The Sotah Ritual: Permitting a Jealous Husband to Remain with His Wife
Numbers describes an “ordeal of bitter water” or “sotah ritual” (Num. 5:11–31) in which a husband who suspects his wife of unfaithfulness brings her before God at the Temple. The text lays out an elaborate ritual strongly infused with magical implications.
Once the woman is brought before the priest (v. 15), he laces holy water with dust from the floor of the Tabernacle (mishkan; v. 17), brings the woman before YHWH, and uncovers her hair (v. 18). While she holds her offering and he holds the holy water mixture, the priest adjures her that she will be drinking a potion that will cause her thigh to sag and belly to distend if she is guilty, to which the woman replies “amen amen” (vv. 19–22).
The priest then dissolves the curse in the water and she drinks the concoction (vv. 23–24), after which either the curse is fulfilled or she conceives a child (vv. 27–28).
Rabbis Cancelling the Practice
The Mishnah describes how this ritual was abolished (m. Sot9:9):
משרבו המנאפים פסקו המים המרים ורבן יוחנן בן זכאי הפסיקן שנאמר לא אפקוד על בנותיכם כי תזנינה ועל כלותיכם כי תנאפנה כי הם וגו’
When adultery became rampant, the bitter waters ceased, and R. Yohanan ben Zakkai cancelled [their use], as it says (Hos 4:14), “I will not punish their daughters for fornicating nor their daughters-in-law for committing adultery, for they themselves, etc.”
The Mishnah’s concern here may be to avoid the wholesale slaughter of young women, even if they are unfaithful. Alternatively, Ramban (R. Moses ben Nahman, 1194–1270), in his gloss on Numbers 5:20, suggests that the ritual stops functioning in a society filled with sinners:
והנה אין בכל משפטי התורה דבר תלוי בנס זולתי הענין הזה, שהוא פלא ונס קבוע שיעשה בישראל בהיותם רובם עושים רצונו של מקום… ולפיכך פסק הענין הזה משעה שנתקלקלו בעבירות.
Now there is nothing amongst all the ordinances of the Torah which depends upon a miracle, except for this matter, which is a permanent wonder and miracle that will happen in Israel, when the majority of the people live in accordance with the Will of God […]. Therefore this matter (sotah) stopped from the time that the people became debauched with (sexual) sins.
The concern here expresses suspicion of a ritual whose efficacy is based on magic or, as Ramban writes, on miraculous intervention.
Magical Rituals in Historical Context
From a religio-historical perspective, the use of magic to determine a wife’s guilt or innocence would not have been unusual in the ancient Near East. For example, the Laws of Hammurabi have the following way of resolving the question:
§132 If a man’s wife should have a finger pointed at her in accusation involving another male, although she has not been seized lying with another male, she shall submit to the divine River Ordeal (dID) for her husband.
According to this law, the woman’s guilt or innocence is proven by jumping into the river, under the control of the river god, Id. If she drowns, she is guilty, if she survives, she is innocent; her survival or death is not a factor of her ability to swim or the power of the current, but a reflection of the will of the river god.
Similarly, the Numbers passage, according to which either her belly distends or she gets pregnant in the future, can be understood as a reflection on the success of the ritual which was performed before YHWH. Even so, the biblical text is more difficult to understand, especially as a consequence of some vague details: What does it mean that the guilty would get a distended belly? Is this uterine prolapse or something else?When and where will YHWH have this occur: Immediately in the holy precinct or in the future at a random location?
The consequences of her innocence are equally hard to understand: Will she become pregnant as a direct result of the ritual? At some later time? Moreover, does the text allude to pregnancy, or does it possibly describe a miscarriage? So far, these questions have not yet gained satisfying answers.
The strangeness of the ritual generally causes us to focus on its aspects, the bizarre effects the potion has on the woman’s body, and the question of her innocence or guilt. Nevertheless, this focus obscures a key aspect of the ritual: the need to assuage the husband’s jealousy.
ק.נ.א as a Leitwort
Biblical rules of law always state, in their protasis (the initial “if” section), the case and its description, followed by the implementation of a legal remedy or a specific judicial practice in the apodosis (the final, “then” section). A legal case must be clearly defined so that it can have legal consequences and, if the law has been violated, lead to punishment.
It is crucial to note that in Numbers 5, the legal case arises not only from the “going astray” of the woman but from her husband’s feeling “jealous zeal”:
במדבר ה:יב … אִישׁ אִישׁ כִּי תִשְׂטֶה אִשְׁתּוֹ וּמָעֲלָה בוֹ מָעַל. ה:יגוְשָׁכַב אִישׁ אֹתָהּ שִׁכְבַת זֶרַע וְנֶעְלַם מֵעֵינֵי אִישָׁהּ וְנִסְתְּרָה וְהִיא נִטְמָאָה וְעֵד אֵין בָּהּ וְהִוא לֹא נִתְפָּשָׂה.ה:יד וְעָבַר עָלָיו רוּחַ קִנְאָה וְקִנֵּא אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ וְהִוא נִטְמָאָה אוֹ עָבַר עָלָיו רוּחַ קִנְאָה וְקִנֵּא אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ וְהִיא לֹא נִטְמָאָה.
Num 5:12 … If any man’s wife has gone astray and broken faith with him, 5:13 in that a man has had carnal relations with her unbeknown to her husband, and she keeps secret the fact that she has been defiled and there is no witness against her and she was not caught, 5:14 but a fit of jealousy comes over him, and he is wrought up about the wife who has defiled herself; or if a fit of jealousy comes over one and he is wrought up about his wife although she has not defiled herself.
ה:טו וְהֵבִיא הָאִישׁ אֶת אִשְׁתּוֹ אֶל הַכֹּהֵן…
5:15 (then) the man shall bring his wife to the priest….
Verses 12b–13a state the facts of the case: A woman (repeatedly) cheated on her husband. He—and this is important—knows about it, or at least believes that he does. If he didn’t, there wouldn’t be any ordeal. However, she was not caught in flagrante delicto (v. 13aβ), as this would call for a death sentence. Instead, she is brought to the priests and will be subject to the ordeal.
Verse 15 begins the apodosis, with the husband bringing her as a consequence of the believed crime. This means that the husband’s “spirit of jealousy” is syntactically structured as part of the legal case in the protasis. In fact, it is the essence of the legal case, since without witnesses or catching her in the act, there can be no punishment for evident or proven forbidden sexual intercourse (as in Lev 20:10 and Deut 22:21–22).
To put it differently, the case is not suspected cheating, with the jealousy merely explaining why the husband is bringing the case. Rather the case is that the husband suspects cheating and he is feeling jealous. The priests need to deal with the jealousy as much as they need to deal with the accusation.
The importance of the jealously is highlighted by how the text uses ק.נ.א is a leitwort, a word or root repeated for thematic reasons; the description of the case, the victim and the final characterization of the ritual (זאת תורת ה…), present key terms that all revolve around “jealous zeal”: רוח קנאה “spirit of jealous zeal,” מנחת קנאות, “zealous offering,” and תורת הקנאות, “instruction of jealousy.”
Why Not a Divorce?
The choice to subject his wife to the ordeal contrasts, even conflicts with the description of how the unhappy husband acts in Deuteronomy, where he serves her a with divorce document (ספר כריתת; Deut 24:1, 3).
דברים כד:א כִּי יִקַּח אִישׁ אִשָּׁה וּבְעָלָהּ וְהָיָה אִם לֹא תִמְצָא חֵן בְּעֵינָיו כִּי מָצָא בָהּ עֶרְוַת דָּבָר וְכָתַב לָהּ סֵפֶר כְּרִיתֻת וְנָתַן בְּיָדָהּ וְשִׁלְּחָהּ מִבֵּיתוֹ.
Deut 24:1 When a man takes a wife and possesses her, if she fails to please him because he finds something obnoxious about her, and he writes her a bill of divorcement, hands it to her, and sends her away from his house.
Clearly, the case envisioned in Deuteronomy 24, which features some unspecified indecency but nothing actionable, is supposed to end in divorce.
Accordingly, in Numbers 5, where the husband has suspicions but not solid evidence, we might have expected the law to end with divorce. And yet, instead of a writing her a “bill of divorcement,” he takes to her the priests to perform the sotah ritual.
A Ritual to Save a Marriage
Thus, the ritual in Numbers 5 should be understood against the backdrop of the standard case as presented in Deuteronomy 24. If the husband does not wish to divorce her, he faces the problem that he is married to a woman who is forbidden to him. This fits with the rabbinic understanding of the ritual as well, which sees it as a way of allowing the man to return to his wife. For example, Rashi writes (Num 5:31):
משישקנה תהיה אצלו בהיתר ונקה מעון, שהסוטה אסורה לבעלה
Once he has had her drink, she becomes permitted to him. He, then, is free of any sin, for a sotah is forbidden to her husband.
Notably, instead of the the root נ.א.ף “adultery,” which does not appear in the text, the woman is described as defiled or literally, “made impure,” from the root ט.מ.א.
The idea here is that continuing in such a union with a defiled woman can affect the man, who will himself be defiled by his relations with her. This is the same root used to explain why a man who divorces his wife may not remarry her if she has, in the meantime, been with another man:
כד:ד לֹא יוּכַל בַּעְלָהּ הָרִאשׁוֹן אֲשֶׁר שִׁלְּחָהּ לָשׁוּב לְקַחְתָּהּ לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְאִשָּׁהאַחֲרֵי אֲשֶׁר הֻטַּמָּאָה כִּי תוֹעֵבָה הִוא לִפְנֵי.
24:4 Then the first husband who divorced her shall not take her to wife again, since she has been defiled— for that would be abhorrent to YHWH.
The term here, “defiled” (הֻטַּמָּאָה), carries with it the connotation of possible defiling of the husband as well, since defilement is something that can travel from one person to the other, certainly after sexual contact. Returning to the sotah case, when the husband brings his wife to the priest, he is aware that staying with her can subject him to this defilement. Moreover, he must realize that he is already defiled, since he likely had intercourse with her after she first committed adultery.
Ruaḥ qinʿa, the “spirit of jealousy” that comes over the man, expresses this state of being: A man believes his wife has committed adultery, he still wishes to remain with her, but fears the consequences of such a decision. Thus, he turns to the ritual not as a way of uncovering her infidelity but of proving her innocence. More specifically, the ritual removes the prohibition, which I believe already existed in the biblical period, of his remaining married to a woman who was ostensibly unfaithful to him.
Ezekiel: God Satisfies His Jealous Zeal before Reconciling with Israel
The qinʿa of a husband also appears in two chapters of Ezekiel, both of which use the situation of an unfaithful wife as a parable for Israel’s worship of other gods, with YHWH playing the part of the jealous husband. As such, it does not refer to simple feelings of jealousy, but God’s jealous zeal, a concept with religious and not just personal import, which appears twice in the Torah (Num 25:11 and Deut 29:19), and throughout prophetic literature.
In Ezekiel 16, God tells the cheating Israel that first he will punish her severely by allowing her to be destroyed by her former lovers:
יחזקאל טז:לחוּשְׁפַטְתִּיךְ מִשְׁפְּטֵי נֹאֲפוֹת וְשֹׁפְכֹת דָּם וּנְתַתִּיךְ דַּם חֵמָה וְקִנְאָה. טז:לט וְנָתַתִּי אוֹתָךְ בְּיָדָם.
Ezek 16:38 I will inflict upon you the punishment of women who commit adultery and murder, and I will direct bloody and jealous zeal against you.16:39 I will deliver you into their hands.
טז:מב וַהֲנִחֹתִי חֲמָתִי בָּךְ וְסָרָה קִנְאָתִימִמֵּךְ וְשָׁקַטְתִּי וְלֹא אֶכְעַס עוֹד.
6:42 When I have satisfied My fury upon you and My jealous zeal has departed from you, then I will be tranquil; I will be angry no more.
In other words, the punishment will satisfy YHWH’s jealous zeal, and calm him down. This leads to YHWH’s promise of reconciliation at the end of the chapter:
יחזקאל טז:ס וְזָכַרְתִּי אֲנִי אֶת בְּרִיתִי אוֹתָךְ בִּימֵי נְעוּרָיִךְ וַהֲקִמוֹתִי לָךְ בְּרִית עוֹלָם.
Ezek 16:60 And I will remember the covenant I made with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish it with you as an everlasting covenant.
In this case, the punishment that comes as a consequence of YHWH’s qinʿa allows him to remain with his wife, Israel, even after her infidelity.
Ezekiel 23 uses a parable of two sisters, Oholah and Oholibah, to explain the destruction of Samaria and Jerusalem, the respective capitals of Israel and Judah. Each of them cheats on their husband YHWH with foreign lovers, and again, the punishment is destruction by her former lovers to satisfy YHWH’s jealous zeal:
יחזקאל כג:כה וְנָתַתִּי קִנְאָתִי בָּךְ וְעָשׂוּ אוֹתָךְ בְּחֵמָה אַפֵּךְ וְאָזְנַיִךְ יָסִירוּ וְאַחֲרִיתֵךְ בַּחֶרֶב תִּפּוֹל הֵמָּה בָּנַיִךְ וּבְנוֹתַיִךְ יִקָּחוּ וְאַחֲרִיתֵךְ תֵּאָכֵל בָּאֵשׁ.
Ezek 23:25 I will direct My passion against you, and they shall deal with you in fury: they shall cut off your nose and ears. The last of you shall fall by the sword; they shall take away your sons and daughters, and your remnant shall be devoured by fire.
Although this chapter does not discuss reconciliation explicitly, the idea that YHWH and Israel/Judah have a future together is implicit:
יחזקאל כג:כז וְהִשְׁבַּתִּי זִמָּתֵךְ מִמֵּךְ וְאֶת זְנוּתֵךְ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם וְלֹא תִשְׂאִי עֵינַיִךְ אֲלֵיהֶם וּמִצְרַיִם לֹא תִזְכְּרִי עוֹד.
Ezek 23:27 I will put an end to your wantonness and to your whoring in the land of Egypt, and you shall not long for them or remember Egypt any more.
Although Ezekiel is discussing adultery and a husband’s jealousy, he is trying to convey a point about God to his listeners. By straying with foreign gods, Israel has defiled YHWH, his Temple, and his land. (Ezekiel uses the root ט.מ.א six times in chapter 23.) As a result, YHWH has no choice but to punish them severely, but this is in order to remove the defilement and calm his jealous zeal.
In other words, YHWH himself is tainted or defiled by his wife Israel’s promiscuous behavior with other gods or patrons, and must cleanse himself of this through her punishment. Once this has taken place, YHWH is again free to remain as Israel’s God, without fear of further defilement. In other words, the punishment of the woman is the only way to achieve hiscleansing.
The Minḫat Qena’ot: The Two-Fold Jealousy
The need to remove the husband’s jealous zeal is made clear in the description of the woman’s offering, which accompanies the ritual:
במדבר ה:טו וְהֵבִיא אֶת קָרְבָּנָהּ עָלֶיהָ עֲשִׂירִת הָאֵיפָה קֶמַח שְׂעֹרִים לֹא יִצֹק עָלָיו שֶׁמֶן וְלֹא יִתֵּן עָלָיו לְבֹנָה כִּי מִנְחַת קְנָאֹת הוּא מִנְחַת זִכָּרוֹן מַזְכֶּרֶת עָוֹן.
Num 5:15 And he (=her husband) shall bring as an offering for her one-tenth of an ephah of barley flour. No oil shall be poured upon it and no frankincense shall be laid on it, for it is a meal offering of jealousy, a meal offering of remembrance which recalls wrongdoing.
As an offering, the minḥat qena’ot differs significantly from the “regular” meal offering: it contains no oil or frankincense, and requires barley flour instead of fine wheat flour (solet). Abraham ibn Ezra suggests that plainness of the offering is a reminder that she is bringing on account of a (possible) sin, while Ramban goes further and suggests that its plainness marks it as a “meal-offering of punishment” (מנחת עונש) for the woman. Either way, the offering symbolizes and highlights the sin, but does not atone for it.
This is the only offering that is shared between the husband and wife. On one hand, the offering is hers, and she hands the grain over to the priest (v. 25). On the other hand, the text begins by saying that he brings the offering with his wife and on her behalf, but not “for her benefit.”
Instead, while this offering may function as a reminder of the woman’s sin, it is not coming to atone for it, but to deal with the problem of jealous zeal. In fact, the plural form of the term “meal offering of jealousies” (minchat qena’ot) reflects the two-fold nature of the jealousy here. The man’s jealousy at being cuckolded and God’s jealous zeal at her defiling herself and her husband—for adultery in the Torah is viewed as a religious sin rather than a sin against the husband (see esp. Gen 39:9). Rashi (Num 5:15, cf. Sifrei Numbers 8) makes a related observation:
מעוררת עליה שתי קנאות, קנאת המקום וקנאת הבעל
It brings upon her two jealousies, the jealous zeal of God and the jealousy of her husband.
That the offering, and the ritual as a whole, is meant to assuage the husband’s jealousy is expressed in the unit’s summary verse:
במדבר ה:לא וְנִקָּה הָאִישׁ מֵעָוֹן וְהָאִשָּׁה הַהִוא תִּשָּׂא אֶת עֲוֹנָהּ.
Num 5:31 The man shall be clear of guilt; but that woman shall suffer for her guilt.
In short, the offering must be understood in relation to him and his jealousy, not in relation to her and her sin.
Her Guilt Is Never Atoned For—Only His
If this understanding is correct, the guilt described in Numbers 5 is not about the adultery per se, but the guilt she creates by defiling her husband, as her sexual partner, and bringing about his jealous zeal. In fact, her guilt, whether for the adultery itself or for defiling her husband, is never atoned for. She has to keep on carrying “her guilt” forever (v. 31). The ritual frees only him from guilt (not from “his” guilt!).
Therefore, torat haq-qena’ot, the “law of the jealousies,” does not provide a means to convict a woman of adultery (even if this might have been the intention at one point, given the textual tradition of the adjuration ritual; vv. 19–24), but a means of reuniting the couple.
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Prof. Hanna Liss is chair of the Department of Bible and Jewish Exegesis at the Center for Jewish Studies in Heidelberg and the University of Heidelberg. Previously, she served as the first Moosnick Distinguished Professor of Hebrew Bible & Jewish Studies at Lexington Theological Seminary and as a Harry Starr Research Fellow in Judaica at Harvard University. She holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Studies from the Free University Berlin, and achieved her Habilitation and venia legendi in Jewish Studies at the Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg. She is the author of Jüdische Bibelauslegung (2019) and Creating Fictional Worlds: Peshat Exegesis and Narrativity in Rashbam’s Commentary on the Torah (2011).
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