on Numbers 5 :31
This woman shall bear her iniquity - That is, her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall rot; see Numbers 5:22 (note). But if not guilty after such a trial, she had great honor, and, according to the rabbins, became strong, healthy, and fruitful; for if she was before barren, she now began to bear children; if before she had only daughters, she now began to have sons; if before she had hard travail, she now had easy; in a word, she was blessed in her body, her soul, and her substance: so shall it be done unto the holy and faithful woman, for such the Lord delighteth to honor; see 1 Timothy 2:15.
On the principal subject of this chapter. I shall here introduce a short account of the trial by ordeal, as practiced in different parts of the world, and which is supposed to have taken its origin from the waters of jealousy.
The trial by what was afterwards called Ordeal is certainly of very remote antiquity, and was evidently of Divine appointment. In this place we have an institution relative to a mode of trial precisely of that kind which among our ancestors was called ordeal; and from this all similar trials in Asia, Africa, and Europe, have very probably derived their origin.
Ordeal, Latin, ordalium, is, according to Verstegan, from the Saxon, ordal and ordel, and is derived by some from great, and Dael, judgment, signifying the greatest, most solemn, and decisive mode of judgment - Hickes. Others derive it from the Francic or Teutonic Urdela, which signifies simply to judge. But Lye, in his Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, derives the term from an Anglo-Saxon word, which is often in Anglo-Saxon, a privative particle, and, distinction or difference; and hence applied to that kind of judgment in which there was no respect of persons, but every one had absolute justice done him, as the decision of the business was supposed to belong to God alone. It always signified an appeal to the immediate interposition of God, and was therefore called Judicium Dei, God's Judgment; and we may naturally suppose was never resorted to but in very important cases, where persons accused of great crimes protested their innocence, and there was no sufficient evidence by which they could be cleared from the accusation, or proved to be guilty of the crime laid to their charge. Such were the cases of jealousy referred to in this chapter.
The rabbins who have commented on this text give us the following information: When any man, prompted by the spirit of jealousy, suspected his wife to have committed adultery, he brought her first before the judges, and accused her of the crime; but as she asserted her innocency, and refused to acknowledge herself guilty, and as he had no witnesses to produce, he required that she should be sentenced to drink the waters of bitterness which the law had appointed; that God, by this means, might discover what she wished to conceal. After the judges had heard the accusation and the denial, the man and his wife were both sent to Jerusalem, to appear before the Sanhedrin, who were the sole judges in such matters. The rabbins say that the judges of the Sanhedrin, at first endeavored with threatenings to confound the woman, and cause her to confess her crime; when she still persisted in her innocence, she was led to the eastern gate of the court of Israel, where she was stripped of the clothes she wore, and dressed in black before a number of persons of her own sex. The priest then told her that if she knew herself to be innocent she had no evil to apprehend; but if she were guilty, she might expect to suffer all that the law threatened: to which she answered, Amen, amen.
The priest then wrote the words of the law upon a piece of vellum, with ink that had no vitriol in it, that it might be the more easily blotted out. The words written on the vellum were, according to the rabbins, the following: -
"If a strange man have not come near thee, and thou art not polluted by forsaking the bed of thy husband, these bitter waters which I have cursed will not hurt thee: but if thou have gone astray from thy husband, and have polluted thyself by coming near to another man, may thou be accursed of the Lord, and become an example for all his people; may thy thigh rot, and thy belly swell till it burst! may these cursed waters enter into thy belly, and, being swelled therewith, may thy thigh putrefy!"
After this the priest took a new pitcher, filled it with water out of the brazen bason that was near the altar of burnt-offering, cast some dust into it taken from the pavement of the temple, mingled something bitter, as wormwood, with it, and having read the curses above mentioned to the woman, and received her answer of Amen, he scraped off the curses from the vellum into the pitcher of water. During this time another priest tore her clothes as low as her bosom, made her head bare, untied the tresses of her hair, fastened her torn clothes with a girdle below her breasts, and presented her with the tenth part of an ephah, or about three pints of barley-meal, which was in a frying pan, without oil or incense.
The other priest, who had prepared the waters of jealousy, then gave them to be drank by the accused person, and as soon as she had swallowed them, he put the pan with the meal in it into her hand. This was waved before the Lord, and a part of it thrown into the fire of the altar. If the woman was innocent, she returned with her husband; and the waters, instead of incommoding her, made her more healthy and fruitful than ever: if on the contrary she were guilty, she was seen immediately to grow pale, her eyes started out of her head, and, lest the temple should be defiled with her death, she was carried out, and died instantly with all the ignominious circumstances related in the curses, which the rabbins say had the same effect on him with whom she had been criminal, though he were absent and at a distance. They add, however, that if the husband himself had been guilty with another woman, then the waters had no bad effect even on his criminal wife; as in that case the transgression on the one part was, in a certain sense, balanced by the transgression on the other.
There is no instance in the Scriptures of this kind of ordeal having ever been resorted to; and probably it never was during the purer times of the Hebrew republic. God had rendered himself so terrible by his judgments, that no person would dare to appeal to this mode of trial who was conscious of her guilt; and in case of simple adultery, where the matter was either detected or confessed, the parties were ordered by the law to be put to death.
But other ancient nations have also had their trials by ordeal.
We learn from Ferdusi, a Persian poet, whose authority we have no reason to suspect, that the fire ordeal was in use at a very early period among the ancient Persians. In the famous epic poem called the Shah Nameh of this author, who is not improperly styled the Homer of Persia, under the title Dastan Seeavesh ve Soodabeh, The account of Seeavesh and Soodabeh, he gives a very remarkable and circumstantial account of a trial of this kind.
It is very probable that the fire ordeal originated among the ancient Persians, for by them fire was not only held sacred, but considered as a god, or rather as the visible emblem of the supreme Deity; and indeed this kind of trial continues in extensive use among the Hindoos to the present day. In the code of Gentoo laws it is several times referred to under the title of Purrah Reh, but in the Shah Nameh, the word Soogend is used, which signifies literally an oath, as the persons were obliged to declare their innocence by an oath, and then put their veracity to test by passing through the kohi atesh, or fire pile; see the Shah Nameh in the title Dastan Seeavesh ve Soodabeh, and Halhed's code of Gentoo laws; Preliminary Discourse, p. lviii., and chap. v., sec. iii., pp. 117, etc.
A circumstantial account of the different kinds of ordeal practiced among the Hindoos, communicated by Warren Hastings, Esq., who received it from Ali Ibrahim Khan, chief magistrate at Benares, may be found in the Asiatic Researches, vol. i., p. 389.
on Numbers 5 :31
on Numbers 5 :31
5:31 Guiltless - Which he should not have been, if he had either indulged her in so great a wickedness, and not endeavoured to bring her to repentance or punishment, or cherished suspicions in his breast, and thereupon proceeded to hate her or cast her off. Whereas now, whatsoever the consequence is, the husband shall not be censured for bringing such curses upon her, or for defaming her, if she appear to be innocent. Her iniquity - That is, the punishment of her iniquity, whether she was false to her husband, or by any light carriage gave him occasion to suspect her.