Why is the “Law of Jealousy” no longer valid, and are there any spiritual lessons which we can derive from it?


In our Q&A on the “law of jealousy,” we pointed out that this law was a “ritualistic procedure,” which is no longer applied in its literal sense today. We stated that “In Numbers 5:11-31, God gave Old Testament Israel a supernatural means of determining whether a wife had committed adultery or not, although she had not been caught, and no witness was present (Numbers 5:13). When ‘the spirit of jealousy’ came upon the husband, so that he suspected a transgression of his wife, the husband could bring his wife to the priest, and he had to bring at the same time the ‘grain offering of jealousy’ (Numbers 5:15)… The priest gave the woman ‘holy’ or ‘bitter’ water to drink, after she had denied, under oath, any transgression. God then saw to it, that her belly would swell, if she was in deed guilty.”

In this Q&A, we are going to discuss further aspects which are relevant to that temporary ritual law, showing that it has still spiritual meaning for us today, even though its practical and literal application has ceased.

That the practical application is no longer valid today, will become clear throughout this Q&A. It is Satan, and not God who is ruling today this present evil world with all of its countries (John 14:30), so God will not supernaturally intervene today in the way which is described in Numbers 5. In addition, we are not to swear today (James 5:12; but compare Numbers 5:19-22), and we cannot avail ourselves of any holy water and dust from the Tabernacle which were a required part of the prescribed procedure of the law of jealousy (compare Numbers 5:17).

Discussing this law, we are presented with a situation when the wife may or may not have committed adultery, but in either case, she apparently acted in a way which raised disturbing suspicion or jealousy in the husband. Since she was not caught in the very act, no witness could bring sufficient evidence to establish her guilt.

The commentary on the Torah by Richard Elliott Friedman explains that the law deals with a “woman whose husband suspects her of adultery, but who has not been proved guilty by evidence or witnesses… even if the woman is shown guilty [through the procedure of the law of jealousy], she is not executed, which elsewhere is the penalty for adultery (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22)… this is why the woman cannot be executed: She has not been proved guilty in front of judges in a court of law through witnesses.”

This is an interesting thought. Even though some commentaries assume that the guilty woman would be killed, the Bible does not say this. It only says that she “will become a curse among her people” (verse 27). This shows that God does not allow the execution of a person based on anything but the testimony of at least two witnesses (Circumstantial evidence is never considered to be sufficient).

Commentaries also observe that this law was rarely practiced in ancient Israel, and it completely ceased to be administered in later times. Some feel that it ceased to be administered after the Second Temple was destroyed. Others, like the Ryrie Study Bible, feel that it was only administered in the wilderness. Friedman claims that it was not practiced “since the time of the First Temple in Jerusalem. It required dust from the Tabernacle floor, and the Tabernacle was only in the First Temple, not in the Second.” As mentioned, the fact that there is no Tabernacle today is one reason—but by far not the only one—why this law is no longer valid today.

Even though the Roman Catholic Church used a similar procedure in the Middle Ages (with the inevitable result that the woman was almost always found guilty and executed), God never sanctioned this procedure to be applied by them. In fact, as Dummelow points out in “A Commentary on the Holy Bible,” “During the middle ages it was frequently resorted to in Europe under sanctions of the church and the law. The most common forms of ordeal were those by fire, by water, and by wager in battle. The difference between these and the ordeal prescribed here is that the latter is not in itself injurious, but depends for its efficacy on the direct interposition of God.”

If it was established that the wife did commit adultery, then “the man shall be free from iniquity, but the woman shall bear her guilt (verse 31).” Friedman states that this is “usually understood to mean that the husband is innocent of the crime [or iniquity] of making a false charge against his wife. But this is a questionable reading since the text does not say that he has made any charge against her; he has just brought her to the priest to make the determination of whether his jealousy is correct or not. This may rather refer to the other man, the one who had intercourse with the woman. The procedure proves only that the woman has had intercourse; it cannot prove who the man was. It is therefore not possible to convict the man by this procedure.” 

Under the law, both the adulterer and the adulteress had to die. When the woman, caught in the very act of adultery, was brought to Jesus to be tempted, He refused to convict her because—among several other reasons–only the woman, but not the man was brought in front of Him (John 8:1-11).

The entire procedure might look harsh to us, but it was really meant to protect the wife who had not committed adultery. In other cultures, the husband could simply divorce his wife upon suspicion of adultery, or he could even kill her. This is still the case in many Muslim countries today. But God provided “an opportunity for the woman to prove her innocence before an enraged husband” (The Nelson Study Bible).

The New Bible Commentary: Revised adds: “Such trials by ordeal were common in the ancient world in cases of infidelity. The ceremony recorded here is notable for its leniency in comparison with the fierce ordeals prescribed in pagan circles, and also for the fact that it was more likely to result in a verdict of innocence whereas the others were certainly weighted in the direction of guilt. Strange as the whole circumstance and ritual may seem to us, it compares so favourably with non-Israelite practices that it may be taken as evidence of that generally considerate attitude of the law of Moses towards women.”

The Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary explains the purpose of this law and shows that the underlying rationale is still relevant today:

“This law would make the women of Israel watch against giving cause for suspicion. On the other hand, it would hinder the cruel treatment such suspicions might occasion… The water is called the bitter water, because it caused the curse. Thus sin is called an evil and a bitter thing. Let all that meddle with forbidden pleasures, know that they will be bitterness in the latter end. From the whole learn, 1. Secret sins are known to God, and sometimes are strangely brought to light in this life; and that there is a day coming when God will, by Christ, judge the secrets of men according to the gospel… 2. In particular, Whoremongers and adulterers God will surely judge. Though we have not now the waters of jealousy, yet we have God’s word, which ought to be as great a terror…. 3. God will manifest the innocency of the innocent…”

Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible adds that this law deals with a situation  “not of certain adultery… but of her having committed it in the opinion of her husband, he having some ground of suspicion, though he could not be certain of it… [when the wife] goes into a private place with [another man], and stays so long with him that she may be defiled… the law of jealousies… was appointed by God to deter wives from adultery… and to keep husbands from being cruel to their wives they might be jealous of, and to protect virtue and innocence, and to detect lewdness committed in the most secret manner; whereby God gave proof of his omniscience, that he had knowledge of the most private acts of uncleanness, and was the avenger of all such… [Even if she was found] not guilty, yet as she had by some unbecoming behaviour raised such a suspicion in [the husband],…  she for it justly bore the infamy of such a process.”

This is good advice for us today. We should not allow ourselves to be found in situations which could raise suspicion. We are to avoid even the appearance of evil (1 Thessalonians 5:22, Authorized Version).

Regarding the requirement to uncover the woman’s head (in verse 18), the Pulpit Commentary states that this was done “In token that she had forfeited her glory by breaking, or seeming to have broken, her allegiance to her husband (1 Corinthians 11:5-10); perhaps also with some reference to the truth that ‘all things are naked and open to the eyes of him’ with whom she had to do (Hebrews 4:13).”

Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible adds, in regard to the uncovering of the woman’s head, that this was to be done “as a token of her immodesty and non-subjection to her husband” and that the priest “loosed her hair.” This is interesting in light of the fact that it says in 1 Corinthians 11:15 that “if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her; for her hair is given to her for a covering.” Long hair is identified, in verse 10, as “a symbol of [her husband’s] authority on her head.” This passage does not talk about any requirement for women to wear in Church services a veil or any other type of hair covering, but it refers to the fact that the hair of a woman should not be too short—otherwise, it would be as if she was shaved or shorn (verse 5).

Gill also states that the fact that the belly of the guilty woman would swell “must be ascribed to a supernatural cause” and if the husband “was not pure from the same sin himself, the waters would not search his wife… hence they say… when adulterers increased (under the second temple) the bitter waters ceased, according to Hosea 4:14; see Matthew 12:39.”

The Pulpit Commentary points out that the bitter water “was not literally bitter, but it was so fraught with conviction and judgment as to bring bitter suffering on the guilty.” It adds that “The trial of jealousy being adopted, as it was, into a system really Divine, and being based upon the knowledge and power of God himself, secured all the benefits of an ordeal and escaped all its dangers.”

The procedure of the law of jealousy REQUIRED God’s direct intervention. In former days, sometimes God would also intervene in other cases through the casting of lots.  But after the New Testament Church was founded and the Holy Spirit was given, the Bible does not record anymore any incident of the casting of lots for the purpose of Godly intervention or the determination of God’s Will. Once Israel turned away from God and rejected Him as their Leader and King, God’s direct intervention ceased, and with it the application of the law of jealousy.

If the woman was guiltless, then she would conceive seed (verse 28). The Pulpit Commentary explains this “as a sign of the Divine favour… (1 Samuel 2:5; Psalm 127:3; Luke 1:58).”

Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible agrees, stating that “if she was barren before, now she would be fruitful” and that “her husband should receive her gladly, and she should live comfortably with him hereafter, and the blessing of God would be upon her, which would still be a confirmation of her chastity.”

Even though this law is no longer in effect for us today, it does still entail important spiritual guidelines and principles, as we have discussed herein. But as the New Application Bible points out, “Trust between husband and wife had to be completely eroded for a man to bring his wife to the priest for this type of test. Today… pastors help restore marriages by counseling couples who have lost faith in each other. Whether justified or not, suspicion must be removed for a marriage to survive and trust to be restored.” This is very true—and in general, the Church has been given today the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-19).

Even if the wife was guilty of adultery, the righteous act of Joseph (who believed that his betrothed bride Mary had committed adultery) is described as such in Matthew 1:19: “Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not wanting to make her a public example, was minded to put her away secretly.”

Apart from the fact that the practical application of the law of jealousy was apparently not available anymore at the time of Joseph, this Scripture shows that he would not have used it anyway, as he did not want to make Mary a public spectacle (which the procedure of the law of jealousy would have done), but that he was thinking about divorcing her secretly. Even at the time of Moses, a suspicious husband did not HAVE to have this law applied to his wife. But God allowed it because of the hardness of the people’s heart.

Lead Writer: Norbert Link

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