Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Biblical Way To Treat Women With Dignity (3 of 3)

From The Skeptical Review, 1998:

By Farrell Till 
As noted in previous articles, a popular claim of Christianity is that the Bible has accorded women a status superior to that in societies dominated by other religions. Those who make this claim are either very ignorant of what the Bible teaches or else have no scruples against misrepresenting facts to try to further the cause of Christianity. Many of the deplorable attitudes toward women found in the Bible have already been examined, but none were more flagrantly sexist in their scope than a "test" in Numbers 5 that Yahweh required of women accused of adultery.

If any man suspected his wife of "going astray" but had no evidence to confirm his suspicion, he was entitled to take her to the priest, "if the spirit of jealousy comes upon him" (vs:11-15), and the priest would subject her to a trial by ordeal, which she had to pass in order to prove her innocence. The man was required to bring a meal offering, which the priest would put into the woman's hands. He would then take a concoction of "holy water" and dust from the tabernacle floor, which was called "the bitter water that brings a curse," and say an incantation over the woman:

If no man has lain with you, and if you have not gone astray to uncleanness while under your husband's authority, be free from this bitter water that brings a curse. But if you have gone astray while under your husband's authority, and if you have defiled yourself and some man other than your husband has lain with you... Yahweh himself make you a curse and an oath among your people, when Yahweh makes your thigh rot and your belly swell; and may this water that causes the curse go into your stomach and make your belly swell and your thigh rot" (vs:19-22).

At this point, the woman was required to say, "Amen, so be it" (v:22). Who says that Yahweh didn't have a sense of fairness?

The priest would then write "these curses" into a book and "scrape them off into the bitter water" (v:23), at which point the "bitter water" would contain not only dirt from the tabernacle floor but apparently any other contaminants that may have been in the "ink" and on the surface of the book that was scraped. After this, the woman was required to "drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and the water that brings the curse shall enter her to become bitter" (v:24).

The priest would take the "grain offering of jealousy" from the woman's hand and "wave it before Yahweh" and then take it to the altar. He would take a handful of the offering as a "memorial portion" and burn it on the altar. (None of this is being made up; it's all in the inspired word of God.) Apparently, the woman would have to take another swig of the bitter water at this point, just in case the first dose had not done enough damage. The inspired text tells us that after the woman had drunk the bitter water, "then it shall be, if she has defiled herself and behaved unfaithfully toward her husband, that the water that brings a curse will enter her and become bitter, and her belly will swell, her thigh will rot, and the woman will become a curse among her people" (v:27). As suggested earlier, however, Yahweh did have a sense of fairness, for "if the woman has not defiled herself, and is clean, then she shall be free and may conceive children" (v:28).

Now wasn't that decent of the merciful Yahweh? Living in enlightened times, we can all guess what happened during these ceremonies. Some women would appear to pass the test, and others would appear to fail. We know, however, that the factors of guilt or innocence would not have been involved. In the same way that some people today are resistant to bacteria and viruses and can live in the midst of epidemics without being infected, while others fall victim to the diseases they cause, so it undoubtedly was with the women who were subjected to this trial by ordeal to test them for adultery. It was all a matter of individual constitution. Some women could drink the contaminated "water of bitterness" and experience no adverse effects, whereas others probably did experience internal infections that caused their "bellies to swell" and their "thighs to rot." Their guilt or innocence, however, had nothing to do with it. Individual resistance to infection would have been the chief determining factor. In his magnanimity, Yahweh decreed that if the woman's belly did not swell and her thighs did not rot, then she was innocent and would be free to "conceive children." Yes, after all, that's the whole duty of women, isn't it, to be free to conceive children? It's a vital part of the dignity and lofty status that the Bible has accorded women.

Well, what happened when women "passed the test"? Were their husbands held accountable in any way for having falsely accused their wives? Those who would even ask the question have undoubtedly developed a sense of fairness from having been subjected to too much modern philosophy about the equality of the sexes. Such equality just wasn't Yahweh's way, so we are told that when the trial by ordeal was over, "the man shall be free from iniquity" (v:31). However, the woman who didn't pass muster had to "bear her guilt."

An interesting issue is raised by the reference to conceiving children that women who did pass muster were "free" to do. We can imagine that in a superstitious society that used a trial by ordeal like this to test for adultery, there would have been many pregnant women brought before priests to drink the so-called "water of bitterness," and no doubt many of them, whether guilty or innocent, didn't pass the test. If the concoction of "holy water" and contaminants produced anything at all like the swelling bellies and rotting thighs described in the ceremonial instructions, we can also imagine that many pregnant women experienced abortions that were induced by the "water of bitterness" and that some women were left sterile by its effects. This point is made neither to defend nor condemn the practice of abortion but to suggest that this "test for adultery" poses a problem for those who argue so fervently that abortion violates "God's law," for those who so argue are presumably referring to the same god who ordained this "test for adultery" that would have presented obvious threats to the life of any fetus whose mother was forced to submit to it. Would a god who is so vitally concerned about the welfare of unborn children have devised a plan like this, or was it just a practice that originated with primitive, superstitious people who thought that their god was directing the outcome? It's something biblicists should think about as they ponder the problems that this trial by ordeal poses for their claim that the Bible has elevated the dignity of women much higher than it is in other religious societies.

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