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Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsh, [1857-78], at

Numbers Chapter 5


num 5:0

Spiritual Organization of theCongregation of Israel - Numbers 5-6

From the outward organization of the tribes of Israel as the army of Jehovah, the law proceeds to their internal moral and spiritual order, for the purpose of giving an _inward support, both moral and religious, to their outward or social and political unity. This is the object of the directions concerning the removal of unclean persons from the camp (Num 5:1-4), the restitution of anything unjustly appropriated (Num 5:5-10), the course to be pursued with a wife suspected of adultery (Num 5:11-31), and also of the laws relating to the Nazarite (Num 6:1-21), and to the priestly blessing (Num 6:22-27).

Numbers 5:1

num 5:1

Removal of Unclean Persons out of the Camp. - As Jehovah, the Holy One, dwelt in the midst of the camp of His people, those who were affected with the uncleanness of leprosy (Lev 13), of a diseased flux, or of menstruation (Lev 15:2., Num 15:19.), and those who had become unclean through touching a corpse (Num 19:11., cf. Lev 21:1; Lev 22:4), whether male or female, were to be removed out of the camp, that they might not defile it by their uncleanness. The command of God, to remove these persons out of the camp, was carried out at once by the nation; and even in Canaan it was so far observed, that lepers at any rate were placed in special pest-houses outside the cities (see at Lev 13:45-46).

Numbers 5:5

num 5:5

Restitution in Case of a Trespass. - No crime against the property of a neighbour was to remain without expiation in the congregation of Israel, which was encamped or dwelt around the sanctuary of Jehovah; and the wrong committed was not to remain without restitution, because such crimes involved unfaithfulness (מעל, see Lev 5:15) towards Jehovah. "If a man or a woman do one of the sins of men, to commit unfaithfulness against Jehovah, and the same soul has incurred guilt, they shall confess their sin which they have done, and (the doer) shall recompense his debt according to its sum" (בּראשׁו, as in Lev 6:5), etc. האדם מכּל־חטּאת, one of the sins occurring among men, not "a sin against a man" (Luther, Ros., etc.). The meaning is a sin, with which a מעל was committed against Jehovah, i.e., one of the acts described in Lev 6:3-4, by which injury was done to the property of a neighbour, whereby a man brought a debt upon himself, for the wiping out of which a material restitution of the other's property was prescribed, together with the addition of a fifth of its value, and also the presentation of a sin-offering (Lev 6:4-7). To guard against that disturbance of fellowship and peace in the congregation, which would arise from such trespasses as these, the law already given in Lev 6:1 is here renewed and supplemented by the additional stipulation, that if the man who had been unjustly deprived of some of his property had no Gol, to whom restitution could be made for the debt, the compensation should be paid to Jehovah for the priests. The Gol was the nearest relative, upon whom the obligation rested to redeem a person who had fallen into slavery through poverty (Lev 25:25). The allusion to the Gol in this connection presupposes that the injured person was no longer alive. To this there are appended, in Num 5:9 and Num 5:10, the directions which are substantially connected with this, viz., that every heave-offering (Terumah, see at Lev 2:9) in the holy gifts of the children of Israel, which they presented to the priest, was to belong to him (the priest), and also all the holy gifts which were brought by different individuals. The reference is not to literal sacrifices, i.e., gifts intended for the altar, but to dedicatory offerings, first-fruits, and such like. את־קדשׁיו אישׁ, "with regard to every man's, his holy him (the priest) shall they be; what any man gives to the priest shall belong to him." The second clause serves to explain and confirm the first. את: as far, with regard to, quoad (see Ewald, 277, d; Ges. 117, 2, note).

Numbers 5:11

num 5:11

Sentence of God upon Wives Suspected of Adultery. - As any suspicion cherished by a man against his wife, that she either is or has been guilty of adultery, whether well-founded or not, is sufficient to shake the marriage connection to its very roots, and to undermine, along with marriage, the foundation of the civil commonwealth, it was of the greatest importance to guard against this moral evil, which was so utterly irreconcilable with the holiness of the people of God, by appointing a process in harmony with the spirit of the theocratical law, and adapted to bring to light the guilt or innocence of any wife who had fallen into such suspicion, and at the same time to warn fickle wives against unfaithfulness. This serves to explain not only the introduction of the law respecting the jealousy-offering in this place, but also the general importance of the subject, and the reason for its being so elaborately described.

Num 5:12-15

If a man's wife went aside, and was guilty of unfaithfulness towards him (Num 5:13 is an explanatory clause), through a (another) man having lain with her with emissio seminis, and it was hidden from the eyes of her husband, on account of her having defiled herself secretly, and there being no witness against her, and her not having been taken (in the act); but if, for all that, a spirit of jealousy came upon him, and he was jealous of his wife, and she was defiled,...or she was not defiled: the man was to take his wife to the priest, and bring as her sacrificial gift, on her account, the tenth of an ephah of barley meal, without putting oil or incense, "for it is a meat-offering of jealousy, a meat-offering of memory, to bring iniquity to remembrance." As the woman's crime, of which her husband accused her, was naturally denied by herself, and was neither to be supported by witnesses nor proved by her being taken in the very act, the only way left to determine whether there was any foundation or not for the spirit of jealousy excited in her husband, and to prevent an unrighteous severance of the divinely appointed marriage, was to let the thing be decided by the verdict of God Himself. To this end the man was to bring his wife to the priest with a sacrificial gift, which is expressly called קרבּנהּ, her offering, brought עליה "on her account," that is to say, with a meat-offering, the symbol of the fruit of her walk and conduct before God. Being the sacrificial gift of a wife who had gone aside and was suspected of adultery, this meat-offering could not possess the character of the ordinary meat-offerings, which shadowed forth the fruit of the sanctification of life in good works; could not consist, that is to say, of fine wheaten flour, but only of barley meal. Barley was worth only half as much as wheat (Kg2 7:1, Kg2 7:16, Kg2 7:18), so that only the poorer classes, or the people generally in times of great distress, used barley meal as their daily food (Jdg 7:13; Kg2 4:42; Eze 4:12; Joh 6:9, Joh 6:13), whilst those who were better off used it for fodder (Kg1 5:8). Barley meal was prescribed for this sacrifice, neither as a sign that the adulteress had conducted herself like an irrational animal (Philo, Jonathan, Talm., the Rabb., etc.), nor "because the persons presenting the offering were invoking the punishment of a crime, and not the favour of God" (Cler., Ros.): for the guilt of a woman was not yet established; nor even, taking a milder view of the matter, to indicate that the offerer might be innocent, and in that case no offering at all was required Knobel), but to represent the questionable repute in which the woman stood, or the ambiguous, suspicious character of her conduct. Because such conduct as hers did not proceed from the Spirit of God, and was not carried out in prayer: oil and incense, the symbols of the Spirit of God and prayer, were not to be added to her offering. It was an offering of jealousy (קנאת, an intensive plural), and the object was to bring the ground of that jealousy to light; and in this respect it is called the "meat-offering of remembrance," sc., of the woman, before Jehovah (cf. Num 10:10; Num 31:54; Exo 28:12, Exo 28:29; Exo 30:16; Lev 23:24), namely, "the remembrance of iniquity," bringing her crime to remembrance before the Lord, that it might be judged by Him.

Num 5:16-18

The priest was to bring her near to the altar at which he stood, and place her before Jehovah, who had declared Himself to be present at the altar, and then to take holy water, probably water out of the basin before the sanctuary, which served for holy purposes (Exo 30:18), in an earthen vessel, and put dust in it from the floor of the dwelling. He was then to loosen the hair of the woman who was standing before Jehovah, and place the jealousy-offering in her hands, and holding the water in his own hand, to pronounce a solemn oath of purification before her, which she had to appropriate to herself by a confirmatory Amen, Amen. The water, which the priest had prepared for the woman to drink, was taken from the sanctuary, and the dust to be put into it from the floor of the dwelling, to impregnate this drink with the power of the Holy Spirit that dwelt in the sanctuary. The dust was strewed upon the water, not to indicate that man was formed from dust and must return to dust again, but as an allusion to the fact, that dust was eaten by the serpent (Gen 3:14) as the curse of sin, and therefore as the symbol of a state deserving a curse, a state of the deepest humiliation and disgrace (Mic 7:17; Isa 49:23; Psa 72:9). On the very same ground, an earthen vessel was chosen; that is to say, one quite worthless in comparison with the copper one. The loosening of the hair of the head (see Lev 13:45), in other cases a sign of mourning, is to be regarded here as a removal or loosening of the female head-dress, and a symbol of the loss of the proper ornament of female morality and conjugal fidelity. During the administration of the oath, the offering was placed in her hands, that she might bring the fruit of her own conduct before God, and give it up to His holy judgment. The priest, as the representative of God, held the vessel in his hand, with the water in it, which was called the "water of bitterness, the curse-bringing," inasmuch as, if the crime imputed to her was well-founded, it would bring upon the woman bitter suffering as the curse of God.

Num 5:19-22

The oath which the priest required her to take is called, in Num 5:21, האלה שׁבעת, "oath of cursing" (see Gen 26:28); but it first of all presupposes the possibility of the woman being innocent, and contains the assurance, that in that case the curse-water would do her no harm. "If no (other) man has lain with thee, and thou hast not gone aside to union (טמאה, accus. of more precise definition, as in Lev 15:2, Lev 15:18), under thy husband," i.e., as a wife subject to thy husband (Eze 23:5; Hos 4:12), "then remain free from the water of bitterness, this curse-bringing," i.e., from the effects of this curse-water. The imperative is a sign of certain assurance (see Gen 12:2; Gen 20:7; cf. Ges. 130, 1). "But if thou hast gone aside under thy husband, if thou hast defiled thyself, and a man has given thee his seed beside thy husband,"...(the priest shall proceed to say; this is the meaning of the repetition of לאשּׁה...והשׁבּיע, Num 5:21), "Jehovah shall make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, by making thy hip to fall and thy belly to swell; and this curse-bringing water shall come into thy bowels, to make the belly to vanish and the hip to fall." To this oath that was spoken before her the woman was to reply, "true, true," or "truly, truly," and thus confirm it as taken by herself (cf. Deu 27:15.; Neh 5:13). It cannot be determined with any certainty what was the nature of the disease threatened in this curse. Michaelis supposes it to be dropsy of the ovary (hydrops ovarii), in which a tumour is formed in the place of the ovarium, which may even swell so as to contain 100 lbs. of fluid, and with which the patient becomes dreadfully emaciated. Josephus says it is ordinary dropsy (hydrops ascites: Ant. iii. 11, 6). At any rate, the idea of the curse is this: Δι ̓ ὧν γὰρ ἡ ἁμαρτία, διὰ τούτων ἡ τιμωρία ("the punishment shall come from the same source as the sin," Theodoret). The punishment was to answer exactly to the crime, and to fall upon those bodily organs which had been the instruments of the woman's sin, viz., the organs of child-bearing.

Num 5:23-27

After the woman's Amen, the priest was to write "these curses," those contained in the oath, in a book-roll, and wash them in the bitter water, i.e., wash the writing in the vessel with water, so that the words of the curse should pass into the water, and be imparted to it; a symbolical act, to set forth the truth, that God imparted to the water the power to act injuriously upon a guilty body, though it would do no harm to an innocent one. The remark in Num 5:24, the priest was to give her this water to drink is anticipatory; for according to Num 5:26 this did not take place till after the presentation of the sacrifice and the burning of the memorial of it upon the altar. The woman's offering, however, was not presented to God till after the oath of purification, because it was by the oath that she first of all purified herself from the suspicion of adultery, so that the fruit of her conduct could be given up to the fire of the holiness of God. As a known adulteress, she could not have offered a meat-offering at all. But as the suspicion which rested upon her was not entirely removed by her oath, since she might have taken a false oath, the priest was to give her the curse-water to drink after the offering, that her guilt or innocence might be brought to light in the effects produced by the drink. This is given in Num 5:27 as the design of the course prescribed: "When he hath made her to drink the water, then it shall come to pass, that if she be defiled, and have done trespass against her husband, the water that causeth the curse shall come (enter) into her as bitterness (i.e., producing bitter sufferings), namely, her belly shall swell and her hip vanish: and so the woman shall become a curse in the midst of her people."

Num 5:28

"But if she have not defiled herself, and is clean (from the crime of which she was suspected), she will remain free (from the threatened punishment of God), and will conceive seed," i.e., be blessed with the capacity and power to conceive and bring forth children.

Num 5:29-31

Num 5:29-31 bring the law of jealousy to a formal close, with the additional remark, that the man who adopted this course with a wife suspected of adultery was free from sin, but the woman would bear her guilt (see Lev 5:1), i.e., in case she were guilty, would bear the punishment threatened by God. Nothing is said about what was to be done in case the woman refused to take the oath prescribed, because that would amount to a confession of her guilt, when she would have to be put to death as an adulteress, according to the law in Lev 20:10; and not she alone, but the adulterer also. In the law just mentioned the man is placed on an equality with the woman with reference to the sin of adultery; and thus the apparent partiality, that a man could sue his wife for adultery, but not the wife her husband, is removed. But the law before us applied to the woman only, because the man was at liberty to marry more than one wife, or to take concubines to his own wife; so that he only violated the marriage tie, and was guilty of adultery, when he formed an illicit connection with another man's wife. In that case, the man whose marriage had been violated could proceed against his adulterous wife, and in most instances convict the adulterer also, in order that he might receive his punishment too. For a really guilty wife would not have made up her mind so easily to take the required oath of purification, as the curse of God under which she came was no easier to bear than the punishment of death. For this law prescribed no ordeal whose effects were uncertain, like the ordeals of other nations, but a judgment of God, from which the guilty could not escape, because it had been appointed by the living God.

Next: Numbers Chapter 6