Commentary on Parashat Naso

Bettijane Eisenpreis

By Bettijane Eisenpreis

Here the priest shall administer the curse of adjuration to the woman, as the priest goes on to say to the woman – “may the Lord make you a curse and an imprecation among your people, as the Lord causes your thigh to sag and your belly to distend; may this water that induces the spell enter your body, causing the belly to distend and the thigh to sag.” And the woman shall say “Amen, Amen!”

Numbers 5:21-22

The story of the “sotah,” the woman suspected of adultery, is one of the more bizarre in the Bible. To summarize, if a husband suspects that his wife has had an affair with another man, he is to take her before the priest and the priest is to make her drink “the water of bitterness that induces the spell.” The water has been made bitter because the priest has written down a curse against the woman, burned the paper, and dissolved the ashes in the water. This unpleasant solution is supposed to make the woman’s stomach swell and her thigh sag, but only if she is guilty. If nothing happens, then the husband is guilty of jealousy, for which there is no penalty. If she gets sick, she shall be “a curse among her people,” though exactly what will happen to her is not spelled out.

It’s a fascinating, though extremely distasteful, story. First, there probably is no proof that the lady has done anything wrong. If there was any proof that she had committed adultery, she would not have been treated so lightly. There are several stories in the Bible of a woman committing adultery and she and her lover are both killed, either by the lady’s husband or by the whole community. After all, adultery is a violation of the Seventh Commandment, and the penalty must be severe.

So what has this poor lady done? Probably nothing — but what if she had done something: dressed in a way that might be considered indecent, taken an interest in the affairs of the community, or looked approvingly at a man other than her husband? It wouldn’t take much; women were supposed to take care of the house and the children and otherwise stay out of sight. Everything interesting was taboo. Women couldn’t improve their minds or take an interest in the affairs of the community, so it is not surprising that a they would get bored and get into trouble.

The writers of the Torah were actually very smart. If we look carefully at the lady’s ordeal, we can see that the lady’s guilt may be hard to prove. All she really has to do is drink a little dirty water. Considering the sanitary conditions at that time, she probably had been exposed to much worse in the course of her daily life, so drinking a little dirty water wouldn’t hurt. A slight stomach ache would probably be the worst result of her ordeal. Her stomach is not going to swell or her thigh sag – whatever that means. And if she’s smart, she’ll keep the pain of the belly ache to herself.

After the priest observed that nothing happened to the lady, he would have to assume that the problem lay with the husband’s jealousy. As we have seen before, he wouldn’t be penalized, but neither would she. It’s a whole lot better system that what happened in Salem, Massachusetts in the old days. Women suspected of witchcraft were tied to a chair and submerged in the river. If they floated, they were assumed to be witches and punished accordingly. If they sank and drowned, they were innocent. The poor ladies were literally “damned if they were and damned if they weren’t!”

The punishment of the sotah doesn’t solve the underlying problem of what was undoubtedly an unhappy marriage between a suspicious husband and a bored wife. But at least it didn’t make it worse. The writers of the Torah were wise; they understood that some issues are too complex for a simple solution.