Thursday, January 22, 2009

רוּחַ קִנְאָה -- The Misogynistic Spirit of Jealousy

Trial by ordeal is a judicial practice that predicates guilt or innocence on the ability of the accused to survive a potentially-injurious task unscathed. If the accused survives the task or if she survives the task uninjured, she is declared innocent. On the other hand, if she either dies or suffers irreversible injury, she is considered guilty. Trial by ordeal often took the form of trial by water or trial by fire. The accused had a milestone tied around her neck and she was cast into a river. If she sank and died, the trial by water would determine her guilt. If she floated, she was considered innocent. In trial by fire, the accused walked a distance over burning coals. Three days later her wounds were examined. If there was substantial healing, it was thought that God had intervened to establish her innocence.

Trial by ordeal is one of the more primitive justice determination systems in human jurisprudence. It assumes supernatural intervention in order to circumvent the obviously injurious nature of the ordeal. In the case of the Sotah, the Bible incorporates a misogynistic intervention to determine the guilt or the innocence of a woman presumed to have committed adultery.

Numbers 5:11-31 prescribes a primitive trial by ordeal. The ordeal begins as follows:

5:12 Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, If any man's wife go aside, and commit a trespass against him, 5:13 And a man lie with her carnally, and it be hid from the eyes of her husband, and be kept close, and she be defiled, and there be no witness against her, neither she be taken with the manner; 5:14 And the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be defiled: or if the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be not defiled.

Death by stoning was the prescribed punishment for adultery in ancient Israel; however, two to three witnesses were required to establish the guilt of an adulterer (Deuteronomy 19:15). This passage qualifies the ensuing ordeal with the following qualifications:

- A woman has presumably committed adultery against her husband.

- No witnesses are available.

- The “spirit of jealousy” comes upon the husband though there are no corroborating witnesses.

The trial continues with preliminary priestly preparations which climax into the following imperatives:

21 Then the priest shall charge the woman with an oath of cursing, and the priest shall say unto the woman, The LORD make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when the LORD doth make thy thigh to rot, and thy belly to swell; 5:22 And this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, to make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to rot: And the woman shall say, Amen, amen. 5:23 And the priest shall write these curses in a book, and he shall blot them out with the bitter water: 5:24 And he shall cause the woman to drink the bitter water that causeth the curse: and the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter.

The woman suspected of adultery is hence made to imbibe this potentially injurious water under oath before the priest and before the Temple numen. Prior to the above, the priest removes the woman’s head covering and/or dishevels her hair—adding to the humiliation of the event.

The outcome of the ordeal is prescribed as follows:

5:27 And when he hath made her to drink the water, then it shall come to pass, that, if she be defiled, and have done trespass against her husband, that the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter, and her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall rot: and the woman shall be a curse among her people. 5:28 And if the woman be not defiled, but be clean; then she shall be free, and shall conceive seed.

The outcome of this ordeal is the litmus for the secret culpability of the adulteress. Her sin is made clear through how her body responds to the soured water. Apparently, the secret adulteress undergoes a process of internal organ failure which will result in her infertility. Nearly contemporary with the Numbers 5 trial by ordeal is a Hittite military oath text that prescribes a similar curse. The text, CTH 427 is preserved on two cuneiform shards. It prescribes a series of three curses that will befall the traitor that abandons allegiance to the military. The last of these curses is narrated with a figurine of a person suffering from an abdominal condition called ascites on display. The oath takers are “told that should they break their word, their bellies should swell with water, and the deities of the oath should eat their offspring (seed) within their bellies” (Wiki, “Hittite Military Oath”).

Nothing prevents the Pentateuchal husband from submitting his wife to such a trial by ordeal. The text presumes the innocence of the husband and the guilt of the wife (5:31), but there are no limits to its application other than the occurrence of a "spirit (rush) of jealousy." Note that nothing is prescribed for the woman that suspects her husband to be guilty of adultery. Furthermore, the male partner who slept with the suspected wife is not made to undergo any sort of trial. He gets away without further consideration. It is noteworthy that adultery for a woman in the Pentateuch is much more generalized than it is for a man. In order for adultery to occur, a married woman must sleep with any man. However, adultery is not committed with a married man sleeps with unmarried women. The marital status of the woman is the determinant of adultery in the Pentateuch.

This passage is regressive. It mandates a trial by ordeal—an outdated and inadequate means to justice. Furthermore, it subjects the suspected wife to harm. It is an example of backward, regressive morality in the Bible, and it would be prudent for the believer to contemplate the nature of a God who would prescribe the same.


  1. I agree with the your main point. People, religious and non-religious have been speaking against this practice and this specific example of it in the Bible for hundreds of years.

    I don't agree with the line that this passage is regressive since it was written around 500 BC or something like that. I beleive the practice was actually progressive for the time since in other cultures a man could just kill his wife if he was jealous. Its important to understand the context of everything written in the Bible.

    To my knowledge there is no record of this practice being abused or used extensively by the Isrealites as they were wandering around in the desert. I have not heard examples of any intelligent being not understanding that this is not an instrustion for present day. As I contemplate the nature of God who prescribed it I come to the conclusion that He either knew what He was doing, He got lucky, or He hates women. Granted if you don't believe in Him then its most likely some man that wrote it who thought women were less.

    I personally don't consider that a "Bible Absurdity" as you labeled it. Epistemology. Ethics, I'm not sure how it is applied today but sure its related to ethics.

    I had proof when my ex-wife cheated on me so I can't really apply this passage... although there were times that I wish I could have.

  2. Hello Zee,

    Thank you for the reflection! As I am understanding your reply, you are stating that God essentially accommodated the cultural moorings of the text's original readership. That is, though the text may seem ethnically arcane today, it was a step ahead of similar contemporary practices and hence an attempt by God to move the readership toward a higher ethically standard. Would you say that I am giving your reply a fair assessment?

    There is no record in the Bible or in Jewish lore of this trial being implemented. I think it unlikely that it was ever put into practice as prescribed here. And, of course, this is not implemented today by Jews or Christians. Jews believe that the necessary condition for the restoration of Pentateuchal justice (e.g., stoning adulterers and Sabbath breakers) is the re-establishment of a theocracy in Israel. Note, for example, that the passages presumes the presence of a Temple--a precondition to the enforcement of this ritual. Hence, Jews consider this and similar passages a source of ethical direction but not a practical source of punitive measures.

    The disuse of this passage for punitive measures does not lesson, though, its explicit misogynistic trajectories such as the exemption of men from a similar trial and the unaddressed and unpunished male accomplice. This passage does fit into the Pentateuchal emphasis on male control over the sexuality of wives and daughters.

    Ancient Near Eastern sources suggest that punitive measures for adultery were taken seriously. There is little evidence that I am aware of that a husband would take justice into his own hands and so murder his spouse in the event of adultery. Instead, it appears that standards of justice were rather universal--requiring some sort of trial by witnesses or ordeal to demonstrate the guilt of the offender. In some cases the guilt of adultery could be atoned through payment to the wronged husband (Fox, 1995, p. 676). Hence, the emphasis on blood or injury justice in the Pentateuch is not necessarily progressive vis-a-vis the available parallels in the ancient Near East.

    I draw attention to the nature of God because I find this passage to be explicitly misogynistic and regressive. To me, it suggests that God is incapable of moving beyond the mundane. If God is all powerful, God need not have included such stark accommodations in the Bible. Instead, biblical ethics are excessively anchored in the cultural milieus of the times when they were composed.

  3. I think you have a good understanding of my comment. I do not claim to have extensive knowledge of this time period, but from my understanding I agree that some sort of trial was required by most cultures at that time. My understanding is also that most if not all of the world treated women less then men at the time and all a husband had to do was claim his wife had cheated in order for her to get punished for adultery.

    I agree that there is a "Pentateuchal emphasis on male control over the sexuality of wives and daughters." Not only was the male control over women common if not universal at the time but its still common in many places of the world today. I believe there may be somewhat of an change in the New Testiment view of women but the New Testiment still doesn't treat women as equals to men. Is this fair? That depends on where you are looking from. In my eyes I am sinful and based soley on my own actions I deserve eternal condemnation. I do not expect any pleasures or fairness in this life. Life is not fair but it doesn't matter to me. God kicked Adam and Eve out of paradise into this so I do not expect it to be fair. From a this life is it perspective that treatment of women really sucks donkey balls.

    My personal belief is that men and women are different but neither is above the other. I think the word "misogynistic" is effective to make your point but I do find it extreme. I agree that in the Bible women are treated less fair compared to men but I don't think it promotes a hate of women.

    I'm not sure what you mean by "God is incapable of moving beyond the mundane." I believe that God is all powerful and all knowing. That practice is a "stark accomodation", as you put it, in my mind as well. As far as His need to instruct the Israelites in such a way... I don't claim to understand the mind of God.

  4. Hey there Eric/Zee!

    I must admit that I am happy to read that you can already see the gender bias of the Bible. So many Bible believers are unable to recognize the same due to their own present-day cultural limitations. Instead of identifying the gender regression in the Bible, these readers often are guilty of reading into the text with their own cultural and ethical biases. In so doing, they come away with the impression that the text is actually telling them what they already believe to be true. They practice poor metacognitive awareness. It is texts like the one in Numbers 5 that often challenge the reader to reconsider biblical paradigms of gender equality.

    Consider the ethical and legal horizons of the Bible. Does the Bible, for example, speak to the issues of civil rights in America? Does it explicitly address the issue of abortion? Does it explicitly even speak to the use of birth control? Does the Bible address the moral status cloning or the present moral imperatives of preserving the environment? Do the Bible's Sabbath prescriptions address how to observe the sunset-to-sunset Sabbath in the polar areas where much of the year is shrouded in perpetual night or day?

    These questions illustrate that the ethical and legal horizons of the Bible are limited to both time and place. They are quite anchored in the times that they were written and likewise grounded in the place(s) of composition. This is what I mean by the Bible being ethically and legally mundane. Its ethical horizons do not reach into the ethical exigencies of today. It is believed that God transcends time and place. Hence, if God inspired the Bible, one would expect information (ethical, scientific, etc.) that transcended the mundane moorings and trappings of time and place.

  5. I would like to believe that I have a good knowledge of the Bible and I continuely try to increase my knowledge. I do not think equality is something that is promoted in the Bible and often the opposite is true.

    Equality, civil rights, abortion, birth control, cloning, environmental obligations, and how to observe the Sabbath really should not be a main focus for Christians since as you pointed out they are not address or at least not a main focus in the Bible. I am often disturbed by other Christians focus on topics like these in addition so homosexuality, alcohol consumption, smoking, tattoos, premarital sex, and other topics.

    The belief that God transcends time and place would only lead one to expect information (ethical, scientific, ect.) to transcend time and space for information that really matters in the big picture.

    You are definetly looking at things from a different view point then I am but I don't necissarily disagree with what you are saying.

  6. The bitter water was harmless in itself. It was just a mixture of tabernacle dust and holy water. Perhaps only the guilty conscience/stress would activate its potential for harm. God would keep the innocent woman safe. We see in Genesis 20 that a judgment of infertility was upon a people because a man’s wife was in danger of being taken in an adulterous union due to Abraham’s dissimulation, fearfulness, and not trusting God. Notice also that Abimelech would have been judged with death had he not taken heed to the warning by dream. So God is NOT a respecter of persons or misogynistic as you charge Him falsely and foolishly. Where does the Scripture say the woman’s hair was disheveled? Where does it say she was presumed guilty and humiliated? You are reading this into the text when it is not there.

    People in that day seemed to look at “curses” in a way that modern man ignores to his peril. We explain away the signs that God is grieved or angry with us. We blame God for not answering prayer, but His Word states plainly, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the LORD will not hear me.” (Psalm 66:18)

    The nature of God who prescribes this “infidelity detector” is wise. He cares about the man and his family so much that He would not want his marriage harmed or destroyed by infidelity. This served as a warning to others and solved the jealousy problem. Something must have triggered the husband’s jealousy, but there was no proof. This test was God’s proof. Innocent? No problem. Guilty? A just recompense.

    In today’s world, sexual sin is found out a bit differently. A private detective is hired, hidden cameras are utlilized, computer hard drives are searched. Or the guilty party shows up on a reality TV show or Dateline, and men are equally (if not more so) punished along with women. The methodology has changed, but the results are the same, because ultimately, “Be sure your sin will find you out.... (Numbers 32:23) Best to confess and forsake sin and accept God’s mercy and cleansing....lest a curse come.

  7. Hello Tandi,

    So good to see you kicking around the campus. Your contributions are always welcome. We need you as much as you need us for stimulation and inspiration. Thank you.

    You ask, "Where does the Scripture say the woman's hair was disheveled?"

    The text in question is Number 5:18 which states that the priest shall "uncover the woman's head" (KJV). The Hebrew for uncover is פָרַע (para). This is translated as "bare head" in Leviticus 13:45. Though the idea of uncovering the head might be expressed with this term, it is more likely that it refers to the disheveling or loosing of hair that was otherwise tied up or covered. The term literally means "unbind (hair), uncover" in Hebrew, "to be empty, vacant, unoccupied" in Arabic, and "uncover" in Syraic (BDB). It often takes on the explicit meaning of unbinding hair such as in Ezekiel 44:20. In reference to letting one's hair go loose in Lev 10:6 and 13:45 it is implicit that loose hair (or uncovered head) was an act of mourning.

    Though the text does not explicitly identity the act of loosing hair/bearing the head as an act of humiliation, there is a long standing interpretive tradition from as early as the LXX, the Targums, Josephus, and Philo that suggests such to be the cultural metaphor behind the act. Paul apparently taps into the same with his hair and head covering instructions in I Corinthians 11:1-16. Conservative commentators and Hebraists Keil and Delitzsch note the following on Numbers 5:18:

    "The loosening of the hair of the head (see Lev. 13:45), in other cases is a sign of mourning, is to be regarded here as a removal or loosening of the female head-dress, and a symbol of the loss of he proper ornament of female morality and conjugal fidelity" (Keil, C. and Delitzsch, F. Commentary on the Old Testament, The Pentateuch).

    You ask, "Where does it say she was presumed guilty and humiliated."

    The humiliation is found in the uncovering and/or disheveling of her hair. The presumption of guilt is found in 5:31.

    The biblical God is a respecter of persons. There is a decided imbalance in this passage that weighs in heavily against the woman suspected of adultery. No such ceremony is prescribed for the husband or for the guilty male accomplice. Likewise, woman are not permitted the same degree of family, ceremonial, or economic right as men in the Pentateuch.

  8. The biblical God is a respecter of persons? Thats a new one to me.

  9. Hello Zee,

    "Respecter of persons" is a reference to the King James translation of Acts 10:43. It can also be translated that God shows no partiality. The point I am making is that God does play favorites in the Bible.

  10. You are taking that way out of context in your application. God shows no partiality as far as who he offers forgiveness to it has absolutely nothing to do with being treated equaly on earth in general. This is clear in every translation that I've read. I don't disagree that God "plays favorites" in the Bible in the sense of quality of life. The quality of life in this life is insignificant and not important though.

  11. Hello Zee,

    If you were discussing the treatment and role assignment of women with a Muslim woman from a Muslim country where it is mandatory to don the burqa, it is likely that you would incorporate texts from the Quran or passages from the Hadith that suggest the inferiority of women to men. (Though the Quran actually assigns women rights that the Pentateuch does not and so it improves upon Pentateuchal treatment of women.) Now, if the Muslima were to argue that the prescribed pejorative treatment of women in the Muslim legal-moral sources is insignificant in light of eternity, how would you reply? Would you stomach such a scenario?

    Do women in the Bible have the same route or means to salvation as men. The psuedo-Pauline epistle to Timothy (I Timothy 2:15) states, "...[women] shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety." In context, this passage suggests that women are ontologically burdened with the consequences of Eve's transgression; hence, the passage reasons, their route to salvation entails a diminutive role to men (e.g., "Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence." 2:11-12). So, there is a case to be made for an ontological, functional, and soteriological obsequious role in several biblical pericopes.

  12. Hello Scrip:

    I am somewhat reluctant to post at this blog as I do not wish to be an inspiration and stimulant to your railing against God and Scripture and your efforts to subvert the faith of others. I am as repulsed by atheism as you are by Bible-believing faith. Yet I find I cannot let statements stand that need to be soundly refuted. So I will just allow the Word of God to speak. I hope you and your readers will find the Scriptures inspirational and stimulating:

    God is not a respecter of persons:

    ...Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him. (Acts 10:34-35)

    God is not misogynous, but has compassion on women who have sinned:

    .......And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more. (See John 8:1-11)

    Assigning to women a supportive, rather than a leadership role in this brief earthly sojourn does not translate to God’s hatred and contempt for women (misogyny).

  13. Life is not fair and I don't expect God to make it fair. People are treated unfairly throughout the world for many different reasons I have experienced that many times.

    You take text after text out of context. I can take passages out of the Bible and make them appear to say whatever I want them to say as well but I don't think either of us doing that serves a purpose. I Timothy 2:15 is not talking about salvation from sins through childbearing. If you like you could use I Timothy 2 out of context and say a women's role is to shut up and pop out babies as well.

  14. Hello Zee,

    Though it is possible to harmonize the diverse theologies and reading of the Bible, doing so is non-exegetical. Let each passage stand on its own. I Timothy 2 does suggest salvation through the path of childbearing and adherence to patriarchal structures. And, such an idea is consistent with others both in the Bible and in the ante-nicean patristics.

  15. My sister and I were born c-section... I better tell my dad to knock my mom up so she can do it right and get saved.

    Thats just ignorant to "let each passage stand on its own." Why would there be a need to take a small peice from something written as a complete letter or book out of its surrounding context? Why would there be a need to take a book written in a time in history and not take into account its historical context?

    Honestly I couldn't care less if someone believes that women are saved through child bearing. I also don't argue with my son about which color Power Ranger is the best either.

  16. The orange Power Ranger is the best if you were curious.

  17. Hey there Zee,

    I Timothy was likely written without awareness of most if not all other New Testament books. It is feasible to interpret the book against the background of the Hebrew Scriptures, but to attempt to its content with other New Testament books is likely going to influence interpretations. This is why the book should be read in exegetical isolation from other New Testament texts. Other readings can be considered for a number of reasons, but efforts to harmonize texts, especially to make them fall into one's theological paradigms, is likely to betray the text. Read the text for itself, then consider its feasible interpretations against other books' content.

    I see I Timothy 2 as being a good example of the pejorative role of women in multiple biblical passages. There are passages suggestive of a more egalitarian role (in some contexts), but there more suggestive of patriarchal dominance.

  18. I Timothy was written by Paul. I think he might have had awareness of other writtings that were included in the New Testament.

    If you are defining passage as books of the Bible then I agree that they should stand on their own but I still think its important to understand the historical and cultural context of any writtings.

    I have never disagreed with you about the pejorative role of women in the Bible. Actually I think they out number the egalitarian roles of women shown in the Bible.

    I have read I Timothy on a number of occassions and recently as well. I still don't think its talking about salvation through childbearing for women but if you want to run with the green Power Ranger then more power to you.