Sotah, the Ordeal of the Suspected Unfaithful Wife

    Issue Number 24, August 1999          
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The Ordeal of the Unfaithful Wife - Sotah

By Copyright 1999 Tilia Klebenov

      Judaism is a law-based religion, and the Torah abounds with rules and regulations covering everything from what kind of fabric to wear to what to do if your ox falls into your neighbor's ditch. (Lev 19:19 and Exodus 21:33, respectively.) A great number of these laws may seem hopelessly archaic and irrelevant to current life. A closer examination, however, often reveals another message with profound resonances for the modern Jew.

      One such example is the "Strange Case of the Suspected Sotah", described in Numbers 5:11-31. It details the legal procedure for a woman whose husband has accused her of adultery. If there are no witnesses or other proofs of her guilt, she is to drink a sacred potion while accepting an adjuration from the high priest, stating that the potion will cause her grim and visible injury if she is in fact guilty. The text gives no indication of what happens to the couple immediately after the wife drinks the potion; presumably they go home and await further results. Final proof of the woman's innocence is pregnancy (which is ironic, considering the nature of the original accusation); confirmation of her guilt is that her body will change shape for all the world to see.

      This seemingly bizarre ritual was intended to remove the very suspicion of marital unfaithfulness from the midst of Israel. At the same time, it seems to have been designed to provide protection to the innocent wife in case of unreasonable suspicions on the part of the husband.

      Like most laws, this one has its ups and downs. On the negative side, the jealous husband is never held accountable for his own acts. On the plus side, however, the woman is physically and legally protected, especially because the ceremony removes judgment from society and puts it in the hands of God. In fact, by means of this rite the wife is placed in a peculiarly intimate relationship with the Divine. Furthermore, the nature of the ritual, with its emphasis on the individual as a focal point of interest for both God and human culture, holds messages for us today.

      The Law of the Sotah, as the text is called, is clearly one-sided. For example, no one is required to ask the woman what happened; the husband is free to accuse her, even in the absence of any evidence. Furthermore, the passage is written in language which exonerates him of any wrongdoing or responsibility. It states that he must do these things if the spirit of jealousy come upon him. (Num 5:14)

      The word for spirit here is ruach. It is also often translated as breath. It is very commonly used throughout the Hebrew Bible, and is usually positive and always powerful. In Genesis, the ruach of God sweeps over the waters before Creation begins. (Gen 1:2) In the Book of Judges, the ruach of the LORD grips Samson and he kills thirty Philistines. (Jud 14:19) Occasionally, as in I Samuel, an evil ruach causes problems, such as those that continually plague Saul. (I Sam 16:15) In all cases, however, it comes from elsewhere. When it enters into someone, that person can no longer take full credit or responsibility for his actions. Such is the case with the jealous husband. Apparently these are not his emotions, his jealousy, or his suspicions; instead, a spirit has entered him and changed his way of thinking. Something completely external is acting upon him.

      This is the first of several times the husbands behavior is condoned. The final one occurs at the end of the passage, which states that after the trial, even if the woman is found innocent, the man shall be clear of guilt; but that woman shall suffer for her guilt. (Num 5:31)

      Finally, it goes without saying that no equivalent law exists for the woman, should the ruach of jealousy enters her. She has no recourse, and her philandering husband is free to continue with his debauched lifestyle.

      These facts notwithstanding, however, there are distinct advantages for the woman as well. Specifically, she does not lose her life. This is no small conclusion for an accused wife in an intensely patriarchal culture. Rather than kill her, her husband is forced to bring her to a presumably neutral third party who is also the highest authority in this society. Ruach or no ruach, he is clearly not allowed to take matters into his own hands. This was not necessarily the case outside of Israel; the ancient Babylonian Law Code of Hamurabi states that if a man suspects his wife of cheating, she is to throw herself into a river for the sake of her husband. If she survives, she is innocent; if she drowns, she is guilty. Either way, her husband is no longer afflicted by his nagging doubts.

      Nor is such a mentality limited to ancient times. In Massachusetts, during the Salem witch trials, a similar technique was used to ferret out suspected witches: they were tied up, weighted down, and thrown into deep water. In this case, however, a woman who survived was deemed guilty, and promptly executed.

      In the case of the Sotah, however, responsibility is removed from the husband and society, and given to God; and the procedure, though doubtless humiliating for the wife, was a private rather than public affair.

      Furthermore, the ritual starts with the assumption of innocence. The priest's first words to the woman are: "If no man has lain with you, if you have not gone astray in defilement while married to your husband, be immune to harm from this water of bitterness that induces the spell." (Num 5:19)

      At this point, the woman drinks the potion. If she is indeed guilty, says the priest: "May the LORD cause your thigh to sag and your belly to distend; may this water that induces the spell enter your body, causing the belly to distend and the thigh to sag." (Num 5:21.)

      There is more going on here than the loss of a carefully crafted body image. It has to do with physical evidence of an otherwise invisible sin--one committed in the darkest secrecy. The Jews believe that evil had a physical, though intangible, reality, and had to be addressed by physical methods. It was a property that, if left unattended, would poison the community. The closest modern analogy might perhaps be radioactivity it is invisible, inaudible, and essentially undetectable by ordinary means; yet it is both real and dangerous. If it is not disposed of in the appropriate fashion, it is lethal. For the good of the community, it must be gotten rid of.

      An analogous imperative becomes incumbent upon the Sotah. She must eliminate the taint of sin. Indeed, she is the only one who can. Thus she drinks the ink of the curse which the priest has written on a scroll, just for this occasion. In so doing, she literally imbibes the forensic aspect of the Divine, and his judgment enters into her on a physical level, in order to establish or refute her material purity in relation to her sin. It is closely tied to the physical nature of sin, which in this case is tied up in the body. Indeed, the body itself becomes an instrument for bringing clandestine transgressions to light.

      The catalyst for this revelation is the priestly potion. In addition to the ink, it contains holy water, meim kiddoshim, mixed with some of the earth that is on the floor of the Tabernacle.(Num 5:17) This act contains multiple layers of meaning. On a literal level, this poor woman has to drink mud. Sin or no sin, this cannot have been pleasant.

      To appreciate the cosmic significance of this act, however, we need to note the source of the earth. It is from the floor of the Tabernacle, which was the wandering Israelites precursor to the Temple. The Israelites saw the Jerusalem Temple as an axis mundi, the center of the world. Being in the middle of the city on the highest point of land, it was thought to be close to heaven and therefore the point at which heaven and earth connected. At this site, the sacred erupted into the profane, giving it meaning and orientation.

      The significance of the Temple is difficult to overstate. Life in ancient Israel focused on it to an extent which is difficult to imagine now it was both a spiritual and a community center where all of Israel gathered during Pilgrimage Festivals. Indeed, it was even the physical heart of the city, for houses in ancient Jerusalem were oriented toward it.

      The Tabernacle was its antecedent. Smaller and portable, and thus suitable for a nomadic people, it nevertheless had the same functions as Solomon's Temple. It contained the Ark, God's throne, and was the place ordinary people would go to be close to God. It was the place where heaven and earth were linked by the just and powerful presence of the Divine. Because of this, the woman's drinking the earth and water is nothing less than her completing a circuit. She is becoming physically and visibly connected to the earth--it is now in her body--the same earth which God enters at this same location.

      This is especially powerful when we realize that this is a culture which believed that mankind sprang from the soil. Adam, of course, is fashioned from the earth; and the Hebrew word for soil is adamah. The two words have the same root. In this sense, then, the woman is doing nothing less than imbibing her own essential nature, she is earth, and she drinks the earth. In so doing, she is placing herself utterly in God's presence, in the hands of the one who fashioned the first humans from that same soil.

      God is to judge the wife's spiritual purity, which in this case is contingent on a physical sin; and her guilt or innocence are to be manifested physically, in her body--which she and all those present at the ceremony believed sprang from the very dust she just drank.

      If the water of bitterness signifies God's justice, His judging power, then it seems the other symbols involved indicate His mercy. During the ritual, the woman holds in her hand one-tenth of an ephah of barley-flour, which is a meal offering of remembrance which recalls wrongdoing. (Num 5:15)

      Some commentators have suggested that the coarseness of the barley was an indication of the gravity of the situation, for it indicated the abased condition of the suspected woman. This interpretation is flawed, however, for it overlooks the crucial fact that the woman is so far only accused of adultery; she may be absolutely innocent. Where, then, is her abased condition? Instead, the meal-offering presents yet another complex of symbols. Even though it seems to be less than entirely positive, it is also not utterly negative. Indeed, how could grain be a curse in an agricultural society?

      In some ways the barley suggests hope and redemption. In Israel, barley is the first spring crop, something of which the priest, the woman, and the husband would all have been aware. It represents the beginning of the growing season, the time of bounty and fertility of the land.

      The concept of grain as a sign of God's sustenance of His people is still powerful and familiar to Jews today. The woman's holding the flour during her trial is strongly reminiscent of the prayer, hamotzi, in which we thank God for lechem min ha-aretz, food or bread from the earth. This is the earth's bounty, and God's nourishment of us via it we earthlings are sustained by the earth that formed us. The same clay that became humanity also provides food for the sake of human life.

      True, the emblems used here are ambiguous. They contradict their own usual significance. The barley calls to mind the possibility of an evil deed. The water, which ordinarily makes fertile the soil, is now bitter. With their dual meanings they reflect the ambiguous status of the woman, who is accused but not yet convicted.

      Finally, the woman's body becomes charged with meaning. If she is guilty, her physical being will declare her sin before all Israel. If she is an adulteress, she sags; she droops; her abdomen and thighs become flabby. In other words, she no longer looks young and sexy. She looks like an old, infertile woman, which is in fact what she has become if, indeed, she is guilty her wrongdoing, as revealed by the ritual, renders her sterile. (Num 5:28) This seems a fitting consequence for a carnal sin. If, however, she is innocent, she shall be unharmed and able to retain seed. (Num 5:28) This is, of course, exactly what the earth itself has done retained seed and provided the barley which she now holds.

      Similarly, the woman herself takes on characteristics of that very soil, and they are manifested in her body as a physical response to the intangibility of sin. If innocent, she becomes as the land when it is pure it is fertile and able to retain seed and grow food, providing for the next generation. If polluted by transgression, then like a piece of cursed ground, she is barren.

      The Trial of the Sotah shows the paramount importance of the individual not only in Israelite society but also in the eyes of God. It ensures that one woman, wrongdoer or not, is elevated in status so that her guilt or innocence become the focal point of God's creative and judicial energies. In this ceremony, key aspects of Creation, earth and water, conjoin to divine the true status of a possible adulteress; and by taking these elements into her body, she has taken on their essential attributes as aspects of God's Creation. She is like clay for him to mold.

      Modern Jews do not go this route. This practice ended with the destruction of the Temple in 70. But what has endured from that day to this is a profound respect for the individual and that person's relationship with God. To illustrate this, I can do no better than to quote from a contemporary prayer. Like Jews of generations past, we celebrate the grandeur of creation. Like Jews of every age, we echo our people's ancient call for justice. We are Jews, but each of us is unique. We stand apart and alone, with differing feelings and insights. And yet we are not entirely alone and separate, for we are children of one people and one heritage.

      Ultimately, perhaps, what the Trial of the Sotah assumes and what Judaism strives for is a just society not community at the expense of the individual, but for the sake of the individual. What this archaic ritual demonstrates so dramatically is that each human being is entirely worthy of God's attention; that even a petty sinner deserves to stand, for one shining moment, at the nexus of God's power and mercy, and society's yearning for justice in his eyes.

Tilia Klebenov is a graduate of Oberlin College and Harvard Divinity School. She teaches English, History, and Comparative Religion in Stoughton, Massachusetts. This article is an adaptation of the davar she gave at her adult bat mitzvah.


from the August 1999 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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