Is Numbers 5 Unfair to Women? image

Is Numbers 5 Unfair to Women?

A friend sent me an email last month asking this question. Unless you have memorised the Old Testament, which most of us haven’t, I think I should explain the problem. I’ll do this by quoting the passage concerned:

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him so that another man has sexual relations with her, and this is hidden from her husband and her impurity is undetected (since there is no witness against her and she has not been caught in the act), and if feelings of jealousy come over her husband and he suspects his wife and she is impure—or if he is jealous and suspects her even though she is not impure—then he is to take his wife to the priest. ... Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has had sexual relations with you and you have not gone astray and become impure while married to your husband, may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you. But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have made yourself impure by having sexual relations with a man other than your husband”—here the priest is to put the woman under this curse—“may the LORD cause you to become a curse[d] among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell. May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries.” Numbers 5:11-22

The question that this friend had was: why is a woman singled out instead of a man, and why is there no test for a man? And does this not prove that God was unfair in his dealings with women in the Old Testament?
Like everything in the Bible it needs to be taken in context. But before I look at the context, I think it important to mention a form of hermeneutics (ways of interpreting the Bible) that I, and many others, use. It is called ‘Redemptive-Movement hermeneutic’. It sees the Bible as a progression of God’s unfolding plans and purposes. Therefore, the laws in the Old Testament were good and progressive within the context in which they were given, but might not be so today.
I will explain the basis for the Redemptive-Movement hermeneutic before I move on the discuss Numbers 5. Jesus makes a statement in Matthew 19 about divorce only being allowed by the Law of Moses because of their ‘hardness of heart’. Jesus concludes by saying, ‘It was not this way from the beginning’. In other words Jesus is saying, the law was in place to minimise sin, not to take it away (This is also clear in a lot of Paul’s writings in the New Testament, e.g. Romans 2:12-24). So one should look to the principles of creation, before sin entered the world, or to the revelation of Christ, if we are looking for what God wants to see in our relationships and culture. This is why we know that God designed one man for one woman, and that polygamy was a distortion of God’s perfect standard. But notice, polygamy is not condemned in the Bible. In Matthew 19 Jesus makes it clear that God was so passionate about a relationship with us, that he ‘lowered the bar’, in order not to ask too much of people, as it says in the Bible: ‘He remembers that we are flesh’. However, now we have Christ the moral standard is higher, as we have the help of the Holy Spirit, just as it was in the beginning. Therefore, when reading the Old Testament, it is good to remember that God was laying down laws that, within the context of that culture, men and women were able to follow. And he created these laws to benefit society and to limit sin. He also did it because he wanted to have relationship with the people of Israel.   
My Apologetics Study Bible comments on Numbers 5:

Potential Marital fidelity: in the case of the wife suspected of unfaithfulness. If a women were apprehended in the act of adultery, both she and her adulterous male partner were subject to the death penalty (Lev. 20:10, Deut. 22:22). The ritual outlined here put the matter of suspected, but not apprehended, adulterer in the hands of God, the only reliable witness. These provisions ensured that a woman found to be innocent would be preserved from stoning by a mob.1

This law was introduced to stop the ill treatment of women, who were just suspected, and not necessarily guilty, of sleeping around. How many relationships do you know of which have been broken apart through jealously? This ritual would not only protect the women from the mob, but also from an unhappy marriage. If the woman is guilty then the bitter water will cause a miscarriage, and she will be barren. In those days that was much more disastrous than even today, as a woman’s status was tied to the children she produced.
Why is there not a similar law for men? Firstly, the law was in place to prevent a man being suspicious that some of his children were not his. Heirs to a family inheritance, the first born son, were a very integral part of ancient near-eastern culture. Likewise, the concept of ‘clan’ and ‘tribe’ were important. Hence, knowing that the children of the wife’s were genetically the father’s was also very important. So one reason why this test was applied to women only was because it was concerned with the question ‘is the child legitimate?’, and as women, and not men, carry children, the test could only be applied to women. Secondly, I believe it is due to the polygamous society in which the law was issued. Men were allowed to marry more than one woman, and as such, if a man slept with an unmarried woman he was required to ask for her hand in marriage, or pay her father to look after her from the rest of her life, as it would be difficult for her to remarry (Exodus 22:16-17). This allowed women to be financially stable, despite the possible immorality of men, which was the primary goal of marriage.
Therefore, if a man wanted to be with another woman, he was able to marry her, even if he already had a wife. As such, when it came to unfaithfulness, within the context of Ancient Near Eastern culture, it was more likely that a man would be jealous of a woman for breaking her marriage vows. This is because a man could have multiple marriages, and would not need to break marriage vows to sleep with other women, unless the woman were also married, which I will look at below. Although I do not agree with polygamy, as I have mentioned elsewhere, I do appreciate that the legal system in Numbers 5 was designed with that cultural backdrop in mind.
In the case that a married, or non-married, man had intercourse with a married woman, the Mosaic Law was clear that both parties would be put to death (Lev. 20:10, Deut. 22:22). In this regard the Old Testament law is impartial. 
Therefore in conclusion, I would say that the Old Testament is not unfair to women compared to men, within the ancient near-eastern cultural context. It is always difficult to look back in history and think: ‘How could God have allowed harsh punishments for women, and men, caught in adultery?’, but another way of thinking would be ‘what is God allowing right now which is immoral and we are not aware of it?’ Perhaps we are also not aware of his tolerance and patience with us?’ The fact that God did not demand perfection in the Old Testament was due to the fact that he knew how much change, or perfection, we were really able to handle. He wanted a relationship with us as first priority, and provided laws that would limit sin, and a sacrificial system that would atone for sin. This system has now been fulfilled in Christ, who not only does not need to be sacrificed again and again like the sacrifices of the Old Testament, but covers the sin that the Law of Moses didn’t, i.e certain forms of adultery, murder and idolatry. As Hebrews 8:6 states, Christ really does offer us better promises, and a higher moral system of the heart and well as of action, reflective of what God created in the beginning, rather than the limiting-sin Laws of the Old Testament.


  • 1 Apologetics Study Bible, Holman Bible Publishers, p. 206

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