The Book of Numbers and Monty Python

Today I was reading the book of Numbers (why you ask? Curiosity I guess) and found that the majority of chapter 5 is devoted to testing the veracity of a woman who is claimed to be “defiled” by another man on the testimony of her husband. Besides the double standard here, notice also that irrational emotions (vs. 14) are entities which descend upon us from outside us; i.e. “jealousy:”

11Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 12 “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘If any man’s wife (J)goes astray and is unfaithful to him, 13 and a man has (K)intercourse with her and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband and she is undetected, although she has defiled herself, and there is no witness against her and she has not been caught in the act, 14 if a spirit of (L)jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife when she has defiled herself, or if a spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife when she has not defiled herself, 15 the man shall then bring his wife to the priest, and shall bring as an offering for her one-tenth of an ephah of barley meal; he shall not pour oil on it nor put frankincense on it, for it is a grain offering of jealousy, a grain offering of memorial, (M)a reminder of iniquity.

16 ‘Then the priest shall bring her near and have her stand before the LORD, 17 and the priest shall take holy water in an earthenware vessel; and he shall take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water. 18 ‘The priest shall then have the woman stand before the LORD and let the hair of the woman’s head go loose, and place the grain offering of memorial in her hands, which is the grain offering of jealousy, and in the hand of the priest is to be the water of bitterness that brings a curse.

19 ‘The priest shall have her take an oath and shall say to the woman, “If no man has lain with you and if you have not (N)gone astray into uncleanness, being under the authority of your husband, be immune to this water of bitterness that brings a curse; 20 if you, however, have (O)gone astray, being under the authority of your husband, and if you have defiled yourself and a man other than your husband has had intercourse with you”

21(then the priest shall have the woman (P)swear with the oath of the curse, and the priest shall say to the woman), “the LORD make you a curse and an oath among your people by the LORD’S making your thigh waste away and your abdomen swell; 22 and this water that brings a curse shall go into your stomach, and make your abdomen swell and your thigh waste away.” And the woman (Q)shall say, “Amen. Amen.” 23 ‘The priest shall then write these curses on a scroll, and he shall wash them off into the water of bitterness.

24‘Then he shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that brings a curse, so that the water which brings a curse will go into her and cause bitterness. 25‘The priest shall take the grain offering of jealousy from the woman’s hand, and he shall wave the grain offering before the LORD and bring it to the altar; 26and (R)the priest shall take a handful of the grain offering as its memorial offering and offer it up in smoke on the altar, and afterward he shall make the woman drink the water. 27‘When he has made her drink the water, then it shall come about, if she has defiled herself and has been unfaithful to her husband, that the water which brings a curse will go into her and cause bitterness, and her abdomen will swell and her thigh will waste away, and the woman will become (S)a curse among her people.

28‘But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, she will then be free and conceive children. 29‘This is the law of jealousy: when a wife, being under the authority of her husband, (T)goes astray and defiles herself, 30or when a spirit of jealousy comes over a man and he is jealous of his wife, he shall then make the woman stand before the LORD, and the priest shall apply all this law to her. 31‘Moreover, the man will be free from guilt, but that woman shall (U)bear her guilt.'”

Notice, that the woman is made to drink water mixed with dirt and clay from the tabernacle floor (which is almost certain to make her sick). The woman cannot win. If she refuses to drink, she is presumed guilty and if she drinks and gets sick she is also guilty. The only thing that will save her from her husband’s suspicion is not her word on the matter, but her ability to withstand drinking dirty water! The double binds women are put into in religion are astounding.

This whole scene, consisting of the futility of resisting these “tests” devised by men to sniff out adultery, witchcraft, and other sins peculiar to women (according to the bible), reminds me of one of my favorite scenes from Monty Python:


18 thoughts on “The Book of Numbers and Monty Python

  1. Good Lord, how come I’ve never read this passage before? It’s disgusting! It’s superstitious witchcraft, really. How can anyone read such a passage and say “ah, yes, the wisdom of the Lord!” ???

    It’s *perfectly* juxtaposed with the Monty Python sketch. Hmm, you might consider cross-posting it on de-con…I’d love to hear some christians defend it… πŸ™‚

  2. Not only that, but the text validates jealousy. Any type of jealousy, no matter what the cause is. The man doesn’t have to logically examine his emotions, or consider that maybe he’s just being irrational. If he’s jealous, then he gets to go to the priest for proof that his wife is not defiled. It’s almost like, “I am man, so whatever I feel is right.”

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  4. OSS,

    That’s true. Notice also how divorced from actual feeling the text speaks of “jealousy.” It’s described as a “spirit” that descends upon the man, thereby relieving him of the responsibility of having the emotion to begin with! Therefore, if his wife miraculously doesn’t get sick, he’s absolved and if she does, he is also absolved. Traps everywhere in the bible!

  5. It is true, that many religion’s were based on a one sided view of morality and very different rules applied to women which were designed to hide the sins of man. The video was not available, ugh.

  6. Sometimes I wonder why Christians even bother reading Torah…..

    Don’t you see that the man looks like an idiot here? He goes in front of the priest and says, “I think my wife is messing around on me, but I don’t have any proof.” (Bascially admitting his wife isn’t interested in his equipment any more which has him wondering….) And then they go through some hokus pokus stuff that is not going to make a woman unable to bear children, it’s just some dirty water after all. (The text doesn’t say she’ll get sick, but that her ability to bear children will waste away.) Yeah, it’s demeaning to her, no doubt, but you think she’s not going to get her revenge on the blockhead? You bet she will. Yet he’s all happy with a test that would NEVER in a million years satisfy a jealous wife! In the end, he’s the one who looks like a simple minded fool. Even if she was messing around nothing is going to happen to her. I would guess that in the very near future something of his will ‘waste away’ from lack of use!

    Not everything in Torah is meant to be taken seriously. Good grief. People then are as people now. Don’t look at it as they were all pious and holy, believing every word told them by the priests. Don’t you suppose most of them also rolled their eyes at this passage and thought, yeah right? Only a dolt for a husband would believe this foolishness but that’s the person who needed to be placated so the woman could have some peace from all his accusations.

    The whole point is to restore harmony in the house of a fool. I laugh every time I read it. Men can be so stupid.

  7. Yael, good to see you!!

    Now, that’s an interesting take. It’s funny, but Christians are taught to take these passages VERY seriously indeed. Don’t you know there’s a modern lesson to be learned in EVERY passage of the Torah?

    You know I’m being facetious in my tone, but we really have been told to take everything seriously because it’s “God’s Word” don’t you know. I like that you manage to show how ridiculous the test is and knock some 20th century sensibility into our heads at the same time. πŸ™‚

    Thank you!

  8. Hi MOI,
    Yeah, I know how these things are viewed and it’s really tough to sit back and listen/read sometimes.

    Actually, I also think there are modern lessons to be learned in every passage in Torah, it’s just that the lessons I pick out might not be quite what your pastors and teachers would expect. Like the lesson from this one, that stupid men have existed from the start but they can be worked around if we stroke their egos a bit!

    I just have this picture of this pathetic guy clutching his little penis, standing in front of the priests who are trying to keep straight faces but who are inwardly snickering at this guy who is so inept in the sack he can’t please his wife but so egotistical he can’t comprehend that it’s HIS fault she’s not turned on! The priest winks to the woman while they go through this pretense and after the couple leaves, the priests roar with laughter at the expense of the guy. I know I do, every time!

    Ah, you should sit in Torah study with us sometime. Some things in Torah make us laugh, some things fill us with disgust, some things are really profound and great. All of life is contained therein, the sublime and the ridiculous, the beautiful and the ugly. I like this view of Torah. Because if I’m supposed to take it all so seriously, if I’m supposed to make excuses for everything in it, I’m tossing it out along with God.

    I stop by now and again to see how you are doing. I’m just usually quiet, but today I couldn’t resist posting. This is one of my favorite stories you know! 8)

  9. Yael,

    I LOVE it. I should study Torah sometime. I’m sure my perspective would change for the better! I like that your perspective humanizes the people in the book that’s supposed to be considered too “holy” to be about real people. I know it must have been about real people with the same humor as we have. It has always bothered me that when Christians study the bible, there is no humor whatsoever to be found in it. But how can this be when we are and can be such humorous creatures? Surely, the world’s holiest text should contain more humor!

    I’m glad you chime in now and then because I always get something good from it! πŸ™‚

  10. Come visit me sometime at Her Delight is in Torah. I always humanize the people in Tanakh. It’s only then that Torah becomes a delight, that we see that Torah really is relevant to our lives today, not in some oh so hushed and holy way, but instead in a down to earth, where the rubber hits the road relevance. IMO of course.

    Now no doubt some of my stuff is probably of little interest, especially if you’re not used to reading rabbinical writings, but I think if you look around a bit you’ll see a side of Torah you’ve never seen in any church! I mostly try to speak of the universal wisdom of Torah and sometimes maybe I even succeed! I just truly love studying Torah.

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