Numbers 5


The Israelites are commanded to purify the camp by excluding all

lepers, and all diseased and unclean persons, 1-3.

They do so, 4.

Law concerning him who has defrauded another-he shall confess

his sin, restore the principal and add besides one fifth of its

value, 5-7.

If he have no kinsman to whom the recompense can be made, it

shall be given unto the Lord, 8.

All the holy things offered to the Lord shall be the priest's

portion, 9,10.

The law concerning jealousy, 11-14.

The suspected woman's offering, 15.

She is to be brought before the Lord, 16.

The priest shall take holy water, and put it in dust from the

floor of the tabernacle, 17.

Shall put the offering in her hand, and adjure her, 18-20.

The form of the oath, 21, 22;

which is to be written on a book, blotted out in the bitter

waters, and these the suspected person shall be obliged to

drink, 23, 24.

The jealousy-offering shall be waved before the Lord, 25, 26.

The effect which shall be produced if the suspected person be

guilty, 27.

The effect if not guilty, 28.

Recapitulation, with the purpose and design of the law, 29, 30.


Verse 2. Put out of the camp every leper] According to the

preceding plan, it is sufficiently evident that each camp had a

space behind it, and on one side, whither the infected might be

removed, and where probably convenient places were erected for the

accommodation of the infected; for we cannot suppose that they

were driven out into the naked wilderness. But the expulsion

mentioned here was founded, 1. On a purely physical reason, viz.,

the diseases were contagious, and therefore there was a necessity

of putting those afflicted by them apart, that the infection might

not be communicated. 2. There was also a spiritual reason; the

camp was the habitation of God, and nothing impure should be

permitted to remain where he dwelt. 3. The camp was an emblem of

the Church, where nothing that is defiled should enter, and in

which nothing that is unholy should be tolerated. All lepers-all

persevering impenitent sinners, should be driven from the sacred

pale, nor should any such ever be permitted to enter.

Verse 4. And the children of Israel-put them out] This is the

earliest account we have of such separations; and probably this

ordinance gave the first idea of a hospital, where all those who

are afflicted with contagious disorders are put into particular

wards, under medical treatment. Though no mention be made of the

situation, circumstances, &c., of those expelled persons, we may

certainly infer that they were treated with that humanity which

their distressed state required. Though sinners must be separated

from the Church of God, yet they should be treated with

affectionate regard, because they may be reclaimed. It is too

often the case when a man backslides from the way of truth, he is

abandoned by all; finding his case desperate, he plunges yet

deeper into the mire of sin, and the man who, with tender

treatment, might have been reclaimed, becomes incurably hardened.

One class says, he cannot finally fall, and shall in due time be

restored; another class says, he may finally fall and utterly

perish. If the unfortunate person be restored, his recovery is

taken as a proof of the first doctrine; if he be not, his wretched

end is considered a proof of the second. In the first case the

person himself may presume on his restoration as a point

infallibly determined in the Divine counsel; or in the second, he

may consider his case hopeless, and so abandon himself to

profligacy and desperation. Thus both parties leave him, and both

opinions (misunderstood certainly) render him secure or desperate;

and in either case totally inactive in behalf of his own soul.

Who is he that properly estimates the worth of one immortal

spirit? He who does will at once feel that, in a state of

probation, any man may fall through sin, and any sinner may be

renewed again unto repentance, through the infinitely meritorious

sacrifice, and all powerfully efficacious grace, of Christ. This

truth properly felt equally precludes both presumption and

despair, and will induce the followers of God to be active in

preserving those who have escaped from the corruption that is in

the world, and make them diligent to recover those who have turned

back to earth and sin.

Verse 7. Shall confess their sin] Without confession or

acknowledgment of sin, there was no hope of mercy held out.

He shall recompense] For without restitution, in every possible

case, God will not for give the iniquity of a man's sin. How can

any person in a case of defraud, with his neighbour's property in

his possession, expect to receive mercy from the hand of a just

and holy God?

See this subject considered in Clarke's notes on "Ge 42:38".

Verse 8. If the man have no kinsman] The Jews think that this

law respects the stranger and the sojourner only, because every

Israelite is in a state of affinity to all the rest; but there

might be a stranger in the camp who has no relative in any of the

tribes of Israel.

Verse 14. The spirit of jealousy] ruach kinah,

either a supernatural diabolic influence, exciting him to

jealousy, or the passion or affection of jealousy, for so the

words may be understood.

Verse 17. Holy water] Water out of the laver, called holy

because consecrated to sacred uses. This is the most ancient case

of the trial by ordeal. See Clarke on Nu 5:31.

In an earthen vessel] Supposed by the Jews to be such as had

never been previously used.

Dust that is in the floor] Probably intended to point out the

baseness of the crime of which she was accused.

Verse 18. Uncover the woman's head] To take off a woman's

veil, and expose her to the sight of men, would be considered a

very great degradation in the East. To this St. Paul appears to

allude, 1Co 11:5, 6, 10.

Verse 21. The Lord make thee a curse and an oath] Let thy name

and punishment be remembered and mentioned as an example and

terror to all others. Like that mentioned Jer 29:22, 23: "The

Lord make thee like Zedekiah, and like Ahab, whom the king of

Babylon roasted in the fire, because they have committed villany

in Israel, and have committed adultery with their neighbours'


Verse 22. Thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to rot] What is

meant by these expressions cannot be easily ascertained.

lanpel yarech signifies literally thy thigh to fall. As the

thigh, feet, &c., were used among the Hebrews delicately to

express the parts which nature conceals, (see Ge 46:26,) the

expression here is probably to be understood in this sense; and

the falling down of the thigh here must mean something similar to

the prolapsus uteri, or falling down of the womb, which might be a

natural effect of the preternatural distension of the abdomen. In

1Co 11:29, St. Paul seems to allude to the case of the guilty

woman drinking the bitter cursed waters that caused her

destruction: He who eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and

drinketh damnation (κριμα, condemnation or judgment) to

himself; and there is probably a reference to the same thing in

Ps 109:18, and in Da 9:11.

And the woman shall say, Amen, amen.] This is the first place

where this word occurs in the common form of a concluding wish in

prayer. The root aman signifies to be steady, true,

permanent. And in prayer it signifies let it be so-make it

steady-let it be ratified. Some have supposed that it is composed

of the initial letters of Adonai Melech

Neeman, My Lord the faithful King, but this derivation is both

far-fetched and unnecessary.

Verse 23. The priest shall write these curses-and he shall blot

them out] It appears that the curses which were written down with

a kind of ink prepared for the purpose, as some of the rabbins

think, without any calx of iron or other material that could make

a permanent dye, were washed off the parchment into the water

which the woman was obliged to drink, so that she drank the very

words of the execration. The ink used in the East is almost all

of this kind-a wet sponge will completely efface the finest of

their writings. The rabbins say that the trial by the waters of

jealousy was omitted after the Babylonish captivity, because

adulteries were so frequent amongst them, that they were afraid of

having the name of the Lord profaned by being so frequently

appealed to! This is a most humiliating confession. "Though,"

says pious Bishop Wilson, "this judgment is not executed now on

adulteresses, yet they have reason from this to conclude that a

more terrible vengeance will await them hereafter without a bitter

repentance; these being only a shadow of heavenly things, i. e.,

of what the Gospel requires of its professors, viz., a strict

purity, or a severe repentance." The pious bishop would not

preclude the necessity of pardon through the blood of the cross,

for without this the severest repentance would be of no avail.

Verse 24. The bitter water that causeth the curse] Though the

rabbins think that the priest put some bitter substance in the

water, yet as nothing of the kind is intimated by Moses, we may

consider the word as used here metaphorically for affliction,

death, &c. These waters were afflicting and deadly to her who

drank them, being guilty. In this sense afflictions are said to

be bitter, Isa 38:17;

so also is death, 1Sa 15:32: Ec 7:26.

Verse 29. This is the law of jealousies] And this is the most

singular law in the whole Pentateuch: a law that seems to have

been copied by almost all the nations of the earth, whether

civilized or barbarian, as we find that similar modes of trial for

suspected offences were used when complete evidence was wanting to

convict; and where it was expected that the object of their

worship would interfere for the sake of justice, in order that the

guilty should be brought to punishment, and the innocent be

cleared. For general information on this head see at the end of

this chapter. See Clarke on Nu 5:31.

Verse 31. This woman shall bear her iniquity] That is, her

belly shall swell, and her thigh shall rot; See Clarke on Nu 5:22. But

if not guilty after such a trial, she had great honour, 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 honour; see 1Ti 2:15.

ON the principal subject of this chapter. I shall here

introduce a short account of the trial by ordeal, as practised 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 [Anglo-Saxon], ordal and ordel, and is derived by some from

[Anglo-Saxon], 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 [Anglo-Saxon], which is often in Anglo-Saxon, a

privative particle, and [Anglo-Saxon], 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 endeavoured 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 [Hindu] 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 [Hindu] 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, &c.

A circumstantial account of the different kinds of ordeal

practised 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.

This trial was conducted among this people nine different ways:

first, by the balance; secondly, by fire; thirdly, by water;

fourthly, by poison; fifthly, by the cosha, or water in which an

idol has been washed; sixthly, by rice; seventhly, by boiling oil;

eighthly, by red hot iron; ninthly, by images.

There is, perhaps, no mode of judiciary decision that has been

in more common use in ancient times, than that of ordeal, in some

form or other. We find that it was also used by the ancient

Greeks 500 years before the Christian era; for in the Antigone of

Sophocles, a person suspected by Creon of a misdemeanor, declares

himself ready "to handle hot iron, and to walk over fire," in

proof of his innocence, which the scholiast tells us was then a

very usual purgation.


καιπυρδιερπεινκαιθεουςορκωμοτειν. Ver. 270.

The scholiast on this line informs us that the custom in

binding themselves by the most solemn oath, was this: they took

red hot iron in their hands, and throwing it into the sea, swore

that the oath should be inviolate till that iron made its

appearance again.

Virgil informs us that the priests of Apollo at Soracte were

accustomed to walk over burning coals unhurt.

--------Et medium, freti pietate, per ignem

Cultores multa premimus vestigia pruna.

AEn. xi. 787.

Grotius gives many instances of water ordeal in Bithynia,

Sardinia, and other places. Different species of fire and water

ordeal are said to have prevailed among the Indians on the coast

of Malabar; the negroes of Loango, Mosambique, &c., &c., and the

Calmuc Tartars.

The first formal mention I find of this trial in Europe is in

the laws of King Ina, composed about A. D. 700. See L. 77.

entitled, [Anglo-Saxon], Decision by hot iron and water. I find

it also mentioned in the council of Mentz, A. D. 847; but Agobard,

archbishop of Lyons, wrote against it sixty years before this

time. It is afterwards mentioned in the council of Trevers, A. D.

895. It did not exist in Normandy till after the Conquest, and

was probably first introduced into England in the time of Ina, in

whose laws and those of Athelstan and Ethelred, it was afterwards

inserted. The ordeal by fire was for noblemen and women, and such

as were free born: the water ordeal was for husbandmen, and the

meaner classes of the people, and was of two sorts; by cold water

and by hot. See the proceedings in these trials declared

particularly in the law of King Ina; WILKINS, Leges Anglo-Saxonae,

p. 27.

Several popes published edicts against this species of trial.

Henry III. abolished trials by ordeal in the third year of his

reign, 1219. See the act in Rymer, vol. i., p. 228; and see

Dugdale's Origines Juridicales, fol. 87; Spelman's Glossary,

Wilkins, Hickes, Lombard, Somner, and Du Cange, art. Ferrum.

The ordeal or trial by battle or combat is supposed to have come

to us from the Lombards, who, leaving Scandinavia, overran Europe:

it is thought that this mode of trial was instituted by Frotha

III., king of Denmark, about the time of the birth of Christ; for

he ordained that every controversy should be determined by the

sword. It continued in Holsatia till the time of Christian III.,

king of Denmark, who began his reign in 1535. From these northern

nations the practice of duels was introduced into Great Britain.

I need scarcely add, that this detestable form of trial was the

foundation of the no less detestable crime of duelling, which so

much disgraces our age and nation, a practice that is defended

only by ignorance, false honour, and injustice: it is a relic of

barbarous superstition, and was absolutely unknown to those brave

and generous nations, the Greeks and Romans, whom it is so much

the fashion to admire; and who, in this particular, so well merit

our admiration!

The general practice of duelling is supposed to have taken its

rise in 1527, at the breaking up of a treaty between the Emperor

Charles V. and Francis I. The former having sent a herald with an

insulting message to Francis, the king of France sent back the

herald with a cartel of defiance, in which he gave the emperor the

lie, and challenged him to single combat: Charles accepted it; but

after several messages concerning the arrangement of all the

circumstances relative to the combat, the thoughts of it were

entirely laid aside. The example of two personages so illustrious

drew such general attention, and carried with it so much

authority, that it had considerable influence in introducing an

important change in manners all over Europe.

It was so much the custom in the middle ages of Christianity to

respect the cross, even to superstition, that it would have been

indeed wonderful if the same ignorant bigotry had not converted it

into an ordeal: accordingly we find it used for this purpose in so

many different ways as almost to preclude description.

Another trial of this kind was the Corsned, or the consecrated

bread and cheese: this was the ordeal to which the clergy commonly

appealed when they were accused of any crime. A few concluding

observations from Dr. Henry may not be unacceptable to the


"If we suppose that few or none escaped conviction who exposed

themselves to these fiery trials, we shall be very much mistaken.

For the histories of those times contain innumerable examples of

persons plunging their naked arms into boiling water, handling red

hot balls of iron, and walking upon burning ploughshares, without

receiving the least injury. Many learned men have been much

puzzled to account for this, and disposed to think that Providence

graciously interposed in a miraculous manner for the preservation

of injured innocence.

"But if we examine every circumstance of these fiery ordeals

with due attention, we shall see sufficient reason to suspect that

the whole was a gross imposition on the credulity of mankind. The

accused person was committed wholly to the priest who was to

perform the ceremony three days before the trial, in which he had

time enough to bargain with him for his deliverance, and give him

instructions how to act his part. On the day of trial no person

was permitted to enter the church but the priest and the accused

till after the iron was heated, when twelve friends of the

accuser, and twelve of the accused, and no more, were admitted and

ranged along the wall on each side of the church, at a respectful

distance. After the iron was taken out of the fire several

prayers were said: the accused drank a cup of holy water, and

sprinkled his hand with it, which might take a considerable time

if the priest were indulgent. The space of nine feet was measured

by the accused himself, with his own feet, and he would probably

give but scanty measure. He was obliged only to touch one of the

marks with the toe of his right foot, and allowed to stretch the

other foot as far towards the other mark as he could, so that the

conveyance was almost instantaneous. His hand was not immediately

examined, but wrapped in a cloth prepared for that purpose three

days. May we not then, from all these precautions, suspect that

these priests were in possession of some secret that secured the

hand from the impression of such a momentary touch of hot iron, or

removed all appearances of these impressions in three days; and

that they made use of this secret when they saw reason? Such

readers as are curious in matters of this kind may find two

different directions for making ointments that will have this

effect, in the work here quoted. What greatly strengthens these

suspicions is, that we meet with no example of any champion of the

Church who suffered the least injury from the touch of hot iron in

this ordeal: but where any one was so fool-hardy as to appeal to

it, or to that of hot water, with a view to deprive the Church of

any of her possessions, he never failed to burn his fingers, and

lose his cause." I have made the scanty extract above from a very

extensive history of the trial by ordeal, which I wrote several

years ago, but never published.

All the forms of adjuration for the various ordeals of hot

water, cold water, red hot iron, bread and cheese, &c., may be

seen in the Codex Legum Antiquarum, Lindenbrogii, fol. Franc.

1613, p. 1299, &c.

Copyright information for Clarke