Recently, I was discussing abortion with someone who cited Numbers 5:11-31 as an example of a Bible passage that seems to condone the deliberate termination of life in the womb by a jealous husband.
Firstly, try to read the passage in the English Standard Version as the 2011 NIV translation is the only one of hundreds that uses the loaded word “miscarriage”, casting significant doubt that this passage is even referring to a practice that might threaten an unborn child. The verses seem to be describing how an unfaithful woman will suffer future problems with childbirth, which would have been a very serious punishment in Biblical times. They also seem to imply that the LORD causes the curse, not the symbolic “water of bitterness” (which only contains literal “dust from the floor of the tabernacle”) and was clearly not some concoction designed to induce an abortion.
The focus is on members of her body with which she may have sinned – “womb shall swell” and “thigh fall away”, not a condemnation of any life that may already have been conceived. This is another example of the notorious difficulty in translating archaic Hebrew phrases, especially as no-one is alive today who actually spoke the language, or even witnessed this practice.
Reading and reflecting more on what’s written, I believe it’s important not to over-state the issues raised, or give the impression that, to use the word in our original discussion, Scripture’s “capaciousness” is actually a sign of any divine capriciousness. Consider the context of Numbers: no phone/text message records, or DNA analysis, no other way to determine guilt if an extra-marital affair was suspected. Notice how the stipulations prevent a husband (in that time and place) from taking the law into his hands – similar to the oft-misrepresented “an eye for an eye”, which in fact places limits on vengeance and ensures justice is proportionate.
Moreover, the ritual would have provided closure and certainty, so the couple could move on in their relationship without jealousy becoming increasingly inflamed by nagging doubts. Think of Othello and Desdemona – how the hero’s fatal flaw is an envy and suspicion that can never be properly allayed. See also how God clearly promises to protect innocents – they will suffer no harm through the test, which is only designed for married women, further limiting those who could be affected.
We must ask ourselves would an adulterous woman allow herself to be subjected to this public ordeal with the very real danger of being judged guilty and punished by the LORD, rather than confess to her husband (as stipulated in Numbers 5:7) and seek mercy? Anyone who continued to deceive the community under these circumstances is surely deserving of the sentence. This is another reminder of how seriously God views sexual sin, any transgression that threatens the purity of male-female, monogamous marriage.
There is no reference to this passage in the New Testament – in fact, the husband would have been encouraged to forgive his wife and not subject her to any kind of retribution – judgement belonging to the LORD. I have always read laws like this (including a ban on divorce, except possibly for marital unfaithfulness – cf. Matt. 19:8 and Deut. 24) as temporary measures to cope with the lack of a proper sin-solution, namely Jesus. Note how Numbers 5:11-31 specifically mentions the woman holding a “grain offering of remembrance”, further evidence that this interim arrangement has been abolished by Christ’s sacrifice “once for all” as High Priest and Passover Lamb (Hebrews 10).
Of course, a wonderful counterpoint to these temporary laws is how Jesus shows great compassion and mercy towards a woman caught in adultery, challenging her bloodthirsty accusers over their own hypocrisy, “let those without sin cast the first stone”, refusing to join in the chorus of condemnation and showing incredible grace, “Go and sin no more” (John 8:1-11). This is surely the lesson God longs for us to take from the Bible – all human life is sacred, precious and should be given a chance to grow.
So, whilst I admit there is some uncertainty as to what exactly Numbers 5:11-31 entails, we should remember this is merely an interim measure, designed to meet the specific needs of an itinerant, low-tech community and superseded by the “new covenant sealed in Christ’s blood” where He died to bring us life.