Ordeal of Jealousy

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Old Testament


In the Infancy Gospel of James, both Mary and Joseph come under suspicion for having had intimate relations when Mary is found to be pregnant. What is the background for the procedure in which they were given treated water to drink to determine whether they were guilty or innocent of such charges?


This procedure probably relates back to the "Ordeal of Jealousy" that can be found in Numbers 5:11-31. There it is generally referred to as a test for an unfaithful wife. It was supposedly given to Moses by the Lord to be used in those instances when a husband suspected his wife might have been unfaithful to him but had no proof that anything had occurred.

In this case, the husband could take his wife to the priest. He, of course, also had to take a grain offering to atone for any feelings of guilt (on her part). [Some scholars think this was also a preventative in case she turned out to be guilty; then it would be used to purify the sanctuary]. The priest would have the woman stand before the Lord. Then he would take holy water mixed with some dust from the tabernacle floor. [Since both the water and the dust had been in the presence of the Lord, they posed a great danger to anyone who was unclean.] The priest would loosen her hair and place the grain offering in her hands – just as a reminder. [Having her hair loosened might have been a symbol of mourning, possible uncleanness, or shame.] After putting her under oath, the priest prayed that if she were, indeed, innocent, the "bitter water that brings a curse" would not harm her.

On the other hand, if she were guilty of being unfaithful, then upon drinking the "bitter water that brings a curse," her thighs would waste away and her abdomen would swell up (or she would have nothing but miscarriages [scholars aren't sure of the translation and really don't know what it would mean to have thighs waste away]). The woman, of course, had to agree to the test.

The priest would write the words of the curse on a scroll and then wash them off into the bitter water. He then took the grain offering, waved some of it before the Lord, and burned the remainder upon the altar while repeating the words of the test. The woman would then drink the bitter water. If nothing happened, she would be considered innocent and pure, and would receive a promise of future children.

In essence, this was a trial by ordeal. The outcome was determined by the divine and reserved for those situations that lacked actual evidence. The verdict was completely in God's hands (much like the casting of lots). Unfortunately, however, the accused was essentially considered guilty until proven innocent. Yet, the community was compelled to abide by the outcome. If there were no harmful effects, the matter was deemed settled, and the husband could not inflict any additional punishment upon his wife.

Modern scholars will immediately notice that there is no provision in the passage in Numbers for a corresponding test for an "unfaithful husband." That might be, alas, a sign of the times in that faithfulness was only requisite for the wife. In the Infancy Gospel of James, however, it is noteworthy that Joseph was also included in the test. Moreover, the test was administered to him first.

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