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Adultery and Ordeals - the Sotah Ritual in Ancient Israel

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Chuck Edman

NEJS 114b

Professor Wright

Final Paper

Adultery and Ordeals:

The Sotah Ritual in Ancient Israel


The ritual of the sotah from the book of Numbers is a fascinating passage to read in the Hebrew Bible. For one thing, this ritual deals with the idea of a man being able to bring his wife to trial, even if he has no evidence against her. While such an instance might be seen as negative treatment of women, others might explain it as the Israelites' constant concern over the idea of impurity. Another interesting aspect of the sotah rite is that it is the only example of an ordeal similar to those practiced in other cultures of the Ancient Near East. While other ordeals are told mostly in story form, Num. 5:11-31 is the only instance in which the actual process of an ordeal is laid out point by point. Finally, the ritual merits attention due to its continued practice even after the Temple was destroyed, as is depicted in the Talmud. These reasons and more are evidence as to why this small 20 verse passage has been subject to such scrutiny and study over the course of the years.

Adultery in the Hebrew Bible

The ritual for the "errant woman" in Numbers 5:11-31 is only one of many instances in the Old Testament that deals with the crime of adultery. The crime is described throughout the books in the Hebrew Bible, such as Genesis 20:6, Lev. 18:20, Ezek. 18:6, Ps. 51:6, and Mal. 3:5. A variety of texts discuss the evil of adultery. The Israelites held the act in such harsh light, that a commandment against committing adultery is found in the Decalogue. This certainly indicates that extra-martial affairs were viewed in a severe manner.

In the Hebrew Bible, adultery is considered a capital crime, punishable by the population stoning the adulterous wife and her lover to death. Deut. 22:20 commands this communal punishment in order to "sweep away evil from Israel." The question remains as to why this crime was considered to be such a transgression. Several explanations exist to account for the seriousness of the crime.

A significant aspect of life in the Ancient Near East was the importance of the family line. One of the most frightening ideas in the Bible is the punishment of karet, an Israelite's being cut off from the community. This is understood as early death and childlessness, or the death of one's descendants . Such an event could result from an unfaithful wife conceiving a son with the adulterer. In this case, the real husband would unknowingly raise a child who is not of his line. Because of this, the series of descendants would be disrupted, and the husband's lineage might die out.

This idea of karet is useful in understanding one aspect of the sotah ritual. If the woman is guilty of adultery, the "bitter water" is supposed to cause her "thigh to sag and [your] belly to distend." This is generally interpreted as meaning that she would become unable to conceive a child. On the other hand, if the woman is innocent, Numbers 5:27-28 states: weniqqetвh wenizre'вh zara'. "She will be cleared and she shall retain seed." Not only is the woman proven innocent, but also she does not loose the ability to bear children. By being able to continue to bear children, she continues the bloodline of the family, and therefore does not suffer the possibility of ending the family line, associated with the idea of karet. The examples of a guilty woman apparently experiencing a forced abortion from the water ordeal and an innocent woman retaining her seed both relate to the previously mentioned concept of karet.

Another reason behind the Israelites' aversion to this crime is the belief in the importance of purity. Throughout the Hebrew Bible, the reader can find examples of G-d both telling the Israelites not to do various things for fear of them becoming impure, as well as to do other things, in order to regain their purity. The fact that adultery causes impurity is attested to in several areas of the HB, including Lev. 18:20 and Ezek. 18:6. Not only does the act render both participants impure, but adultery is one of the sexual crimes mentioned in Leviticus 18 which would cause the land to "spew out its inhabitants."

This idea of purity also comes into play in understanding the sotah. The concept of purity versus impurity comes into play twice during this ceremony. Numbers 5:14 states, "...but if a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about the wife who has defiled herself; or if a fit of jealousy comes over one and his wrought up about his wife although she has not defiled herself..." It is interesting to note that the verse uses the terms "defiled herself." Instead of perhaps repeating the phrases from the beginning of the passage, about breaking the faith and going astray from her husband, the text focuses on the idea of a woman becoming impure because of her transgression. This defilement might be explained by a prohibition found in Deut 26:1-4 in which an Israelite man is forbidden to remarry his divorced wife if she has had sex with another man. " is possible that sexual union with a defiled wife would also have been thought to pollute the land. A suspicious husband might therefore have been obligated to bring his wife to the test in order to avoid such defilement," Aside from simply allaying his fears, a husband may have simply been doing his duty to the community by avoiding any possibility of becoming impure.

Also along the same lines of impurity is the presence of the grain offering brought by the husband on behalf of his wife. "In the present case, the sacrificial offering was also an instrument of purification, functioning most like a hatta't 'sin offering.'" According to Levine, the woman on trial was asking G-d to pronounce her pure. The idea that G-d is ready to pronounce judgment on the now pure woman by accepting the sacrifice as a sign plays heavily into the idea of the importance of purity among the Israelites.

One final, and rather important reason behind the extremely negative context in Israel viewed the crime was that it was a direct offense against G-d himself. In the Decalogue, of the Ten Commandments prescribed by G-d Himself, two of the commandments specifically mention the offense. The Seventh commandment states, "You shall not commit adultery," and the Tenth commandment states, "You shall not covet your neighbor's wife..."



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