The priest shall bring her and have her stand before the Lord. Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water. After the priest has had the woman stand before the Lord, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the reminder-offering, the grain offering for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse. Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has had sexual relations with you and you have not gone astray and become impure while married to your husband, may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you. But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have made yourself impure by having sexual relations with a man other than your husband”— here the priest is to put the woman under this curse—“may the Lord cause you to become a cursed among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell. May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries.” Then the woman is to say, “Amen. So be it.” “‘The priest is to write these curses on a scroll and then wash them off into the bitter water. He shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and this water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering will enter her. The priest is to take from her hands the grain offering for jealousy, wave it before the Lord and bring it to the altar. The priest is then to take a handful of the grain offering as a memorial offering and burn it on the altar; after that, he is to have the woman drink the water. If she has made herself impure and been unfaithful to her husband, this will be the result: When she is made to drink the water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering, it will enter her, her abdomen will swell and her womb will miscarry, and she will become a curse. If, however, the woman has not made herself impure, but is clean, she will be cleared of guilt and will be able to have children. – Numbers 5:16-28 NIV
I have been delivered from the desert of Leviticus! Seriously, that was a rough bit of “walking on water” through Leviticus. I am glad to have new ground to cover here in numbers. This is the first mention of water after a long discourse in the end of Leviticus about the temple and all the rules governing offerings, sexual behavior, and how the priests are to atone for sins. Water made bitter is used in this passage to test a wife’s fidelity. I cannot escape the feeling that this use of water must have made God sad. We see such a different use of water when Jesus comes. It is used for cleansing and healing rather than judgement and retribution. Why the dissonance?
The contrast between the priest’s treatment of this woman who was not even caught in the act of adultery and Jesus’ treatment of the woman caught in the act of adultery is striking (John 8:1-11). How could the same God ask Aaron to use water as a curse and provide forgiveness to an adulteress? I can think of a couple possibilities: 1) Aaron and the priests have gotten lost, they are no longer able to listen and hear God accurately — the message has gotten garbled; or 2) God has changed between the God of Numbers and Jesus. The idea of God changing does not ring true to me so I am left with option number one. Aaron and the priests are misinterpreting or missing God’s desires for his people. They may have been well-intentioned Godly men, but they seem to have gotten wax in their ears. This is the essence of what Jesus said about the Pharisees when he came.
The priests in this passage are taking something that is intended to be pure and life-giving, the “living water” that Jesus talks about and they are making it bitter by adding things to it. It becomes something that is not good to drink, does not quench thirst, does not refresh. It in fact becomes the opposite of living water — it is deadly water for some. It still looks like water but it’s essence and elemental nature have been crusted over by barnacles of tradition and rules growing on the kernel of love and truth given to Moses.
Unfortunately, I do not think Christian churches are immune from this type of crusting over of the kernel of God’s love and truth. Some Christian leaders have taken the love, acceptance, and grace which were fundamental to Jesus on earth and they have added the dust from the church floor to make His living water bitter. This may be done with the best of intentions as I am sure the priests were well intentioned in their ceremonies to deal with infidelity in marriage. The end result is the same — living water made bitter.
In previous passages in Exodus the Israelites have encountered bitter water, but God always provided a way to make it drinkable or he provided something better. What this suggests to me is that God does not guarantee that we will not have “bitter water” at times, but what is interesting is that I see no indication that God is the one making it bitter as the priests are doing in this passage. I still think that the God of grace and love that is embodied in Jesus is a God who makes bitter water sweet, provides hope for the hopeless, and loves the unlovable. We should be wary of those who would do the opposite.
Prayer: God help us to discern the kernel of your love for us through all the external traditions that encrust it. May we continually ask whether our actions and practices are consistent with the kernel of Your love and grace.