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The Test of the Bitter Waters
By Ariel Bar Tzadok
Copyright © 2015 by Ariel Bar Tzadok. All rights reserved.
Boundaries are a reality that no one can deny. Everything in nature is defined by what it is, and equally defined by what it is not. When every living thing is given its specific biological name, the name indicates that such a thing is a species, unique and different from other species. Boundaries separate species. As this is true in the realm of biology, so is it true everywhere else.
What' mine is mine, and what's yours is yours is not the motto of a bad person. On the contrary, it is the motto of a wise, and intelligent person. In daily life, when we respect each others boundaries, we maintain a healthy, and stable societal order. When everyone knows his or her individual place, and seeks not to stand in the place of another, we have societal order. Natural law dictates nature. Human common sense should observe natural law, and seek to emulate it. If it's good enough for nature, then it should be good enough for us humans. After all, we are part of nature.
As a thinking species, we even have the ability to uncover nature's secrets. By observing nature, we can see many subtle things, and learn from them. In this way, human society progresses, and our humanity flourishes. Yet, we cannot improve on nature by contradicting it. We can only improve on nature by working within the parameters assigned to us by nature's laws, and nature's Law Giver.
Human relationships also have natural boundaries. These boundaries should be inalienable, extended to all, and respected by all. Of these boundaries are the rights (and privileges) of life, and property. Human freedom of choice of action is wide and vast. Natural law permits much that human law cannot, and should not. While one human being has the capacity to wrongfully deprive another human being of life, this does not mean that because one can do a thing that one should do that thing. Wrongfully depriving another of life is what we call murder. Murder is universally accepted as a crime of one human being against another.
In the Ten Commandments, three vital, foundational laws are grouped together as a package. In the original Hebrew, each law consists of only two words, together the three laws, which are prohibitions, consist of only six words. Some Biblical interpreters make a moral comparison to the six days of creation, and state that the observance of these three laws, consisting of only six words, uphold and sustain the entire creation that God has made in six days. In correct translation, the famous six words are these, “No murdering, no adultery, no stealing” (lo tirtzah, lo tin'af, lo tig'nov).
Six words, three prohibitions, if these inalienable human laws were only observed by all humanity, sincerely, and devoutly, we would create for ourselves a near perfect world!
A quick perusal of these three universal, natural human laws brings up a curious question. While the value, and importance of prohibiting murder and theft should be clear and evident to all, how is it that adultery gets thrown into this trinity to become as important as the other two? Let's look at this.
With regards to murder, murder is always bad, and always wrong. However, at the same time, the Torah that prohibits murder equally ordains capital punishment for the murderer. “He who sheds the blood of man by man shall his blood be shed” (Gen 9:6).” Yet, when a murderer is rightfully, (under law) executed, this is not called murder, it is called “killing.” The commandment in the Ten Commandment does not say, “thou shall not kill,” but rather, “thou shall not (wrongfully) murder,” Lo Tir'tzah. What a great world this would be, if the entire human race lived by the collective rule that human beings simply do not murder other human beings.
With regards to theft, taking that which does not belong to one is always considered wrong. Even the government, with all its expansive powers, is still supposed to respect the private property of the individual. King Ahab of Israel was rightly condemned for conspiring against Naboth the Jezreelite, causing his death, just to steal his property (ref. 1 Kings 21:19).
One's possessions are considered sacred, they are considered to be part of one's soul. To steal one's property, therefore, is to essentially steal a part of one's soul. In Biblical times, the penalty for theft was multiple restitution. If one steals something of a certain value, not only must that item itself be restored, one must also pay back four to five times the amount stolen. Imagine this today, if every convicted “white-collar” thief had to pay back all they stole, plus 500% interest! Theft would quickly lose its luster.
So, where does adultery fit into these two other common-sense natural laws? According to Torah/Biblical law, adultery is narrowly defined only as when a married woman has consensual sexual relations with any man other than her lawfully wed husband. Both the married woman and her male paramour, are guilty of adultery, and if the criteria of the law are met, both could be subject to the death penalty. Now, why would this be so?
Sexual relations between human beings is as natural, and normal as breathing and eating. Some have suggested that sexual relations is a human need, and the pursuit, and practice thereof should not be hindered. But it is hindered. Like with murder and theft, we have made numerous laws to curtail the free, and boundless pursuit, and expression of sexual intercourse. To discuss any of these many laws governing sexuality would take us way off topic, this would distract us from our exclusive focus on adultery.
It is almost universally accepted that a married spouse to supposed to remain sexually loyal, and monogamous. However, this expected monogamy was reserved for the wife, but not necessarily for the husband. Since Biblical times, men have been allowed to have more than one wife, and indeed many Biblical personages most certainly did. To this day, the Code of Jewish Law, (Shulkhan Arukh), technically still allows a man to have as many as four wives at once. Indeed, the man, under certain circumstances may even be able to have concubines (mistresses). While all this may be technically true, these allowances are not in practice today. Today, with very rare exception, a husband is expected to be monogamous with his spouse, period. So true is this concept, that I believe that it is even embraced in the homosexual community, as it is the heterosexual community.
Naturally speaking, any two human beings can have sexual intercourse. We can couple almost any man, with any woman. What would make such a coupling wrong, and punishable under Biblical law (but in a different way under later Jewish Law), would be the existence of a prior consensual agreement of one of the parties to not engage in such behavior. The coupling of the man and woman is not unnatural, or even necessarily wrong, other than for the existence of a societal rule. And this societal rule, Lo Tin'af (no adultery), is considered so important, that the violation of it can bring one into a position of contradicting the law mentioned just before it, Lo Tir'zah (no murdering).
For the adulterer, and adulteress, by their illegal act, they are placing themselves under the law that requires their deaths. While the court carries out the law, and is, therefore, not performing an act of murder, the guilty couple, on the other hand, made a conscious choice to violate the law. They essentially are guilty of bringing upon themselves the death penalty, and as such, are guilty of technically murdering themselves.
Boundaries! They are defined by natural law in nature, and they are defined by human law, with regards to the uniqueness of our humanity. Boundaries are sacred! They are what define all forms, and give rise to all identity. This is this, and this is not that. This defines identity. This is the boundary of identity. Granted, some boundaries are grander than others, but this is to be expected in the natural world, including the world of human beings. Thus, we have those who are poor, and we have those who are rich, those who own little, and those who own a lot. Boundaries are sacred. Possessions are sacred. This is why we do not violate the boundary of another to take that which rightfully belongs to him or her. This applies across the board, in all areas of interpretation.
Sex and boundaries seem to be woven together out of the same fabric. Human jealously, and sexual competition are facts of life. Even in cultures where polygamy is the norm, where one man has many women, there is competition among the women for the heart of the man. Even the righteous sisters Leah and Rachel struggled for the affections of their mutual husband, Jacob. For whatever reasons, known in the Divine plan, human beings are, with regards to sexuality, a very jealous species.
Most societies around the world have accepted the monogamy model as the standard for marital relations. Yet, partners in a marriage, (be that marriage straight or gay), will some times seek sexual encounters outside the marriage, and thus, in the eyes of the spouse, be in violation of the marital covenant. Such violations can lead to anger, and even violence.
Why we human beings are so prone to emotional disturbance because of sexual infidelity is not my main concern here. What I wish to point out is that the same Torah Law that said, “no adultery,” also created a ritual as to how to detect marital infidelity, when one is suspected. This ritual is called the “test of bitter waters,” (Number 5:11-31).
In Biblical times, when a husband suspects that his wife may have been unfaithful to him, he may test her by compelling her to submit to this ritual. The ritual consisted of the woman appearing before God in the Holy Tabernacle (and later Temple), to swear that she has been faithful to her husband. At this time she drinks a special cup of water, which according to Biblical & Rabbinic sources, had added to it special ingredients, which included an ink that was used to spell out God's Holy Name on a piece of parchment. This was then dipped into the cup, allowing the ink to be dissolved into the water.
If the suspected wife was innocent, then the waters were supposed to enable her to become pregnant. If however, the wife was indeed guilty of adultery, being that it was committed in secret, and therefore, not subject to legislative prosecution, the bitter waters acted upon the woman's body as a curse. The woman who was guilty of secret adultery would die as a result of drinking the bitter waters. So the waters had a magical (spiritual) property to them. Either the waters would bring life in the form of a newborn, or bring about the death of the woman. How much of this was magical, miraculous, or psychosomatic, no one today can ever tell.
What is significant is this, Torah Law considers even the suspicion of infidelity a very troubling force that creates disharmony, and imbalance. Disharmony and imbalance are caused by acts of murder and theft, and it is also caused by the act of adultery, specifically with regards to the emotional response thereto.
Torah Law was ordained to create and maintain balance, cohesion, and peace in human society. Murder, adultery, and theft clearly create deep social strife. The value of the avoidance of these behaviors should be self evident. Nature always seeks balance, and so too does Torah.
In the case of suspicion, where guilt cannot be
proven, or innocence verified, there must be a solution so that suspicion does
not grow like a festering open wound. Societal harmony, especially the harmony
and balance within the family unit must always be paramount. This is why the
test of the bitter waters was ordained. Even God's holy Name is subject to the
cause of making peace.
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Copyright (C) 1997 - 2015 by Ariel Bar Tzadok. All rights reserved.