Numbers 5:11–31 describes an unusual procedure, sometimes referred to as the “jealousy offering.” Others label it “the ordeal of bitter water.” An Israelite man who insisted his wife was unfaithful—but had no proof—could bring her to the tabernacle for this test. The ritual required an accusing husband to bring his wife to the priest. The priest would create a concoction of unpleasant but relatively benign ingredients. The wife would recite an oath and drink the mixture. Guilt was demonstrated if the woman’s belly swelled and she became sick. If there was no such effect, her innocence was established. Conviction for adultery would be followed by a possible death sentence (Leviticus 20:10). Innocence meant clearing her name, putting away all suspicion. The woman would suffer no ill effects “and will be able to have children” (Numbers 5:28).
Critics label this test a barbaric, superstitious ritual involving sorcery (see Deuteronomy 18:9–13). Others suggest that it depicts an abortion. Neither view is correct. While bizarre, the rite protected women from husbands who were overly aggressive or hasty in their judgments. It offered a safe outlet for male jealousy and prevented emotional or physical abuse. It kept Israelites from visiting pagan temples. And it would have nearly always exonerated the woman in question.
Many seemingly strange rules of the Old Testament helped mediate a sinful, fallen culture. And such is the case with the “jealousy offering” or “bitter water ordeal” of Numbers 5:11–31. It provided a stopgap measure that people could reasonably be expected to follow. This parallels the Mosaic Law’s procedures for divorce, intended to prevent women from being easily abused or cast aside (Deuteronomy 24:1–4; cf. Matthew 19:8).
There was nothing magical about the concoction the priest would make to determine guilt or innocence. Nor would the listed ingredients naturally produce swelling or severe illness. This implies a supernatural source for a “guilty” sign. In other words, for a woman to be exposed as blameworthy by the “curse” of this ritual, God would have to intervene and make the signs appear. This follows the perspective that adultery is fundamentally wrong as a sin against God, rather than simply an insult to the husband.
It’s also noteworthy that the process is heavy on symbolism and drama. Components such as temple dust, an offering, water, and the loosening of the hair are representative of ideas such as repentance, holiness, and submission. One purpose for these components is the psychological effect they have on participants. Many ancient tests for innocence were structured in a similar way. A guilty conscience would be strained by fear, likely leading to a confession before the “curse” could be enacted. The rite was meant to exemplify the principle explained in Numbers 32:23: “Be sure your sin will find you out.” Some ancient Jewish commentators even believed the curse would affect the adulterous male, as well (Talmud Sotah 27b:3)
Those who claim the passage depicts abortion insert concepts not even hinted at in the text. Part of this confusion stems from the 2011 edition of the NIV, which refers to miscarriage. Pregnancy is not part of the requirement for the ritual. Nor is pregnancy mentioned anywhere in the process. The effects include some type of swelling and/or shriveling. Yet the targeted body part is vague. In fact, it’s the same Hebrew term used to describe the spot where Jacob suffered his infamous injury (Genesis 32:25), as well as the place where Ehud hid his sword (Judges 3:16). At worst, the Numbers 5 passage implies future infertility. The ritual was not a remedy for an unwanted pregnancy—it was a test for adultery. Traditional interpretations of the ritual even restricted it from being performed on pregnant women (Mishnah Sotah 4:3).
In the ancient world, women were often afforded no rights of any kind. Merely being suspected of adultery was enough justification to be divorced, cast aside, and left destitute. A man who suspected his wife was unfaithful might batter or even murder her. Or he might employ a pagan spell that would all but guarantee a guilty verdict. The ritual depicted in Numbers 5:11–31 is an allowance to human nature and to that cultural context, and it had the effect of greatly reducing the damage done to women. That’s not an endorsement of jealousy or suspicion. Nor does it include anything reasonably interpreted as an abortion. Unless God supernaturally intervened, the rite described in Numbers 5 would declare a woman innocent by default.