Numbers 5 and Abortion: Does the Old Testament Law Condone Abortion?

Ordeal of the bitter water

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Halakhic texts relating to this article
Torah:Numbers 5:11–31
Babylonian Talmud:Sotah
Jerusalem Talmud:Sotah
Mishneh Torah:Sefer NashimSotah

The ordeal of the bitter water was a trial by ordeal administered to the wife whose husband suspected her of adultery but who had no witnesses to make a formal case (Numbers 5:11–31). The ordeal is further explained in the Talmud, in the seventh tractate of Nashim.

sotah (Hebrew: שוטה‎ [1] / סוטה) is a woman suspected of adultery who undergoes the ordeal of bitter water or ordeal of jealousy as described and prescribed in the Priestly Code, in the Book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Hebrew Bible. The term “sotah” itself is not found in the Hebrew Bible but is Mishnaic Hebrew based on the verse “if she has strayed” (verb: שטה satah) in Numbers 5:12.[2][3]

Hebrew Bible

The account of the ordeal of bitter water given in the Book of Numbers is as follows:

19 And the priest shall cause her to swear, and shall say unto the woman: ‘If no man have lain with thee, and if thou hast not gone aside to uncleanness, being under thy husband, be thou free from this water of bitterness that causeth the curse;
20 but if thou hast gone aside, being under thy husband, and if thou be defiled, and some man have lain with thee besides thy husband–
21 then the priest shall cause the woman to swear with the 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 fall away, and thy belly to swell;
22 and this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, and make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to fall away’; and the woman shall say: ‘Amen, Amen.’
23 And the priest shall write these curses in a scroll, and he shall blot them out into the water of bitterness. 24 And he shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that causeth the curse; and the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her and become bitter.— Numbers 5, JPS 1917.

Jewish tradition

Mishnah and Talmud

According to the Mishnah, it was the practice for the woman to first be brought to the Sanhedrin, before being subjected to the ordeal. Repeated attempts would be made to persuade the woman to confess, including multiple suggestions to her of possible mitigating factors; if she confessed, the ordeal was not required.[4][5]

The regulations require that the ordeal take place when the woman is brought to an Israelite priest,[6] or when she is brought before God.[7] The Mishnah reports that, in the time of the Second Temple, she was taken to the East Gate of the Temple, in front of the Nikanor gate.[4][5]

The woman is required by the biblical passage to have loosened hair during the ritual;[8] this is often taken to be a symbol of the woman’s supposed shame,[9] but according to Josephus, it was merely the standard behaviour for anyone accused of any crime, when they appeared before the Sanhedrin.[10] The Mishnah also states that the garment she was wearing was ripped to expose her heart. A rope was tied above her breasts so that her clothes did not completely fall off. The Mishnah, however, argues that the clothing on the woman’s upper body was also stripped away, leaving her bare-breasted.[4]


The ordeal

This trial consisted of the wife having to drink a specific potion administered by the priest. The text does not specify the amount of time needed for the potion to take effect; 19th century scholars[who?] suspected it was probably intended to have a fairly immediate effect.[9] The Mishnah mentions there could also be a suspension of the ordeal for one, two or three years, if she has an acquittal.[11] Maimonides records the traditional Rabbinical view: “Her belly swells first and then her thigh ruptures and she dies”.[12] Others maintain that since the word “thigh” is often used in the Bible as a euphemism for various reproductive organs, in this case it may mean the uterus, the placenta or an embryo, and the woman would survive.[13][14][15]

Nachmanides points out that of all the 613 commandments, it is only the sotah law that requires God’s specific co-operation to make it work. The bitter waters can only be effective miraculously.[16]

The text specifies that the potion should be made from water and dust;[17] in the masoretic text, the water used for the potion must be holy water, and the Targum interprets it as water from the Molten Sea, but the Septuagint instead requires running water.[9] The passage argues that the curse was washed into the water;[18] it is thought that this idea derives from a belief that the words of a curse exist in their own right.[9] Others argue that the curse is a euphemism for a miscarriage or infertility.[13]

The potion also had to be mixed in an earthenware vessel;[17] this may have been because the potion was regarded as a taboo which could be spread by contact, and therefore also made the vessel taboo, necessitating its subsequent destruction (as do the biblical rules concerning taboo animals, for any earthenware vessels into which such animals fall[19]).[9] However, the Talmud[20] and Rashi explain that this vessel is chosen to contrast the woman’s predicament with her behavior. She gave the adulterer to drink choice wine in valuable goblets; therefore, let her drink bitter water in a worthless clay vessel.[21][22]

Maimonides further writes: “When she dies, the adulterer because of whom she was compelled to drink will also die, wherever he is located. The same phenomena, the swelling of the belly and the rupture of the thigh, will also occur to him. All the above applies provided her husband never engaged in forbidden sexual relations in his life. If, however, her husband ever engaged in forbidden relations, the [bitter] waters do not check [the fidelity of] his wife.”[12]

The offering

The husband was required to make a sacrifice to God, as part of the ritual, probably due to a general principle that no one should seek answers from God without giving something in return.[9] This offering is required to be placed in the wife’s hands,[8] and is literally described as her offering for her;[6] scholars think that it is the man’s offering, in relation to the ordeal of his wife, and that her holding of it is merely symbolic of this.[9]

The offering specified is one tenth of an ephah of barley meal, unaccompanied by oil or frankincense;[6] this is the cheaper type of flour, unlike the flour specified for all other biblical sacrifices.[9] The specification is now thought to be a rare survival of an earlier period, in which there was no restriction on the types of flour which could be used for sacrifices,[9] although the Mishnah argues that it was a reference to the bestial nature of adultery, coarse flour being the food of beasts.[23]

False accusations

If the woman was unharmed by the bitter water, the rules regard her as innocent of the accusation. The account in the Book of Numbers states that the man shall be free from blame (5:26). This is not to be confused with the Deuteronomic Code, which pertains to when a man accuses his wife of pre-marital sex; when accusation is disproven, the husband is to be fined, and is no longer to have the right of divorcing the wife (Deuteronomy 22:13–19) There is more reason to fine and whip the man who accuses his wife of pre-marital sex than the husband of the sotah woman. The man who accuses his wife of pre-marital sex has no proof about his wife when he accuses her, whereas by a sotah woman, the husband initially warned her not to seclude herself with a particular man, which she thereafter did. Therefore, whether she is innocent of the accusation of adultery or not, she still has caused reasonable suspicion in the eyes of her husband.

The rabbinical interpretation of Numbers 5:28 is that when a woman accused of adultery who was innocent drinks the bitter water, even if she was previously unable to conceive, she will now conceive and give birth to a male.[24]

Cessation of the ordeal

According to Mishnah, Sotah, 9:9 the practice was abolished some time during the first century CE under the leadership of Yohanan ben Zakkai.[5][25] But even if it had not been abolished, the rite would have sunk into abeyance with the fall of the Temple (in approximately the year 70 CE[26]), because, according to the Law, the ceremony could not be performed elsewhere.[5] Explanations in rabbinical literature vary concerning cessation of the practice. Yohanan Ben Zakkai stated:

When adulterers became many, the ordeal of the bitter water stopped, for the ordeal of bitter water is performed only in a case of doubt. But now there are many who see their lovers in public [27]

Rabbi Hanina of Sura said in Talmud Sotah:

Nowadays a man should not say to his wife, “Do not be secluded with so-and-so,” … If she then secluded herself with the man, since we have not now the water for the suspected woman to test her, the husband forbids her to himself for all time.— B.T.Sotah 2c, Soncino.

Christian references

Although the actual ordeal was not practiced in Christianity it was referenced by Christian writers through the ages in relation to both the subject of adultery, and also the wider practice of trial by ordeal. Additionally, some early Christian legends, such as the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, embroider the life of Mary, mother of Jesus with accounts including Mary (and even Joseph[28]) undergoing a version of the ordeal.[29]

Abortion interpretation

Several commentaries on the Bible maintain that the ordeal is to be applied in the case of a woman who has become pregnant, allegedly by her lover.[13][30]

One reading is that the ordeal results in a prolapsed uterus if she is guilty.[31] Some interpretations of the ordeal describe the bitter potion as an abortifacient, which induces a purposeful abortion or miscarriage if the woman is pregnant with a child which her husband alleges is another man’s. If the fetus aborts as a result of the ordeal, this presumably confirms her guilt of adultery, otherwise her innocence is presumed if the fetus does not abort.[13][14][32][33][34][35][36]

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