What do the seemingly draconian Old Testament laws about sexual unfaithfulness in marriage tell us about God and his desire for the entire human family? The Bible clearly teaches us that God is deadly serious about the sanctity of marriage and the welfare of the family that derives from the marriage; namely the innocent children who are forever wounded by the unfaithfulness of their parents. And while we no longer serve up the death penalty to adulterers—and by Jesus’ re-definition of adultery in the heart, aren’t we all glad that capital punishment is off the table—God cares just as much today about the health of the human family as he did in the Old Testament. Your family’s health matters to God—make sure it matters that much to you, too!
Going Deep // Focus: Numbers 5:20-21, 28
If a wife has gone astray by being unfaithful to her husband and has defiled herself through sexual immorality [and her husband suspects unfaithfulness]—at this point the priest must put the wife under oath by saying, “May the people know that the LORD’S curse is upon you when he makes you infertile…” But if she has not defiled herself and is pure, then she will be unharmed and will still be able to have children.
It would be very easy as a modern reader with a western worldview to discard this chapter out of hand and think that God and/or the Judeo-Christian tradition had it out for women. On its face, Numbers 5 seems unfair to women, allowing them to be accused of sexual unfaithfulness by a jealous husband with impunity. The suspicious husband could accuse his wife of unfaithfulness and even if she was proven to be innocent, she would still suffer the embarrassment of public humiliation while he suffered no consequence for bringing a false accusation. As one who had been falsely accused said upon being proven innocent, “Now where can I go to get my reputation back”? Being found guilty, even being accused, would mean enduring a horrible ordeal for a wife. For sure, to our modern sensibilities, the ritual law covering a husband’s jealous suspicion of an unfaithful wife seems unfair, misogynistic and draconian.
But, as is the case in so many of these chapters that concern civil and religious law, there is more to the story here. A proper reading and understanding of this chapter requires us to consider one, the culture at the time—God was forming a people without a system of civil law into a nation that was to now live under the rule of his law; two, the context of the law—the law’s greater purpose was to teach the people about the holiness of God and his demands for their holiness as his set apart people; three, a wider reading of Scripture to see how the laws against bearing false witness, the law for dealing with an adulterous husband, and the laws of restitution gave context to this specific law; and four, the new covenant law of love that Jesus imposed over the sexually promiscuous. Likewise, we need to take into account what Jesus also had to say about how husbands treated their wives, the repugnance of divorce, and even how self-righteous men were actually committing adultery simply (and likely continuously) by lusting after women in their hearts.
So, understanding this chapter, which is what I would classify as what theologians term “a hard saying of the Bible”, requires some extra work on our part. Namely, it is important here that we follow the proper hermeneutical principle of allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture.
Having said that, what does this seemingly draconian law tell us about God and his desire for not only his people, but the entire human family? I have a strong belief that this clearly teaches us that God is deadly serious about the sanctity of marriage and the welfare of the family that derives from the marriage; namely the innocent children who are forever wounded by the unfaithfulness of either the husband or the wife. The human race is made up of families, and each family is God’s little society. All these little societies provide stability and health to the larger family of mankind. And in a deeper, truer, more mysterious way, the family, living in loving faithfulness, reflects the image of the Godhead, who lives in utter unity within the mutuality of the Trinity—Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
In Genesis 1 and 2, when God created mankind and instituted marriage, over and over he spoke of his image being reflected in the best possible light among the rest of creation by the loving, faithful relationship of Adam and Eve. More than you and I can possibly realize, God is concerned about your marriage and mine. So serious was he that violation of the marriage covenant through unfaithfulness brought capital punishment. And even though he provided other means for unhappy couples to dissolve their covenant, it grieved his heart. And while we no longer serve up the death penalty to adulterers—and by Jesus’ re-definition of adultery in the heart, aren’t we all glad that capital punishment is off the table—God cares just as much today about the health of the human family as he did in Numbers 5. Our cultural tolerance of boundary-less sex, easy divorce and the acceptance of the single-parent home milieu means that we will have a lot to answer for on the Day of Judgement.
At this point I could list endless research on the destructiveness to men and women, and especially the life-long harm to the most vulnerable, our children, that results from our cavalier attitude toward the sanctity of marriage, but I think you get the picture. What is God deadly serious about? Your marriage, that’s what!
Whether you are married, not yet married, or will be single for life, as a Christ-follower, let us take up the cause of the sanctity of marriage. Let us, first of all, live out God’s ideal in our own homes. Then, let us fearlessly take a stand against the demon-inspired attack in its various forms on God’s ideal of covenantal marriage. Perhaps if enough of us would model the right thing and call out the wrong thing, we could save a few of these “little societies” from destruction.