Numbers 5-6: Suspicious Husbands

No doubt one of the oddest passages in the Bible is Numbers 5:11-31, which recounts the procedure by which a jealous husband may determine whether his wife had indeed been unfaithful. It is full of unusual rituals and cursings, and is very difficult to grasp.

I read over it a few times before deciding to write anything, and I would just like to share a few observations that I see in this passage that may be helpful in thinking more deeply about it:

First, it seems as though the text assumes that the wife is most likely innocent. The description of the conditions under which she may have been unfaithful are so specific and well covered (5:12-13) that the husband would have no reason to be jealous. So the opening verses look as if they are saying, “if a husband gets suspicious of his wife, whether he is right or wrong, this is how you are to deal with things.”

Second, the “cup of bitterness that brings a curse” imagery should never be ignored, for what was it that our Savior drank when He went to the cross? The cup of God’s wrath, the infinitely bitter taste of the wrath of God poured out on Christ for our sake, when He became a curse for us.

Third, the grain offering that is described in verse 15 is one of remembrance for iniquity. In other words, it represents the sins for which the wife is accused. She bears this iniquity(5:31) by holding it(5:18) as she is given the cup of bitterness.

Fourth, if she is found guilty, the curse will remain on her, but if she is found to be innocent, she will be free, having born the iniquity and the curse and been vindicated through her own innocence.

So, what this passage shows us is a woman who is charged with a crime punishable by death who bears the iniquity and the curse, who, if found to be innocent is vindicated in the eyes of the people. I don’t know if there is enough here to say that this is a definite picture of Christ, but there are enough elements here that are plainly visible that we can be sure that it at least points to the reality that Jesus was indeed innocent, though he bore the iniquity and the curse of us all as if He were actually guilty, and, being found innocent, He was vindicated by His resurrection and made a way for us to be vindicated through Him.

As we read the Old Testament, we must be cautious not to read too much into the text what we would like to see, but at the same time we must look for Christ, for He is there, many times very plainly, and the more we understand about the ways in which the Old Testament points to Christ, the more we will understand the depth of His fulfillment in the New Testament.

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