(Num. 5:11-31) Is this a case of magic?

CLAIM: When a jealous husband suspected his wife of infidelity, the man was supposed to take the suspected wife before the high priest. The high priest would have her drink bitter water to determine her guilt. If her stomach swelled after drinking the water, she was guilty. If it didn’t, then she was innocent. Critics charge that this passage looks very similar to a magical incantation. Is this the case?

RESPONSE: The Bible is unique because it lacks any magical incantations. In fact, this passage in Numbers 5 is the only passage that comes anywhere near being similar to Pagan, magical incantations. Even critical scholar G. Earnest Wright explains,

When we examine the world of polytheism more closely, we find beneath the surface a vast, dark, and uncomfortable world… That is the world of demons, magic, and divination. By contrast, the first and most obvious thing which we can say about Israel is that, comparatively speaking, her religious life is most astonishingly free of this sort of thing, at least in ideal… The surprising thing is not that the cult of magic and divination was known in Israel, but that it should be so definitely forbidden in the law and associated by the prophets with an idolatry which destroyed rather than saved.[1]

What then do we do with this passage in Numbers 5?

First, it is interesting to note that God commanded this man to take this woman to an impartial third party. This was really an act of mercy for the woman. It is easy to believe that a paranoid husband could make irrational decisions, if he didn’t involve a third party—namely, the priest. The fact that God commands such arbitration is reasonable and very considerate of the woman. In the ancient Near East, women typically had no rights in marriage. Therefore, this Hebrew practice seems more civilized and sophisticated.

Second, verse 21 refers to barrenness. Infertility is a major theme throughout the OT. God is constantly “closing” and “opening” wombs throughout the OT. Moreover, David’s baby was lost due to his adultery with Bathsheba (2 Sam. 12:15ff), which means that this “curse” even applied to the king—not just the peasants in Israel. Therefore, this “curse” affected women, men, and even kings.

Third, the mixture was not a magic potion. Magic potions are always complicated mixtures, but this ritual is surprisingly simple and mundane: a vessel, water, and dust (v.15). These elements in the ritual were symbolic—not magical.[2]

  • The vessel symbolizes the human body (1 Sam. 21:5; Jer. 18:4; 22:28).
  • The water symbolizes life and fertility (Ps. 1:3; Jer. 17:13).
  • The dust may symbolize Abraham’s seed (Gen. 13:16; cf. Num. 23:10), the judgment of the Serpent (Gen. 3:14), or perhaps the composition of human beings (Gen. 2:7).

The elements themselves did not bring judgment; God himself brought judgment. God used the priest and the ritual as an agent for his judgment (v.16, 21, 25).

Elsewhere, we are told that any unclean person who ate a sacrifice from the Tabernacle would be cut off from the people (Lev. 7:21; 22:3; Num. 9:6). In this case, the woman was under oath, and she was sticking to her story (vv.19-22). Oaths were considered very important in Israelite law. Thus, the woman would not be judged because of a magic potion, but because she was lying under oath.

Some commentators argue that the water might have been given for psychosomatic results. After swearing and oath (v.19) and hearing that her belly could swell if she was lying (v.21), this could force a confession. Note that the text never says that her belly does actually swell. It merely threatens her with this. Therefore, the threat of God’s judgment could be reason enough for her to confess.

[1] Wright, G. Ernest. The Old Testament against Its Environment. Chicago: H. Regnery, 1950. 77.

[2] Wenham, G. J. (1981). Numbers: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 4, p. 94). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.