Feminism, Social Issues

ordeal of the bitter waters, part five

mother and baby

I puzzled over yarek naphal for days– I dug through commentary after commentary, through lexicons, through concordances, through history books– and what I found was frustrating. Of the people who bothered to remark on what yarek naphal meant, most seemed comfortable assuming that “thigh to rot” was a euphemism for miscarriage– but no one said why. It was usually a short phrase, perhaps a sentence, and then the commentary would move on to explanations why this ritual appeared in Numbers. Exasperated, I ranted for a bit on twitter, and one of my amazing readers, Jennifer, directed me to some resources I am ashamed to say I hadn’t thought about.

She gently pointed me in the direction of Judaism, and told me that I was likely to find answers there that I was unlikely to find elsewhere. And she was right.

When I first started researching this passage in Numbers 5 in Judaism, I was incredibly overwhelmed. Many of the websites I was visiting assumed you had a basic knowledge of Judaism– which I did not. I had to familiarize myself with terms like Tanakh and Torah Shebictav and Mishnah.

So, I started reading what the Mishnah (the written record of rabbinic oral tradition) had to say about Numbers 5. This ritual, known as ‘The Ordeal of the Bitter Waters” in Christianity, is referred to in Judaism as the Sotah (“Errant Woman”). One of the first things that was consistently pointed out is that the Sotah is a specific type of ritual very common in ancient Middle Eastern cultures– the “divine ordeal.” Western culture is most familiar with the “divine ordeal” in the form of ordeal by cold water— commonly used in witch hunts. However, what is curious about the Sotah is that this is the only time that this form of ritual appears anywhere in the Tanakh. There is no other form of “divine ordeal.” It is also significant to note that the Sotah was discontinued, and there are no concrete records of it ever being performed.

However, the startling thing that stood out to me was that in translations by Jewish scholars– people who are steeped in the culture that I am wholly separated from– the way they translate yarek naphal is as “discharged uterus” (this is also how it appears in the NRSV). And what I discovered is that this is because there is a linguistic connection between “thigh,” “belly,” and the feminine genitals. Yarek, in other places in the Tanakh, means “place of procreative power“– for both men and women. And naphal is actually closer to “fall,” but it is connected to violent death, to wasting away, and to failure.

The linguistic connections in yarek naphal paints a picture of something either dying or wasting away in a woman’s uterus.

This picture clicked with me in an epiphany a little while later as I was reading Half the Sky. In it, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn spend a lot of time talking about the global maternal mortality rate, and one of the primary reasons for it: fistulas. Specifically, obstetric fistulas due to obstructed labor. Nicholas and Sheryl spent time in Africa, in hospitals dedicated to helping women with this medical problem. They tell the stories of many women who have fistulas, and the medical care that they desperately need.

But, as I read, something struck me. When they described the horrific plight of these women, they described these woman as surrounded by shame and ostracism– because their thighs are literally rotting away. For the women who survive, they are shunned by their families and communities because of this. It is not an image that I, as a modern American, am at all familiar with. I’m barely even aware of maternal mortality (although America’s rate is the same as Iran, Bahrain, and Hungary, and close to Saudi Arabia and Turkey)– but, it is an image that would have been common in the ancient middle East– and in 1611 England, when the translators chose the phrase “thigh to rot” for yarak naphal.

I had an answer of sorts– the Sotah ritual, if the woman was guilty, would resort in any pregnancy being aborted as well as a lifetime of barrenness.

As I continued reading about the ritual and Hebrew perspectives on it, the question that I’d been terrified to face, the question what does this mean about God, slowly faded, and I realized something that’s continued to help me in the few months since then.

I was afraid of Numbers 5 because I didn’t know how to face a God that would command that. I didn’t know if I could continue believing in a God that forced abortions. To me, that’s the only thing this passage could mean; God had created a ritual that forced abortions in order to prove a woman’s guilt.

But, as I explored the “ordeal of bitter waters,” I began to view the ritual through a different light. My perspective grew, and I attempted to see Numbers 5 not through the eyes that I’d been given as a child– the eyes that saw a holy, righteous, wrathful God ruthlessly punishing disobedience– but through eyes that see God as a mother-father trying to protect her children from themselves. Something Rabbi Riskin wrote nudged me in that direction:

Judaism emerged from the Middle East, where jealousy is rampant and women are often considered the chattel of their husbands. A jealous husband can easily persuade himself to harm the wife whom he suspects of adultery. I therefore believe this trial of the bitter waters provided a marvelous psychological ploy to protect the woman from a husband’s wrath.

This was an idea I started encountering everywhere I went. In a culture almost completely dominated by patriarchal jealousy and the belief that women were property, this ritual could have been instituted to give women a concrete, unassailable way to prove their innocence. Husbands could not divorce their wives on the grounds of some nebulous suspicion that she’d been unfaithful– he’d have to prove it in front of God and men. A woman could agree to the Sotahknowing that she was innocent, and be supported by the kohen, the priests of the Tabernacle, and G-d himself.

But . . . now I felt truly rudderless. There’s no truly pro-life stance anywhere in the Bible. Between the story of Tamar; passages in Isaiah and 2 Kings that declare “their women with child shall be ripped up” and another in Hosea that God will give them “miscarrying wombs”; the fact that pregnant women aren’t counted twice in the census; that there’s only a fee for causing a woman to miscarry instead of the usual execution for murder . . . none of it adds up to a “biblical” position on a-fetus-is-fully-human-with-rights that pro-life advocates say that the Bible “clearly” has.

All of this led me away from thinking of “pro-choice” on purely religious terms. I had to look at it as a citizen, as a part of my culture, as a voting woman who would either have to take a stand on this issue or melt away into the shadows.

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  • I love how much effort that you are putting into this. Our culture is not one that digs deep and we often miss the real meaning of the text because we don’t account for language, culture and history. Your posts on this subject have been deep and provocative and are forcing me to rethink my own conclusions about abortion.

  • That quote from the Rabbi is very interesting, I never would have thought of it that way, but then again, couldn’t God just have made the laws for women different than they are written.

    I also seem to remember a passage from the Torah that says something about only counting in a census children over a month old, or something like that.

    I’m enjoying the series you’re doing here.

    • That is a question I’ve been wrestling with for a LOT of things that were written in the Old Testament. My best answer, at least right now, is that the “Law” as it appears in the Tanakh (Old Testament) was recorded by male scribes in a patriarchal culture. What they wrote down is highly unlikely to have been word-for-word dictated by God. This makes me try to see through how they wrote it down– what could God have been trying to do that was recorded by patriarchal men?

      • What they wrote down is highly unlikely to have been word-for-word dictated by God.

        I guess to me that is highly disappointing. I am just fresh from inerrancy, so looking at it this way has been a huge paradigm shift.

        • What God originally wrote on the tablets is inerrant. Unfortunately, Moses shattered the tablets when he discovered the Israelites worshiping the golden calf. From then on it was written by men. Only men. Also, in the ancient world, no one knew a thing about fetal development.

    • Alice G.: God may very well have laws for women in mind that are different from those stated in the Bible. Both Testaments of the Bible were written by men who were products of their cultural milieu and who may have had their own agendas vis-a-vis the place of women in society in society. Unfortunately, we’ll never know because we can not communicate directly with the mind of God. We have to rely on His earthly interpreters and agents, the great majority of whom are men. Even if those who authored the Bible did truly believe that they were being directly given Divine inspiration, we have no assurance that these writers felt any obligation to tell the truth if they didn’t particularly like what they were hearing.

      The Holy Bible is a beautiful, valuable piece of literature on many levels and in many ways. But, as far as it’s being a one hundred percent truthful and accurate transcription of God’s thoughts and intentions–well, I’d be really careful about making that assumption.

      Peace and blessings! 🙂

      • Thank you Peggy for that. I have been a literalist for the last several years, it’s been quite strange to look at things differently.

        • tentativecynic

          I, too, came out of literalism. The turning point for me was recognizing that God can accomplish more by changing specific things in specific cultures than by setting down a list of culturally independent principles. And so we can learn more about God from looking at how he changed the cultures he revealed himself to than by assuming that the things written about him are all true in a literal sense.

          The Bible can still be “inerrant and infallible” (in the sense that God intended for it to come into being just the way it is, perfect for learning about who he is) without needing to be wrenched from its historical context and interpreted as if every line was written directly to us.

          • This is my view of the Bible now. I was raised a Fundamentlist, taught the plenary infallible Bible is our only source of divine inspiration, and therefore, having to obey every precept within. I was also taught that when Christ came, we were released from the dictates of the Law. The Acts of the Apostles reveals struggles in the nascent church to deal with doctrinal matters. The epistles are the new covenant which we must obey, I was told. So, basically, the fundies pick and choose which OT dictates still apply today, and therein the practice of clobber passages was born. I read through the Bible myself in 1985, when I was 30. I read passages that directly contradicted what I was taught. But I didn’t leave Fundamentalism behind until nearly 20 years later. I wish I knew then what I know now.

  • I can tell the immense time and heart that has gone into your exploration. It’s inspiring to see a blogger that is not afraid to ask those hard questions!

  • Don

    Women like you are the reason why so many Uber-Fundamentalist sects can’t “conceive” of the notion that a woman could be a very good pastor. You think too clearly.

    • Hilary

      And studies too well, with too sharp biblical scholarship.

  • Mike Dunster

    This is a fascinating and illuminating series. Nice detective work, Ms Marple! 🙂

  • Samantha, this has been a fantastic series (is this the last part), but I’m curious about something.

    You were worried about what Numbers 5 might say, because you were uncomfortable about what this might mean about God. But why does Numbers 5 have to say anything true about God? Why not view Numbers as simply a book of an ancient people attempting to understand God, some of which may be right and some of which may be way off-base? Ive seen you mention elsewhere that you still believe in inerrancy, but I’m not sure what inerrancy means to you. I’m curious, because your writing is not exactly typical of people who believe in inerrancy.

    • That’s actually something that’s changed. I don’t believe in inerrancy anymore.

      I still think the Bible is inspired, although I have no freaking clue what that means.

      • Aha. That makes sense. In that case, though, I don’t see why you’d be worried about Numbers 5. If it turned out that the priests used to believe that God mandated abortion in some cases, you wouldn’t be obliged to believe the same.

  • Nicole Resweber

    Wow. That “bitter waters” passage has bugged me ever since I first heard of it, both for the implications you mention and its “black magic” mechanics – how on earth would temple dust cause a miscarriage, much less accurate judgment of the woman’s faithfulness? I would never of thought of the ordeal as a protection for a falsely accused wife – and yet this interpretation seems so consistent with the God who I know. Bless you for doing and sharing this research into the original meaning of the Hebrew.

    This whole series is been outstanding for its honesty and dedication to truth. Thank you.

  • UrsulaL

    Knowing, as we do now, that drinking dusty water doesn’t actually cause miscarriages, infertility and fistulas, it adds another dimension to this being a ritual to protect women.

    It means that a woman’s innocence would be “proven” whether or not she was actually innocent. She was owed protection and respect, and not to be a target of jealousy and wrath, even if she had been unfaithful.

    Women then almost certainly knew how to induce an abortion when they needed one, just as women today can use Misoprostol, an NSAID that also treats ulcers, to induce abortion, complete a partial or missed miscarriage, induce labor, and treat postpartum hemorrhage. But women would not necessarily have shared that information with the men who were making up this type of ritual and writing laws.

  • Hilary

    Wow. Just Wow. I’ve been following from the links in Slactivist, and I’ve been impressed at the work you’ve done already, but the level of scholarship it took to work your way through the Mishnah and Talmud – wow I’m impressed. It’s hard enough for me as a Jew to work through those texts, and to walk into it with no background whatsoever, it must have been like taking a new turn on a familiar street only to find yourself in a completely different world with (literally) a completely different language.

    I’d never thought of the connection between a fistula and ‘sagging thighs’ that people would have been familiar with. But I think it’s a good point, and a really good observation.

    And thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for checking Jewish scholarship and commentary regarding a difficult part of the Tanakh/Old Testament. So often I read from Christian blogs about people really struggling with that text, and they never think to check that there is an entire tradition of thousands of years of interpretation and commentary that they could draw on for understanding. Not to have to believe the same thing as Jews do, but just to *learn from us* regarding our text. If you ever do such research in the future, I would be honored and happy to help you. You should have my personal email from this post – consider it your ticket to full access to my library, my temple’s library, and a personal question to my rabbis for answers if need be. I’ve studied both the New Testament and parts of the Mishnah, and if you ever want the Pharisees side of the story, and who they were on their own historical terms, *please* come to me I have a TON of material.

    Again, this is a great series, wow you are a good biblical scholar.

  • I’m still not sure that the ritual is protection for women. The mere fact that she is dragged before the priests in the first place makes this horrifying. If she is innocent, does her husband still have the right to beat her at home? That he still exerts control over her decisions? And, the passage states that if the woman is indeed guilty, she undergoes torment. Where is the provision for unfaithful men? There is none. It was a double standard. Women could not cheat, but men could.

    • That is actually one of the reasons that this ritual was discontinued- because of how widespread male adultery was becoming.

  • Some Christian biggee (CS Lewis maybe?) once said he bet the writers of Scripture wrote at different levels of divine compulsion – he then cited prophetic sermon rants vs plodding chronicling in 1 and 2 Kings. At the end of the day, we all (the whole spectrum – fundamentalist to very liberal) prioritize texts – we invest some texts with more moral/divine force than others: even the most strident fundamentalist would never suggest the mildew laws in Leviticus rank as high as Jesus’ answer to The Greatest Commandment question. The rabbis are indeed a good place to look – and a book called “Everyman’s Talmud” is an affordable summary/collection to get you started that direction. I once heard of an inspiration theory I’ve never been able to track down, someone called it “The Hallmark theory” which said: in the same way I pick out a hallmark card and say “that’s how I feel about my wife, that’s a good card, i’ll take it!” God looks down across everything being written and says “That’s a good letter, that’s a good gospel, that’s a good chronicle, that’s a good song, I’ll take it”. Sort of adoptionism, applied to Scripture. If you take into account human/cultural limitations (Paul can’t remember how many people he baptized!) it goes a little ways toward shaping a view of Scripture that may be useful today (granted, it doesn’t solve everything).

  • The part abut the bitter waters was interesting to me because I learnt it very differently. (I’m going to mention that it was taught to me in Jewish high school and I may have learnt what I did because my teacher didn’t think we were old enough to hear the “real version” though it is possible what I learnt is an alternate interpretation.) Basically we learnt that if the woman had been faithful she would have a child with her husband, but if she had cheated she would simply not become pregnant. (Which raises separate issues, more related to infertility.)

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