Ordeal of the bitter water

The ordeal of the bitter water was a trial by ordeal administered to the wife whose husband suspected her of adultery but who had no witnesses to make a formal case (Numbers 5:11–31). The ordeal is further explained in the Talmud, in the seventh tractate of Nashim.

Ordeal of the bitter water
Halakhic texts relating to this article
Torah:Numbers 5:11–31
Babylonian Talmud:Sotah
Jerusalem Talmud:Sotah
Mishneh Torah:Sefer Nashim, Sotah

A sotah (Hebrew: שוטה [1] / סוטה) is a woman suspected of adultery who undergoes the ordeal of bitter water or ordeal of jealousy as described and prescribed in the Priestly Code, in the Book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Hebrew Bible. The term sotah itself is not found in the Hebrew Bible but is Mishnaic Hebrew based on the verse "if she has strayed" (verb: שטה satah) in Numbers 5:12.[2][3]

Hebrew BibleEdit

The account of the ordeal of bitter water given in the Book of Numbers:

And the priest shall cause her to swear, and shall say unto the woman: 'If no man have lain with thee, and if thou hast not gone aside to uncleanness, being under thy husband, be thou free from this water of bitterness that causeth the curse; but if thou hast gone aside, being under thy husband, and if thou be defiled, and some man have lain with thee besides thy husband--then the priest shall cause the woman to swear with the oath of cursing, and the priest shall say unto the woman--the LORD make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when the LORD doth make thy thigh to fall away, and thy belly to swell; and this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, and make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to fall away'; and the woman shall say: 'Amen, Amen.' And the priest shall write these curses in a scroll, and he shall blot them out into the water of bitterness. And he shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that causeth the curse; and the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her and become bitter.

The woman is required by the biblical passage to have loosened hair during the ritual.[4] This is often taken to be a symbol of the woman's supposed shame,[5] but according to Josephus, it was merely the standard behaviour for anyone accused of any crime, when they appeared before the Sanhedrin.[6]


According to the Mishnah, it was the practice for the woman to first be brought to the Sanhedrin, before being subjected to the ordeal. Repeated attempts would be made to persuade the woman to confess, including multiple suggestions to her of possible mitigating factors; if she confessed, the ordeal was not required.[7][8] The Mishnah reports that, in the time of the Second Temple, she was taken to the East Gate of the Temple, in front of the Nikanor gate.[7][8]

The Mishnah also states that the garment she was wearing was ripped to expose her heart. A rope was tied above her breasts so that her clothes did not completely fall off.[citation needed] The Mishnah, however, argues that the clothing on the woman's upper body was also stripped away, leaving her bare-breasted.[7]

The ordealEdit

When a man suspects his wife of having sex with another man but has no witnesses the woman is brought to a kohen (priest),[9] or before God.[10]

The husband was required to make a sacrifice to God as part of the ritual, probably due to a general principle that no one should seek answers from God without giving something in return.[5] This offering is placed in the wife's hands,[4] and is literally described as her offering for her.[9] Scholars think that it is the man's offering, in relation to the ordeal of his wife, and that her holding of it is merely symbolic of this.[5]

The offering specified is one tenth of an ephah of barley meal, unaccompanied by oil or frankincense;[9] this is the cheaper type of flour, unlike the flour specified for all other biblical sacrifices.[5] The specification is now thought to be a rare survival of an earlier period, in which there was no restriction on the types of flour which could be used for sacrifices,[5] although the Mishnah argues that it was a reference to the bestial nature of adultery, coarse flour being the food of beasts.[11]

The ordeal consisted of the wife having to drink a specific potion administered by the priest. The text specifies that the potion should be made from water and dust.[12] In the Masoretic Text, the water used for the potion must be holy water, and the Targum interprets it as water from the Molten Sea, but the Septuagint instead requires running water.[5] The passage argues that the curse was washed into the water;[13] it is thought that this idea derives from a belief that the words of a curse exist in their own right.[5] Others argue that the curse is a euphemism for a miscarriage or infertility.[14]

The potion also had to be mixed in an earthenware vessel.[12] This may have been because the potion was regarded as a taboo which could be spread by contact, and therefore also made the vessel taboo, necessitating its subsequent destruction (as do the biblical rules concerning taboo animals, for any earthenware vessels into which such animals fall.[15])[5] However, the Talmud[16] and Rashi explain that this vessel is chosen to contrast the woman's predicament with her behavior. She gave the adulterer to drink choice wine in valuable goblets; therefore, let her drink bitter water in a worthless clay vessel.[17][18]

The text does not specify the amount of time needed for the potion to take effect; 19th century scholars[who?] suspected it was probably intended to have a fairly immediate effect.[5] Maimonides records the traditional rabbinical view: "Her belly swells first and then her thigh ruptures and she dies".[19] Others maintain that since the word "thigh" is often used in the Bible as a euphemism for various reproductive organs, in this case it may mean the uterus, the placenta or an embryo, and the woman would survive.[14][20][21]

Nachmanides points out that of all the 613 commandments, it is only the sotah law that requires God's specific co-operation to make it work. The bitter waters can only be effective miraculously.[22]

Maimonides further writes: "When she dies, the adulterer because of whom she was compelled to drink will also die, wherever he is located. The same phenomena, the swelling of the belly and the rupture of the thigh, will also occur to him. All the above applies provided her husband never engaged in forbidden sexual relations in his life. If, however, her husband ever engaged in forbidden relations, the [bitter] waters do not check [the fidelity of] his wife."[19]

False accusationsEdit

The Mishnah mentions there could also be a suspension of the ordeal for one, two or three years, if she has an acquittal.[23][clarification needed]

If the woman was unharmed by the bitter water, the rules regard her as innocent of the accusation. The account in the Book of Numbers states that the man shall be free from blame (5:26). This is not to be confused with the Deuteronomic Code, in which when a man accuses his wife of pre-marital sex and the accusation is disproven, the husband is to be fined, and is no longer to have the right of divorcing the wife (Deuteronomy 22:13–19).

The rabbinical interpretation of Numbers 5:28 is that when a woman accused of adultery who was innocent drinks the bitter water, even if she was previously unable to conceive, she will now conceive and give birth to a male.[24]

Abortion interpretationEdit

Several commentaries on the Bible maintain that the ordeal is to be applied in the case of a woman who has become pregnant, allegedly by her extramarital lover.[14][25]

One reading is that the ordeal results in a prolapsed uterus if she is guilty.[26] Some interpretations of the ordeal describe the bitter potion as an abortifacient, which induces a purposeful abortion or miscarriage if the woman is pregnant with a child which her husband alleges is another man's. If the fetus aborts as a result of the ordeal, this presumably confirms her guilt of adultery, otherwise her innocence is presumed if the fetus does not abort.[14][20][27][28][29][30][31]

Cessation of the ordealEdit

According to Mishnah, Sotah, 9:9 the practice was abolished some time during the first century CE under the leadership of Yohanan ben Zakkai.[8][32] But even if it had not been abolished, the rite would have sunk into abeyance with the fall of the Temple (in approximately the year 70 CE[33]), because, according to the Law, the ceremony could not be performed elsewhere.[8] Explanations in rabbinical literature vary concerning cessation of the practice. Yohanan Ben Zakkai stated:

When adulterers became many, the ordeal of the bitter water stopped, for the ordeal of bitter water is performed only in a case of doubt. But now there are many who see their lovers in public [34]

Rabbi Hanina of Sura said in Talmud Sotah:

Nowadays a man should not say to his wife, “Do not be secluded with so-and-so,” ... If she then secluded herself with the man, since we have not now the water for the suspected woman to test her, the husband forbids her to himself for all time.

— B.T. Sotah 2c, Soncino.

Christian referencesEdit

Although the actual ordeal was not practiced in Christianity it was referenced by Christian writers through the ages in relation to both the subject of adultery, and also the wider practice of trial by ordeal. Additionally, some early Christian legends, such as the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, embroider the life of Mary, mother of Jesus with accounts including Mary (and even Joseph[35]) undergoing a version of the ordeal.[36]

Textual analysisEdit

The text appears to suggest[5] first that the offering should occur before the ordeal, (Numbers 5:24–25) and then that it should occur after it.[5] (Numbers 5:26) Due to the awkwardness of the idea that the wife has to drink the potion twice, textual scholars argue that either the first drinking must be a later addition to the text, or that the whole account of the ordeal must be spliced together from two earlier descriptions.[5]

Noting that there are two descriptions of the location for the ritual (in the presence of a priest,[9] and before Yahweh,[10]) and two occasions on which the punishment for the woman is mentioned,[37] the division into two earlier documents, first suggested by Bernhard Stade[38] is typically as follows:

  • one account is the ordeal and sacrifice before God, in which the possible miscarriage/abortion results from drinking the potion[39]
  • the other is merely a condemnation by a priest, in which the women stands with hair loosened, her guilt is assumed, and divine intervention (due to the priest's involvement) will cause a miscarriage/abortion as punishment.[39]

Other biblical scholars think that the ordeal is itself a fusion of two earlier rituals (pre-dating the original priestly text), one using water, and the other dust.[5] The use of dust might be connected to necromancy.[5] In other historic Semitic cultures there are many instances in which holy water was regarded as taboo, and therefore that contact with it, or its consumption, was dangerous.[40]

Similar ritualsEdit

Trials by ordeal are found in other societies of the ancient Near East such as in the Laws of Hammurabi (§132).[41]

Pre-Islamic Arabic culture similarly had an adultery ordeal, although in scientific terms, compared to the Israelite ritual it relied more on nausea, than on directly poisoning the woman. In this pre-Islamic Arabic ritual, the woman simply took oaths attesting to her innocence, and asking the divinity to cause her to have a miscarriage/abortion, should she be lying.[42]

Ordeals involving the risk of harm, including potential injury resulting from the drinking of certain potions, were common in antiquity;[5] in parts of Europe, their judicial use even lasted until the late Middle Ages.[5] Such ordeals were once believed to result in a direct decision by a deity, about the guilt or innocence of the party/parties undertaking the ordeal;[5] typically divine intervention was believed to prevent the innocent being harmed, or to ensure that the guilty were.

Modern applicationsEdit

According to scholars such as Helena Zlotnick, after the ordeal of bitter water was no longer practiced it remained a reference point in the search for replacements for the test of adultery.[43]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Spelled "שוטה" in Maimonides' manuscript (http://jnul.huji.ac.il/dl/mss/html/heb5703_h.htm Archived 2016-12-24 at the Wayback Machine). This spelling recurs in Rabbi Yosef Qafeh's editions of Maimonides' works.
  2. ^ Grushcow, Lisa J. (2006). Writing the Wayward Wife: Rabbinic Interpretations of Sotah. Brill. p. 1. ISBN 90-04-14628-8. The name sotah is derived from Num. 5:12 based on the word שטה to stray.
  3. ^ The Holy Scriptures: Proverbs, with commentary - Julius Hillel Greenstone, Jewish Publication Society of America - 1950 - Page 42 "10.6; 21.10; Num. 5.18). turn] The word is used in connection with the woman suspected of infidelity (Num. 5), whence the technical term sotah is derived, the name given to the treatise of the Mishnah and the Talmud dealing with this subject."
  4. ^ a b Numbers 5:18
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q This article incorporates text from the 1903 Encyclopaedia Biblica article "Jealousy, Ordeal of", a publication now in the public domain.
  6. ^ Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 14:49
  7. ^ a b c Mishnah, Sotah, 1:5
  8. ^ a b c d   This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainSinger, Isidore; et al., eds. (1901–1906). "adultery". The Jewish Encyclopedia. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.
  9. ^ a b c d Numbers 5:15
  10. ^ a b Numbers 5:30
  11. ^ Mishnah, Sotah, 2:1
  12. ^ a b Numbers 5:17
  13. ^ Numbers 5:23
  14. ^ a b c d Bergant, Dianne (1992). The Collegeville Bible Commentary: Based on the New American Bible: Old Testament. Liturgical Press. p. 156. ISBN 0814622100.
  15. ^ Leviticus 11:33
  16. ^ Sotah 9a
  17. ^ Fox, Bernie. "Parshat Naso: Is the Sotah Presumed Guilty?". Retrieved May 2, 2013.
  18. ^ "Numbers 5:17". Retrieved May 2, 2013.
  19. ^ a b "משנה תורה, ספר נשים: הלכות שוטה פרק ג הלכה טז-יז" [Mishneh Torah, Sefer Nashim: Sotah, Chapter Three, Halacha 16-17]. Retrieved May 21, 2013.
  20. ^ a b Brewer, Julius A. (October 1913). "The Ordeal in Numbers Chapter 5". The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures. 30 (1): 46.
  21. ^ Biale, Rachel (1995). Women and Jewish Law: The Essential Texts, Their History, and Their Relevance for Today. Random House Digital. p. 186. ISBN 0805210490.
  22. ^ "GOD'S COOPERATION". Retrieved May 2, 2013.
  23. ^ Mishnah, Sotah, 3:4
  24. ^ Talmud, Sotah 26a; Maimonides. "משנה תורה, ספר נשים: הלכות שוטה פרק ג הלכה כב" [Mishneh Torah, Sefer Nashim: Sotah, Chapter Three, Halacha 22]. Retrieved May 5, 2013.
  25. ^ Peake's commentary on the Bible (1962 edition), Numbers 5.
  26. ^ Tikva Frymer-Kensky, in "Women in the Hebrew Bible", ed. Bach (1999, Routledge, New York and London, pages 463-474)
  27. ^ Grushcow 2006, pp. 275–276
  28. ^ Berquist, Jon L. (2002). Controlling Corporeality: The Body and the Household in Ancient Israel. Rutgers University Press. pp. 175–177. ISBN 0813530164.
  29. ^ Levine, Baruch A. (1993). Numbers 1-20: a new translation with introduction and commentary. 4. Doubleday. pp. 201–204. ISBN 0385156510.
  30. ^ Snaith, Norman Henry (1967). Leviticus and Numbers. Nelson. p. 202.
  31. ^ Olson, Dennis T. (1996). Numbers: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Westminster John Knox Press. p. 36. ISBN 0664237363.
  32. ^ "Adultery". ISBE. Retrieved June 4, 2013. According to the Mishna (SoTah 9) this ordeal of the woman suspected of adultery was abolished by Johanan ben Zaccai (after 70 AD), on the ground that the men of his generation were not above the suspicion of impurity.
  33. ^ "Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai". Archived from the original on 2012-05-22. Retrieved May 5, 2013.
  34. ^ Jewish Studies at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, Volume 1: European Association for Jewish Studies. Congress, Judith Targarona Borrás, Ángel Sáenz-Badillos - 1999 Page 271. "When adulterers became many, the ordeal of the bitter water stopped (DHD 'D PDA), for the ordeal of bitter water is performed only in a case of doubt. But now there are many who see their lovers in public"
  35. ^ The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, chapter 12: "And again Joseph was summoned to the altar, and the water of drinking of the Lord was given him to drink. And when any one that had lied drank this water, and walked seven times round the altar, God used to show some sign in his face. When, therefore, Joseph had drunk in safety, and had walked round the altar seven times, no sign of sin appeared in him. Then all the priests, and the officers, and the people justified him, saying: Blessed art thou, seeing that no charge has been found good against thee. [...] Then Mary said, stedfastly and without trembling: O Lord God, King over all, who knowest all secrets, if there be any pollution in me, or any sin, or any evil desires, or unchastity, expose me in the sight of all the people, and make me an example of punishment to all. Thus saying, she went up to the altar of the Lord boldly, and drank the water of drinking, and walked round the altar seven times, and no spot was found in her." (Wikisource)
  36. ^ Joseph B. Tyson, The New Testament and Early Christianity (1984), page 199: "They each highlight a certain portion or aspect of Jesus' history, such as his family, his childhood, his resurrection, or his teachings. [...] But Mary became pregnant, and Joseph was afraid that his neglect had allowed an adulterer to seduce her. So the priests gave both of them a trial by bitter water, a trial they survived."
  37. ^ Numbers 5:21 and Numbers 5:27
  38. ^ Bernhard Stade, Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft (1895), 15:166-178
  39. ^ a b Joseph Estlin Carpenter, and George Harford-battersby (and the Society of Historical Theology, Oxford), The Hexateuch (1900, republished 2003), volume 2, pages 191-192
  40. ^ William Robertson Smith, Lectures on the Religion of the Semites (2nd edition - 1894), 181
  41. ^ The New Oxford Annotated Bible Michael David Coogan, Marc Zvi Brettler, Carol Ann Newsom - 2007 Page 193. "A man who questions his wife's fidelity brings her to the sanctuary for an ordeal in which she drinks a mixture of water, dust, and ink to determine if she is culpable (cf. ... Ordeals to determine culpability are found in other societies of the ancient Near East (e.g., Hammurabi's Laws §132). ... aside to uncleanness while under your husband's authority, be immune to this water of bitterness that brings the curse ..."
  42. ^ Kitab al-Aghani, 1:156:3+
  43. ^ Helena Zlotnick, Dinah's Daughters: Gender and Judaism from the Hebrew Bible to ... 2002 ISBN 0812217977 Page 111. "The question that has never been asked by modern interpreters of the history of the ordeal of the bitter water is what replaced the ordeal after its abolition 41 In other words, what legal procedures were available to investigate and prosecute ...One underlying quest of this chapter is a search for the alternative that replaced the pre-70 procedures of detecting adulteresses, assuming that husbands did continue to suspect their wives of adultery and that sexual loyalty .."

Further readingEdit

  • Daniel Friedmann: From the Trial of Adam and Eve to the Judgments of Solomon and Daniel
  • Luzia Sutter Rehmann: "The Doorway into Freedom - The Case of the 'Suspected Wife' in Romans 7.1-6" in Journal for the Study of the New Testament (JSNT) no 79, 91-104.