Regarding Numbers 5

Pax Christi, everyone!

I’ve heard somewhere that Numbers 5: 20-28 contains a medical procedure for an abortion; is this accurate?

I would say no, there is no medical or pharmacological reason that particular sequence would induce an abortion. But it is interesting.and you wonder what the purpose of including it in the Bible might be. The vast majority of cheating wives would still carry the pregnancy, so maybe it is to help maintain the social structure of marriage? Unfortunately, a number of innocent women might lose their pregnancy. Probably not often, as if a marriage was in such a shape that this was publically brought before a priest, things must be bad.


I think so. I think it’s unclear what exactly the ingredients were. But I think whatever it was it would cause an abortion. When you look at the vast majority of their set up it seems mostly only someone who do otter adultery would have problems.

  1. If the man had been with his wife and he thought she was pregnant with his kid he would not want the abortion.

  2. If others seen them sneaking around then all it would take is two to share their words and convict her.

  3. If she was not showing , and there was no witnesses, then the husband would have no reason to push for it.

It seems the bulk of the time a husband would have pushed for it would have been if he was gone for a while, months and months, and he came back and she was showing a little and so he asked for the test.

So I think it was either a test that almost exclusively affected pregnant cheating women or either it was a test that did absolutely nothing.


People can read a lot into the passage. Some see the combining of various sources and others see chiastic literary structures. I read in a commentary this is the only ordeal in biblical law, which is interesting, and I heard some time ago that the ordeal relies on the miracle for the determination of guilt. Again, this depends on whether the water mixed with dust from the floor of the tabernacle is seen to be naturally harmless.

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Here’s the whole section:

Numbers 5:11–31
English Standard Version

11 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 12 “Speak to the people of Israel, If any man’s wife goes astray and breaks faith with him, 13 if a man lies with her sexually, and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband, and she is undetected though she has defiled herself, and there is no witness against her, since she was not taken in the act, 14 and if the spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife who has defiled herself, or if the spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife, though she has not defiled herself, 15 then the man shall bring his wife to the priest and bring the offering required of her, a tenth of an ephah3 of barley flour. He shall pour no oil on it and put no frankincense on it, for it is a grain offering of jealousy, a grain offering of remembrance, bringing iniquity to remembrance.

16 “And the priest shall bring her near and set her before the Lord. 17 And the priest shall take holy water in an earthenware vessel and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water. 18 And the priest shall set the woman before the Lord and unbind the hair of the woman’s head and place in her hands the grain offering of remembrance, which is the grain offering of jealousy. And in his hand the priest shall have the water of bitterness that brings the curse. 19 Then the priest shall make her take an oath, saying, ‘If no man has lain with you, and if you have not turned aside to uncleanness while you were under your husband’s authority, be free from this water of bitterness that brings the curse. 20 But if you have gone astray, though you are under your husband’s authority, and if you have defiled yourself, and some man other than your husband has lain with you, 21 then’ (let the priest make the woman take the oath of the curse, and say to the woman) ‘the Lord make you a curse and an oath among your people, when the Lord makes your thigh fall away and your body swell. 22 May this water that brings the curse pass into your bowels and make your womb swell and your thigh fall away.’ And the woman shall say, ‘Amen, Amen.’

23 “Then the priest shall write these curses in a book and wash them off into the water of bitterness. 24 And he shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that brings the curse, and the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain. 25 And the priest shall take the grain offering of jealousy out of the woman’s hand and shall wave the grain offering before the Lord and bring it to the altar. 26 And the priest shall take a handful of the grain offering, as its memorial portion, and burn it on the altar, and afterward shall make the woman drink the water. 27 And when he has made her drink the water, then, if she has defiled herself and has broken faith with her husband, the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain, and her womb shall swell, and her thigh shall fall away, and the woman shall become a curse among her people. 28 But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be free and shall conceive children.

29 “This is the law in cases of jealousy, when a wife, though under her husband’s authority, goes astray and defiles herself, 30 or when the spirit of jealousy comes over a man and he is jealous of his wife. Then he shall set the woman before the Lord, and the priest shall carry out for her all this law. 31 The man shall be free from iniquity, but the woman shall bear her iniquity.”

I read this and shudder. Praise Jesus I didn’t live at this time, and praise him that I have an excellent husband of my own choosing. What women endured is unfathomable. How does a culture function, when at least half of it is living PTSD every moment of their lives?

I heave heard the claim before that this text has to do with a formula for abortion. My response is: Explain exactly how that works in this text.

I see no reason to believe this text says anything about abortion. There is no mention of a still- or other kind of birth taking place. These are mentioned, elsewhere in the law, if a woman is injured and gives birth prematurely. So we understand that the OT has adequate language to discuss the matter.

It is a punishment for women suspected of adultery. [Of course her partner in the act is not mentioned or found out.] A swollen womb and fallen away thigh are not associated with abortions as far as I am aware. It might describe some sort of parasitic infection or flesh eating bacteria or virus.

As a woman reading this text, I can’t imagine what it was like for women in this culture–to be forced to be bound to a man of little or no character, who is constantly jealous. The jealous husband was allowed to use this test whenever he felt like it. The consolation here, I guess, is that if the woman is not guilty, the curse was not supposed to take effect. So, in spite of her husband’s lack of character and trust, a faithful wife would at least be protected by God in this trial. I wonder what kind of protection the priesthood may have offered the wife whose husband had already taken out his jealous wrath on her, before dragging her to the priest (perhaps over and over).

No woman seeking an abortion would put herself through this trial willingly.

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“the priest shall take holy water in an earthenware vessel and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water”

As commentators mention there are figurative parallels to Israel as the bride of Christ in the passage, and the mention of dust being mixed with holy water to bring about a curse on a high handed sin, may allude to the breath of God being mixed with dust to bring about God’s most glorious creation or blessing in the world.

Yes. It’s called the Sotah Ritual. I don’t think I’d call it medical, however. The HarperCollins Study Bible says it describes a prolapsed uterus.

Note that it involved imitative magic to cause the miscarriage:

“Then the priest shall write these curses in a book and wash them off into the water of bitterness. 24 And he shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that brings the curse…

Very creepy, imho

There’s a very interesting video about this ritual by biblical archaeologist Robert Cargill:
Numbers 5: God’s Magic Abortion Potion

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As much as I think that would be cool, it is doubtful.

It looks more like a psychological test of guilt, and I wonder if it might even be an improvement over a similar practice in Africa of trial by ordeal where water with a poison (Calabar bean) is drunk and then surviving the ordeal is your test of guilt or innocence. It serves the purpose of deterrence I suppose.


I think this makes more sense, too. Although there is always the problem of word getting out about known cheaters surviving. It’s incredible how effective violent patriarchy can be at preventing qomen from finding things out.

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This really doesn’t seem likely, either, based on the description.from Numbers. However, we aren’t dealing with a medical text, either.


Let the priest make the woman take the oath of the curse and say to the woman, 'The LORD make you an execration and an oath among your people when the LORD makes your uterus drop, your womb discharge."

-Numbers 5:21 (NRSV)

Doesn’t sound like any pregnancy will survive, does it? Did you watch the video?

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I guess there is a translation issue here, because mine reads differently.

Numbers 5:21 when the Lord makes your thigh fall away and your body swell;

The word for thigh here is יְרֵכֵךְ֙ yə-rê-ḵêḵ

Perhaps we should ask the expert @Christy


NIV is quite different:
21 here the priest is to put the woman under this curse—“may the Lord cause you to become a curse among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell. 22 May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries.”

KJV:21 Then the priest shall charge the woman with an oath of cursing, and the priest shall say unto the woman, The Lord make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when the Lord doth make thy thigh to rot, and thy belly to swell;

22 And this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, to make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to rot: And the woman shall say, Amen, amen.

In looking at other verses, such as giving “testimony” by putting one’s hand on the others thigh (i.e. testicles), that sounds like perhaps a STD, which would go along with promiscuous behavior. But, the NIV specifically mentions miscarriage and sterility, so who knows, though that could go along with an STD like gonococcal PID I imagine this is one of those things that was put forth but rarely used. At least we can hope.


Do not anyone see that the water is turned into poison by means of the miracle?

And it might be another allusion to Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding feast.

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Technically, I don’t think it was poison, as it was selective in it’s effect, and poison would be indiscriminate. Something else is going on. Perhaps miracle, perhaps done for effect to influence social behavior.
I don’t think it relates to the water-wine thing, but the water-wine thing was a foreshadowing of the blood-wine conversion.


Water from the temple was mixed with dust from the floor. Whether the molecular structure of the water changed as a result of the miracle, or the miracle occurred in the body is open to speculation. What’s pretty clear is that without an Ananias and Sapphira miracle the woman would be found innocent.

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Not necessarily. This ignores psycho-somatic effects and the fear of the guilty.

Sure… Keener’s book on miracles makes a great point against psycho-somatic explanations for miracles with unborn children. Not that this relates to this situation, but your comment made me think about it.

What do you mean? Poisons can be selective.

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