Numbers 5

Separation of the Unclean

The fifth chapter falls into four main parts: separation of the unclean (vv. 1–4), restitution for sin (vv. 5–10), the jealousy ordeal (vv. 11–28), and the summary (vv. 29–31). There is a good deal of literature on the biblical theme of holiness (for which see the notes on Leviticus primarily). But with regard to this chapter, see (with caution), Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger; J. Neusner, The Idea of Purity in Ancient Judaism; and K. Milgrom, “Two Kinds of ḥaṭṭāt,VT 26 (1976): 333-37.
Then the Lord spoke to Moses:
2“Command the Israelites to expel
The construction uses the Piel imperative followed by this Piel imperfect/jussive form; it is here subordinated to the preceding volitive, providing the content of the command. The verb שָׁלַח (shalakh) in this verbal stem is a strong word, meaning “expel, put out, send away, or release” (as in “let my people go”).
from the camp every leper,
The word צָרוּעַ (tsarua’), although translated “leper,” does not primarily refer to leprosy proper (i.e., Hansen’s disease). The RSV and the NASB continued the KJV tradition of using “leper” and “leprosy.” More recent studies have concluded that the Hebrew word is a generic term covering all infectious skin diseases (including leprosy when that actually showed up). True leprosy was known and feared certainly by the time of Amos (ca. 760 b.c.). There is evidence that the disease was known in Egypt by 1500 b.c. So this term would include that disease in all probability. But in view of the diagnosis and healing described in Leviticus 13 and 14, the term must be broader. The whole basis for the laws of separation may be found in the book of Leviticus. The holiness of the Lord who dwelt among his people meant that a high standard was imposed on them for their living arrangements as well as access to the sanctuary. Anything that was corrupted, diseased, dying, or contaminated was simply not compatible with the holiness of God and was therefore excluded. This is not to say that it was treated as sin, or the afflicted as sinners. It simply was revealing – and safeguarding – the holiness of the Lord. It thus provided a revelation for all time that in the world to come nothing unclean will enter into the heavenly sanctuary. As the Apostle Paul says, we will all be changed from this corruptible body into one that is incorruptible (1 Cor 15:53). So while the laws of purity and holiness were practical for the immediate audience, they have far-reaching implications for theology. The purity regulations have been done away with in Christ – the problem is dealt with differently in the new covenant. There is no earthly temple, and so the separation laws are not in force. Wisdom would instruct someone with an infectious disease to isolate, however. But just because the procedure is fulfilled in Christ does not mean that believers today are fit for glory just as they are. On the contrary, they must be changed before going into his presence. In like manner the sacrifices have been done away in Christ – not what they covered. Sin is still sin, even though it is dealt with differently on this side of the cross. But the ritual and the regulations of the old covenant at Sinai have been fulfilled in Christ.
everyone who has a discharge,
The rules of discharge (Lev 12 and 15) include everything from menstruation to chronic diseases (see G. Wyper, ISBE 1:947, as well as R. K. Harrison, Leviticus (TOTC), 158–66, and G. J. Wenham, Leviticus (NICOT), 217–25.
and whoever becomes defiled by a corpse.
The word is נֶפֶשׁ (nefesh), which usually simply means “[whole] life,” i.e., the soul in the body, the person. But here it must mean the corpse, the dead person, since that is what will defile (although it was also possible to become unclean by touching certain diseased people, such as a leper).
3You must expel both men and women; you must put them outside the camp, so that
The imperfect tense functions here as a final imperfect, expressing the purpose of putting such folks outside the camp. The two preceding imperfects (repeated for emphasis) are taken here as instruction or legislation.
they will not defile their camps, among which I live.”
4So the Israelites did so, and expelled them outside the camp. As the Lord had spoken
The perfect tense is here given a past perfect nuance to stress that the word of the Lord preceded the obedience.
to Moses, so the Israelites did.

Restitution for Sin

5 Then the Lord spoke to Moses: 6“Tell the Israelites, ‘When
This type of law is known as casuistic. The law is introduced with “when/if” and then the procedure to be adopted follows it. The type of law was common in the Law Code of Hammurabi.
a man or a woman commits any sin that people commit,
The verse simply says “any sin of a man,” but the genitive could mean that it is any sin that a man would commit (subjective genitive), or one committed against a man (objective genitive). Because of the similarity with Lev 5:22, the subjective is better. The sin is essentially “missing the mark” which is the standard of the Law of the Lord. The sin is not in this case accidental or inadvertent. It means here simply failing to live up to the standard of the Lord. Since both men and women are mentioned in the preceding clause, the translation uses “people” here.
thereby breaking faith
The verb is מַעַל (maal), which means to “defraud, violate, trespass against,” or “to deal treacherously, do an act of treachery.” In doing any sin that people do, the guilty have been unfaithful to the Lord, and therefore must bring him a sacrifice.
with the Lord, and that person is found guilty,
The word used here for this violation is אָשָׁם (’asham). It can be translated “guilt, to be guilty”; it can also be used for the reparation offering. The basic assumption here is that the individual is in a state of sin – is guilty. In that state he or she feels remorse for the sin and seeks forgiveness through repentance. See further P. P. Saydon, “Sin Offering and Trespass Offering,” CBQ 8 (1946): 393-98; H. C. Thompson, “The Significance of the Term ’Asham in the Old Testament,” TGUOS 14 (1953): 20-26.
7then he must confess
The verb is the Hitpael perfect tense with vav (ו) consecutive from the verb יָדָה (yadah), which in this stem means “acknowledge, confess sin,” but in the Hiphil (primarily) it means “praise, give thanks.” In both cases one is acknowledging something, either the sin, or the person and work of the Lord. Here the verb comes in the apodosis: “when…then he must confess.”
his sin that he has committed and must make full reparation,
The verb is the Hiphil perfect of שׁוּב (shuv, “return”). Here it has the sense of “repay” with the word “reparation” (traditionally rendered “guilt offering,” but now is understood to refer to what was defrauded). The Levitical rulings called for the guilty to restore what was taken, if it could be made right, and pay a fifth more as a surcharge.
add one fifth to it, and give it to whomever he wronged.
This is now the third use of אָשָׁם (’asham); the first referred to “guilt,” the second to “reparation,” and now “wronged.” The idea of “guilt” lies behind the second two uses as well as the first. In the second “he must repay his guilt” (meaning what he is guilty of); and here it can also mean “the one against whom he is guilty of sinning.”
8But if the individual has no close relative
For more information on the word, see A. R. Johnson, “The Primary Meaning of גאל,” VTSup 1 (1953): 67-77.
to whom reparation can be made for the wrong, the reparation for the wrong must be paid to the Lord
The editors of BHS prefer to follow the Greek, Syriac, and Latin and not read “for the Lord” here, but read a form of the verb “to be” instead. But the text makes more sense as it stands: The payment is to be made to the Lord for the benefit of the priests.
for the priest, in addition to the ram of atonement by which atonement is made for him.
9Every offering
The Hebrew word תְּרוּמָה (terumah) seems to be a general word for any offering that goes to the priests (see J. Milgrom, Studies in Cultic Theology and Terminology [SJLA 36], 159–72).
of all the Israelites’ holy things that they bring to the priest will be his.
10Every man’s holy things
The “holy gifts” are described with the root of קֹדֶשׁ (qodesh) to convey that they were separate. Such things had been taken out of the ordinary and normal activities of life.
will be his; whatever any man gives the priest will be his.’”

The Jealousy Ordeal

There is a good bit of bibliography here. See, e.g., J. M. Sasson, “Numbers 5 and the Waters of Judgment,” BZ 16 (1972): 249-51; and M. Fishbane, “Accusation of Adultery: A Study of Law and Scribal Practice in Numbers 5:11–31, ” HUCA 45 (1974): 25-46.
The Lord spoke to Moses:
12“Speak to the Israelites and tell them, ‘If any man’s wife goes astray and behaves unfaithfully toward him, 13and a man has sexual relations
Heb “and a man lies with her with the emission of semen.” This makes it clear that there was adultery involved, so that the going astray is going astray morally. The indication in the text is that if she had never behaved suspiciously the sin might not have been detected.
with her
The sign of the accusative אֹתָהּ (’otah) is probably to be repointed to the preposition with the suffix, אִתָּהּ (’ittah).
without her husband knowing it,
Heb “and it is concealed from the eyes of her husband.”
and it is hidden that she has defiled herself, since
The noun clause beginning with the simple conjunction is here a circumstantial clause, explaining that there was no witness to the sin.
there was no witness against her, nor was she caught –
14and if jealous feelings
The Hebrew text has the construct case, “spirit of jealousy.” The word “spirit” here has the sense of attitude, mood, feelings. The word קִנְאָה (qinah) is the genitive of attribute, modifying what kind of feelings they are. The word means either “zeal” or “jealousy,” depending on the context. It is a passionate feeling to guard or protect an institution or relationship. It can also express strong emotional possessiveness such as envy and coveting. Here there is a feeling of jealousy, but no proof of infidelity.
come over him and he becomes suspicious
The word is now used in the Piel stem; the connotation is certainly “suspicious,” for his jealousy seems now to have some basis, even if it is merely suspicion.
of his wife, when she is defiled;
The noun clause begins with the conjunction and the pronoun; here it is forming a circumstantial clause, either temporal or causal.
or if jealous feelings come over him and he becomes suspicious of his wife, when she is not defiled –
All the conditions have been laid down now for the instruction to begin – if all this happened, then this is the procedure to follow.
the man must bring his wife to the priest, and he must bring the offering required for her, one tenth of an ephah of barley meal; he must not pour olive oil on it or put frankincense on it, because it is a grain offering of suspicion,
The Hebrew word is “jealousy,” which also would be an acceptable translation here. But since the connotation is that suspicion has been raised about the other person, “suspicion” seems to be a better rendering in this context.
a grain offering for remembering,
The word “remembering” is זִכָּרוֹן (zikkaron); the meaning of the word here is not so much “memorial,” which would not communicate much, but the idea of bearing witness before God concerning the charges. The truth would come to light through this ritual, and so the attestation would stand. This memorial would bring the truth to light. It was a somber occasion, and so no sweet smelling additives were placed on the altar.
for bringing
The final verbal form, מַזְכֶּרֶת (mazkeret), explains what the memorial was all about – it was causing iniquity to be remembered.
iniquity to remembrance.

16 “‘Then the priest will bring her near and have her stand
The verb is the Hiphil of the word “to stand.” It could be rendered “station her,” but that sounds too unnatural. This is a meeting between an accused person and the Judge of the whole earth.
before the Lord.
17The priest will then take holy water
This is probably water taken from the large bronze basin in the courtyard. It is water set apart for sacred service. “Clean water” (so NEB) does not capture the sense very well, but it does have the support of the Greek that has “pure running water.” That pure water would no doubt be from the bronze basin anyway.
in a pottery jar, and take some
Heb “from.” The preposition is used here with a partitive sense.
of the dust
The dust may have come from the sanctuary floor, but it is still dust, and therefore would have all the pollutants in it.
that is on the floor of the tabernacle, and put it into the water.
18Then the priest will have the woman stand before the Lord, uncover the woman’s head, and put the grain offering for remembering in her hands, which is the grain offering of suspicion. The priest will hold in his hand the bitter water that brings a curse.
The expression has been challenged. The first part, “bitter water,” has been thought to mean “water of contention” (so NEB), but this is not convincing. It has some support in the versions which read “contention” and “testing,” no doubt trying to fit the passage better. N. H. Snaith (Leviticus and Numbers [NCB], 129) suggests from an Arabic word that it was designed to cause an abortion – but that would raise an entirely different question, one of who the father of a child was. And that has not been introduced here. The water was “bitter” in view of the consequences it held for her if she was proven to be guilty. That is then enforced by the wordplay with the last word, the Piel participle הַמְאָרֲרִים (hamararim). The bitter water, if it convicted her, would pronounce a curse on her. So she was literally holding her life in her hands.
This ancient ritual seems to have functioned like a lie detector test, with all the stress and tension involved. It can be compared to water tests in the pagan world, with the exception that in Israel it was stacked more toward an innocent verdict. It seems to have been a temporary provision, for this is the only place that it appears, and no provision is made for its use later. It may have served as a didactic force, warning more than actually legislating. No provision is made in it for a similar charge to be brought against the man, but in the case of the suspicion of the woman the man would be very hesitant to demand this test given the harshness on false witnessing in Israel. The passage remains a rather strange section of the Law.
19Then the priest will put the woman under oath and say to the her, “If no other
The word “other” is implied, since the woman would not be guilty of having sexual relations with her own husband.
man has had sexual relations with you, and if you have not gone astray and become defiled while under your husband’s authority, may you be free from this bitter water that brings a curse.
Although there would be stress involved, a woman who was innocent would have nothing to hide, and would be confident. The wording of the priest’s oath is actually designed to enable the potion to keep her from harm and not produce the physical effects it was designed to do.
20But if you
The pronoun is emphatic – “but you, if you have gone astray.”
have gone astray while under your husband’s authority, and if you have defiled yourself and some man other than your husband has had sexual relations with you….”
This is an example of the rhetorical device known as aposiopesis, or “sudden silence.” The sentence is broken off due to the intensity or emphasis of the moment. The reader is left to conclude what the sentence would have said.
21Then the priest will put the woman under the oath of the curse
For information on such curses, see M. R. Lehmann, “Biblical Oaths,” ZAW 81 (1969): 74-92; A. C. Thiselton, “The Supposed Power of Words in the Biblical Writings,” JTS 25 (1974): 283-99; and F. C. Fensham, “Malediction and Benediction in Ancient Vassal Treaties and the Old Testament,” ZAW 74 (1962): 1-9.
and will say
Heb “the priest will say.”
to the her, “The Lord make you an attested curse
This interpretation takes the two nouns as a hendiadys. The literal wording is “the Lord make you a curse and an oath among the people.” In what sense would she be an oath? The point of the whole passage is that the priest is making her take an oath to see if she has been sinful and will be cursed.
among your people,
The outcome of this would be that she would be quoted by people in such forms of expression as an oath or a curse (see Jer 29:22).
if the Lord makes
The construction uses the infinitive construct with the preposition to form an adverbial clause: “in the giving of the Lord…,” meaning, “if and when the Lord makes such and such to happen.”
your thigh fall away
TEV takes the expression “your thigh” as a euphemism for the genitals: “cause your genital organs to shrink.”
and your abdomen swell;
Most commentators take the expressions to be euphemisms of miscarriage or stillbirth, meaning that there would be no fruit from an illegitimate union. The idea of the abdomen swelling has been reinterpreted by NEB to mean “fall away.” If this interpretation stands, then the idea is that the woman has become pregnant, and that has aroused the suspicion of the husband for some reason. R. K. Harrison (Numbers [WEC], 111–13) discusses a variety of other explanations for diseases and conditions that might be described by these terms. He translates it with “miscarriage,” but leaves open what the description might actually be. Cf. NRSV “makes your uterus drop, your womb discharge.”
22and this water that causes the curse will go
The verb is the perfect tense with vav (ו) consecutive. It could be taken as a jussive following the words of the priest in the previous section, but it is more likely to be a simple future.
into your stomach, and make your abdomen swell and your thigh rot.”
Heb “fall away.”
Then the woman must say, “Amen, amen.”
The word “amen” carries the idea of “so be it,” or “truly.” The woman who submits to this test is willing to have the test demonstrate the examination of God.

23 “‘Then the priest will write these curses on a scroll and then scrape them off into the bitter water.
The words written on the scroll were written with a combination of ingredients mixed into an ink. The idea is probably that they would have been washed or flaked off into the water, so that she drank the words of the curse – it became a part of her being.
24He will make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and the water that brings a curse will enter her to produce bitterness. 25The priest will take the grain offering of suspicion from the woman’s hand, wave the grain offering before the Lord, and bring it to the altar. 26Then the priest will take a handful of the grain offering as its memorial portion, burn it on the altar, and afterward make the woman drink the water. 27When he has made her drink the water, then, if she has defiled herself and behaved unfaithfully toward her husband, the water that brings a curse will enter her to produce bitterness – her abdomen will swell, her thigh will fall away, and the woman will become a curse among her people. 28But if the woman has not defiled herself, and is clean, then she will be free of ill effects
Heb “will be free”; the words “of ill effects” have been supplied as a clarification.
and will be able to bear children.

29 “‘This is the law for cases of jealousy,
Heb “law of jealousies.”
when a wife, while under her husband’s authority, goes astray and defiles herself,
30or when jealous feelings come over a man and he becomes suspicious of his wife; then he must have the woman stand before the Lord, and the priest will carry out all this law upon her. 31Then the man will be free from iniquity, but that woman will bear the consequences
The text does not say what the consequences are. Presumably the punishment would come from God, and not from those administering the test.
of her iniquity.’”
The word “iniquity” can also mean the guilt for the iniquity as well as the punishment of consequences for the iniquity. These categories of meanings grew up through figurative usage (metonymies). Here the idea is that if she is guilty then she must “bear the consequences.”

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