Trial of a Woman Accused of Adultery (Parsha Naso)

This week’s Torah reading is Naso (Num. 4:21-7:89). Included in this weeks reading is the law of the woman accused of adultery:

[11] And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
[12] Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, If any man’s wife go aside, and commit a trespass against him,
[13] And a man lie with her carnally, and it be hid from the eyes of her husband, and be kept close, and she be defiled, and there be no witness against her, neither she be taken with the manner;
[14] And the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be defiled: or if the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be not defiled:
[15] Then shall the man bring his wife unto the priest, and he shall bring her offering for her, the tenth part of an ephah of barley meal; he shall pour no oil upon it, nor put frankincense thereon; for it is an offering of jealousy, an offering of memorial, bringing iniquity to remembrance.
[16] And the priest shall bring her near, and set her before the LORD:
[17] And the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel; and of the dust that is in the floor of the tabernacle the priest shall take, and put it into the water:
[18] And the priest shall set the woman before the LORD, and uncover the woman’s head, and put the offering of memorial in her hands, which is the jealousy offering: and the priest shall have in his hand the bitter water that causeth the curse:
[19] And the priest shall charge her by an oath, and say unto the woman, If no man have lain with thee, and if thou hast not gone aside to uncleanness with another instead of thy husband, be thou free from this bitter water that causeth the curse:
[20] But if thou hast gone aside to another instead of thy husband, and if thou be defiled, and some man have lain with thee beside thine husband:
[21] Then the priest shall charge the woman with an oath of cursing, and the priest shall say unto the woman, The LORD make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when the LORD doth make thy thigh to rot, and thy belly to swell;
[22] And this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, to make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to rot: And the woman shall say, Amen, amen.
[23] And the priest shall write these curses in a book, and he shall blot them out with the bitter water:
[24] And he shall cause the woman to drink the bitter water that causeth the curse: and the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter.
[25] Then the priest shall take the jealousy offering out of the woman’s hand, and shall wave the offering before the LORD, and offer it upon the altar:
[26] And the priest shall take an handful of the offering, even the memorial thereof, and burn it upon the altar, and afterward shall cause the woman to drink the water.
[27] And when he hath made her to drink the water, then it shall come to pass, that, if she be defiled, and have done trespass against her husband, that the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter, and her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall rot: and the woman shall be a curse among her people.
[28] And if the woman be not defiled, but be clean; then she shall be free, and shall conceive seed.
[29] This is the law of jealousies, when a wife goeth aside to another instead of her husband, and is defiled;
[30] Or when the spirit of jealousy cometh upon him, and he be jealous over his wife, and shall set the woman before the LORD, and the priest shall execute upon her all this law.
[31] Then shall the man be guiltless from iniquity, and this woman shall bear her iniquity.
(Numbers 5:11-31 KJV)

Philo of Alexandria writes of this ritual, saying:

(148) On this account Moses says, with respect to the soul which is suspected of having committed adultery, (Num. 5:27.) that, if having abandoned right reason, which is man living according to the law, it shall be found to have gone over to passion, which pollutes the soul, “it shall become swollen in the belly,” which means it shall have all the pleasures and appetites of the belly unsatisfied and insatiable, and it shall never cease to be greedy through ignorance, but pleasures in boundless number shall flow into it, and thus its passions shall be interminable. (149) Now I know many people who have fallen into error in respect of the appetites of the belly, that while still devoting themselves to their gratifications, they have again rushed with eagerness to wine and other luxuries; for the appetites of the intemperate soul bear no analogy to the mass of the body. But some men, like vessels made to hold a certain measure, desire nothing extravagant, but discard everything that is superfluous; but appetite on the other hand is never satisfied, but remains always in want and thirsty. (150) In reference to which the expression, that “the thigh shall fall away,” is added in immediate connexion with the denunciation that “her belly shall swell;” for then right reason, which has the seeds and originating principles of good, falls from the soul. “If therefore,” says Moses, “she has not been corrupted, then she shall be pure, and free from all infliction from generation to generation;” that is to say, if she has not been polluted by passion, but has kept herself pure in respect of her legitimate husband, sound reason, her proper guide, she shall have a productive and fertile soul, bearing the offspring of prudence and justice and all virtue.
(Allegorical Interpretation, III, 148-150)

Philo sees here an allegory in which the woman represents a given human being. The husband represents the Logos (sound reason) by which we are tested, and to which we should be faithful. The ritual represents testing ones self by reason as to whether we have been unfaithful to reason (Logos) and gone astray, being led instead by the passions. A swollen belly represents evidence that we have sought after the pleasures of the belly rather than being faithful to sound reason. However if we are faithful to sound reason, we will have a productive and fertile relationship with sound reason, that will give birth to the virtues in our souls.

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