by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
The first person who says “Amen” in the Torah is a wife agreeing to a curse on her own body if she is guilty of adultery.
The law given in this week’s Torah portion, Naso (“Lift up”), stipulates a husband who suspects his wife of adultery—a serious crime against both the husband and God, according to the Torah. He cannot prove it, since there were no witnesses and she was not caught in the act. But even if his wife proclaims her innocence, he cannot believe her.
…and [if] a spirit of jealousy passed over him and he was jealous of his wife and she had defiled herself; or a spirit of jealousy passed over him and he was jealous of his wife and she had not defiled herself—then the man shall bring his wife to the priest… (Numbers/Bemidbar 5:14-15)
The priest then conducts a unique ritual in the Bible: an ordeal by water.
The husband has two other options: he could divorce his wife, giving her the usual separation payment; or he could continue the marriage and live with his doubts. If he is vindictive, like some husbands discussed in the Talmud, he might choose to bring his wife to the priest in the hope that she will be proven unfaithful, so he can divorce her without giving her the payment. But if he hopes his wife has been faithful, yet he is tormented by jealousy, he brings her to the priest for proof or her guilt or innocence.
The priest takes an earthenware bowl, puts in some “holy” water (water from the basin where the priests wash their hands and feet, according to later commentary), and adds dust from the floor of the sanctuary (where only the priests may walk). Then the priest pauses to undo the woman’s hair, thus publicly shaming both wife and husband.
The priest holds the bowl of water and dust, now called “water of the bitternesses of the cursings”, and addresses the sotah, the woman suspected of adultery.
And the priest shall make her swear with these oaths: he shall say to the wife: “If a man did not lie down with you, and if you did not stray in defilement from under your husband, be cleared by these waters of the bitternesses of the cursings! But if you did stray from under your husband, and if you defiled yourself, and a man other than your husband put his semen into you—!” Then the priest shall make the wife swear the oath of the imprecation; and the priest shall say to the wife: “May God make you a curse and an oath among your people, when God makes your yareikh fall and your belly tzavah. And these waters of the cursings shall enter into your innards to make the belly tzavah and to make the yareikh fall.” And the wife shall say: “Amen, amen.” (Numbers/Bemidbar 5:19-21)
yareikh (יָרֵךְ) = upper thigh, buttocks, genitals; side of a tent.
tzavah (צָבָה) = swelled. (The root tzavah appears only four times in the whole Bible: three times in this passage, and once in Isaiah as a misspelling of the homonym tzava (צָבָא) = fought, assembled against, went to war. Maybe in this passage about the sotah, the curse is that her genitals will fall and her belly will fight against her arries.)
Once the wife has said amen twice, the priest writes out the curse on a scroll, and wipes off the ink so it dissolves into the water. Now the liquid in his hand contains “holy” water, dust from the sanctuary floor, and the sacred name of God (which was part of the written curse).
And he shall give her the water to drink, and it will happen that if she defiled herself and she really betrayed her husband, then [when] the water of cursings for bitternesses come into her, her belly will tzavah and her yareikh will fall, and the woman will become an imprecation among her people. But if the woman did not defile herself, and she is pure, then she will be cleared, and she will bear seed. (Numbers 5:27-28)
In other words, if the presumably pregnant wife actually did commit adultery, the water will cause a painful miscarriage. But if she did not, she will bear her husband’s child.
Few guilty wives would submit themselves to this ordeal unless they were innocent of adultery. Why go through the public shaming, saying amen, drinking the magical water, and the horrible miscarriage? It would be easier for an unfaithful wife to confess privately to her husband, and let the divorce proceed without the extra trauma.
But for an innocent wife, the ordeal would be the only way she could prove her faithfulness to her jealous husband.
When I wrote about the sotah in 2013 (Naso: A Suspicious Husband) I concluded that any marriage was doomed without mutual honesty and trust, which requires that the marriage partners stick to their covenant, whatever it might be.
But now I wonder about the case in which a wife did stick to her marriage covenant, yet her husband could not believe her when she told him she was innocent. In this week’s Torah portion, the wife has faith that God will prove her innocence in the ordeal by water; she demonstrates that by saying “amen, amen”, confirming her acceptance of the two alternatives in the curse.
The husband is not required to say “amen, amen”. Perhaps the ritual is so powerful, it would convince even the most jealous fool. But why is he unable to believe his wife until she goes through the ordeal?
I think the answer is that the husband could not have faith in any wife, or even in himself. Maybe he grew up among untrustworthy women, so he believes no women can be trusted. Or maybe he grew up believing he is so unimpressive or unlovable, he does not deserve a faithful wife.
How can you have confidence in another person’s reliability and faithfulness, if you do not have confidence in yourself? And if you do not have confidence in any human being’s reliability and faithfulness, how can you have confidence in God?
A ritual as serious as the sotah ordeal is no longer available to us. What we can do is pay attention to the problem and wrestle with it until we find we have grown past it.
May each of us grow until we trust ourselves, so we can trust others who deserve it. Maybe then we will even come to trust what we call “God”, like the innocent sotah. Then we can say “amen” and mean it.
(Next week: Moses wonders if he is a wet-nurse—another word related to “amen”.)