Doctrine Directory logo Doctrine Directory

Ordeal of the Bitter Water

A clay cup filled with dirty water

The ordeal of the bitter water was a ritual prescribed by God in Numbers 5:12–28. It describes how a man who suspected that his wife had cheated on him could bring her to the priest with an offering of barley meal. The priest would then administer the ordeal upon the woman, and she would be cursed if she was guilty and cleared of suspicion if she was innocent.

The ordeal consisted of the priest first mixing holy water and dust from the tabernacle floor to make the central drink. This dirty water would be a bit unpleasant to drink but physically harmless. However, the significance of water from the tabernacle laver and dust from the floor of the tabernacle emphasized the holiness and solemnity of the ritual. Naturally this would do nothing, but this ritual relies entirely upon a miracle from God. Jewish scholar Nachmanides points out that of the traditional 613 commandments of the Mosaic Law, this is the only one that requires God’s specific cooperation to effect.

After preparing the drink of bitter water, the priest would next uncover the woman’s head, symbolically revealing her to God. Next, the jealousy offering was put in her hands, and the priest recited an oath and curse to her, recounting what the ordeal would do. He would then take the written words of the curse and swish the scroll around in the drink, imparting the curse to the drink. The priest would then take the offering and burn it on the altar.

Finally, the woman would drink the water. If she was guilty, the curse would take effect—the text says that the water would then “become bitter, and her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall rot: and the woman shall be a curse among her people.” If she was innocent, the water would have no effect on her, and she would be cleared of suspicion.

Exactly what the physical effects of her belly swelling and her thigh rotting were is a matter of some debate. According to the Jewish Mishnah, “When a guilty woman drinks she does not manage to finish drinking before her face turns green and her eyes bulge, and her skin becomes full of protruding veins, and the people standing in the Temple say: Remove her, so that she does not render the Temple courtyard impure by dying there,” and the woman would typically die immediately. This is not part of the Bible, which does not elaborate further. However the Jewish tradition is not inconsistent with Scripture, and it was most likely written written within a hundred years of the ordeal of bitter water actually being performed and based on earlier oral histories, so it is our best guess as to the details. The Bible does imply that a guilty woman would be made barren if she lived past the day, as it notes that an innocent woman would be able to conceive children. Beyond that, little is known for sure about the physical effects of God’s curse upon her other than that they were unpleasant and would be obvious to the onlookers.

Some people have identified the ordeal as a ritualistic abortion, which is wholly unsupported by the text. Aside from other passages which identify unborn babies as living humans (such as Psalm 139:13; Luke 1:41, 44; & Exodus 21:22–25), nothing in Numbers 5 requires or even mentions pregnancy. Any link to it is being inserted into the text by the reader. The ordeal of the bitter water was a ritual to identify adultery, not to induce miscarriages. Nothing in the simple drink would have caused a miscarriage. It certainly was not an abortifacient. It would merely a vehicle for God’s divine judgment upon the guilty women, not innocent babies.

Jewish tradition also states that simultaneous with the judgment upon the woman, the man she cheated with would suffer the same consequences. This is not stated in the Bible however. Regardless, God is just and would punish both parties in the end regardless of such was part of His punishment or not.

The ritual was eventually abandoned in the 1st century AD, allegedly because adultery was becoming so common and flagrant that doubt of unfaithfulness had become rare. Regardless, the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, and the ritual could no longer be performed.