The Sotah: A Promiscuous Woman[1]


Numbers 5:11–31 describes the only “trial by ordeal” found in the Torah: the law of the Sotah, a woman who may have strayed from the path of virtue.

The Talmud describes the case: A wife arouses her husband’s suspicion of infidelity by acting inappropriately with a specific man. The husband warns his wife not to seclude herself with this man in the future. She ignores his warning and two witnesses observe her being alone with this man for a period of time during which it was possible for them to have sexual relations, and they report that the woman was not forced to go with him. Since there is no proof that the woman committed adultery, she is compelled to go through a “trial by ordeal” to let God reveal whether she is innocent or not. She is brought to the temple, made to unravel her hair, and told to drink a liquid filled with the dust from the temple floor and the ashes of a burned parchment that had contained God’s name. If she became sick, her illness proved she committed adultery. Sotah procedures are pursued only if the adultery has been “hidden from the eyes of her husband.” If he sees her commit adultery, ignores it, and does not report it, the ordeal is not carried out (Midrash Sifrei and Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 27a).

The rabbis report in the Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 47a–b, that this biblical procedure was discontinued “when adultery became prevalent in Israel.” This seems to be counter intuitive; if adulteries increased, one would suppose the Israelites needed the procedure. It is possible, but not certain, that the rabbis recognized that the drinking procedure was not magical and realized that it only worked in ancient times with superstitious women to make them fearful and prompt them to admit their guilt; but it was no longer effective when the women stopped believing that it could reveal who was guilty.

Nachmanides rejected this psychological explanation. He was convinced that nothing occurs on earth without God’s miraculous intervention. In his commentary to verse 5:20, he states that the Sotah miracle, which amazingly revealed the adultery when the woman drank the specially prepared water, occurred only when the majority of people were worthy to receive it, for “this procedure was miraculous, as an honor for Israel.” However, when the people became immersed in sexual immorality, the miracle ceased and these waters no longer had an effect upon the Sotah.


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The Sotah law is an example of Torah laws that were instituted for the people who lived at the time that the laws were issued. These laws helped improve the behavior of the Israelites, even though they were not ideal. Other examples include the laws of slavery that allowed slavery but restricted it so that slaves were treated fairly, “an eye for an eye” that curbed punishment, and the law allowing Israelites to have sex once with a captured female during wars but constrained sex after the first time. The rabbis changed these laws as the Torah wanted them to be changed. They also changed every biblical holiday, as I show and explain in my “Mysteries of Judaism.”


[1] This is a version of an essay in my and Dr. Stanley M. Wagner’s “What’s Beyond the Bible Text.”