In chapter 5 of Numbers, we see an interesting ceremony involving a jealous husband who is suspicious of his wife, an unusual marital counseling (by today's standards), and the drinking of bitter water to prove or disprove faithfulness.
The wife involved in this test is called the Sotah, which comes from the Hebrew verb satah which means to turn aside or go astray. The Talmud, the Hebrew commentary on the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament), shares that this ritual points heavily to God's importance in purity in marriage. Though, to the modern ear this ritual might seem sexist, there are some very beautiful truths beneath the surface.
First of all, this is the only commandment of the 613 laws in which God is willing to have his name erased in order to bring about truth. The Lord puts his name on the line, so to speak. The curse, which contains God's name, is written upon a scroll and then dissolved along with tabernacle floor dirt in water from the basin of purification. It is then to be drunk voluntarily by the one who is being accused to prove innocence or guilt. Scientifically, drinking a drink of dirty water which contains some dye from ink might cause some stomach upset, but would not likely cause a bloating of the stomach and the wasting away of the thigh.
More interestingly to me is the symbolic and theological aspects of this part of scripture. As I thought about other places where there was 'bitter water' or the drinking of a 'bitter cup' and 'adultery' I could not help but think of four passages.
Right after the crossing of the Red Sea in Exodus 15:22-27, we read the Israelites came to Marah (bitterness) which had water they could not drink because of its bitterness. Think of it. The people have been enslaved to the Egyptians (and their gods,) God has freed them and made a covenant with them, and now comes the test of bitter waters. The LORD, their new husband so to speak, does not insist they drink the water of past adultery, perhaps, but shows Moses a piece of wood which allows the waters to be sweet.
The next passage about a bitter drink is right after God delivers the law to Moses on Sinai, speaking in the first commandment that He (God) is a jealous God and is not willing to share the loyalty of the people with any other God. Does this sound like marriage? I think so. But as the law is being delivered, the people are worshipping a golden calf. What does Moses do? He grinds the calf into powder, scatters the powder on the water and makes the people drink it. (Exodus 32:20) Could this be part of the development of this idea of Sotah, faithfulness and testing?
In the New Testament, we have the story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8:1-11. In light of this sotah custom, isn't it interesting that the teachers of the law and the Pharisees bring this woman to Jesus? Are they expecting him to act as priest? It is interesting to me that Jesus begins writing in the dirt. Is this space where he is standing the new temple, the tabernacle floor? Is he writing the sotah curse in the dirt? And when he asks the question about sin, is he offering the curse drink to all present? Is he posing as the husband, questioning the faithfulness of the very people who claim to be in covenant with God, the teachers of the law and the Pharisees? Hmmm.....
And then, at the garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26, Mark 14), we find Jesus asking not to drink the bitter cup, that it be removed from him. Is this a test of faithfulness? When the sin of all the world, the guilt of all the world is placed upon Jesus and he drinks the bitter cup, does the curse cup kill him?
Yes, it does.
But interestingly, God provides a piece of wood that removes the bitterness and turns it into a sweet drink. That piece of wood is the cross. Christ's bitter cup is turned into the sweet cup of salvation for all of us.
It is said in 2 Timothy 3:16:
"All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that God's people may be thoroughly equipped for every good work."
Even an obscure passage in Numbers 5 about the Sotah.