Saturday, August 13, 2005

Waters of Bitterness Redux

John H has posted his queries about this passage in Numbers 5, which reads, edited, as follows:

Then the priest shall put these curses in writing, and wash them off into the water of bitterness. He 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 ... 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. But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be immune and be able to conceive children.

Michael Spencer at the Boar's Head Tavern, "What do you say to your unbelieving friend who is reading the Bible and shows up with this? What do you say to your son when he asks about this?"

Presumably this passage is supposed to be terribly problematic, although neither Michael Spencer, nor John H, specifies very concretely what it is that is so obviously problematic here.

So let's consider what the possible problems might be:

1) That an innocent woman who has NOT committed adultery will be put into pain, and exposed to the obloquy associated with it?

I think from the passage that this certainly is not the case. If the woman is innocent, the water of bitterness will not harm her. Drinking dusty water is by itself a minor inconvenience. It is true that the author presumes that if a man is jealous, then most of the time that jealousy will prove to be well-founded. But if it does not, the passage is clear the woman will not suffer. So that’s not the problem.

2) Is the problem the mechanism: that it seems so much like magic? Well as a believer in what a lot of people would consider "magic" in baptismal water and communion bread and wine, that doesn’ t really bother me so much. Note too that the "magic" substance is accompanied by a word of the Lord’s curse on the woman if she is truly guilty. So one can well say without the word the dusty water is just dusty water. Note the passage never explicitly says how the potion (tabernacle dust in holy water which is only mildly unpleasant to drink) will cause the adulteress to suffer and the innocent woman to be unharmed. The power of suggestion, in what would clearly be a powerful ritual, could well produce the observed result. Besides, I haven’t seen anyone objecting to the "magic" of the ephod and the urim and thummim (for example). So that’s does not seem to be the main problem either.

3) That it foresees a man being jealous of his wife and does not rebuke him for his evil suspicions? Ah, I think we’ve found our problem. The objectors apparently feel that men simply should not entertain suspicions of their wives’ fidelity, that to be suspicious of your wife’s fidelity, at least without clear-cut proof beforehand, is sinful. If that were true, this test would be giving blatant countenance to immorality.

But why is being suspicious of your wife's fidelity any more sinful than being suspicious of your accountant's honesty? Let’s review some facts: genetic tests show that at least 1 out of 10 and perhaps 1 out of 7 children are not the children of their presumed father. In cases where paternity disputes go to court, 1 in 3 cases turn out to not be the children of the man the mother claims is the father. David and Bathsheba tried to cheat Uriah in that way and almost got away with it. (References here and here.)

Recall what Samuel Johnson argued with Boswell, that a woman’s adultery is more serious than that of her husband, because a husband in the nature of things can’t trick a woman into raising in ignorance a child who is actually the child of another woman. But a woman can, and apparently millions of women do, do just that to their husbands every year. And while most men who are thus cuckolded (there’s an old word, and here’s where it comes from) probably suffer in silence, one cannot help but think that even if they don't get a divorce, they won’t show much affection to their children. Thus women’s adultery weakens father-children bonds in a way that men’s adultery doesn’t.

[UPDATE: This is NOT an argument for winking at male adultery. The Christian sexual ethic is symmetrical; Christ and the apostle Paul leave no doubt about that. Nor am I saying that male jealousy is generally, or even often, well-founded. Just that it does exist and it impacts the family in ways that female jealousy do not.]

Now, it is the considered opinion today that men should pretend that this problem doesn’t exist. An English "watch-dog" organization even thinks (registration required) that secret paternity tests should be banned, to prevent cuckolded fathers from finding out the truth. Why? I don’t know, and I think it is incumbent upon those objecting to explain why a man should never worry about raising a child who is not actually his. Anyway, you can fool a lot of people, but you can’t fool country music lyrics. It is certainly not very chivalrous to have such thoughts about your wife, or women in general, but remember that Tristan and Isolde were some of the heroes of chivalry.

But doesn’t this test in Numbers encourage often unreasonable jealousy? No, it resolves jealousy. If a man today suspects this child isn’t his, he can try to be forgiving and just not notice. But obviously in Israel, where God was legislating, this was a bit unrealistic. (Whether it’s realistic to rely on such superhuman virtue today is another question, one I’d have trouble answering in the affirmative.) So what would you do, priest of Israel, when a man shows up raging about his "slutty wife" and his suspicion that "those brats aren’t even mine"? You're not going to have the option of pretending that there are no slutty wives and that all children are indeed the children of their presumed father. Ancient Israelite men are too well informed about how the world works to buy that line. And I would assume that the kind of men and women in cases like this would be fairly similar to the men and women who end up in paternity cases today: frequent visitors to the honky-tonk celebrations in the Baal and Asherah temples or the glitterati of the Beth-Hollywood fertility plays and definitely not the models of Israelite rectitude.

What you as a priest would need to do is find some way to either prove the wife’s innocence (so that the marriage can be rebuilt and the father will start looking on the children as his again), or else demonstrate to the community that adulteresses won’t get away with it (so that other men won’t feel like chumps if they sacrifice for their wives and children). This test does that (again I would presume the mechanism is more suggestion than any direct work of the Lord, but with the importance of blood lines in Israel, perhaps He deigned to work through his strange word of curse).

If someone has a better solution, I’d love to hear it. (Oh, and by the way, "better solution" doesn’t mean just living with a 50% divorce rate, while preaching the heights of Christian forbearance to the chaotic masses of the population.)

Originally posted at Here We Stand