A test for what? Numbers 5
This being a blog and not an academic paper, I will give you this statement with no real evidence: a large percentage of violence in this country is visited upon one lover by another in a fit of rage. I saw the numbers in part of the ongoing gun-control debate—statistics that can be shaded to both sides, honestly, and cannot now find them. So, I will not assert a specific amount, but I will assert this: there is substantial statistical evidence that being in a romantic relationship that goes bad increases the risk of violence in one’s life.
Why is that?
Because our hearts, and our sexual passions, are not particularly fond of rational behavior or reasonable choices. These are frequently the drivers of our romantic entanglements rather than our logical, reasonable sides. So, when there is damage in the relationship, it does not always end well. The most typical, I think, is self-harm but the close second is to lash out at the other in the relationship.
This amplifies when one feels like betrayal has entered into the situation. When one’s trust has been abused or one’s love taken advantage of, we tend to be even more out of control than if we were just slapped by a random stranger.
Now, when you take that situation and mix it with a culture that establishes strict penalties for adultery, there is a major risk. Mix it with a culture that establishes a strong patriarchal structure and it gets worse. What is a wife to do, for example, if she is accused by her husband? He will not take her word for anything, and adultery, unlike many other crimes, rarely has true witnesses. Especially in those days…fewer private eyes with telephoto lenses.
We have to place ourselves into this mindset before we come to Numbers 5 and the Adultery Test. This was a society that needed a way to protect against the foolishness of men. To insulate women who were, by the nature of the culture, dependent on men, from the fragile male ego.
Now, it is easy for us to simply read this section and write it off as just that: the product of a by-gone era and lamentable because women were not simply elevated to equal status in that society. If that is as far you want to read, then you can. I do not, however, think the Old Testament is given so that we can feel superior and more advanced than a culture organized about 3500 years ago.
Honestly, if all you have is that you are more enlightened than people from three-and-a-half millennia ago, your self-esteem is in the wrong place.
Instead, let us take a look at what we can possibly learn from this passage, shall we?
1. We can learn that even among the people of God, sin happens. This should be obvious, but we miss it: people sin. Sometimes, people sin by assuming someone else has sinned and rushing to judgment. Other times, people sin and think they have gotten away with it.
2. We can learn not to trust self-investigation. The husband was to seek outside help in determining guilt here, and the wife was to trust the outside help to uphold her innocence. In the Old Testament it was the priest, but we have more specialized investigators these days. If you need someone investigated for observing Easter on the wrong date, I can handle that. Got a crime? Let us call the Arkansas State Police, ok?
3. We can learn to wait for the evidence. I know that CSI solves it in an hour. Guess what? Toxicology takes weeks because of the chemistry involved. The Adultery Test here, it might have taken some time. Wait for the evidence. Justice delayed is justice denied, but justice uncertain is not justice, either—wait for the evidence.
That is not to say that you will always have certainty. But if there is evidence that can be developed, wait for it to all be brought in.
4. We can learn that people need strange things to get along in society. I can find no mention in my OT sources that this was ever recorded as being used, but such trial-by-ordeal ideas lasted for centuries. People did this to each other because trust breaks down so easily. We have to be trustworthy people to be trusted, and we have to extend to others the opportunity to be trusted.
In all, this passage is odd. If we were to re-edit the Bible, we’d likely just leave it out. But it’s there, so we read it, discuss it, and move on. It is part of the Law, but we see in Romans how the Law only helped us see what sin we had, and how we are free to walk in the Spirit. Let’s do so, and not keep testing other people’s faithfulness.
Today’s Nerd Note: Take a look at Numbers 5:8: there is a line here about how the restitution for wrong was to be given to the one wronged, and if there was no one left, then it went to the religious structures. Remember that there was a complete unity of religion and government at the time.
Justice was about striving to make right to the person wronged, first. Society had an interest in that, but not a profit interest. Our society, with its failing justice structures, has inverted this: victims are rarely even considered in the making-whole process and instead the system benefits the most: lawyers are paid, fines are collected, the state takes custody. Along the way, eventually, the owners of stolen property pay $300 to get their trailer from the impound lot, people pay their own therapy bills or their own medical bills, and the system overlooks them.
How could we improve justice structures by making restoration to the victim the priority?