One of the most obscure Torah laws concerns the wife whose husband suspects committed adultery. She is called a Sotah. It is in Numbers 5:11 to 31. Since the husband has no proof that she had relations with another man, the Torah requires her to undergo a strange procedure that raises many questions. The following is a translation of the five parts of the Torah Law and comments. It shows that everything in the Sotah text is obscure, the procedure was changed to make it more reasonable, and commentators frequently disagreed on how to interpret the obscure Torah text.
A husband becomes jealous
11 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 12 Speak to the Israelites and say to them: If any man’s wife goes astray and acts unfaithfully to him 13 so that another man has sexual relations with her, and this is hidden from her husband, and her impurity is undetected, and there is no witness against her, and she has not been caught in the act,14 and feelings of jealousy come over him, and he is jealous of his wife, and she is impure—or if he is jealous and suspects her even though she is not impure.
Bringing the wife before God
15 Then the man should bring his wife to the priest. He must take an offering of a tenth of an ephah of barley meal on her behalf. He must not pour any oil or put frankincense on it because it is a meal offering for jealousy, a meal offering of memorial, to draw attention to wrongdoing. 16 The priest should bring her and have her stand before the Lord. 17 He should take holy water in an earthen jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water. 18 The priest should set the woman before the Lord, loosen her hair, and place the meal offering of memorial in her hands, which is the meal offering for jealousy, while he holds the bitter water that brings a curse.
The wife must swear
19 Then the priest should cause her to swear and say to the woman: If no man has had sexual relations with you and you have not gone astray and become impure while under your husband, may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you. 20 But if you have gone astray while under your husband and you have made yourself impure by having sexual relations with a man other than your husband — 21 then the priest should make the woman swear with the oath of cursing and say to the woman— may the Lord cause you to become a curse and an oath among your people when the Lord makes your thigh fall away and your belly to swell. 22 This water that brings a curse will enter your bowels so your belly swells or your thigh falls away. Then the woman should say, Amen, Amen.
Making the wife drink the water of bitterness
23 The priest should write these curses in a scroll and blot them out into the bitter water. 24 He should make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and this water that brings a curse and causes bitter [suffering] will enter her. 25 The priest is to take the meal offering of jealousy from her hands, wave the meal offering before the Lord, and bring it to the altar. 26 The priest should take a handful of the meal offering as a memorial part and make it smoke on the altar. Then, he should make the woman drink the water. 27 When he made her drink the water, if she has made herself impure and been unfaithful to her husband, the water that brings a curse and causes bitter [suffering] will enter her, her belly will swell, and her thigh will fall away, and the woman will be a curse among her people. 28 If the woman has not made herself impure but is clean, she will be cleared of guilt and have children.
29 This is the law of jealousy when a woman goes astray and makes herself impure while under her husband, 30 or when feelings of jealousy come over a man because he suspects his wife. The priest is to have her stand before the Lord and apply this entire law to her. 31 The man will be innocent of any wrongdoing, but the woman will bear the consequences of her deed.
Obscurities in the Torah text
- It is unclear that the Torah only speaks of a case where a jealous husband suspected his wife of adultery. The Code of Hammurabi speaks of two cases, one where the husband is not involved and the second where he is. “132. If a finger has been pointed at a man’s wife because of another man, but she has not been caught lying with that man, she shall leap into the river for the sake of her husband. 131. If a man’s wife was accused by her husband but was not caught while lying with another man, she shall make an oath by the god and return home.”
- Some commentators understand verses 12 and 13 to deal with cases where the husband is not involved and verse 14 where he is. They translate the Hebrew letter vav not as “and” but as “or.”
- They also assign verse 29 to the first case and 30 to the second.
- Also, verse 30 does not have a vav and states “or,” seemingly clearly indicating two types of situations.
- It is also unclear whether the Torah considered adultery a crime against the husband or against him and God or husband, God, and the community.
- In the ancient Near East, it was considered a crime against the husband and god.
- The word Sotah means “one who has deviated from the proper path.” The term is spelled in the Torah with the Hebrew letter sin but with a samekh in the Mishnah. Although they have different spelling, both mean the same thing. Why didn’t post-biblical Jewry use the Torah spelling?
- Why is the woman called Sotah, one who goes astray? Shouldn’t she be called a woman whose husband is jealous of her?
- Why is her husband jealous?
- According to the Torah, if a man and a woman commit adultery, they are executed. Why aren’t the Sotah and her paramore killed? It is because there are no witnesses to the act.
- The Torah does not state or hint that the wife did something wrong. Why must she undergo this ordeal simply because her husband is “jealous”?
- The Torah seems to say that if a husband becomes jealous of his wife with no basis for the jealousy, he may cause her to undergo the ordeal. Is this fair?
- Why does the law sentence the wife to the ordeal and not the husband?
- Verse 12, translated as “any man” above, doubles “man man” in Hebrew. Why? Is there some special meaning? Or, is this simply the biblical style of writing, such duplications occurring elsewhere, such as in Exodus 36:4, Leviticus 15:2, Numbers 4:19, and other verses?
- While the stylistic explanation is demonstrably true, it is contrary to the view of the second-century Rabbi Akiva, who asserted that God dictated the Torah to Moses letter by letter. God, he insisted, says nothing pointless. Therefore every letter and word that is seemingly unnecessary must be interpreted to reveal the lesson God placed in it.
- Is the Torah implying that its ordeal is a miracle? God reveals whether or not the husband was correct and the wife had sex with another man.
- The mystic Nachmanides understands the obscure text to say that the wife is placed in an ordeal where God will miraculously reveal whether she committed adultery. He writes, “Now there is nothing amongst all ordinances of the Torah which depends upon a miracle, except this matter, which is a permanent wonder and miracle that will happen in Israel, when the majority of the people live following the will of God.”
- Unlike rational thinkers, Nachmanides was convinced that God is involved in everything that occurs on Earth. He writes that there are open miracles, such as the Red Sea’s splitting, and unrevealed miracles, such as God telling each leaf when to fall from a tree. Regarding the Sotah, he contends, like the Christian Inquisition in the Middle Ages, we can test suspects, and God will reveal if the suspect is guilty. Among other trials, the Inquisition would toss suspected converts from Judaism to Christianity as not being faithful from a hill into the water. If the suspect died, it was clear to them that God revealed the individual was guilty.
- Nachmanides recognized that Judaism discontinued the trial by ordeal during the beginning of the Common Era, even though Christianity continued to use it for centuries. He believed God decided not to continue revealing guilt when God saw that most Jews ceased doing the divine will.
- Rational thinkers such as Maimonides understood that the Sotah procedure was not miraculous. It was an attempt to frighten the wife to admit she was an adulterous. If she admitted it, her husband gave her a divorce. If she did not, her husband, who could not have sex with her while he was jealous, could, after the procedure, resume marital relations.
- While the Torah has the Hebrew letter vav meaning “and” in verse 14, “and she is impure,” it must be translated as if it were a shin “that,” the husband thinks that she is impure.
- Why does the husband bring the offering and not the wife? Is it to place some burden and financial cost since he originated the ordeal because of his jealousy? Or is it because, in biblical days, wives had nothing except what their husbands gave them?
- The offering is of barley which was considered an inferior grain. Some commentators stress that it was the food of animals. She acted like an animal.
- Also, although most offerings included oil and spices, this one was meant to stand out as being associated with bad behavior.
- The water is called “holy water” in verse 17. Why?
- The water is placed in an earthen jar, not in one of the silver or gold jars usually used in the Tabernacle. This is to highlight the despicable situation again.
- Mishna Sotah 2:2 states that the dust is taken from a special place in the Tabernacle. The Torah does not say this.
- Verse 18 repeats verse 16 which states she is brought before God, meaning the altar. It is understood to suggest that the priest leads her around and around to make her dizzy in the hope that she will confess.
- Why is the woman’s hair loosened in verse 18? What does it tell us about Judaism’s view of a woman’s hair in biblical times and today?
- Why is the priest told to place the offering in the woman’s hand in verse 18? Is it designed to prompt her somehow to confess?
- Is the water called “the bitter water” in 18 because of its taste or because it can cause a bitter ending for the woman?
- Why does the Torah say the woman is “under” her husband, as in verse 19? Is it because she should obey her husband?
- There are many repetitions in this section of the Torah, including the requirement that the woman says amen Why? Is it suggesting that the woman is to accept the consequences of the oath strongly?
- Or, is the Midrash correct in saying she is claiming innocence from adultery with the man mentioned and any other man?
- As with everything else concerning the alleged adulterous wife, the requirement that the priest takes a handful of the offering is also obscure, with the Mishnah adding details.
- These questions caused the rabbis in the Babylonian Talmud Sotah to interpret the Torah text as follows, despite nothing in the text itself of their interpretation. A husband sees his wife being overly friendly with another man. He becomes jealous. He even suspects that his wife is sleeping with the man. He tells her to cease seeing the other man. She continues to see him. Because she must obey her husband and failed to do so, there is sufficient ground to require her to undergo this ordeal.
- The rabbis developed many activities. They required witnesses that the husband warned his wife, the wife was brought before the Great Court of seventy-one members before going to a priest, the priest was selected by lottery, thereby avoiding the husband and wife picking a priest favorable to their view, and more. All of these procedures are not in the obscure Torah text.
- Unlike Nachmanides, the rabbis recognized that the ordeal was no miracle. It was an attempt to frighten the wife into confessing her infidelity. As time passed, women realized they had nothing to fear from the ordeal, even if unfaithful. So Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai, who lived around 70 CE, discontinued it when the Second Temple was destroyed.
- The Mishnah states it was discontinued because of the increase of male adulterers, and it made no sense to place only women in the ordeal.
- The Tosefta explains that adultery began to be practiced in the open, and the threat of the ordeal was no longer a deterrent.
- Verse 23’s water ordeal is a second such test. In Exodus 32:20, after the apostasy of the golden calf, Moses ground down the idol, mixed its dust with water, and made the Israelites drink it. Targum Pseudo Jonathan suggests the ordeal was to distinguish the guilty from the innocent. Was this a miracle where God revealed the guilty? Why does Nachmanides say that Sotah was the only miraculous ordeal?
- It should be clear from the preceding that the Torah discussion about the wife suspected of committing adultery is obscure. There are far more than 21 unclear items in the 21 Torah verses. The rabbis’ interpretations of these laws are far different from the plain meaning of the Torah words. There is no clear single interpretation of the Sotah law; both the rabbis and scholars give different interpretations of the verses. The Babylonian Talmud devotes 98 pages to its discussion of the Sotah. There are more interpretations in the Jerusalem Talmud, the Midrashim, Tosefta, and commentators. It should also be clear that Judaism today is not Torah Judaism but Rabbinical Judaism, the rabbinical interpretation of the Torah.
- In essence, the Sotah law was needed in early Israelite times, although no longer. However, even today, rabbis and thinkers of all religions see lessons that can be learned from this ancient practice.
- Among many things, it began to prompt people to realize that a woman has certain rights, just like a man. And by turning over the problem to a priest, the ordeal protected the wife from her husband’s anger.
 The JPS Torah Commentary Numbers, The Jewish Publication Society, 1990, page 350.
 Mishnayoth, The Judaica Press, Inc, 1965, volume III, Sotah.
 Leviticus 20:10f and Deuteronomy 22:22f.
 Ramban, Commentary on the Torah, Numbers, Rabbi Dr. Charles B. Chavel, Shilo Publishing House, Inc., 1975, page 54.
 Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, Translated by M. Friedlander, Dover Publications, Inc., 3:46.
 Daat Mikrah Bamidbar, Mosad Harav Kook, 1988, page 56.
 Leviticus 2:1 and 5:11.
 Daat Mikrah, page 57.
 Midrash Sifrei on this verse.
 Mishnah Menahot 1:2.
 Tosefta Sotah 1:2.
 Mishnah Eduyot 5:6, Babylonian Talmud 19a, Jerusalem Talmud Sotah 18a
 Sotah 9:9.
 Sotah 14:2.
 The JPS Torah Commentary Numbers, The Jewish Publication Society, 1990, page 348. This volume discusses the Sotah in detail in pages 346 to 354.