Skip to content

Breach of Promise, Suspected Adultery and Sacred Vocation in Genesis xxxviii and Numbers v 11-vi 21

Pages 102 - 119


Cornell University

1 Compare how Jacob acquires an unwanted wife in Leah (Gen. xxix 21–23).

2 Jacob Milgrom rightly translates Num. v 5 as „feels guilty,“ Leviticus 1–16 (AB 3; New York, 1991), 339, 368. As for the added payment by way of a penalty, we might recall how Abimelech had to return Sarah to her husband Abraham and pay to the latter (as her brother) an additional payment (Gen. xx 16).

3 See TDOT entry ma'al, eds. G. Johannes Botterweck and Helmer Ringgren (Grand Rapids, MI, 1997), 8:460.

4 In Num. v 6, the unique language of the offense, mikkol-hattot ha'adam, is probably best understood as „any wrong toward a man, a fellow human“ (as in NJPS). The use of ha'adam (man and woman) may be influenced by the nature of the promise Judah made to Tamar and hence to Er, namely, that in line with God's original blessing of procreation on the man and the woman in Gen. i 27, 28 increase of seed would be forthcoming. The word evokes some basic human matter.

5 The incest rule in Lev. xviii 15 condemns intercourse between father-in-law and daughter-in-law. While the narrator understandably does not bring the story to an end on this account – although he is aware of the wrongfulness of sexual relations between such relatives (Gen. xxxviii 26) – he does recognize a sacred sphere of influence. Yahweh causes the deaths of Er and Onan (Gen. xxxviii 7, 10), and Shelah too may have died if, as Judah fears, he goes into Tamar. Yahweh's extreme position is attributable to an anti-Canaanite bias in the narrative: Judah's sons are the product of a Canaanite mother (Gen. xxxviii 2).

6 There are many reasons why the law of the suspected adulteress receives a great deal of interest. The topic of sexual wrongdoing is always likely to attract attention; a husband suspecting his wife of adultery makes us curious as to the grounds of his suspicion, and there is a blatant double standard when we consider that no corresponding rule exists for a man similarly under a cloud of suspicion. To be sure, a woman's adultery differs from a man's in that she may bring illicit fruit into his family, a concern that appears to be prominent in the law in Numbers v. The husband's suspicions cause the woman to be subjected to a trial, the only one of its kind in the Bible, and its unfolding – she is guilty or innocent judging by the reaction of her body – is quite dramatic. With no witness available to testify against her, the testing involves self-incrimination, a matter of much concern in any legal system. Little or no light has been forthcoming to account for what prompted the lawgiver to present the law in the first place and why he set it down at the point he does. From the perspective of comparative law it is of some interest to find a rule in CH 131 in which a husband accuses his wife of adultery but lacks evidence. She swears an oath to clear herself. In CH 132 someone else accuses the man's wife and in this instance she is subject to an ordeal somewhat comparable to the biblical procedure: she is cast into a river to determine her guilt (she drowns) or her innocence (she survives). See G. R. Driver and J. C. Miles, The Babylonian Laws (Oxford, 1952), 1:283–84. In Numbers v water plays a role. In this instance, however, the woman is not cast into a river but has to drink a concoction that is part water, part dust taken from the floor of the sanctuary, and part an inky residue from a parchment on which a curse has been written. The imprecation is to the effect that if she is guilty her belly will swell and her thigh will rot, referring, almost certainly, to her uterus and genital area. See Baruch Levine, Numbers 1–20 (AB 4A; New York, 1993), 198, 201. By and large, critics and translators assume, rightly in my view, that she is pregnant and that the effect of the curse is supposed to cause a miscarriage. Num. v 28 is about her innocence: „she shall be free, and retain seed,“ that is, her conscience being clear, she will carry her child to term, Levine, 201. As G. B. Gray points out, the phrase wenizre'ah zara‘ is similar to the one in Lev. xii 2 where the meaning is to bring forth seed (hizri'ah), Numbers, (ICC; Edinburgh, 1903), 55. Some translations avoid the concrete sense and give the meaning as retaining the capacity to bear children. The Near Eastern parallels that critics point to are rather thin, one view bluntly stating: „This ordeal of bitter waters has no analogy in the ancient East,“ Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel (New York, 1961), 1:158. Tikva Frymer-Kensky is correct to point out that what happens to the woman in the biblical law is not an ordeal along the lines that the woman in CH 131, 132 experiences, „The Strange Case of the Suspected Adulteress (Numbers V 11–31),“ VT 34 (1984), 24. For a discussion of some elements that may reflect Near Eastern background, see Levine, 210–11 and Frymer-Kensky, 25.

7 Milgrom thinks that the only link between the two laws in Num. v 5–10 (betrayal) and Num. v 11–31 (adultery) is the use of the term ma'al, Numbers, (JPSTC; Philadelphia, 1990), 37.

8 For the Rabbis, „the ziqah bond is similar to the marriage bond in that the widow cannot marry an outsider,“ L. M. Epstein, Marriage Laws in the Bible and the Talmud (Cambridge, MA, 1942), 109. The term means „being chained.“ As Epstein states, „The widow, on the one hand, is freed from her husband by his death, yet she is chained to him; on the other hand, she is given by Heaven to the levir, yet he has not come into possession of her,“ 104.

9 Genesis xxxviii describes Tamar as both an ordinary harlot and a cultic one. Ordinary and cultic prostitution is also the subject of Hos. iv 12–14, a text that the Rabbis were later to claim voided the bitter water test. They understood Num. v 31 to mean that the man could proceed against his wife only if he himself were free from licentiousness in deed and intent (Siphre on Num. v 31; y. Sot. 24a; b. Sot. 47b). In support they quoted Hos. iv 14 in which the prophet claims that there will be no divine punishment for unfaithful wives because their husbands forsake Yahweh for heathen cult prostitutes. A „spirit of harlotry“ (ruah zenunim) has caused the nation, Yahweh's wife, to err. It would be appropriate to say that, in response, a „spirit of jealousy“ (ruah qin'ah) comes upon the husband Yahweh. The latter is jealous if the Israelites worship other gods (Exod. xx 5, xxxiv 14), an activity thought of as adultery. In the law in Num. v 14, a „spirit of jealousy“ drives the husband to bring his wife before the priest. The „spirit of harlotry“ (ruah zenunim) in Hos. iv 12 imbues the „promiscuous wife“ (‚ešet zenunim) in Hos. i 2, as F. I Andersen and D. N. Freedman point out, Hosea, (AB 24; New York, 1980), 367.

10 When I say mundane, I would still point out that it is standard enough for lawgivers to wrestle with complicated relationships. In Roman Law, in regard to incest, Gaius 1.63 states: „I may not marry one who once was my stepmother. We say, who once was, since if the marriage producing that alliance were still continuing, I should be precluded from marrying her on another ground.“

11 Judah can exert full authority over Tamar because his rights, or perhaps from his standpoint at the time those of his dead son, have apparently been violated. See the comments of A. van Selms on the situation, and also on the importance of the father-in-law/ daughter-in-law relationship in Ugarit, Israel, and Babylonia, in Marriage and Family Life in Ugaritic Literature, Pretoria Oriental Series I (London, 1954), 36.

12 It is only during the period of the compilation of the Mishnah that the sacramental nature of the regular marriage bond emerges. Hebrew qiddeš came to mean „to consecrate to wife“ and the tractate qiddushin in the Mishnah means „consecrations.“ See Jacob Levy, Neuhebräisches und Chaldäisches Wörterbuch über die Talmudim und Midraschim, vol. 4 (1889), 250.

13 See Levine, 203–04.

14 Other critics suggest similar symbolic meanings for the dust and water, for example, Gordon Wenham, Numbers. An Introduction and Commentary (Leicester, 1981), 83. As for the effect of the curse, it is designed to suggest that there will be supernatural intervention. In reality, a guilty woman might well waste away from psychological distress. The workings of a bad conscience often lead to an offender being struck by sickness or death: Miriam's leprosy (Numbers xii), Jeroboam's withered arm (I Kgs. xiii 4), Gehazi's leprosy (II Kings v), and the death of the couple Ananias and Sapphira (Acts v).

15 So Frymer-Kensky, „The Strange Case of the Suspected Adulteress,“ 25. Milgrom notes, „There is no other attestation in Scripture that the ordeal was applied or effective,“ Numbers, 348, a statement that acknowledges the exceptional character of the institution. The law is probably not depicting some actual ancient Israelite practice. After all, it is unrealistic to think that a virtuous husband would resort to it and even more unrealistic to see a law catering to a paranoid or villainous husband. More likely, the law is a hypothetical exercise designed to construct an idealized institution that is inspired by reflection on the Israelite ancestor's procedure with Tamar. C. E. Hayes points out how the Targums Pseudo-Jonathan and Neofiti transform Tamar's trial in Gen. xxxviii 25, 26 into a very public courtroom one. See „The Midrashic Career of the Confession of Judah (Genesis xxxviii 26),“ Part I, VT 45 (1995), 77, 78. The later Midrashim continue this emphasis, as Hayes demonstrates in a second study, „The Midrashic Career of the Confession of Judah (Genesis xxxviii 26),“ Part II, VT 45 (1995), Part II, 184, 186. In other words, all of these sources illustrate how Judah's dealings with Tamar inspired a legal expansion of the issues, a process that I claim showed up long before in Numbers v. Targum Onkelos discusses Tamar's righteousness (Gen. xxxviii 26) in terms of her innocence of sexual transgression and uses the Aramaic zk'ly to translate both Hebrew sdq and nqh. Without awareness of how close the link is between Numbers v and Genesis xxxviii, Hayes notes the striking parallel between the Targum's treatment of Tamar and the treatment of the suspected adulteress in Num. v 19, 28 when the latter is declared innocent (nqh) of similar sexual sinning (Part I, 71).

16 Contrary to the view of Jaejoung Joon who argues that somehow the two rules in CH 131 (oath) and CH 132 (water ordeal) have become intertwined so as to forge for the biblical rule the equivalent but antithetical position to the two Babylonian rules, „Two Laws in the Sotah Passage (Num. v 11–31),“ VT 57 (2007), 181–207. In CH 132, the woman is subjected to the ordeal of the river-god if some other member of the community reports suspicious behavior on her part. In Gen. xxxviii 24, associates of Judah inform him that Tamar has played the harlot. Presumably, their report is based on the fact that she is carrying a child, that they know she is legally bound to Judah's family, and that they do not think Shelah or Judah has caused her pregnant condition because she has been staying at her father's home (Gen. xxxviii 11).

17 Finding no indication that temporary nazirites were even known in early Israel, Gray concludes: „Nazirites of this type had but little public significance,“ Numbers, 60.

18 The two laws about the suspected adulteress and the nazirite – one follows the other but only minor links in language and structure between them have been observed – have long proved notoriously difficult to interpret. About the vocation of the nazirite, Levine writes, „A fascinating, albeit elusive, aspect of Israelite religion,“ Levine, Numbers 1–20, 215.

19 The failure of the males in the narrative points to the need for a focus on a male's role in a dedicated task.

20 To date, the despairing judgment is that „It is not possible to recapture the rationale behind the prohibition of grape products,“ Timothy Ashley, The Book of Numbers (NICOT; Grand Rapids, MI, 1993), 142.

21 See R. H. Charles, Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, vol. 2 (Oxford, 1913), 319. For an analysis of this interpretation in the Testament of Judah, see Hayes, 68.

22 C. F. Keil and F. Delitzsch, Numbers (BCOT; Grand Rapids, 1951), 4:35.

23 In the Mishnah, mention is made of a man becoming a nazirite for the purpose of having a son born (Nazir ii 7). A daughter does not count – reminiscent of the point of the levirate custom which required a son to be born.

24 Milgrom, Numbers, 356. As other commentators point out, the term for the priestly crown or diadem, nezer, „consecration,“ is used of the nazirite's uncut hair (Lev. viii 9; xxi 12), Wenham, 86, Ashley, 143. On š'atnez (linen garment) as a synecdoche for a prostitute (Tamar is again the focus), see Calum Carmichael, „Forbidden Mixtures,“ VT 32 (l982), 406-l1.

25 Keil and Delitzsch, 4:36.

26 Milgrom thinks that the only link between the two laws is the role of the priest in each and possibly the shared use of the term para' „let loose“ (the hair), Numbers, 43.

27 Another link between the two laws is the placing of sacrificial materials in the palms of the suspected adulteress in Num. v 18 and in the palms of the nazirite in Num. vi 19. The context in the former is when the woman has her head unbound to reveal her hair and in the latter when the nazirite has his or her hair shaven off.

28 Milgrom is puzzled (Numbers, 46, 304 n. 18) why other types of uncleanness, skin ailments, sexual disease, a woman nazirite's menstrual blood, do not interfere with the nazirite state. He accounts for the sole interest in corpse contamination by claiming that there exists in the law a residual hint of ancestor worship for the purpose of exorcising the fear of corpses (443). Again, however, the single focus on the Judah-Tamar story is so much closer to the lawgiver's concerns.

29 See Carmichael, Law, Legend, and Incest in the Bible: Leviticus 18–20 (Ithaca, 1997), 33–36.

30 So Levine, 222.

31 Gray, 67.

32 They have long expressed bafflement as to why it comes at this point in the Book of Numbers. A. H. McNeile states, „This fragment of priestly tradition has no connexion with what precedes or follows it,“ Book of Numbers (CBSC; Cambridge, 1911), 36. Cp. Gray, 71.


Export Citation