Water of Bitterness

On Legends

There is an old Mosaic ritual in Numbers 5:16-28 that tests whether or not a wife has been unfaithful to her husband. If the husband suspects his wife has been unfaithful to him he brings her to the priest in the temple.

The Priest puts holy water and dust from the floor of the tabernacle into and earthen vessel. He then loosens the woman’s hair and puts the meal offering (of jealousy) in her hands. The priest then says:

‘If no man has lain with you, and if you haven’t gone aside to uncleanness, being under your husband, be free from this water of bitterness that brings a curse. But if you have gone astray, being under your husband, and if you are defiled, and some man has lain with you besides your husband:’ then the priest shall cause the woman to swear with the oath of cursing, and the priest shall tell the woman, ‘Yahweh make you a curse and an oath among your people, when Yahweh allows your thigh to fall away, and your body to swell; and this water that brings a curse will go into your bowels, and make your body swell, and your thigh fall away.’ The woman shall say, ‘Amen, Amen.’

The priest then writes the curse on a scroll then blots out the ink by dipping the scroll into the water and dissolving the ink into it. Then he makes the woman drink the water of bitterness. If she is defiled, the water will cause her body to swell, and her thigh will fall away. If the woman isn’t defiled, she is free and will still be able to conceive.

The Mishnah is the oral torah, finally written down about 200 AD, which may not be entirely accurate.
The Mishnah in Nashim, Sotah, adds the following:

  1. The woman meets the priest at the eastern gate, dressed in a black robe.

  2. She is put under the watch of 2 disciples for a time to make sure she is not alone with any man including her husband.

  3. The high priest loosens her bosom and her hair.

  4. The high priest then goes into the holy place, and on the right side of the holy place on the floor was a marble flagstone 1 cubit square, with a ring on the top. The priest opens it and takes some of the dust (or powder) to mix in the holy water to make the water of bitterness.

  5. He then writes the curse on a parchment scroll (could not be skin or papyrus) with ink (could not be gum or copperas or anything that leaves a lasting trace) and dips it into the water to dissolve the ink in with the dust and water.

  6. If she is guilty and drinks rather quickly her face will turn yellow and her eyes bulge out and her veins will swell.

  7. On some women with “merit” the punishment may not be immediate but may appear as far as one or two years out. But in the mean time she will not be able to bear children or continue to be comely (in proper proportion) but waste away by degrees.

  8. If the woman is old, sterile, or pregnant or nursing a child from another husband she can’t be made to drink.

The powder in water, possibly combined with something the ink, creates a chemical that interacts with her if her body chemistry has changed due to (1) pregnancy or (2) recently having sexual relations. If her body chemistry is normal due to not being pregnant, or not recently having sexual relations, the chemical does nothing.

So does anyone know what this special powder was? Or if there was anything special about the ink?
Does this only apply to a betrothed wife?

If any one has any new information on this, please e-mail us. 
Thanks very much!!!

Date: 8-2003