The priest is to write these curses on a scroll and then wash them off into the bitter water. (Numbers 5:23)

Explaining this writing requires facts and context. A woman, suspected by her husband of adultery, would be taken to a priest who would recite explicit curses. If she had committed adultery, she would be cursed. He would write them down, wash the ink into bitter water and the woman would drink it. If she were guilty, she would become sick and would ‘become a curse.’ If nothing happened, she would be cleared of guilt. Pretty stark and pretty one-sided.

The context is complex. This was in a time when the Israelites needed order and discipline to survive in the wilderness. It referenced the close relationship of a husband and wife – to be open and transparent, not tainted by infidelity or suspicion and lies. It was in a time when a man could divorce his wife, but she could not divorce him. It was harsh on the wife, yet in that context, it limited the husband.

It was a deterrent: I have not found a single narrative of a wife actually being condemned in this manner. If she were to be a curse, she would be labelled as that; like the curse of calling someone a ‘Jezebel’ or ‘Lady Muck’ or being labelled a ‘Quisling’ as a collaborator. The punishment was the curse, not death. The husband would pause: she was his wife! Did he really want to cause her pain on the basis of a mere suspicion? If he continued, then guilty or innocent, he himself would suffer the shame (in a society where honour was everything) of this all being in public.

Why was there not an opportunity for a wife to do the same? In those days, a woman could not divorce a husband. But there is more to it. Hebrews 13:4 holds a man accountable directly to God and a woman accountable to her husband and thence to God. But remember: they were created equal. It was awful that a woman would face the judgement of this ritual. But her husband would face the judgement of God. In design and practice this was a deterrent against a husband accusing out of mere suspicion. Caught in the act, two would be stoned, but if only the woman, she should not be stoned. Jesus knew that. In John 8 we read that the woman had been caught in the act of adultery (and ‘caught in the act’ means they must also have seen the man), yet only she was to be killed, not the man. Not only was it unfair, it was against Jewish law to condemn the one to a punishment that was reserved for two. Jesus showed the crowd of men for who they were, but then he turned to the woman and said, “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:11)

Speak to the Israelites and get twelve staffs from them, one from the leader of each of their ancestral tribes. Write the name of each man on his staff. On the staff of Levi write Aaron’s name, for there must be one staff for the head of each ancestral tribe. (Numbers 17:2-3)

This is much more straightforward! It confirms origins, recording the symbolism and relationship of leadership. It reminds us of who we are and the basis of our authority. We are God’s people through the authority of Jesus who loves us. In researching Numbers 5:23, I found a Scripture Union summary headed: ‘Relationships matter.’ Write that on your heart.

We Are Hiring – Family Outreach Worker

We Are Hiring – Family Outreach Worker

We are looking to recruit a new staff member into our ministry team with the skills, experience and confidence to coordinate and lead Christian outreach work with families in our community.

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