive culture can kill the cursed person. Death can be immediate or gradual.

Fear can also kill modern people. An article in New Scientist (6 March, 1994) estimated that 100 Californians died from fear during the January 17, 1994 earthquake:

"Not because they were crushed by houses or struck by debris, but because they literally died of fright… If you are terrorized by a God-awful stress, it can take you out…" (p. 35)

If we discount the supernatural then any physical consequences to the woman, if guilty of adultery, would be of psychological origin — due to fear and anxiety. If the background in Numbers 5, such as the Ten Plagues of Egypt and other fantastic events, is accurate then the guilty woman would have had good reason to fear!

The Law of Moses required at least two witnesses to convict someone of a crime (Deuteronomy 9:15) but with adultery there would rarely be two witnesses. The solemn ceremony in Numbers 5 assured that a guilty woman would not completely escape — at the very least she'd have serious anxieties.


The procedure in Numbers 5 was a protection for women. It was not, as the skeptic claimed, "most horrifying". Ashley explains:

It prevents a jealous husband from punishing his wife on the basis of suspicion alone. This complex ritual must be exactly performed…so that the woman might be protected from a husband's whim in an age in which protections for women were admittedly few and far between. (p. 124)

When discussing "The Bible On Slavery" (Investigator 76-84) I argued that the Law of Moses did not invent totally new ethics from scratch. The Law eliminated/avoided harmful institutions humans had invented such as torture, idolatry, female circumcision, human sacrifice, etc. Other institutions that could be made benign with extra legislation, for example slavery and polygamy, were for a time retained but with safeguards. The retained institutions included the harmless parody of "trial by ordeal" in Numbers 5 — a parody that benefited women.

The principle of framing laws around already existing institutions may also explain why no comparable ritual was prescribed for husbands suspected of adultery. Due to the pre-existing social set-up women needed protection more than men did.

When a male committed adultery with a female both, according to the Law of Moses, faced execution. (Deuteronomy 22:22) In that instance the seeming discrimination is removed.


Part of the reason for the Law of Moses, as already stated, was to avoid disease. The Law forbade adultery and other forms of sex not legitimised by marriage. (Exodus 20:14) The Book of Proverbs and the New Testament also link immorality to sickness. In the 20th century thousands of millions of people caught sexually transmitted diseases and around 200 million died. (Investigator 48 & 85) AIDs alone is now killing near four million people yearly.

The label of "utterly repugnant" for Biblical morality is false. That label is better reserved for standards that promise "freedom" and then injure or kill people by millions.


Ashley, T. R. (1993) The New International Commentary on the Old Testament The Book of Numbers. William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan. pp. 117-126.

Pheiffer, C. F. & Harrison, E. F. (1962) The Wycliffe Bible Commentary. Moody Press, USA. p. 120.

Urbaniak, L. (1990) Rotten Thighs And A Swollen Belly. The Christian Quest, Volume 3, No. 2, pp. 39-48.