A husband suspects his wife of adultery, a capital crime. He takes her before the priest, who makes her drink a witches’ brew of holy water and dust from the tabernacle floor. She makes a solemn declaration: If she is innocent, the bitter water will have no effect, but if guilty, she will experience acute gastrointestinal distress. In the first instance, she goes free and will soon become pregnant (Numbers 5:28). In the second, she is “a curse among her people” and liable to the death penalty. In spite of appearances, however, the institution of the bitter water described in this week’s portion, Naso, was less about detecting marital infidelity than about reinforcing the stability of family life. No matter how foul tasting, the me hammarim , the water of bitterness, is not likely to have caused much of a reaction, except perhaps when the anxiety of guilt interacted with the potion. Like a polygraph, it was probably accurate most of the time, but with a fail-safe from false positives because its contents could not have caused physiological distress even in a sensitive constitution.
One may assume that any woman who kept her cool would pass. Thus it was a very good test, because if the husband’s accusation was upheld, and the wife was found guilty, he would face dissolution of house and home. Life would no longer be the same for him, and for any children involved, and questions of paternity might arise. On the other hand, if the wife were exonerated, family and household would remain intact.
Interestingly, no wives are ever reported to have failed the test. This could, of course, mean that Israelite wives were far more virtuous than their husbands imagined. But perhaps accusations were not made all that often. Consider the husband’s predicament. If he went ahead with a complaint, no matter the outcome, he would end up playing either Strindberg’s insanely jealous husband who distrusts an innocent wife or a bumbling simpleton from Boccaccio whose discontented wife makes a fool of him.
God’s law, however, takes care of everyone, even husbands. Part of the genius of the trial of bitter water is the self-administered test that preceded it. The solemnity of the accusation process must have made many an irate husband pause to reflect. If his wife were adjudged guilty, he would be publicly shamed and would have the inconvenience of finding a new one. If she were cleared, he would still be shamed and, to boot, would have to somehow make amends or endure her resentment.
The wife, too, might wish to forgo the test. If she failed, and somehow avoided capital punishment, she would be divorced, returned to her parents, scorned and ostracized, effectively unable to remarry. Nevertheless, if she passed, her situation still would not have been very happy. Her husband’s accusation likely would have left her under a cloud of scandal. While this might give her some play for psychological one-upmanship, it would also undermine their relationship and their respective marital gender roles. The marriage would continue by divine fiat but might well be emotionally untenable. It would seem, then, that the law of the bitter water is best explained with reference to the ancient Oriental view of women. Women were held to be naturally and uncontrollably sexually insatiable, and it was the man’s duty to satisfy this proclivity. Thus, it was in a sense the husband’s fault, and not the wife’s, if she was promiscuous. The law of the bitter water, by exculpating the alleged adulteress, protected her husband by preserving his reputation and, in consequence, also preserved the marriage. The institution of polygamy allowed the wife to remain in the household, with all her belongings and in charge of her children, while it gave the man an opportunity for a more successful relationship with someone else. Since in biblical times, polygamy was an unexceptionable practice, no one need have been the wiser, nor need the wife be unduly hurt if she was innocent.
In this way, families were kept together in an arrangement that benefited all parties, as well as the tribe, which would not see a diminution of its historical holdings, and the nation, which upheld its laws by avoiding those that were too ponderous to engage directly, especially since too deep a reconsideration of any particular law might have undermined confidence in the corpus as a whole.
The Torah, Mishnah and Talmud represent only the bottom line, a summary or précis of Jewish tradition — the last line of an essay, so to speak, the conclusion of a proof. Jewish texts represent a living society, embracing all the eccentricities of human beings, and there is much that happens between the lines. The Torah solution is not always the Torah’s solution.
Dimitri Milch lives in Stony Brook, N.Y.