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  • Jason HRM

Parashat Naso: The Adulteress

Updated: Apr 10, 2022

I couldn’t help myself from taking the easy way out this week.

We could start in Numbers 4 and begin with the census of the Levites and the delineation of their differing roles. We could do that (and look at the other topics…); and we would probably learn something profound. In fact, it’s the Bible, we would definitely learn something profound… But I just couldn’t help but jump right into the most glaringly difficult passage of the ‘wife suspected of adultery’. It poses so many avenues for enquiry and so many difficult questions.

This passage is found in Numbers 5:11-31.

It is known as ‘The Sotah’ which also refers specifically to the woman suspected of adultery.


As a quick aside, the word ‘Sotah’ is derived from;

Numbers 5:12 NKJV

“Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘If any man’s wife goes astray and behaves unfaithfully toward him,

The word goes ‘goes astray’ is ‘tisteh’ and means ‘to commit adultery’.

It’s root word is ‘sotah’ and means ‘to deviate, to turn aside, to go astray...’. Thus the going ‘astray’ of a wife is the act of adultery.

The Ordeal

This is a truly fascinating occurence. It remains the only legal code in the Bible where someone’s ‘trial’ and verdict is determined by ‘ordeal’. Judgement is determined by a miracle.

Now as we keep moving through this you’ll hear me continue to refer to the the Sotah as a ‘trial by ordeal’. It’s the only case where you had to go through something, i.e. an ordeal such as the bitter waters etc. which would determine your guilt or innocence. Some disagree with the phrase but it is recognised widespread in Christendom and Judaism that these verses are the Bible’s ‘trial by ordeal’.

The Bible gives us 2 scenarios where a husband can present his wife for the ordeal;

1. If a woman sleeps with another man and the husband suspects (i.e. has a spirit of jealousy)

2. If a woman has not committed adultery yet the husband suspects it anyway

Simply put, the initiation of the trial was instigated by the husband who suspected his wife.

Comparing the ordeal to similar cases in the Ancient World does help us to highlight some of the facts with regard to the Sotah.

Trial by ordeal, with regard to adultery, was widespread in the Ancient World. The Sotah is unique in many ways (as we shall see…) but it is hardly a unique phenomenon in many respects.

The Code of Hammurabi (CH) gives us some of the most clear comparisons where a woman could be put through trial by ordeal with respect to adultery. There are 2 criteria in the code;

1.If the husband of a married woman has accused her but she is not caught lying with another man...

2. If a finger has been pointed at the married woman with regard to another man and she is not caught lying with the other man...

Notably, as is the case in other cultures, if any man suspects a woman committing adultery she could be accused and put through ordeal.

This is unlike the Bible which only allows for the husband, who under suspicion of his wife, can present her for the ordeal. Other people can accuse all they want (they probably can’t as that might be slander…), but they cannot put a suspected adulteress through trial. (New Testament alarm bells should be going off…)

The ordeal itself is fascinating.

It consisted of a process where the husband and wife went to the priest;

• There is the presentation of the wife which includes having her hair uncovered (an act of shaming/mourning)

• Initially it is the husband who brings the grain offering however before the oath it is put in the woman’s hands

• The woman is put under oath by the priest

• The woman drinks the bitter waters which the priest prepared for her to drink (he prepared it for her earlier in the process…)

• The grain offering is taken from her and presented to God

• Then there is the verdict

The verdict itself is fascinating when compared with the ancient world.

In the Bible the woman is blessed with children if innocent. If guilty, her thigh rots and her belly swells. It’s interpreted that the guilty woman will not conceive children.

Outside of Israel the penalty for the guilty party is death. There are also laws in the ancient world where the woman would not die, however the husband could exact financial restitution from the woman’s family.

That might not sound so profound but the difference lay in the fact that the punishment for adultery in Israel’s case lay with God who determines verdict and restitution. In the ancient world they viewed adultery as a sin against the gods yet it was man who could determine the punishment.

Did This Really Occur?

Did this actually happen, or was it some mythical legal thing that never really took place?

Well, we know it was a thing.

The Talmud has this to say;

“[Now] if she said, “I am unclean,” she gives a quittance for her marriage contract [which is not paid over to her], and goes forth [with a writ of divorce]. And if she said, “I am clean,” they bring her up to the eastern gate, which is at the entrance of Nicanor’s Gate. There it is that they force accused wives to drink the bitter water.”

Mishnah, Sotah 1:4, The Mishnah: A New Translation by Jacob Neusner, Yale University Press, pg. 448

It’s in interesting because it indicates that if a woman wanted to admit to adultery, she was then given a writ of divorce. Notably, she was not put to death.

What we learn here though is that there was an actual place in the Temple Grounds (the eastern gate) where this occurence was known to be initiated.

The Talmud actually teaches us a little bit about the ordeal and how it may have been executed in the time of the Second Temple period. My JPS commentary sums up the evidence like this;

The precise architectural details concerning the construction and function of installations in the Temple court for the execution of the ordeal further corroborate the presumption that it had continued to be a living practice. To cite but a few of these details: The officiating priest was chosen by lot (Tosef. Sot. 1:2); he prepared the potion by mixing the holy water from the laver with dust taken from the Temple court, from beneath a slab one cubit square, located at the right of the entrance; the slab was affixed with a ring so that it could be easily lifted (Mish. Sot. 2:2); the verses containing the imprecation were inscribed on a golden tablet hung on the Temple wall so that it was visible from the court (Tosef. Sot. 2:1). Such a tablet was one of the many donations of Queen Helena of Adiabene (Mish. Yoma 3:10). Its purpose was to obviate the need to bring in a Torah scroll in order to copy out the appropriate verses (cf. Rashi on Sot. 37a).

• JPS Numbers

Interestingly enough, my JPS commentary continues to say;

Despite the evidence of these facilities and of cases of the ordeal, the many restrictions imposed by the rabbis for its administration render it likely that it was a rare occurrence.

• JPS Numbers

What the commentary is referring to, is the fact that the Rabbi’s legislated for the Sotah and created a number of criteria which had to be met in order for a husband to be permitted to present his wife for the ordeal.

The sages required;

• That the suspicion of the husband be warranted. There need not be a witness to the act but there had to be witness to the fact that the woman had occasion to commit adultery (i.e. was secluded and alone with another man).

• The sages also interpreted the verse ‘he is jealous of his wife’ to mean that he had already expressed his suspicions to his wife and warned her to not go astray with certain men. His suspicions had to be expressed to her with at least 2 witnesses.

Without these criteria being met the husband was not permitted to bring forth his wife for the ordeal. The sages also taught that if a husband had committed adultery himself in secret than the ordeal would be of nil effect.

Christian and Jewish scholars agree, whilst there is evidence of the ordeal, it was likely a rare occurence.

Adultery = Death

You may have picked up on this difficulty by now, or paradox.

Adultery warrants the death penalty;

Leviticus 20:10 NKJV

‘The man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, he who commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress, shall surely be put to death.


Before we elaborate as to why the adulteress, in the case of the ordeal, is not put to death; let’s understand the sin of adultery a little bit more.

It’s a sin that is described by the Hebrew word ‘ma’al’.

We see this here in Numbers 5:12 where it says she has ‘behaved unfaithfully toward him’. The Hebrew here makes use of the word ‘ma’al’ within this phrase.

Ma’al can be understood as meaning ‘to trespass’. Unlike the word for sin though, which can be general, ma’al is used for sins specifically against God.

It’s use in this verse is the only time where it is used outside of referring to sins pertaining directly to the tabernacle (including idolatry) or with regard to sins of an oath (oaths were taken in the name of God…). This teaches, as we already know, that the sin of adultery is in truth a sin against God. No surprises then that the unfaithful wife is frequently used as a typology by the prophets for Israel’s infidelity against God.


Notably, every other mention of adultery in the Bible includes the Hebrew verb ‘na’af’, which simply means, ‘to commit adultery’.

Leviticus 20:10 NKJV

‘The man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, he who commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress, shall surely be put to death.

Surprisingly, this verb is excluded, intentionally it would seem from the texts of the Sotah. It is clear that the guilty party has committed adultery and yet Numbers 5 doesn’t quite say it the same way the other parts of the law do. It creates an intentional separation from the ordeal and the death penalty.


The key to understanding the absence of the death penalty lay in the fact that the woman was not apprehended by man.

My JPS again explains this quite aptly;

That this element (secrecy) is the most significant in her case is shown by the fact that it is cited four times in her indictment, each in a different manner: (1) “unbeknown to her husband”; (2) “she keeps secret” (or “it was done clandestinely”); (3) “without being apprehended”; (4) “and there is no witness against her” (v. 13).

• JPS Numbers

This teaches an important principal, especially when it comes to adultery.

The adulterer that is not caught in the act is not subject to a human court. The criminal that does so in secret, and gets away without 2-3 witnesses to the crime, belongs under the jurisdiction of God.

So to summarise these points;

1. The adulteress act of the Sotah is done so in secret.

2. The Torah separates this kind of adultery from human courts. This kind of adultery is judged by God himself.

3. Adultery is ‘ma’al’. It is a sin against God and is punished by God.

4. This kind of adultery attracts the divine punishment which in this case is not the death penalty.

Woman Caught In Adultery (John 8:1-11)

These facts should greatly inform our understanding of all that is wrong with John 8:1-11;

The Legislation Guarantees That She Would Be Free

Feminists have a field day with the law of the Sotah.

It’s understandable, at face value its denigrating and as men can’t be put to trial it’s a little bit unequal.

Unfortunately, the truth again shows that God is righteous where men are not.

When you work through the laws you come to the following conclusion;

• The law for dealing with a woman suspected of adultery ensures her safety as she cannot be killed by mob justice.

The legislation takes the whole case out of human hands and places it in the hand of God.

Jacob Milgrom points out;

‘The right to such a supreme court belongs only to a woman....’

My JPS ends its commentary noting the brilliance of the laws of the Sotah. It says the laws;

‘thereby guarantee that she would not be put to death.’

Is it any wonder why Yeshua then said ‘neither do I condemn you...’. Adulterers, unless put forward within the strict laws required for their conviction, where guaranteed to live (not withstanding punishment mind you if guilty…)

The Water Ordeal

I mentioned before that the trial by ordeal has its counterparts within the Ancient World. There is ample evidence to suggest that many ancient cultures participated in this practice for this adultery.

I left out the difference in method before when I quoted the Code of Hammurabi.

Let’s re read one of my references but with the full quote.

• If a finger has been pointed at the married woman with regard to another man and she is not caught lying with the other man, she shall leap into the divine river (or river god) for her husband. (Driver and Miles 1955: 53, 282–285)

In the ancient world they didn’t drink bitter waters; the women were thrown into a river and the gods were left to judge her. Sink and you die guilty. Emerge from the water and live.

Contrast this to Israel’s practice and the ancient world did their trial with a sort ‘guilty’ until proved innocent.

This ordeal, of plunging someone into the river, is the ancient world’s equivalent to the Sotah. Because it was so widespread Israelite’s would have recognised the practice as synonymous with theirs.


Before I make my next point I want to draw your attention to the impurity associated with adultery.

Our chapter says;

Numbers 5:13 (NKJV)

13 and a man lies with her carnally, and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband, and it is concealed that she has defiled herself, and there was no witness against her, nor was she caught—

The word for ‘defiled herself’ comes from the word ‘tame’ which means ‘to be unclean’.

This is the same word for ceremonial uncleanliness used throughout the Torah.

Other verses in the Torah make it clear that sexual sin defiles and renders someone impure.

Leviticus 18 says things like this;

Leviticus 18:20 (NKJV)

20 Moreover you shall not lie carnally with your neighbor’s wife, to defile yourself with her.

Leviticus 18:24 (NKJV)

24 ‘Do not defile yourselves with any of these things; for by all these the nations are defiled, which I am casting out before you.

What we learn is that the impurity associated with sexual sin has to be understood in and of itself. It’s just incredibly fascinating though because if you were ritually impure you could not go near the Temple as you would be killed. Yet here, the greater impurity is potentially allowed in, that of sexual immorality, when the Sotah walks into the Temple courts.

I’ll stress that. Impurity does not abide in the Temple and yet God, at risk of letting something impure into his Holy dwelling, allows a Sotah, a woman possibly impure with adultery, into His court.

That you have someone impure, in the immoral sense, in the court of God is an amazing fact. It speaks to God’s unwavering desire for justice and mercy. In this same vein the sages point out that the curse, which includes the name of God, is wiped out into the bitter waters. The sages say that God so desires peace between husband and wife that he would even blot out his name to achieve this.

During the ordeal the priest makes it clear that if the woman is innocent that she would be rendered ‘clear’. The word for ‘clear’, or in my King James ‘be free from this bitter water’, is the root word ‘naqi’.

Naqi is interesting because it means to be clean but it is often used outside of the ritual purity system of the Temple. It’s a cleanliness that makes someone pure, but it’s referring to a moral and legal purity beyond ritual cleanliness.

My point however is that the adulteress;

• Is viewed as someone who is impure. That a possibly impure person is allowed to be inside the Temple is an amazing phenomenon

• If someone is rendered innocent, it also equates to someone being declared ‘pure’ (even if that goes beyond the ritual sense of the word)

Thus the potentially unclean woman, in the eyes of all, if innocent is declared clean.


I said before that the Sotah is the only trial by ordeal in the Bible.

In my opinion, that is actually an incorrect statement. There is one other trial by ordeal that we have all undergone. It is the trial of baptism and what we see in the Sotah greatly informs the ancient perception of baptism and it’s legal weight. In ancient eyes they would have understood the association between baptism and the trial by ordeal.

When one goes under the water we’ve learnt it was for judgement. Sink, and you die guilty. Live and be exonerated and declared pure.

When one undergoes baptism we do so in a state of adultery. We have all sinned and committed harlotry against God. In His mercy, though we come in an impure state, He still receives us.

Under the water He judges us.

Arising from the water He declares you innocent.

With regard to baptism we all know that we are guilty of the sin we stand accused of.

The Accuser?

It’s interesting, people often relate the husband to the devil, suggesting that he is our accuser and that he in turn will be punished for his accusations against us. That might be true, but in the context of Sotah the Bible is clear that only the Husband can bring forth His bride. So it is actually Yeshua, within this prophetic framework, who stands with us in the Temple Courts in heaven.

He is the husband, we are the adulteress bride.

He presents us as Husband.

He brings the sacrifice.

We take the oath;

Romans 10:9 (The Scriptures)

9 That if you confess with your mouth the Master Yeshua and believe in your heart that Elohim has raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved.

And we undergo the ordeal (baptism).

We emerge innocent and are rendered pure.

But we all know we’re guilty.

God doesn’t make iniquity go away, all things must be accounted for. So who takes the punishment for our guilt?

Combining the imagery of the Sotah/baptism/trial by ordeal Yeshua answers the question.

Matthew 20:22 (The Scriptures)

22 But Yeshua answering, said, “You do not know what you ask. Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink, and to be immersed with the immersion that I am immersed with?” ....

The answer is always Yeshua.

At every turn the Torah convicts us and yet at every turn our Messiah is there to offer himself for our sins. Messiah remains the single most greatest achievement of the law; the purpose and answer to all things.

Imagery In Bible

When you clue into the imagery of the Sotah and the trial by ordeal as baptism you see it in Scripture more than you would realise.

Let’s end with this imagery employed in 2 Samuel and call it here;

2 Samuel 22:5–7 (The Scriptures)

5 “For the waves of death surrounded me,

Floods of Beliya‘al made me afraid,

6 “The cords of the grave were all around me;

The snares of death were before me.

7 “In my distress I called upon יהוה,

And to my Elohim I cried.

And from His Hěḵal He heard my voice,

And my cry was in His ears.

2 Samuel 22:16–19 (The Scriptures)

16 “And the channels of the sea were seen,

The foundations of the world were uncovered

At the rebuke of יהוה,

At the blast of the breath of His nostrils.

17 “He sent from above, He took me,

He drew me out of many waters.

18 “He delivered me from my strong enemy,

From those hating me,

For they were stronger than I.

19 “They confronted me in the day of my calamity,

But יהוה was my support.

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