A number of things happen in this chapter, but I want to look at the long section at the end, from versus 11-31. It’s the procedure to undertake when a husband suspects his wife of having committed adultery but has no way of proving it. The NRSV renders this as “a spirit of jealousy comes on him,” while the NCT has “is consumed by jealousy.” Both have a sense of a kind of possession, as though he’s not in his right mind.
I suppose there’s kudos to be given here for acknowledging that sometimes jealous husbands are wrong, and that there should be procedures for keeping women safe from false allegations. It’s still unfair in this scenario, though, that she has to prove her innocence rather than him prove her guilt.
She has to drink a bitter water made from the dust of the tabernacle, plus a written cruse. If she’s been unfaithful, she’ll endure pain and her “uterus [will] drop” and her “womb discharge” (v 21), but if her husband is in the wrong she’ll “be able to conceive children.” (v 28) Or so reads the NRSV. The NCT interprets verse 21 as “your lower abdomen will waste away, your belly will swell.” That’s a significant difference.
See, in the NRSV’s version, it sounds like she’s already pregnant, and that’s what’s causing her husband’s alarm. He thinks the child isn’t his. So she takes the potion, and if it’s another man’s, she miscarries and is left infertile. If the child is her husband’s, she’s not infertile, and presumably doesn’t miscarry.
The NCT’s version seems carefully designed to not make this look like a divinely-mandated abortion, which is what it is. Even the NIV, which twisted Exodus to make an anti-abortion text, admit here that she’s miscarrying. The King James Version has a strange turn of “her thigh shall rot,” so I suppose if you’re one of those people who believe that the Bible composed by a bunch of Anglicans 400 years ago is the One True English Bible you get to avoid thinking about this.
But no – in the Bible, one isn’t a full human being afforded protection from death until after you’re born.
More significantly… I suppose I’m a skeptic when it comes to the idea that the sand from the tabernacle could make a woman miscarry if she’s been unfaithful. It feels more like magic than miracle to me, plug the sacrifice in and get the results out. Which means that, perhaps, this procedure almost never worked. Most women accused by jealous husbands, even if they had committed adultery (or been raped; bear in mind there wasn’t always a distinction made back then), would have come out of the ordeal just fine.
Which means that maybe this was a way of diffusing patriarchal male jealousy. If you could prove adultery, fine, stone her, but if you can’t, rather than having him divorce her, let’s go through a little stunt where we ask God to smite her. She gets exonerated, and you two can go back to trying to get your clearly-trust-deficient marriage working.
Side note: I recall that there’s an apocryphal work that said Mary went through this after she became pregnant (scroll down to number 16). The author’s clearly not familiar enough with the Hebrew, though, since Joseph’s depicted as taking it too.
The Japanese: tadanaka “amid” (v 3), roken suru “to detect,” mokugeki suru “to witness” (v 13), shitto “jealousy, envy,” shitto ni karareru “to be consumed with jealousy” (v 14), manugareru “to escape, avoid, evade” (v 19), otoroeru “to wither, to waste away,” fukureru “to swell, to distend” (v 21), yaseotoroeru “to become emaciated” (v 22).