Sotah: A Jealous Spouse

Numbers 5:11-31

This passage deals with a very difficult subject: a husband who suspects his wife of infidelity. If there are no witnesses to back his claim, God Himself stands witness between them.


The jealous husband must bring his wife to the priest, where she brings a special offering of barley flour without oil or frankincense. The priest takes sacred water and mixes in some earth from the floor of the Tabernacle. He stands the woman before God and uncovers her hair. She holds the meal-offering while he holds the bitter waters.


The priest warns her that if she was unfaithful, God will cause her thigh to fall away and her belly to swell upon the conclusion of the water ritual, and she must acknowledge. The priest records the curse on a scroll and dissolves the words into the bitter water and makes the woman drink. If she was unfaithful, the curse will be fulfilled, but if she was not, she will become pregnant instead.


Virtual Classroom Discussion

If the woman might be innocent, why do you think she is made to go through this demeaning ordeal?

Comments ( 14 )

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  • This ordeal might sound demeaning but that might be an ordeal in itself about the way of things are going. It is just an ordeal to make sure, to determine whether or not there is guilt. When there is guilt this ordeal put the woman on her right spot. But if there is no guilt found this ordeal will put the woman also on the right spot. In undergoing hte rules of the ordeal it will become clear that there is found no guilt in her. Everybody could see what was happening. So it is a kind of rehabilitation and purification of the name of the woman. Both the people and the husband can be reassured of her good name. Rabbi's often see in this matter that HaShem might be the Prosecutor and His people (Israël) the respondent. It might be a warning for us to walk in his Tora.

  • Sheila

    Yes agree with you Diana so well explained . Also C h Mackentosh inhis notes on the Pentateuch says —- God cannot endure even the mere suspicion of evil. Suspicion is the death blow to all loving intimacy andGod would not have it in the midst of His congregation. He goes on to relate the relationship between Jehovah and Israel —- how Israel could not abide the searching trial of the bitter water. Her unfaithfulness was evident ; she has broken her vows she has gone aside from her Husband the Holy One of Israel. Heis a jealous God and cannot bear the thought that the heart that He claims as His own should be given to another. —- still relevant today.

  • Ken

    I found no correspondingly harsh law for the unfaithful man. Perhaps this law of the unfaithful wife and the jealous husband is a prophecy lesson against Israel.
    We see jealousy or the spirit of jealousy comes from the man. The man senses or learns of the unfaithful actions of his wife. The unfaithful wife, who defiled herself with others and rejected the dedicated love of her rightful husband, is brought before the priest to be investigated and endures a harsh review. If judged unfaithful, the woman becomes a curse before others.
    If this is a prophecy, perhaps the husband portrays God and the wife portrays the Nation of Israel. One of the 10 commandments states that God is a Jealous God. (Exodus 20:4-5) Also, Exodus 34:11-15 says …for you shall worship no other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God…when you play the harlot after their gods…! These scriptures show God as being jealous for his people and his expectation is they be faithful and pure and not go whoring after other gods. But they are found to be unfaithful as an adulterous harlot.
    This is also expressed in the entire chapter 16 of Ezekiel. But Ezekiel 16:35-43 summarizes the severity of the trouble that is brought upon her for her harlotry. The Book of Hosea is another example of Israel’s harlotry. But in each case, God’s mercy and recovery is also prophesied.
    There is an interesting comment in the Christian scriptures by Rabbi Yeshua about this law of unfaithfulness. It seems that the male leaders of Israel were abusing this law for their selfish interests and divorcing their wives for ANY reason. He puts it in proper perspective. Matthew 19:3-9. The strong implication was they were the unfaithful one, rather than the wife. (And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?)

    • Danielle Reisman

      Ken, I definitely understand your concern that the process seems unfair, and I struggle with this idea myself. I consulted with my colleague, Ahuva, and came up with this answer:
      This idea is certainly supported by the Prophets (e.g. Hosea, Malachi), however, the laws of Sotah are also meant to be taken literally (as in, they were intended for practice, not just a metaphor). It is true there is no corresponding law for the unfaithful husband, but that’s because in Torah law, adultery is defined exclusively as relations between a man and another man’s wife. If a married man sleeps with another woman, it is a betrayal, but it is not a capital offense (since in theory, he could also marry her in addition to his first wife). The Rabbis also teach that the case of a Sotah came up when the wife acted inappropriately in the first place, so even if she is not an adulteress, she is not innocent (the Torah says she was seen sneaking off and secluding herself with another man). These laws were not applied lightly.

      • So immorality even if implied and not actual would have the same consequence? This seems to imply that a woman has a far higher standard to keep than a man. Might this be as the woman is the teacher in the house and has to be a woman above reproach.?

  • Ken

    This is a very difficult passage. I will give it more thought and possibly reply with some rational answer later, but for now I have some problem(s) with this law as summarized in verses 29-31. It seems totally unfair to judge a woman for unfaithfulness in such a manner UNLESS there is a corresponding process for judging a man for his unfaithfulness. I will do some research on what happens to unfaithful men. Perhaps this will shed some light on this teaching.
    If she is innocent, there should be something imposed upon the accuser. Fairness and equity seems to be lacking in this teaching. I need to do some further investigation, for on the surface, this seems totally biased against women.

  • Diana Brown

    The process is set up to prove the innocence or guilt of a woman. In that day, to be barren could imply one was involved in adultery. So the husband, deprived of children (heirs) takes his wife to be tested. If the woman is guilty of immorality, the drink will produce the evidence. Womb will shrivel. If the woman is innocent, the womb will produce life after the drink is taken. So the innocent woman’s faith is rewarded by HaShem in that she will carry life after the ordeal she goes through. Is it right?

    • Diana Brown

      I forgot to add that we are a triune being–created in the image of HaShem. That means we are a body, soul and spirit. When the triunity of our self is in balance, no disruptions occur. When out of balance, like the soul is in rebellion against its Creator’s Will, the mind and body will follow. That is what the priest and the spouse and the woman being tested knew at that time.

      • Danielle Reisman

        Wow Diana that is very deep. I have never heard that answer before of the idea of the triune specifically in the case of the Sotah, but I like the depth and spirituality to it!
        Something that always bothered me though is that what if the woman was not immoral but she does not want a child at this stage in her life? Yet she still becomes pregnant because her husband wrongly accused her of something?!
        But the more I think about it the more it makes sense. In those day it was so difficult to become pregnant, let alone have a healthy pregnancy and birth, that it was really a blessing! It also demonstrates how there may not have been women at this time who didn’t want a child. There is an idea in Judaism that one should not use birth control because it is such a blessing to have children we shouldn’t want to limit the number of children we bring into the world, especially because at the end of the day it is really Gods decision how many children we have.

      • Is it possible that an innocent woman might react physically with the taking of the bitter water, and she be considered guilty?

    • Your answer makes senseDiana. I have always wondered why, it she is innocent would she get pregnant. Thank you for your comment, it was from HaShem.

  • Orli

    I am eager to see the ideas shared on this question! My thought would be that this is a very serious problem for a couple and needs a definite answer that will never be questioned again so that there will be peace in the family from then on and never be a haunting thought that continues to surface again and again. The answer is final which would be a blessing to the woman that her husband may never accuse her again and must never leave her.

    • Danielle Reisman

      Orli, you definitely have a positive outlook on it! I must say a lot of it is just faith in God as well.

    • Orli and Danielle, I agree, absolutely.

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