This article on Numbers 5:29-30 looks at jealousy among the people of God, and the jealousy of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Source: Clarion, 2008. 2 pages.

Numbers 5 – The Test of Jealousy

This, then, is the law of jealousy when a woman goes astray and defiles herself while married to her husband, or when feelings of jealousy come over a man because he suspects his wife.

Numbers 5:29-30

Often, the Old Testament laws do not seem to make much sense to us. This confusion arises because we think of biblical law as mere legislation, like a posted speed limit. Yet God’s law is not to be thought of as legislation, but as wisdom and instruction, as the revelation of who God is. You cannot meditate on a speed limit day and night and hope to gain insight. You are supposed to meditate on God’s law, for it is wisdom from Him.

Understanding that God’s law is wisdom and instruction helps us interpret what seems very odd. Perhaps one of the oddest laws is the test of jealousy found in Numbers 5:11-31. This is a detailed ritual of what is to be done if a husband becomes jealous and suspects his wife of adultery.

The woman suspected of adultery is brought into the courtyard of the tabernacle, at the centre of the camp. There she brings a grain offering as a memorial before Yahweh, which means He will see and judge the works of her hands. Then she has to drink the water of bitterness (which is water from the laver), mixed with dirt from the floor of the tabernacle (which is holy ground) and mixed with the curses of the covenant. If she were guilty, it would then show; if not, she would be her husband’s wife forever.

Why have this law? Israel already had the seventh commandment and Yahweh had prescribed death for both men and women who committed adultery. We also do not have any examples of this law being carried out. Perhaps something other than defending marriage is the issue, something related to the nature of who Israel is as the people of Yahweh.

While we cannot go into all the symbolism here, we must take this rite seriously. Consider the context: in Numbers 1-4 Israel is organized as Yahweh’s camp. Since He is holy, they must be holy. In Numbers 5:1-10 there are described three kinds of uncleanness – symbolic and ritual forms of death – for which an Israelite must be put outside the camp, because the camp is to reflect that Yahweh is the God of life.

Given this, what would Israel have heard in this ritual? For one thing, it involves an attribute of Yahweh: jealousy. Yahweh’s very name is “Jealous” (Exodus 34:14). And marriage is one of the key images for the covenant between Yahweh and Israel, while adultery is the image of what breaks that relationship. What’s more, Yahweh has established that holiness in the camp requires absolute faithfulness.

Thus we return to the central question: Why this law? It seems unlikely that it would have been invoked. So imagine you are an Israelite at Sinai. You hear a law about a jealous husband and about drinking water mixed with dirt. What would that sound like to you? It would sound like what happened when Israel worshiped the golden calf. Israel rejected Moses as mediator and made one of their own. Instead of eating with God, they ate with a false god. As a result, they were forced to drink water mixed with the ground-up golden calf. The people drank the same basic elements they had been baptized with: water (at the Red Sea, cf. 1 Corinthians 10:1) and the law (Exodus 24). Those who were guilty were made known and the Levities killed them. The test of jealousy recalls Sinai and Yahweh’s judgment and what it means to be God’s people.

Paul tells us in Colossians 2 that Jesus blots out the curses of the covenant, which is the language of Numbers 5:23. Indeed, Jesus’ death is the ultimate test of jealousy. In Him the defiled bride, which is who we are by nature, is accepted. By his death and resurrection He took and removed our uncleanness, our death, and our sin.

As the Husband of the church, He commands his bride to be faithful. Our God is a jealous God, but that is not to say He is a tyrant. For in Christ, He has shown that He is passionately involved with us. He also gives us the Lord’s Supper, the new covenant in his blood. In eating the bread and drinking the cup, we undergo the trial of jealousy in Him. The cup of blessing is rooted in his drinking of the cup of bitterness and we take his work into ourselves. As 1 Corinthians 10-11 show, this judges the unfaithful and it marks the faithful as the bride of Christ.

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