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Monday, March 06, 2006

Is there a new Bible diet in Num. 5:27?

Today's post on Christendom Blogosis asks if the NET Bible translation of Num. 5:27 is about a new Bible diet. The conclusion is that the NET Bible wording is ... (well, go read it for yourself; the post is interesting and important for making better Bibles).

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At Mon Mar 06, 02:45:00 PM, Blogger LawyerDad said...

Thanks for the post WL. I really like the NLT --
27If she has defiled herself by being unfaithful to her husband, the water that brings the curse will cause bitter suffering. She will become infertile,[a] and her name will become a curse word among her people.


1. Numbers 5:27 Hebrew Her body will swell and her thigh will waste away.
-- -- --

I know footnotes can be overused, but this is a good example. Query: do Hebrew scholars universally agree that the idiom means "become infertile?"

At Mon Mar 06, 04:18:00 PM, Blogger Talmida said...

Richard Friedman's Commentary on the Torah says the opposite-- the womb will swell, the thigh will sag means that she will be (and is) pregnant.

Robert Alter in his Five Books of Moses suggests that it might mean a miscarriage - "the ordeal thus becoming an induced abortion", but he admits there is much uncertainty about it.

Part of the problem is, is she pregnant to begin with? Is that the evidence of adultery?

I'd never noticed this passage before, but there is a wealth of speculation surrounding it!

Alter points out in the notes for verse 15: "This troubling and also facinating ritual is the only clear-cut instance of trial by ordeal in the Bible. ... The ordeal, moreover, is based on a kind of archaic magic, however one seeks to square it with loftier versions of monotheism." It is the basis for an entire tractate of the Talmud and much debate.

I think it's safe to conclude that NOBODY really knows what it means.

At Mon Mar 06, 05:42:00 PM, Blogger Ian Myles Slater said...

I agree with Talmida's conclusion. This is an opaque passage; although Jacob Milgrom and Tikva Frymer-Kensky seem to me to have shed some light on the nature of the ritual, and its relation to ancient concepts of the Ordeal, I am not yet convinced by any conclusion about what was supposed to happen.

There is an interesting survey at (pages 13-16 of a commentary on Numbers), with useful bibliography (including the authors just mentioned). It summarizes a modern rationalized (even pharmacological) interpretation, which understands "bitter waters" as referring to a (discoverable but unidentified) "bitter herb."

In contrast, The New Jewish Publication Society Version ("The Torah," 1962; "TaNaKh," 1985, second edition 1999), which offers "her thigh shall sag," is unusually blunt. It says "the spell" and has "spell-inducing waters," reading it as a reference to the self-imprecatory curse, not, as more commonly, to the physical ink and dust. (This follows a major line of Jewish interpretation of the whole ritual as NOT having a natural explanation.)

The concise commentary to this version in "The Jewish Study Bible" (Oxford, 2004, pages 294-295) includes a summary of views; including an interesting, if not, I think, very plausible, tradition of understanding "Water of Instruction" for "Water of Bitterness" (seeing y-r-h as the root of "hamarim"), with the emphasis being the miraculous revelation of guilt or innocence.

A similar rendering is found in Everett Fox's "Five Books of Moses" (1995), with "the Water Bringing the Bane" (and "her thigh shall fall.")

A major source for the traditional Jewish understanding of the ritual is the tractate "Sotah" in the Mishnah. The slightly antiquated Soncino translation of the Babylonian Talmud on "Sotah," with extended consideration of such problems as an apparent Commandment to erase the Divine Name(!), and other considerable difficulties with the whole idea, is still useful; and is available on-line at


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