Numbers 5:15 – Trial by Ordeal

Certain passages of the Bible make us shake our heads in confusion before we move on in our reading, because we don’t understand what’s going on at a deeper level.  In our westernized Christianity, we don’t have the appropriate context to discern the true intent; rather than digging deeper, we add these things to our growing pile of Biblical mysteries and remain uninformed.  As Dr. Michael Heiser says, to better understand Scripture, it takes work.  Yet, if we put in the effort to learn one new idea every day, by the end of a year, think how much more we’d know!

The problem we face is that we look at the Bible from what we know today.  But is that useful?  Can you imagine someone 2,000 or more years from now reading about the “woke” movement or the “cancel” culture that’s so prevalent around us and trying to comprehend it from their 41st century perspective?  Whatever society would look like in those future days, people would surely have no clue about these concepts.

What the people in that time so far removed would need to do is to have the 21st century person’s understanding in their heads.  This would give them a basis to correctly interpret something dealing with these ideas that seek to elevate certain people because of what they supposedly know (woke) or eliminate others because they don’t adhere to certain norms in society (cancel).

Likewise, the only way for us to really know what is happening behind the scenes in Scripture is to walk around with the ancient Israelite understanding in our heads.  To that end, Yahweh continually attempted to change the hearts of His people to worship Him alone by trusting Him above every other god in the pagan societies of the nations surrounding Israel.  God’s desire was for the Israelites to have believing loyalty toward Him.  This meant that they weren’t double-minded, following Yahweh plus some other god with a Plan B – just in case – mindset.  All their clichéd eggs were in His basket alone.  Believing loyalty says, “I trust You God above every other god, and there is none besides You.”  This is the kind of faith that David had as a man after God’s own heart.  That was as true in Old Testament times as it is in the New Testament through our faith and trust in Jesus.

And so we come to the passage for today.  In the ESV Bible, the heading in Numbers 5 beginning with verse 11 is A Test for Adultery.  The text tells us that if a spirit of jealousy came upon a man over his wife’s possible unfaithfulness (Numbers 5:14), he was to bring her to the priest, who would then perform a strange ritual.  Numbers 5:15 tells us:

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.

The priest would perform what is commonly known as Trial by Ordeal.  To our Western eyes, it might look suspiciously like divination.  He put dust from the floor of the tabernacle into water and placed a curse of bitterness upon it.  The woman repeated an oath and drank the water.  If she’d been unfaithful, the curse entered her body and caused terrible things to happen, i.e. the inquiry was remembered.  If the accusation was false, and she’d been faithful to her husband by not defiling herself, she would be free and able to conceive children.

If not divination, what was really going on here?

God wanted the Israelites to completely rely on Him in every facet of their lives, even in their marital relations.  They were to place their trust in Him to ensure that He would root out unfaithfulness among them or confirm their fidelity (because that’s what He wanted for Himself!).  By showing them that in the day-to-day aspects of how they lived, He would oversee even these matters, God would be proven trustworthy in even greater things.  Yahweh wanted to convict His people to place all their confidence in Him.

Isn’t that what God truly wants for us today?  Isn’t that what it means for us to make Jesus, not only our Savior, but also our Lord?  Doesn’t the concept of Lord mean master or ruler?  Shouldn’t this apply to everything we think, say, or do; that it reflects back to our relationship with Christ so that we demonstrate we are His children?  He should be our Master and rule completely in our hearts like the loving Father He is.

Thus, even in thorny marital issues, in matters such as jealousy and fidelity, we need to turn to Him for answers.  Because He loves us so much, He will help us through the difficulties of life.

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