The Cup of the Adulteress: Understanding the Jealousy Ritual of Numbers 5

The ritual of jealousy in Numbers 5:11-31 is a law that disturbs and perplexes many people. Many regard it as if it were some bizarre and ridiculous process lying somewhere between a superstitious magical ceremony, a Jeremy Kyle paternity test, and a Monty Python trial by ordeal. Others are troubled by the seemingly blatant misogyny of the passage. Purely on the basis of a husband’s jealousy, a wife can be submitted to such an ordeal, an ordeal for which no corresponding rite seems to exist for husbands. The woman, if found guilty, also faces serious consequences, though nothing is said of any consequences faced by the man with whom she committed adultery.

Within this post I don’t expect to provide a completely satisfactory resolution of all of these questions. However, I hope to place the passage within a broader frame within which many of these problems are considerably relieved and those which remain are rendered more manageable.


At the very outset, there are a number of points that must be made.

First, the primary cause for the performance of the rite is jealousy. Since this jealousy is the husband’s it can easily be assumed that the rite existed principally for the sake of the accusing party. However, a little caution is in order here. One doesn’t have to envisage the extremes illustrated by such a character as Othello to recognize that a husband’s jealousy can be a profoundly destructive and vengeful force. As Proverbs 6:34 declares: ‘For jealousy is a husband’s fury; therefore he will not spare in the day of vengeance.’ The ritual of jealousy served to arrest the cycle of jealousy before it could be expressed in a husband’s abuse or the violence of the lynch mob. The jealous party had to surrender judgment into God’s hands, thus preventing the escalation of jealousy into violence or the utter and final annihilation of all marital trust.

The ritual of jealousy, by preventing the unhalted rise of jealousy, protected vulnerable parties from violence, took judgment out of human hands, and served to vindicate the innocent. The falsely suspected party could call the jealous party to ‘put up or shut up’, receiving divine vindication through the rite and being delivered from any stain on their character. For anyone who has been falsely accused or suspected, the benefit of such a rite should be immediately apparent. In such a manner, the jealousy rite served both parties, by providing a way to avoid the destructive cycles of jealousy.

Second, the efficacy of the rite of jealousy depended upon the divine deliverance of a decisive verdict. By itself, drinking the bitter water, while unpleasant, could not produce the terrible effects associated with the guilty verdict. The rite involved no human judgment whatsoever, put everything into God’s hands, and would only operate through divine action. Our ability to accept the rite is closely related to our preparedness to accept that God might provide decisive judgment in such a manner.

Third, strictly speaking it was not an ‘ordeal’. Typically trial by ordeal involves undergoing a dangerous and/or painful trial, such as plunging your hand in boiling water, or carrying a heated iron across a room. On the basis of one’s survival of or condition after such an ordeal, a human court would judge you innocent or guilty. Such ordeals were often at high risk of producing ‘false positives’ (although, for a counterbalancing defence of the effectiveness of trial by ordeal, see this). The rite of jealousy in Numbers 5, however, involved little risk of false positives: the rite itself, while not a pleasant experience, wasn’t very dangerous or painful in and of itself. Also, as noted earlier, it involved no human judgment at all subsequent to the ordeal, but left the judgment and punishment entirely in God’s hands.

Fourth, the rite of jealousy served to resolve a crisis situation in the law, where a lack of knowledge could lead to the breakdown of all trust in marriage and a vulnerable party suffering under a false accusation. It promised divine vindication or judgment in a way that arrested these negative processes.

At this point a crucial detail of the Mosaic Law should be noticed: the Mosaic Law is underpinned by divine sanction for both individual and nation. No one can escape divine justice, even though they may escape human justice. Evildoers can be directly punished by God and this judgment is typically presumed to come in this life. Even though it might be delayed, the person who ‘bore their iniquity’ was liable to receive direct punishment from God (e.g. Exodus 28:43). Secret sinners were subjected to a terrible series of curses and were not presumed to escape judgment for their sin, merely because they evaded human detection (Deuteronomy 27:11-26).

The entire Law was underwritten by this assurance. It seems to me that the question that we should be asking is why the case of the woman suspected of adultery was treated differently from other cases, where punishment of unknown guilty parties could be left in God’s hands and waited for patiently. It seems to me that the three key reasons for this are: 1. The destructive force of unchecked jealousy within marriage, a force that makes it much harder to go on than suspicions in any other context; 2. The vulnerability of the suspected party to the violence of her husband or the mob; 3. The fact that the unfaithfulness of the wife was a greater threat to the order of the family than that of the husband, as it threw the legitimacy of the children into question (a woman always knows whether a child is hers, which is one reason why the stakes are often so much higher for female unfaithfulness). The rite of jealousy was a petition for immediate divine judgment that would bring matters to a head in a situation where continued unresolved suspicion could prove deeply destructive. It could assure a man that children were his and grant both the children and the mother the security that comes with that clearly defined status.

Some Notes on the Rite Itself

1. The wife is said to ‘commit a trespass’ against her husband (vv.12, 27), language that is more typically used of mankind’s relationship with God. The analogous relationship between spiritual unfaithfulness to YHWH and unfaithfulness to a human husband is an important one and will be revisited later.

2. The husband brings his wife to the priest along with an offering, which seems to be related to the meal offering substituted for the sin offering in the case of the poor in Leviticus 5:12. Rather than directly identity this offering with the poor person’s sin offering, I would suggest that the logic is found in the fact that bread offerings are typically remembrance or memorial offerings, designed to bring something to God’s mind in a petition for divine action on that basis. However, since in this case of the ritual of jealousy (as in the substitute sin offering) it is possible sin that is being memorialized, the elements of frankincense and oil cannot be included.

3. The priest takes holy water in an earthen vessel, presumably drawn from the laver of cleansing, and holy dust, from the ground of the tabernacle, which is then placed in the water (v.17). This might be an image of the human being, formed of dust and water (notice that the New Testament also refers to us as ‘earthen vessels’ – 2 Corinthians 4:7). Also, as we shall later see, this action alludes to a particular event within the Exodus narrative and, much as other sacrificial rituals were related to – whether being prefigured by or microchronically recapitulating – past events, so this ritual might allude to the event that it resembles.

4. The woman’s head is uncovered in God’s presence, letting her hair loose (v.18). Perhaps, in such a manner, she is symbolically removed from the representation and protection of her husband (cf. 1 Corinthians 11). Whether this symbolizes her possible past unfaithfulness, places her before God for immediate and personal judgment apart from his representation (my preferred interpretation), or does something different entirely, I am unsure.

5. The memorial offering is placed in her hands (v.18). When it is later offered, it will bring her to God’s mind and judgment will be cast in her case. The connection of the memorial offering with the meals of communion is important to notice in this context. There may also be a connection here with vocational rites, where offerings were placed in the hands and presented as wave offerings (Leviticus 8:25-27; Numbers 6:19). In all of these cases the worshipper is offering up their labour or work for divine approval or judgment.

6. The woman is placed under a self-maledictory oath, calling down judgment upon herself if she has been unfaithful (vv.19-22). Her cooperation is expected, as her preparedness to undergo the rite is an act of pleading innocence before the divine court and petitioning God for public vindication.

7. The priest writes up the self-maledictory curses in a book and then wipes or ‘blots them out’ into the bitter water (v.23). I wonder whether this should be seen as the water bearing the two chief prosecutors of the divine order – the Law and the land (the dust that mediated God’s curse upon mankind). The Law condemns the guilty and the land spits them out. In drinking the bitter water, the woman will take these two witnesses into her insides and their effect will determine her case one way or another.

8. The woman must drink the water and the priest offers the wave offering and burns its memorial portion (vv.24-27). If she is guilty, the bitter water shall become bitter inside her and its curses shall make her a curse. If she is not, it will have no effect. The efficacy of the rite arises from the memorial bread offering, which invokes God’s judgment upon the one who offered it. The bitter water is the means of the punishment or vindication.

9. If the woman is guilty, there will be a marked and visible effect, presumably accompanied by considerable pain or severe discomfort – her belly will swell and her thigh will rot (v.27). This is probably a prolapsed uterus.

10. The guilty woman will ‘bear her iniquity’ through this rite, but her husband shall be ‘free from iniquity’ (v.31). This strikes me as a significant detail, as it suggests that the husband is also being exposed to judgment, even though he is not being publicly vindicated or condemned in the rite in quite the same way as his wife. The jealousy of the husband who has also been unfaithful will presumably not be vindicated in the rite of jealousy, even though they will both bear their guilt in such a case. God will punish unfaithful husbands in his own time, but the openness of his judgment on adulteresses frees faithful wives from unjust suspicion or accusation.

Spiritual Adultery and the Rite of Jealousy

Like much of the rest of the Old Testament Law, the purpose and meaning of the rite of jealousy exceeds the limited and immediate use it proposes. In the past I have discussed this principle in relation to the commandment that one should not muzzle the ox that treads out the grain. Once again, in the case of the rite of jealousy, if we look at it more carefully in the light of the broader biblical narrative, several other significant details come into view.

The first thing that we should notice is just how seriously sexual sin and infidelity were viewed under the Mosaic Law (and continue to be viewed within the New Testament). Coming from the culture that we come from, with its rampantly materialist or emotionalist/expressivist approach to sexuality, we can find it difficult to understand a culture in which consensual acts between two adults who may love each other very much should be treated as worthy of death in some instances. We will only begin to understand this when we realize that, in Scripture, mankind’s being is symbolic at its deepest root. And the image of God is especially focused upon a particular relationship, the fruitful marital bond between man and woman. Given its symbolic importance, a distortion or violation of this bond is an act of idolatry and, indeed, a monstrous crime against human nature itself, often suffering the punishment of death. Consequently, anything that perverts, parodies, undermines, attacks, violates, replaces, or distorts the sexual fidelity appropriate to marriage between a man and a woman is seen to strike at the very heart of biblical religion.

This close biblical connection between sexual faithfulness and spiritual faithfulness (see also Numbers 25 in this context), already noted in the use of the unusual expression ‘commit a trespass’ of the wife’s unfaithfulness (vv.12, 27), should help us to recognize that Numbers 5 must refer to something more than sexual behaviour alone, because sexual behaviour always symbolizes realities greater than itself. By teaching the testing of the unfaithful wife at the instigation the jealous husband, this passage highlights a prominent biblical theme, that of the testing of the faithfulness of the people of God, as his bride, by the jealous divine husband (cf. Exodus 20:5; 34:14; Deuteronomy 4:24). Israel will go on to fail the divine test of jealousy in the book of Numbers.

The rite of jealousy is particularly related to an event recorded in the Exodus narrative. In Exodus 32, while Moses was up on Mount Sinai, the children of Israel committed spiritual adultery against YHWH, who brought them up out of Egypt, worshipping a gold calf and eating communion meals with Egyptian idols (Exodus 32:6). Moses came down the mountain with the stone tablets of the Testimony, to see the Israelites sinning in this manner. He responded by breaking the tablets of stone, burning and grinding the calf to powder, scattering it on water and forcing the Israelites to drink it. The Levites were then instructed to kill 3,000 of their Israelite brethren, after which Moses interceded for the nation and the people were plagued.

The Numbers 5 rite of jealousy can be seen to be closely related to the rite of jealousy that God performed on his adulterous bride, Israel, by the hand of Moses. The relationship between the two events becomes even clearer if, as we might suspect, the broken stone tablets of the Testimony in Exodus 32:19 are added to the powdered calf that is scattered on the waters in the following verse. The curses of the Law represented by the broken tablets of stone and the prosecution of the land/dust represented by the powdered calf would correspond to the dust from the tabernacle floor and the blotted out writing of the curses in Numbers 5 (the holy water of the tabernacle corresponds to the brook that descended from God’s presence on Mount Sinai – Deuteronomy 9:21).

A further interesting linguistic connection between the two passages can be found in the use of the expression ‘blotted out’. In the Numbers 5 rite of jealousy the words of the curse were blotted out and placed into the water, which was then drunk by the woman. If she had sinned, the curses would take their full effect and she would be ‘blotted out’ herself as she was rendered barren and a byword. If she had not sinned, the curse would have no effect and there would no longer be any handwritten curses standing against her – she would have a completely clean slate relative to the accusation of the Law.

The idea of ‘blotting out’ occurs in various contexts in Scripture, most notably contexts of judgment. Judged nations or people are ‘blotted off’ the face of the earth or land (e.g. Genesis 6:7; 7:4, 23; Deuteronomy 25:19). The land is like a palimpsest, a manuscript from which an old text has been scraped or washed off, so that a new one can be written. The curse being washed – or blotted out – into the water and drunk precipitates its taking effect, leading to the ‘blotting out’ of the person who has rebelled against God.

This logic can be seen very clearly in Deuteronomy 29:14-29. The person who secretly rejects YHWH to commit spiritual adultery with foreign gods will find that ‘every curse that is written in this book would settle on him, and the Lord would blot out his name from under heaven’ (v.20). Such a person would be separated from others for calamity, for plague, and for sickness and wiped out from the land. The reference in verse 18 to ‘a root bearing bitterness or wormwood’ is significant, and we shall return to this detail at a later point. The rite of jealousy is the major instituted process by which secret sins are brought to light by divine judgment. However, it is merely a ritual precipitation of the general process, by which the secret sins of the unfaithful are exposed by divine punishment, something which Deuteronomy 29 illustrates.

In Exodus 32:30-35, after the golden calf and Moses’ performance of the rite of jealousy upon Israel, he speaks with God, requesting that he be ‘blotted out’ of God’s book for the sake of adulterous Israel. However, God declares that he will blot out the sinners from his book, but not Moses. The guilty people are then plagued for their sin (v.35). The association of this ‘blotting out’ with Moses’ performance of the rite of jealousy is incredibly suggestive. The curses of the stone tablets of the Testimony being ‘blotted out’ into the brook at the foot of the mountain and then taken into the Israelites, leading to the wicked being blotted out likewise, suggests a further connection between Moses’ performance of a rite of jealousy upon Israel. Perhaps yet another connection can be found in the vocational ‘filling of the hands’ of the Levites (associated with the remembrance offering) in the immediate context (v.29).

Subtle allusions to the ritual of jealousy may also be found in various points in the prophets, such as in Zechariah 5.

The Ritual of Jealousy in the Gospels

The ritual of jealousy is alluded to on a couple of key occasions in Jesus’ ministry. The first of these occasions is in John 4 (as we shall see in due course, this connection is strengthened when we appreciate the typological connection between the woman of Samaria and the whore of Babylon).

The context of the encounter between a man and a woman at a well is heavily symbolically freighted. The patriarchs ‘typically’ met their wives at wells (Genesis 24; 29:1-14; Exodus 2:16-22). The well or enclosed source of water symbolized the womb, fertility, and purity of the woman (Song of Solomon 4:12-15). Faithfulness to one’s spouse was spoken of in terms of not spreading your own waters around and drawing and drinking solely from your own well (Proverbs 5:15-20). The prostitute is compared to a ditch collecting filthy water and the adulteress to a narrow well (Proverbs 23:27). God compares himself to a fountain of living waters for his people, whom they have adulterously rejected for broken and dry cisterns (Jeremiah 2:13). Unfaithful Jerusalem itself is akin to a polluted well of wickedness (Jeremiah 6:7).

We should keep this symbolic subtext in mind when reading the passage itself. The conversation focuses on the giving of drinks. Jesus begins by asking the woman for a drink. After she questions his motives, Jesus points out that, if she knew who it was, she would have asked him for a drink and then speaks of living water, which the woman requests from him.

Jesus’ words in verse 16 might seem to ignore the woman’s request entirely. However, it is through his answer that Jesus gives the living water that the woman requests. Little does the woman know that, in requesting water from Jesus, she has initiated a form of the ritual of jealousy. Jesus begins by asking the woman to call her husband. When she declares that she has no husband, Jesus points out the truth of statement, bringing to light the fact that she is an adulteress (she has quite probably been significantly wronged in the process, but this is her status).

The exposure of adultery and the bringing of secret sins to light through the offered water connects the John 4 incident with the ritual of jealousy. Yet the water offered is not bitter water, but living. In place of the water bringing a curse, there is the offer of water bringing eternal life. This water ritual of jealousy still brings secret sins and adultery to light, but in a life-giving rather than a death dealing fashion.

A further possible allusion to the ritual of jealousy occurs in John 8:1-11, where the woman caught in adultery is brought to Jesus for judgment. This (disputed) text, frequently grossly misinterpreted as an argument against the casting of appropriate judgment on others’ sins, needs to be handled carefully. I have argued in the past that Jesus applies the Mosaic Law in his treatment of the woman’s case, showing that there are no qualified witnesses against her.

However, there is another dimension of the text, which is less commonly appreciated. The scribes and the Pharisees bring the woman forward to be tried according to the regular adultery law, which required the death penalty for both of the adulterous parties. Jesus demonstrates that this law is inappropriate in this case and that those bringing the woman forward are disqualified as witnesses. Jesus does more than show the inapplicability of the regular adultery law to the woman’s case, though. He follows the law that does apply to the case of a woman suspected of adultery without qualified witnesses: the Numbers 5 ritual of jealousy.

When the scribes and Pharisees bring forward the woman, asking Jesus how she should be dealt with, Jesus pretends not to hear them and stoops down and writes on the ground. While feigning not to have heard them, Jesus is already putting the appropriate law for the woman’s case into effect. When the scribes and Pharisees are insistent, he shows that they are disqualified as witnesses according to the adultery law. However, his legal response is ongoing.

Jesus spends a considerable amount of time writing, enough time for the scribes and Pharisees to ask him several times to respond to their question, enough time for each one of the accusers gradually to leave one by one, and even seemingly for some time after they have all departed. This action isn’t incidental to the narrative, but is absolutely essential to what is taking place.

The significance of this writing becomes clearer in the context of the Numbers 5 ritual of jealousy, the only rite of its kind to involve lengthy writing as part of its process. These events take place in the temple (v.2), just as the ritual of jealousy had to take place in the tabernacle, before the presence of the Lord (Numbers 5:16). The ritual of jealousy involved dust from the ground of the tabernacle floor (v.17), a process of writing (v.23), and holy water (v.17). Its effect was the revealing of secret sin through the deliverance of divine judgment, typically involving a curse and condemnation coming upon the guilty party.

In the story of the woman caught in adultery, we see these elements. Jesus performs the writing ritual with his finger, on the dust of the ground of the temple. Only a few verses earlier, he has described himself as the ‘earthen vessel’ bearing the holy, living water (John 7:37-38). In the cycle of creation days in John’s gospel, John 8:1-11 seems to belong to the third day, the day of the cereal offering (note the many references to bread and the cereal offerings in John 6), just before the fourth day begins with the light of John 8:12 and the various references to light in the chapters that follow. This connection with the cereal or bread offering represents a further connection between the rite of jealousy, which had an bread offering for remembrance at its heart.

The effect of Jesus’ practice of the ritual is related to that of the Old Testament ritual. Hidden sins are revealed as the conscience-stricken accusers slink away. The sin of the woman is also openly acknowledged (John 8:11). The judgment is delivered, but no condemnation is given. It should be seen that Jesus is not merely playing the role of the priest in the ritual, but the role of God himself. It is Jesus’ words that bring the hidden sins to light and bring future judgment into the present. Jesus claims the prerogative of God in the ritual – that of condemning or acquitting. The ritual of jealousy was the ritual of judgment in which all human judgment was put to one side and God alone declared and enacted the sentence. Finally, there is only one other occasion in Scripture where writing with a finger is mentioned: God’s writing of the stone tablets of the Testimony (Exodus 31:18; Deuteronomy 9:10 [edit: in the comments, Stephanie has reminded me that writing fingers are also mentioned in Daniel 5:5]). Those broken stone tablets were most likely crushed to become part of the ritual of jealousy that Moses performed upon Israel in Exodus 32. Here again, in John 8, we see the finger of God writing the words to be used for the ritual of jealousy.

Why is neither the Samaritan woman nor the woman caught in adultery condemned through the ritual of jealousy? I believe that the answer to this will be found in a study of some further appearances of the theme in the New Testament.

The Bridegroom Drains the Cup

In Colossians 2:14 we read that Christ has ‘blotted out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us’ and has removed it from out of the way, nailing it to his cross. There are various ways that this can be read, but I think that there are suggestive clues here of a connection with the jealousy rite. Let me list a few.

First, the language of ‘blotting out’ handwriting finds it most immediate parallel in the procedure of the jealousy ritual. Second, the Greek verb that is employed is the same as that which we find in the LXX of Numbers 5. Third, the reference to ‘handwriting’ is noteworthy, suggesting that it is not merely the words that are significant, but the process by which they were written. The jealousy rite is the only one in which a process of handwriting plays such an important part. Fourth, hostile handwriting implies written curses, in keeping with the jealousy ritual.

If this connection is indeed justified, what we see in Colossians 2:14 is that the bridegroom drains the cup of the jealousy rite that belongs to the adulterous bride for her, taking the full bitterness of the curse inside himself.

Within the gospels we see Jesus referring to his sufferings and death on a number of occasions in terms of the drinking of a cup (Matthew 20:22-23; 26:39, 42; John 18:11). The cup is something that contains and precipitates judgment. Within the prophets we see references to an adulterous nation being fed ‘wormwood’ and given bitter water to drink (Jeremiah 9:15; 23:14-15). It is also commonly spoken of as containing wine or something with wine-like effects in the psalms and prophets (e.g. Psalm 60:3; Isaiah 29:9-10; 51:17, 21-23; 63:6; Jeremiah 25:15-29; Habakkuk 2:16). Wine is the gift of wisdom and judgment, testing hearts, confounding the wicked, but gladdening the hearts of the righteous. The drinking of the cup effects a division between the righteous and the wicked in much the same way as the drinking of the bitter water of the jealousy rite served to expose hearts and divide the sinners from the righteous.

Perhaps we should see something in the fact that Jesus is given vinegar – bitter wine – to drink right before he died. In Psalm 69, in which this is foretold (v.21), we also see a reference to the ‘blotting out’ of certain people, to be rendered barren and have their ‘loins shake continually’ (vv.22-28). In such details, it may be possible to hear echoes of Numbers 5.

In drinking of the bitter wine of God’s wrath, Jesus takes upon himself the testing and the fate of the spiritually adulterous nation, suffering the fierce anger of divine jealousy, so that all that are members of his bride may be freed from the judgment appropriate to adulterers and adulteresses.

Eschatological Judgment

The jealousy ritual can also be seen in Revelation. In Revelation 2:20-23, Christ, the One who brings the secrets of the heart and mind to light, promises that he will judge the false prophetess, ‘Jezebel’. Her children will die and she will be cast into a bed of sickness on account of her adultery. This would seem to be an allusion to the jealousy test of Numbers 5.

Unsurprisingly, given that the whole of Revelation is focused upon and climaxes in judgment upon an adulteress, we find themes of the jealousy rite of Numbers 5 at various other points. In 8:10-11 the star ‘Wormwood’ falls from heaven and poisons the seas, rendering them bitter, causing many men to die as a result. The end of the adulterous woman is associated with bitterness and wormwood (Proverbs 5:4) and she suffers the testing of the bitter drink. The judgment of the third trumpet is a sort of jealousy rite (the third bowl also involves a poisoning of the drinking water – 16:4-7).

The full jealousy rite, however, does not occur until later. The adulterous Whore of Babylon is to be given the bitter wine of the cup of testing and fierce wrath of the jealous husband (Revelation 16:19). The fact that this is mentioned as the climax of the judgment of the seven bowls might suggest that the pouring out of the contents of the bowls is to be associated with the drink. The judgments of the third trumpet and the third bowl are the preparation for drink of the Harlot – the waters are made bitter and then turned to a wine of blood.

John has previously been given the word of judgment against the Harlot, a book which he ingested, sweet as honey in his mouth, but bitter in his stomach (note the parallel with the description of the adulterous woman in Proverbs 5:4). The prophetic words of eschatological cursing borne by the Church are ‘blotted out’ or washed into the cup of the Harlot as she spills their blood. As the bitter judgment cup of blood wine is then drained by the Harlot, her plagues instantly come upon her (Revelation 18:6-8).

All of this exists in a close parallel with passages from John’s gospel. These parallels, as I have argued in detail in the past, show that the spotless Bride of Revelation was formerly associated with the Harlot. In the great eschatological jealousy ritual that the book of Revelation describes, the Bride is given living water to drink, while the Harlot is given the bitter and bloody wine, a cup that is full of filthiness (Revelation 17:4), much as the bitter water of the jealousy ritual in Numbers 5. This transformation is only possible because the Bridegroom has blotted out the handwriting of the curses against his formerly adulterous Bride into the cup of God’s jealousy and drained the entire cup himself.

The Jealousy Ritual and the Church

The jealousy ritual continues to have a place within the life of the Church. As the Church we are to be presented as a chaste virgin to Christ and godly ministers are called to guard us with a godly jealousy (2 Corinthians 11:2).

In 1 Corinthians 11:27-34 we see a rite that precipitates future judgment, leading to people suffering illness or even dying if they are unfaithful as they participate of it. Those who take the Lord’s Supper in an unworthy manner eat and drink judgment to themselves. The Lord’s Supper can be a means of precipitating the judgment upon spiritual adultery. It invokes divine remembrance and action.

If we understood the logic of the sacrificial system, we should see the relationship between the Lord’s Supper and the bread/meal and drink offerings. Those offerings memorialized the past sacrifice and called for divine action on the basis of it. The meaning of Jesus’ words ‘in remembrance of me’ has been dulled in many people’s consciousness to a mere subjective reminder of Christ’s death. However, biblically speaking, the meal offering was a memorializing offering invoking divine attention. The memorializing meal offering could also play a ‘vocational’ purpose, as the offering called for divine approbation or condemnation on the person and their labours (hence the connection between the communion elements and the offertory).

In worship, we are performing a sort of jealousy ritual (among many other meanings of the Lord’s Supper). The divine testimony, with all of its blessings and curses is declared to us, we give our ‘Amen’, and then, in conjunction with the memorializing meal offering, the testimony is taken inside of us, to discern our faithfulness. We drink the cup of testing, the cup of Christ’s blood which testifies against or for each heart, with all of the blessings and curses of the new covenant. While all spiritual adulterers call for the most bitter of consequences, a rich blessing is given to all of those who are depending upon the faithfulness and forgiveness of Christ, the cup-draining Bridegroom.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Bible, NT Theology, Numbers, OT, OT Theology, Sacramental Theology, The Atonement, The Atonement, The Sacraments, Theological, Theology, Worship. Bookmark the permalink.

53 Responses to The Cup of the Adulteress: Understanding the Jealousy Ritual of Numbers 5

  1. Stephanie says:

    Love this! I am reading in Numbers currently and wondered, again, about this passage. I thought of one other handwriting passage, though a the writing on the wall by God’s disembodied finger “mene mene tekel upharsim”

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  5. Awesome read, I discovered this connection with the Samaritan woman and the trial of Jealousy several years ago. I love your insight it really helped broaden my revelation!

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  7. James Jordan says:

    Great post. I was looking at another explanation of what Jesus may have been writing on the ground when He was dealing with the Scribes and Pharisees when they brough the woman caught in the act of adultery. In Deut Chapter 17:5 which deals with the law of witnesses, those sins that involved the death penalty, there had to be no less than two witnesses bringing an accusation against the person who committed the sinful act, and those who witnessed the act had to be the first to throw the stones to kill them. In Deut 19:15-19 it speaks again about two or three witnesses, but if goes on to state that if someone is a false witness, the same punishment that the witnesses wanted to administer to the accused would be administered to the witnesses. So knowing the Law like the Scribes and Pharisees did, Jesus had them over a barrel when He told them to cast the first stone. This is what I get from the Book, how do you interpret it in correlation with John 7? Blessed

    • Thanks for the comment, Jim. I think that the points that you make about the importance of Deuteronomy 19 in our reading of John 8 are spot on. I mention those points in this post.

      I see John 8 as a combination of the two laws of adultery. Jesus exposes the inapplicability of the adultery law requiring witnesses and the great culpability of any man who sought to enact its sentence. Jesus then personally enacts the ritual of jealousy, an adultery law that doesn’t require witnesses. In not condemning the woman, Jesus plays God’s role within that rite.

      My principle reasons for suspecting that Jesus is writing the curse of Numbers 5, rather than the verses of Deuteronomy referring to the witnesses are as follows:

      1. Jesus’ statement about ‘he who is without sin [in this matter] among you, let him throw a stone at her first’ is sufficient to alert the scribes and Pharisees of their danger relative to the witness laws of Deuteronomy.

      2. Jesus’ ignoring of the scribes and Pharisees in his act of writing is significant, I think. It seems to me that Jesus is following the correct procedure in a case without witnesses and that he is ignoring the scribes and Pharisees because they are utterly irrelevant to it.

      3. Jesus seems to continue writing, even after the scribes and Pharisees have departed.

      4. Jesus has already referred to himself as the giver of living water in John 7, he engages in an act of handwriting, and uses the dust of the temple floor. All of this would seem to suggest a reference to the Numbers 5 rite.

      5. This reading gives Jesus’ refusal to condemn the woman its full force. Jesus isn’t just another witness who wouldn’t be qualified to judge according to the rules of Deuteronomy. Rather, he is the Lord who casts definitive judgment after the rite of jealousy, and the only one who has the power to forgive sins.

      I haven’t reflected much upon the relation with John 7, beyond the fact that 7:37-39 would identify Jesus as the earthen vessel containing the living water.

  8. James Jordan says:

    Thanks Sir. Great comment. This is the type of discussions that we should be having amongst ourselves. It’s iron sharpening iron. I will read the post you referenced in the body of your post. Be blessed.

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  10. Don Barber says:

    I have been connecting these dots for some time now, and have not found any work that is more thorough than this. Very good! Thank you for sharing.

  11. Helpful stuff, Alastair, thanks.

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  13. I am intrigued with another teaching that touched on this as well, That Yeshua took the bitter cup and drank it for us on the cross. He came only for the lost sheep of Israel. As grafted, we are those lost sheep. Yehovah is a jealous Husband, He once divorced Israel for their transgressions. As divorced woman cannot be remarried, in redeeming us, Yeshua must go through death to annul this law so we can once again be the bride.

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  15. scotiathompson says:

    This is incredible!! I was in the middle of Exodus 32 today and read a note about the “bitter cup test” and I decided to look into it further. Thank you so much for your thorough examination and explanation of the significance of this test. As I was reading point #7, I immediately thought of Jesus drinking the bitter cup for us and taking the punishment for our sin upon Him, blotting out our sin with His blood. I was delighted to see that you made that connection later on in your post.

    And as I continued to read, I was blown away by your exegesis of the women in John 4 and John 8. Wow!!!

    Thank you again- I will definitely be writing a post at some point touching on this, and reference your exegesis of the jealousy test. Absolutely incredible!

  16. Brett Sayles says:

    Thanks so much for taking the time to write this up. The ritual went from a potential embarrassment to an incredible blessing.

  17. Bobby says:

    Yes excellent. . . I have been studying this subject in respect of the levitical laws of sin that is forgiven by the shedding of blood, but also can be expunged I understand through repentance and charity. It would appear that the crucifixion, signified, the messiah taking on the punishments of adulterous Israel and Judah whereby we as Gentiles and believers can now be grafted in.

  18. myth buster says:

    The Torah permitted polygamy, so it was not considered adultery for a married man to have relations with another woman, provided that the woman in question was not another man’s wife. In the Old Testament, a man was only guilty of adultery if he was an interloper in another man’s marriage. It wasn’t until the New Testament that a man was required to be faithful to one wife under pain of adultery.

  19. Rebecca Bartimmo says:

    I was struggling with this passage last night. It just seems so unfair to women! This explanation was very helpful in adjusting my understanding of this ritual. I also am encouraged to see its connection to the Gospel, Communion and Revelations. Thank you for outlining those connections and for using God’s word to dispel the confusion. How can a just God seem so unjust at times? Holistic Interpretation is crucial to right understanding.

    • Susan Mckenzie says:

      Me too! I felt sick after reading Numbers 5. Pulled up some commentaries to find an answer for the “seeming” injustice to women. Read about 6 other explanations that gave NO comfort at all. Then landed on this one. So thankful for this wise viewpoint that shows Gods love and protection towards women rather than how the passage initially reads.

  20. Peter Smith says:

    Numbers 5:11-31 is the opposite bookend to Exodus 20:17 ‘thou shalt not covet’; The Lord has no favorites, both male and female are strictly warned. Today’s predictably fashionable objections to Numbers 5:11-31, mirror every skirmish narrated in the book of Numbers, as then Israelites male and female, rebelled to their ruin, against the order that God has a right to institute.

  21. Amy says:

    Thanks for this post, it really broadened my perspective on this difficult concept which I was reading again this morning. It also gave me some peace and I feel it offers some profound and legitimate insight into this passage’s place in the broader context of Scripture as a whole.

  22. Timothy Graham says:

    Do you mind if I ask where to find a more detailed reading of the idea of John’s Gospel as a recapitulation of the days of Creation?

    Austin Farrer’s reading of Revelation (Rebirth of Images) reads a pattern of Creation weeks (among lots of other things) in its series of sevens and he did drop hints that the were similar patterns in John’s Gospel, but this was a book that he never wrote, sadly. So I’d be interested to know who did!

  23. Shelley Glover says:

    Wonderful article! I first printed it out and read it in February 2013. I loved it then and even more so now as my Biblical understanding over all has grown since 2013. Alistair’s insight leaves me in awe and and full of praise for our merciful Father and our redemption in His Son!

  24. Shelley Glover says:


  25. Michael says:

    Hey, I think you are way off. God has shower me much! I am still praying but I wanted to share. The “dust” is key to what numbers foretell. It is literal event making it more true!
    Remember Exodus chapter 22? What makes God jealous and who is adulterers and faithful? Let me know if you see now?

  26. Nathan Wingate says:

    This is by far the most comprehensive and responsible handling of this text I have found. Thank you!

  27. Constanze says:

    Thanks again (again because I love these types of commentary blog posts) for this throrough outline of the meaning behind this commandment!
    I wonder about the trial of bitter water in Exodus 15:22-27 where God reacts very graciously to Israel failing the test (as in they start immediatly grumbling). In 2 Kings 2:19-21 Elisha performs a miracle, changing water that makes people sick and leads to miscarriages (connection to the womb) by throwing salt into it (do you know the maning of salt here? – sacrifices needed to be salted).

  28. Delia says:

    God bless the author of this article.

  29. Pingback: The Test of Jealousy – Adversaria Videos and Podcasts

  30. Pingback: Jealousy and Bitter Water (Numbers 5:11-31) | Marg Mowczko

  31. Bunny says:

    In Matthew 23:25-29 Jesus compared the scribes and Pharisees to a dirty cup, clean on the outside, but inside was full of extortion and excess and dead men’s bones. Then Jesus said in Matthew 24 to his disciples concerning the temple that there would not be left one stone upon another that would not be thrown down. Was this also a reference to the cup of jealousy and bitter waters, clean on the outside but dirty on the inside?
    What is the significance of the word wormwood in Revelation 8:11? An internal parasite causes the stomach to swell and can even cause death if untreated per Numbers 5:22. What were they scooping up off the floor?
    Thank goodness for Jesus’ mercy, because we could all be found to be unfaithful to Him at times.

  32. jennibutz says:

    I’ve just come across your writings and explanations of a passage that has long been confusing to me. Thank you for using your gift of writing and insight to illuminate Numbers 5 in connection to the larger narrative of God’s story in Scripture.

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  34. Excellent article. I appreciate your work on trace the typology of Numbers 5 throughout the Biblical text. I hope to write a shorter piece for the church on such the power of such typology particular in John’s writings. Certainly, I will be referring people to your work here.

  35. Selwyn says:

    I was meditating for, what to eat and what not to eat as said by God, to Adam and eve not to eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge and wisdom and Jesus saying eat my bread and drink my blood,
    Many of us follow Adam and eve and not follow Jesus and not understand the seriousness of His jealousy by not eating His bread and drink His blood(symbolically). Mediating along the line of God’s jealousy, suddenly remembered the grain offering in my mind , so I was searching for grain offering in the google and come across your article ,
    Our loving God wants us to feed in Him and give us the fruit of Eternal life also he caution /warn us of our spiritual trespass and expect us to repent and remember the forgiveness for all of our sins covered by His blood.
    HE is faithful to forgive us.Yes thank you God for being our jealous God,
    Praise God,

    Thank you Alastair for this wonderful article,

  36. Joanne Miller says:

    Since Selwyn brought up a good point about the bread and wine symbolism in regards to eat my body and drink my blood I’ll mention what a tour guide for tours to Israel told me once also a part of the symbolism. She said that the “worm” in Psalms 22:6 was a King James Bible word they generalized any and all “worms,” but it should really have been the specific Hebrew word Tolath a particular insect “bug” if you will, also known as the Red Kermes Worm. They are very tiny and look kind of like little white “sheep.” They climb an oak tree when it is time to have “children” and attach permanently to the trunk or branches to die there. (They do this on Cactus in Mexico but Oaks in the Middle East.) They swell up with a red fluid then rupture. The children then eat the body and drink the blood of their parent in order to live. Anciently the Tolath was collected by certain Levites just before rupturing, dried, crushed and ground creating a red powder to use as dye for the temple veil that had to be repaired on a regular basis. It was the only natural dye that would not fade until modern day synthetic dyes (during the Spanish rule in Mexico the dye from this worm was the second biggest money making export). She said the worm only climbed the trees every 70 years but after Christ died they no longer appeared until about 15 years ago when they were discovered back again in Israel. She said there had been arguing between the Hasidic groups over what to use for the red in the someday veil again and if synthetic was going to be okay but the worm is back. You can google sites on the Tolath/Red Kermes. In the New Testament Cephas/Peter tells Christ he doesn’t need to die but Christ says none of them can “live” if he doesn’t. They would have understood the Tolath symbolism. It wasn’t pagan cannibalism symbolism but parental sacrifice symbolism that was happening. Some times the cross is also referred to as nailed to a “tree.” He was the lamb of A-tone-ment and the Tolath for Eternal Life. As for the “lamb” I read in a 1950’s National Geographic about Basque Shepherds that at lambing time if a mother dies leaving a lamb and a lamb dies to a mother the shepherd takes the dead lamb and skins it putting the live lamb in its skin so the live mother will accept it otherwise she would have smelled the other lamb and not fed it. The “blood” of the dead lamb made the other acceptable before the Parent and in our case Christ’s blood covered us and made us acceptable back in the presence of God the Father.
    Perhaps this has already been mentioned on other posts so I apologize if this is redundant.

  37. itsyahushua says:

    I agree. This is how the divorcees husband (yeshua) can re marry the bride. It is the reason he had to die for our sins.

    Well done!

  38. Micah Burns says:

    I appreciate your article!

  39. IT says:

    This is great. Thank you for sharing.

  40. trishjenkins says:

    How very interesting, thank you! We often judge a text by our own values without considering the typology and symbolism.
    It’s nice to think that it is about protection. An innocent wife is vindicated, and her jealous husband is humbled. I like to imagine him apologising to her, repenting before God, her forgiving him and the marriage flourishing.

  41. Daniel says:

    This is one of the greatest theological articles ever written. Thankyou. and Thank God for directing me here. We had a Numbers 5 issue last Bible study, but Romans 8:28, now we will learn so much from this!

  42. kjshepp says:

    GREETINGS, I’m wondering about the fact that the accused women in Numbers 5 was brought into the “presence of the Lord”. In my limited knowledge, I understand this to be very unique and holy place not many were allowed to enter (only the priests and/or high priest according to the location–holy of holies) So I’m thinking, this was a big deal that a woman was allowed into the presence of the Lord. The man was not brought in, but the woman. And 1, if she was indeed unclean, she would not have been allowed to be in that location and 2, if she was clean, what a wonderful place to be at that moment–under the authority of GOD (not her jealous husband). It is something that has me pondering and I’m looking for others who have the same observation and that is how I came across your article. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this idea.

  43. vizualninja says:

    This article was very helpful in viewing this passage without being angry at the Lord. Another answer made me think, given Leviticus 20 states both the adulterer and adulteress should be put to death, the unfaithful man the husband was suspicious of would be indicted in this ritual as well.

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