We know that all Scripture is meant to shape us for good (2 Tim. 3:16-17) but what happens when we encounter passages that defy connection to our daily lives? Numbers 5:11-31 is one such passage–if you’ve never read it, now would be a good time! Briefly, it records the procedure to follow when a husband suspects his wife of being unfaithful in the absence of witnesses. The jealous husband brings his wife to the priest who mixes “bitter water” for her to drink. She takes an oath—and if she is guilty, the water brings a curse—pain and inability to conceive children. If she’s innocent, no harm will befall her. If you’re like me, your first reaction may be, “Huh?!” Or “I think I’ll skip ahead to chapter 6” (Oops, no good, that chapter is about taking Nazirite vows, also not something that I plan on doing anytime soon.) Numbers 11 perhaps? Ah, there’s something I can identify with–the Israelites are grumbling and complaining to God. Now that’s applicable!
But God doesn’t intend for us to cherry-pick passages and verses that seem to connect easily with our lives while ignoring other passages, which on first glance, have nothing to say to us. Remember that God addressed Numbers 5 and Numbers 11 to his people at the same point in history. If Numbers 11 is “applicable” and Numbers 5 is not, what are we saying?! Are parts of God’s Word more valuable than others? No, we should always expect God to speak meaningfully into our lives wherever we are in Scripture. His revelation is meant to inform and transform his people, both when it was originally given—and now.
So, where do we start when reading Numbers 5 or some other very challenging passage? I would encourage you to engage by asking three questions: (1) What was the pastoral importance of this revelation to God’s people then? (2) How does this story connect with the life of Jesus? (3) How should it impact my life now? An even simpler way to remember this approach is to consider a text’s meaning with respect to “three pronouns”—them (God’s people in antiquity), him (Jesus), and us.
Them: It’s easy to get caught up in the “bizarre” factor in this passage—it’s a highly stylized legal ritual. Or to react strongly to the woman’s “guilty until proven innocent” status (although many commentators point out that this procedure actually allows protection and vindication for a woman who is unjustly accused, an unusual statute compared to other ancient near eastern societies). We quickly (and rightly) recognize the huge historical and cultural chasm that exists between the original receivers of this revelation and modern believers. But as you linger in the passage certain themes emerge: God cares about what is done in secret. What is done in secret can ultimately defile a marriage and even the community of faith. Purity matters. God is just. Innocence is pardoned and guilt is punished. Rather than furrow our brows and move on to something more palatable, we begin to realize these themes have impact right now for our lives.
Him: Prayerfully consider how this “test for an unfaithful wife” connects with the story of redemption culminating in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Scripture portrays Israel as a wayward, adulterous wife and Yahweh as a jealous husband (Hos. 1-3; Jer. 3:6-10). She is guilty and her sin awaits full and final punishment. And then something remarkable happens. Her jilted husband steps in and seizes the cup before it touches her lips. Jesus Christ drinks the cup of God’s wrath to its dregs. The punishment due his bride for her unfaithfulness—our unfaithfulness!—he willingly bears (1 Pet 2:24). We instead receive the cup of God’s blessing (1 Cor. 10:16). Living water flows (John 4:13-14), not bitter water that brings a curse.
Us: We live in the post-resurrection age. We rightly exclaim with Paul, “Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom. 5:20). True, but God still cares about things done in secret that dishonor him. Purity for God’s people still matters (Eph. 5:3-15; 1 Cor. 5-6). In that sense, the relevance of this passage remains, although we never lose sight of the glorious and gracious way this word from God finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ. As people united with him, this passage prompts us to ask, “Am I harboring secret sin that dishonors my husband Jesus? Am I drifting from the constancy of his love in my thoughts and attitudes? Is there something I need to bring out into the open before God and others?” If the answer is “yes” remember that the final word for you is one of forgiveness, restoration, and love renewed. Benediction, rather than malediction. Jesus drank the cup for you. So, confess your sin and turn from it, knowing that “he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
See what you would have missed if you had skipped to Numbers 11? Take the time to prayerfully ponder difficult passages as you encounter them. Expect God to speak to you through his Word by his Spirit. In light of the redemptive work of Jesus Christ, gospel treasures await you in the most unlikely places.