And the woman shall say, “Amen, amen!”

22 May

Naso: Numbers 4:21 – 8:1

For this week’s parshah, I want to focus on the theme of adultery, which is central to the section 5:11-31, the ordeal of the suspected adulteress.

Throughout the ANE (ancient near east), adultery (which means infidelity by a married woman) viewed as a crime against the gods as well as the husband., so it is a civil and a religious crime.

But there are differences between the rest of the ANE and Israel:

a)      rest of ANE: husband can mitigate/waive the death penalty; not so in Israel, where it’s not up to the husband to waive execution.

b)      because it’s included in the 10 Commandments, and thereby the Sinaitic covenant, God punishes the community if the death penalty is not imposed.  An act that transgressed that covenant endangered the whole community, notes the ABD, so the prosecution of adulterers morphed from a right that individuals may forgo to a duty falling on the entire community.  But some scholars think that in practice, it may have been true that the husband could accept compensation from the lover etc.

c)      some have sought to explain the paradox whereby the woman who takes the bitter waters is not subjected to the death penalty.  This is a case in which a woman has not been detected by human beings committing adultery, but she is suspected  of it by her husband.  Milgrom argued (e.g. his JPS commentary on Numbers) that therefore the punishment must be administered by God, that the matter lies beyond a human court, and therefore execution is not acceptable.  He also noted that the technical term for adultery, ‘na’af’ which is found in the Decalogue, Ex. 20:13…and  Lev. 20:10…reflects that jurisdiction lies outside the human court. G metes out a punishment that fits the crime, as elsewhere (Israel must wander forty yrs because of forty days spies spent gathering their data, Num. 14:33-4).  The text seems to mean, and has been read as meaning, that her genitals would be affected by the waters so she was unable to conceive.  So the woman who accepted forbidden seed is “doomed to sterility for the rest of her life” (Milgrom).  As for the ordeal itself, Babylonian law provided for an ordeal by water that involved being thrown in the river and drowning if guilty, so here there is what Milgrom describes as a modification of that law, prescribing a form of ordeal by water that cannot lead to drowning.

So there you have it.  Marital infidelity by a woman is a sin against God, and, if Milgrom is right, God will judge it directly, and via poetic justice, if humans don’t detect it.  I don’t really see why an adulteress who doesn’t get caught avoids the death penalty while one who is caught doesn’t…but there it is.  No firm answers anywhere in any case.

Something I’d like to think about further – if the Decalogue, a/c to biblical scholars (e.g. the Anchor Bible Dictionary 82a) only means infidelity by women, it hasn’t always been so understood…I recall that scene in The Crucible, which I read many, many years ago, in which the husband who had had that affair stumbles over reciting that commandment…because he was guilty of it himself… so the history of interpretation would be interesting.


2 Responses to “And the woman shall say, “Amen, amen!””

  1. Jill Rosenfeld LaGattuta July 25, 2013 at 8:46 pm #

    Very interesting Tamara thanks for this!

    • lillithblogs July 25, 2013 at 8:48 pm #

      thanks, jill.

      with Z at home all the time these days, I haven’t done a thing lately about the blog that so many millions around the globe are following…but I do plan to get back to it.

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