Is this a misogynistic test? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
In Numbers 5, we have a test that seems to us to be very strange. This is a test for faithfulness in marriage. If a man suspects that his wife is being unfaithful to him. In our continuing look at marriage and divorce, we are going to look at this.
In this test, a woman was required to drink a substance and if her abdomen swells and her thigh rots, then she has been unfaithful. There is no doubt, some euphemistic language here, but there’s nothing to suggest that an abortion or miscarriage is taking place. It could be rendering the woman infertile, however, which would indeed be a mark of shame in that culture.
Why would such a test be found in Scripture? Does God hate women that he puts them through this and the man doesn’t have to do anything similar? This test is not actually put in to demean the woman, but quite the opposite. It is there in order to protect her.
For the most part, a man is not usually in danger from the women in his life. Today, with something like a gun that is an equalizer, that can be different, but in the time of Scripture, when it came to physical power, men held that. It is certainly wrong for a man to be unfaithful, but generally, he would not have to fear that if he wound up being caught, his wife would beat him. (And even in unfaithfulness, wife-beating is never okay.)
A woman doesn’t have that benefit in the culture. Generally, women are physically weaker than men are and don’t have the upper body strength that men do. In many cultures, if a man got jealous, he could easily kill his wife if he so wanted to. If not kill, he could at least seriously injure her.
In this culture, God steps in and has a solution. Undergo a ceremony that can have real physical effects on a woman. The result would be undeniable in that culture and would settle the manner once and for all. At least one person would leave that meeting very shamed. A husband could leave if he has falsely accused his wife and she passes the test with flying colors. If she doesn’t pass, she will leave shamed with physical conditions that she will likely be stuck with because of her unfaithfulness. He could leave shamed as well knowing that his wife has been unfaithful to him.
This also illustrates that in Scripture, faithfulness in marriage is highly valued. Every time a man in Scripture was unfaithful in any way to his marriage covenant, it did not end well. The same happens with women who are unfaithful to their spouses. When we get to the New Testament, we will find that when it comes to the question of remarriage, there is differentiation between a spouse who has been faithful to a prior marriage and the spouse who has been unfaithful to the marriage covenant, but that’s for in the future.
(And I affirm the virgin birth)