Fr. James' Lectionary

The Lectionary is both a reading program for completing all of Holy Scripture on a one year schedule, and a daily comment on a portion of the day's reading wedded to a poem to give an added perspective on the theme.

Location: Amherst, Virginia, United States

Friday, April 08, 2005

Trial by Ordeal

Daily Readings
Psalm 58 + Numbers 5 + Leviticus 25 + Matthew 14

Verse for the Day
Jesus said to them, “They need not go away, you give them something to eat.” Matthew 14:16

Daily Text Numbers 5:5-7,11-31
5The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 6Speak to the Israelites: When a man or a woman wrongs another, breaking faith with the LORD, that person incurs guilt 7and shall confess the sin that has been committed. The person shall make full restitution for the wrong, adding one fifth to it, and giving it to the one who was wronged.
11 The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 12Speak to the Israelites and say to them: If any man's wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him, 13if a man has had intercourse with her but it is hidden from her husband, so that she is undetected though she has defiled herself, and there is no witness against her since she was not caught in the act; 14if a spirit of jealousy comes on him, and he is jealous of his wife who has defiled herself; or if a spirit of jealousy comes on him, and he is jealous of his wife, though she has not defiled herself; 15then the man shall bring his wife to the priest. And he shall bring the offering required for her, one-tenth of an ephah of barley flour. He shall pour no oil on it and put no frankincense on it, for it is a grain offering of jealousy, a grain offering of remembrance, bringing iniquity to remembrance. 16Then the priest shall bring her near, and set her before the LORD; 17the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel, and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water. 18The priest shall set the woman before the LORD, dishevel the woman's hair, and place in her hands the grain offering of remembrance, which is the grain offering of jealousy. In his own hand the priest shall have the water of bitterness that brings the curse. 19Then the priest shall make her take an oath, saying, "If no man has lain with you, if you have not turned aside to uncleanness while under your husband's authority, be immune to this water of bitterness that brings the curse. 20But if you have gone astray while under your husband's authority, if you have defiled yourself and some man other than your husband has had intercourse with you," 21--let the priest make the woman take the oath of the curse and say to the woman--"the LORD make you an execration and an oath among your people, when the LORD makes your uterus drop, your womb discharge; 22now may this water that brings the curse enter your bowels and make your womb discharge, your uterus drop!" And the woman shall say, "Amen. Amen." 23Then the priest shall put these curses in writing, and wash them off into the water of bitterness. 24He shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that brings the curse, and the water that brings the curse shall enter her and cause bitter pain. 25The priest shall take the grain offering of jealousy out of the woman's hand, and shall elevate the grain offering before the LORD and bring it to the altar; 26and the priest shall take a handful of the grain offering, as its memorial portion, and turn it into smoke on the altar, and afterward shall make the woman drink the water. 27When he has made her drink the water, then, if she has defiled herself and has been unfaithful to her husband, the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain, and her womb shall discharge, her uterus drop, and the woman shall become an execration among her people. 28But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be immune and be able to conceive children. 29This is the law in cases of jealousy, when a wife, while under her husband's authority, goes astray and defiles herself, 30or when a spirit of jealousy comes on a man and he is jealous of his wife; then he shall set the woman before the LORD, and the priest shall apply this entire law to her. 31The man shall be free from iniquity, but the woman shall bear her iniquity.

Trial by Ordeal
The matters in this chapter do not seem very connected; if they are, they are by reason of the continued purity of the people. That is, even in the unusual circumstances of leprosy, female infidelity and sin against another, there were ways for the community to respond. In 21st century terms some of these these ‘behaviors ’ are inhumane, humiliating, and unacceptable.

The principle underlying the ordeal is that society and individuals have a right to expect fidelity. In this case, the husband is afforded that right, though the wife is not, and if he suspects infidelity he can take his wife to the priest. Even his jealousy gives him standing! The ordeal was to force divine judgement on innocence or guilt and either way the victim of the ordeal was humiliated. Such ordeals have been common in many societies. The Babylonian Code of Hammurabi has a parallel ordeal for the wife. In Mari, there was water ordeal where water was mixed with earth and a person thought to have shortchanged the gods could be forced to drink it. The Greeks and Romans had many sorts of ordeals and some of them continued in Europe even into modern times. The accused having to walk over hot coals to determine an offense was a common one. If unharmed he or she was innocent…. Another was to weight a suspected witch, bound and throw her into the river. If she floated she was guilty. If she sank and drowned she was innocent!

The unusual part of this in Israel is that a miracle was required on the spot to declare guilt. The rabbis very quickly modified this to include the husband and after the destruction of the second temple it was abolished altogether. [Cf. 185:1054] There is a Christian midrash from the Protevangelium of James that addresses this ordeal to a trial of Joseph and Mary when she was found to be pregnant.
“And the High Priest said: ‘Give back the virgin whom you have received from the temple of the Lord.’ And Joseph wept bitterly. And the High Priest said: ‘I will give you to drink the water of the conviction of the Lord, and it will make manifest your sins before your eyes.’ And the High Priest took it and gave it to Joseph to drink and sent him into the wilderness; and he came back whole. And he made Mary also drink and sent her into the wilderness; and she also returned whole. And all the people marveled, because the water had not revealed any sin in them. And the High Priest said: ‘If the Lord God has not made manifest your sins, neither do I condemn you.’ And he released them. And Joseph took Mary and departed to his house, rejoicing and glorifying the God of Israel. [185:1056]”

In the matter of sinning against another, whether you are a man or a woman, the law was clear that it was actually breaking faith with the LORD, probably because the commandments are so clear about not mistreating ones fellows. This principle continues to hold in the New Testament, i.e., that sin against another is sin against the LORD (e.g., I Corinthians 8:12). The remedy is confession and restitution, eminently reasonable and psychologically sound. While both the confession and the ordeal are related to ritual purity and social accountability, it is hard to treat them as parallel responses, though that was probably intended. This matter of differing world views is often very difficult.

Robert Freeman

White Captain of my soul, lead on;
I follow Thee, come dark or dawn.
Only vouchsafe three things I crave:
Where terror stalks, help me be brave!
Where righteous ones can scarce endure
The siren call, help me be pure!
Where vows grow dim, and men dare do
What once they scorned, help me be true!


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