I think the conservative Christians might be right about this one. I don’t often get the chance to change my mind, and it’s probably good to embrace those chances rather than push them away.
The book of Numbers defines a ritual that is often interpreted as causing abortions, but exactly what it’s supposed to do is murky. Let’s take a look.
The Trial of the Bitter Water: a test for an unfaithful wife
Suppose a man suspects his wife of adultery. How does he discover if his suspicions are correct? The trial of the bitter water in Numbers 5 is a ritual through which God can make the truth known.
God dictated the ritual. The “jealous” man must bring his wife to the priest along with a certain quantity of barley meal (about two liters) as an offering. The priest makes a potion of holy water plus dust from the floor of the tabernacle. He continues the ritual, uncovering the woman’s head, having her hold the grain offering, and so on. He then speaks a curse, which promises that the potion will be harmless to her if she is innocent, but if she is guilty of infidelity, “this water . . . will go into your stomach and make your abdomen swell and your thigh fall away.” The woman accepts these conditions.
The priest writes the curse on a scroll and then scrapes the words into the water. Finally, the woman drinks the potion, and the priest burns a handful of the barley on the altar as a sacrifice. If the woman is guilty the curse falls on her, and if not, “she will be free of ill effects and will be able to bear children.”
Huh? What’s that punishment again?
There’s a lot here, so let’s take a closer look. First, what exactly happens to the guilty woman? What does “your abdomen swell and your thigh fall away” mean? The short answer is scholars don’t know for sure.
“Abdomen” often means “womb” (the same word is used in “there were twins in her womb” in Genesis 25:24b).
“Swell” is especially tricky because it is used exactly three times in the Bible, and all of them are in this passage. The authors of the Old Testament left us no biblical-Hebrew-to-modern-English dictionaries, so scholars have just context and etymology with which to create one. Few examples make it hard to deduce the meaning for sure. (Other cases of too few usage examples are here.)
“Thigh” is likely a euphemism for female reproductive organs. (The Bible is squeamish about genitals, as seen in this long list.) As a masculine noun we see the word in “Gideon fathered 70 sons through his many wives,” which is literally, “Gideon had 70 sons who went out from his thigh” (Judges 8:30, NET). And “direct descendants” in Gen. 46:26 is the translation of the words for “thigh” and “come out.” In the trial of the bitter water, it’s a feminine noun, but as with “swell,” that usage is only in this passage.
Finally, we have the word for “fall away.” Other Bible translations give shrivel, waste away, rot, or shrink.
What does this all mean? One source diagnosed a swollen abdomen and fallen reproductive organs as a prolapsed uterus, which would have been more common in a time before modern medicine and in a society where women delivered many babies. The curse gives the sign of an innocent woman as “[she] will be able to bear children,” which suggests that infertility is the punishment for the guilty woman and which also fits a prolapsed uterus.
More things to notice
You’d think that a recipe from God himself would provide a potion that would deliver an immediate verdict, but the ritual doesn’t say that. It seems that the woman just went home to await the results.
In a time when everyone may have believed that the curse would work as described, any woman who accepted the challenge (rather than admitting adultery to avoid it) may have done so feeling confident that her innocence would see her safely through. The flip side is that, if she were guilty, she’d know that God would deliver punishment. The observer would see her going through the ritual as a strong indication that she was innocent.
Note also how different this is than the seventh Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14), and the punishment for breaking it, “The adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” (Leviticus 20:10). The difference is that the crime of adultery requires two or more witnesses (Deuteronomy 17:6). The trial of the bitter water is plainly positioned as the fallback when there are no witnesses, just suspicion by the husband. The word adultery isn’t even used.
In the case of adultery, the community handles everything. In the case of the trial of the bitter water, God is judge, jury, and executioner. As an aside, that’s why this isn’t a trial by ordeal (more here, here, and here). In a trial by ordeal, the god’s decision is given immediately. Also, the trial and punishment are separate—the god indicates guilt or innocence, and the people impose a sentence in the case of a guilty verdict. Finally, a trial by ordeal is itself harmful or even life threatening (such as dunking in water or touching hot metal that the god would protect innocent people from). With the trial of bitter water, there is no immediate decision, both the trial and punishment are entirely in God’s hands, and drinking water, dust, and ink shouldn’t be dangerous.
Finally, note the asymmetry between husband and wife. If the husband is jealous, he can demand the ritual, and the wife is forced to go through with it. Not only is there no equivalent for a husband straying, there’s no consequences for his falsely accusing his wife.
So then does this potion cause a miscarriage? Continue to part 2.
read the same Bible and pray to the same God,
and each invokes His aid against the other.
— Abraham Lincoln, second inaugural address