Trial by ordeal: The ritual used to test women accused of adultery

While the husband has all of the power and none of the responsibility, it is possible to see the ritual as having a positive effect for women.

IF THE woman in question is guilty, the bitter waters will have an effect on her body. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
IF THE woman in question is guilty, the bitter waters will have an effect on her body.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
This week’s Torah portion, Naso, includes the ritual inflicted on a suspected wayward wife, known as the “sotah.” What we have here, which is singular in the Bible, is a trial by ordeal, something used in the Ancient Near East to help decide cases in which witnesses were conflicted or lacking.
For instance, a water ordeal was used to test women accused of adultery. They were thrown into a river – if they floated, they were innocent, and if they sank, they were guilty. The verdict was seen as essentially handed down by God. Other examples involved suffering and injury from boiling water or scalding metal. If the injuries healed, the victim was innocent.
In the Torah, the ordeal is seemingly harmless. The woman drinks a concoction administered by the priest in which water from the basin of the Tabernacle is mixed with earth from the floor. Added to this is the ink from the oath the priest writes in which God’s name is invoked.
However, the entire passage is one of the most enigmatic in the Torah and has inspired enormous efforts at interpretation extending from rabbinic to contemporary times. Some consider the ritual to be misogynistic, demonstrating the vulnerability of women and the privileged position of men in ancient Israel. Others believe this ritual works to protect accused women by preventing the eruption of violence at the hands of a husband or patriarchal society. Still others believe this is a way of reestablishing marital harmony when irreparable rupture has threatened to break the couple apart.
The passage in Numbers opens as follows:
Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: If any man’s wife has gone astray and broken faith with him; in that a man has had carnal relations with her unbeknown to her husband, and she keeps secret the fact that she has defiled herself without being forced, and there is no witness against her—; but a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about the wife who has defiled herself; or if a fit of jealousy comes over one and he is wrought up about his wife although she has not defiled herself... (5:11-13; translation from Sefaria)
A man has suspicions that someone has lain with his wife. The focus is not on the lover but on the suspected woman. While she is the “passive partner” in the sexual act, she is described as “defiling herself.”
There is both actual impurity (tum’ah) from the seed (as semen is a source of impurity) and moral defilement from the act. Within her body could very well reside impurity from both husband and lover. Only she knows the truth. She has not been “caught” and she has also not been forced, since the same verb for caught (ta’fas) is used to describe sexual assault in Deuteronomy 22:28. Since there are no witnesses, she cannot be brought to court.
In the first scenario of the portion of the sotah, the man’s jealous spirit is justified. His wife has actually defiled herself. However, in the second clause, a more complex reality is set forth in which the man is overtaken by a jealous spirit and his wife is blameless. Nonetheless, her husband’s unfounded jealousy is threatening the stability of the household. Although the Torah opened with a woman presumed guilty, for the rest of the passage, the two possible scenarios that triggered jealousy are held together in a perfect parallel.
The priest performs a series of ritual acts on the woman regardless of her innocence or guilt: he offers the woman’s “meal offering of jealousy,” an offering of barley flour without oil or frankincense, uncovers the woman’s head, makes her accept the oath in which she agrees that her culpability or innocence will be proven by the water, writes the oath with God’s name in a scroll and erases it in water mixed with dirt from the Tabernacle, and finally makes the woman drink the mixture.
If she is guilty, the water will have an effect on her body. Her belly will swell, her thigh will “fall” and she will stand as cursed among the people. If she is innocent, she will conceive, in contrast to the guilty wife. In either case, the husband is cleared of guilt so that even if his accusations prove false, he suffers no consequence for wasting the time of the priest, humiliating his wife or causing God’s name to be erased in vain.
In The Torah: A Woman’s Commentary, the editor comments that “the lack of repercussions for the wrongly suspicious husband also may protect his wife by convincing him to initiate the ritual. Assuming the bitter waters are humiliating but harmless, it may be better for the wife to undergo the trial than to live with a jealous husband.” While the husband has all of the power and none of the responsibility, it is possible to see the ritual as having a positive effect for women who lived in the shadow of mistrust.
Similarly, in an interpretation brought in the Image of God: A Feminist Commentary on the Torah, the commentary notes that the “law of sotah was not so much designed to punish unfaithful wives although it did, it was primarily to protect innocent women from possessive abusive husbands who were consumed by irrational fits of jealousy... creating a format for channeling the man’s rage and deflecting it from his wife.”
Medieval commentator Nahmanides noted in his commentary to Exodus that women generously donated their copper mirrors for the water basin from which water was taken for the sotah to drink “because they accepted the law upon themselves with joy.” Based on this interpretation, as a community, these women contributed joyfully to a ritual that would both expose promiscuous transgression and the equally problematic unjustified jealous spirit.
This column is dedicated to the victims of domestic violence, who have been suffering at unprecedented levels over the course of the coronavirus pandemic. The portion of the sotah spotlights irrational jealousy on the part of a husband. It is known that obsessive jealousy plays a significant role in domestic violence. It is up to all of us, politicians, religious leaders, social activists, welfare representatives, communities and individuals to act together to ensure the safety of those who are most vulnerable among us. We cannot stand idly by while blood is being shed!
The writer teaches contemporary Halacha at the Matan Advanced Talmud Institute. She also teaches Talmud at Pardes along with courses on Sexuality and Sanctity in the Jewish tradition.