What is the bitter water that a woman had to drink in Numbers 5:24?

He will then make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and the water that brings a curse will enter into her and produce bitterness. – Numbers 5:24

When a woman was under suspicion for adultery she was brought up in front of the Priest at the Tabernacle.The priest was to bring her near to the altar , and present her before Jehovah for examination.Jehovah’s spirit was present  and operating at the altar where the priest had to then  holy water, probably water out of the basin before the sanctuary, which served for holy purposes (Exodus 30:18), in an earthen vessel, and put dust in it from the floor within the Tabernacle. The woman then was to loose her hair who was standing before Jehovah, and place the water otherwise called ,jealousy-offering,  in her hands, and holding the water in his own hand, to pronounce a solemn oath of purification before her, which she had to appropriate to herself by a confirmatory Amen, Amen.

The water, which the priest had prepared for the woman to drink, was taken from the sanctuary, and the dust to be put into it from the floor of the dwelling, to impregnate this drink with the power of the Holy Spirit that dwelt in the sanctuary. The dust was strewed upon the water, not to indicate that man was formed from dust and must return to dust again, but as an allusion to the fact, that dust was eaten by the serpent (Genesis 3:14) as the curse of sin, and therefore as the symbol of a state deserving a curse, a state of the deepest humiliation and disgrace (Micah 7:17Isaiah 49:23Psalm 72:9).

Bitter water administered by the Priest

On the very same ground, an earthen vessel was chosen; that is to say, one quite worthless in comparison with the copper one. The loosening of the hair of the head (see Leviticus 13:45), in other cases a sign of mourning, is to be regarded here as a removal or loosening of the female head-dress, and a symbol of the loss of the proper ornament of female morality and conjugal fidelity. During the administration of the oath, the offering was placed in her hands, that she might bring the fruit of her own conduct before God, and give it up to His holy judgment. The priest, as the representative of God, held the vessel in his hand, with the water in it, which was called the “water of bitterness, the curse-bringing,” inasmuch as, if the crime imputed to her was well-founded, it would bring upon the woman bitter suffering as the curse of God.

Trial by Ordeal 

This is described also as a trial by ordeal .Trials by ordeal are found in other societies of the ancient Near East such as in the Laws of Hammurabi.

Historic Muslim Arabic culture similarly had an adultery ordeal, although in scientific terms, compared to the Israelite ritual it relied more on nausea, than on directly poisoning the woman. In this Arabic ritual, the woman simply took oaths at Mecca attesting to her innocence, and asking the divinity to cause her to have a miscarriage/abortion, should she be lying;but, on the way to Mecca, she would be forced to travel on a camel, between two bags of dung.

Ordeals involving the risk of harm, including potential injury resulting from the drinking of certain potions, were common in antiquity; in parts of Europe, their judicial use even lasted until the late Middle Ages. Such ordeals were once believed to result in a direct decision by a deity, about the guilt or innocence of the party/parties undertaking the ordeal; typically divine intervention was believed to prevent the innocent being harmed, or to ensure that the guilty were, although in the case of some – witch ducking, for example – the innocent were more likely to come to harm.


According to Mishnah, Sotah, 9:9 the practice was abolished sometime

during the first century CE under the leadership of Yohanan Ben Zakkai. But even if it had not been abolished, the rite would have sunk into abeyance with the fall of the Temple (in approximately the year 70 CE, because, according to the Law, the ceremony could not be performed elsewhere.

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