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(MT versing)
On Defilement Ceremonially Unclean
Persons Isolated
Various Instructions to the People
Unclean People Expulsion of the Unclean
5:1-4 5:1-4 5:1-4 5:1-4 5:1-4
Confession and Restitution Repayment for Wrongs Done Restitution
5:5-10 5:5-10 5:5-10 5:5-10 5:5-6a
The Adultery Test Concerning Unfaithful Wives Cases of Wives with Suspicious Husbands Cereal Offerings in Cases of Suspicion
5:11-15 5:11-15 5:11-15 5:11-15 5:11-12a
5:16-22 5:16-22 5:16-22 5:16-22a 5:16-18
5:23-28 5:23-28 5:23-28 5:23-28 5:23-24
5:29-31 5:29-31 5:29-31 5:29-31 5:29-31

READING CYCLE THREE (see "Bible Interpretation Seminar")


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects. Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

  1. First paragraph
  2. Second paragraph
  3. Etc.


  1. The book of Numbers divides into three major geographical units.
    1. preparation to leave Mt. Sinai
    2. the wilderness wandering period
    3. the journey from Kadesh-Barnea to the plains of Moab

  2. Numbers 1:1-10:10 forms the first major literary unit.
    1. the numbering of the army, chapters 1-4
    2. the cleansing of the camp, chapters 5-6
    3. the gifts of the leaders to dedicate the altar, chapter 7
    4. the dedication of the Levites, chapter 8
    5. the second Passover and the explanation of the leadership of the shekinah cloud of glory, chapter 9
    6. the two silver trumpets, chapter 10:1-10

  3. YHWH dwelt in the Tabernacle over the ark which was at the center of Israel's camp (cf. Num. 5:3; Numbers 4). He was holy and His people must be holy to maintain His presence. This chapter continues, from the book of Leviticus, the discussion on how to maintain holiness.

    Pollution must be removed.

    1. physical pollution, Num. 5:2-4
    2. acts of unfaithfulness, Num. 5:5-10
    3. suspected acts of marital unfaithfulness, Num. 5:11-31 (see Josephus, Antiq. 3.11.6)


1Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2"Command the sons of Israel that they send away from the camp every leper and everyone having a discharge and everyone who is unclean because of a dead person. 3You shall send away both male and female; you shall send them outside the camp so that they will not defile their camp where I dwell in their midst." 4The sons of Israel did so and sent them outside the camp; just as the Lord had spoken to Moses, thus the sons of Israel did.

5:2 "Command the sons of Israel that they send away from the camp" The VERB "send away" (BDB 1018, KB 1511) is used four times in Num. 5:1-4.

  1. Num. 5:2 ‒ Piel IMPERFECT used in a JUSSIVE sense
  2. Num. 5:3 ‒ Piel IMPERFECT possibly also in a JUSSIVE sense
  3. Same as 2.
  4. Num. 5:4 ‒ Piel IMPERFECT with waw

There are three types of individuals named here:

  1. those with skin disease (cf. Lev. 13:45-46)
  2. those who had a bodily discharge (cf. Leviticus 15)
  3. those who were unclean because of touching a dead person (cf. Leviticus 21; Num. 6:6-8)

Uncleanness is the opposite of wholeness and normalcy, just as an innocent, unblemished animal represented normalcy.

5:3 "both male and female" There is no distinction in uncleanness between the sexes. They had to remain outside the camp as a visible symbol of the holiness (see SPECIAL TOPIC: HOLY) and separateness of God, who dwelt in the midst of the camp (i.e., Tabernacle). God symbolically dwelt between the cherubim (see SPECIAL TOPIC: CHERUBIM) over the ark of the covenant (see SPECIAL TOPIC: THE ARK OF THE COVENANT) in the Holy of Holies (see SPECIAL TOPIC: THE TABERNACLE).

This verse, like v. 2, has Piel IMPERFECTS functioning as JUSSIVES. There is also one in v. 4. There is not a textual marker that these IMPERFECTS should be seen as JUSSIVES. Only context can determine this. Another possible example in this chapter would be the PERFECT VERB with waw, "go into" of Num. 5:22. It, too, may function as a JUSSIVE.

5Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 6"Speak to the sons of Israel, 'When a man or woman commits any of the sins of mankind, acting unfaithfully against the Lord, and that person is guilty, 7then he shall confess his sins which he has committed, and he shall make restitution in full for his wrong and add to it one-fifth of it, and give it to him whom he has wronged. 8But if the man has no relative to whom restitution may be made for the wrong, the restitution which is made for the wrong must go to the Lord for the priest, besides the ram of atonement, by which atonement is made for him. 9Also every contribution pertaining to all the holy gifts of the sons of Israel, which they offer to the priest, shall be his. 10So every man's holy gifts shall be his; whatever any man gives to the priest, it becomes his.'"

5:6 "When a man or woman commits any of the sins of mankind, acting unfaithfully against the Lord" As Num. 5:1-4 dealt with the ceremonial uncleanness of the camp, 5:5-11 deals with overt kinds of sin, particularly those which are related to a covenant partner.

In Num. 5:7, two qualifications for forgiveness are given and a third is in v. 8. They are:

  1. confess the sin publicly, apparently before the priest
  2. make full restitution and add one-fifth (cf. Leviticus 6)
  3. offer a sacrifice (cf. Leviticus 4-5)

These three elements involve, not only the mind, emotions, and will, but also symbolic acts which show that there is a procedure for cleanliness that YHWH has provided.

5:7 "confess" This VERB (BDB 392, KB 389, Hithpael PERFECT with waw), like the NT word (see SPECIAL TOPIC: CONFESSION/PROFESSION), has two meanings.

  1. confess ‒ Lev. 5:5; 16:21; 26:40; Dan. 9:20
  2. give thanks ‒ 2 Chr. 30:22

The Hiphil stem also has these two senses.

▣ "make restitution in full" This VERB (BDB 996, KB 1427, Hiphil PERFECT with waw) has a wide semantic field. Its basic meaning is "to turn," "to return," "to turn back." In this context, it is uniquely translated "restitution" (Num. 5:7,8 [twice]) by adding (Hiphil JUSSIVE) "a fifth" to

  1. the injured person
  2. or offer a ram to the priests for atonement (cf. Lev. 5:15; see SPECIAL TOPIC: ATONEMENT)

5:8 "if the man has no relative to whom restitution may be made" The rabbis question this because they wonder if there was anybody in Israel who had no relatives. They, therefore, assume that this refers to a proselyte.

This "relative" (BDB 145 I) is the family member who

  1. rescues the family ‒ Gen. 48:16; Exod. 6:6
  2. redeems persons ‒ Lev. 25:47-55
  3. redeems property ‒ Lev. 25:25; 27:9-25; Jer. 32:-8
  4. redeems family honor of dead relative ‒ Num. 5:8
  5. kinsman avenger ‒ Num. 35:9-34

5:9 "contribution" This is literally "heave offering" (BDB 929), which refers to

  1. that which was "lifted off"
  2. that which was lifted up and waved before the Lord (see note at Num. 5:25)

Here, it refers to an offering for the priest to whom it was given (cf. Lev. 22:12; Num. 18:8,11,19; 2 Chr. 31:10,12,14).

11Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 12"Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, 'If any man's wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him, 13and a man has intercourse with her and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband and she is undetected, although she has defiled herself, and there is no witness against her and she has not been caught in the act, 14if a spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife when she has defiled herself, or if a spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife when she has not defiled herself, 15the man shall then bring his wife to the priest, and shall bring as an offering for her one-tenth of an ephah of barley meal; he shall not pour oil on it nor put frankincense on it, for it is a grain offering of jealousy, a grain offering of memorial, a reminder of iniquity.'"

5:11-31 This deals with a very unusual test for adultery. It has some very manipulative psychological elements which are unusual for the Bible. This is more like the curse formulas and procedures which are characteristic of Babylonian (see James Pritchard, The ANE, vol. 1, p. 152, #132, from the Code of Hammurabi) and Hittite civilizations. Apparently this is listed here because even a hidden sin would pollute the camp.

The reason "adultery" was so serious a sin in Israel is because of "inheritance rights." YHWH gave each tribe a special allotment in Joshua. Each tribe had to conquer their assigned land and allocate it to each clan, family. Every 50 years, the year of jubilee (Leviticus 25), the land was to revert to its original owner. Inheritance rights were very important and sacred to Israelite families.

As unfair and shocking as this seems to modern westerners, it must be stated that this procedure was an act of grace for the accused woman.

  1. it was a recourse to stoning
  2. she must be taken from the husband's family and presented to a priest
  3. there was a specific procedure to verify her innocence

5:12 "goes astray" This VERB (BDB 966, KB 1316, Qal IMPERFECT) is used in vv. 12,19,20,29. The imagery is from "a straight, smooth, level path," which denotes the will of God but if one "turns aside" or "deviates" from the path, it denotes a willing rejection of God's laws (see. Ps. 89:15; 119:105; Isa. 2:5; 1 John 1:7).

5:14 "a spirit of jealousy comes over him" This says nothing about a demonic spirit named "jealous," but has to do with a man's attitude toward his wife (NOUN, BDB 888 and VERB BDB 888, KB 1109). The rabbis say that he must have some evidence of her unfaithfulness, such as one witness, or seeing her with another man. However, this is not stated in the text.

5:15 "one-tenth of an ephah of barley" This type of sacrifice shows something of the uncleanness of the situation. Barley was the cheapest kind of grain, often used for bread for the poor. It was rarely offered as sacrifice (cf. Ezek. 45:13).

It could include no oil or frankincense, which shows the seriousness of the sin and it was even called a "reminder of iniquity." Everything in this process would repeatedly bring the guilt, if there was any, to the mind of the woman involved in this procedure.



▣ "a grain offering of jealousy" This offering was to be placed on the wife's palms. After the oath curse part was burned on the altar and the priest received the rest (cf. Num. 5:25-26).

16"'Then the priest shall bring her near and have her stand before the Lord, 17and the priest shall take holy water in an earthenware vessel; and he shall take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water. 18The priest shall then have the woman stand before the Lord and let the hair of the woman's head go loose, and place the grain offering of memorial in her hands, which is the grain offering of jealousy, and in the hand of the priest is to be the water of bitterness that brings a curse. 19The priest shall have her take an oath and shall say to the woman, "If no man has lain with you and if you have not gone astray into uncleanness, being under the authority of your husband, be immune to this water of bitterness that brings a curse; 20if you, however, have gone astray, being under the authority of your husband, and if you have defiled yourself and a man other than your husband has had intercourse with you" 21(then the priest shall have the woman swear with the oath of the curse, and the priest shall say to the woman), "the Lord make you a curse and an oath among your people by the Lord's making your thigh waste away and your abdomen swell; 22and this water that brings a curse shall go into your stomach, and make your abdomen swell and your thigh waste away." And the woman shall say, "Amen. Amen."

5:16 "shall bring her near and have her stand before the Lord" Obviously the positioning of the suspected wife is religiously significant. Exactly where they would stand is uncertain but somewhere within the outer bounds of the Tabernacle, possibly close to or facing the inner shrine.

5:17 "holy water" This would have been water from the bronze laver, which was before the inner shrine or to one side between the shrine and the altar of sacrifice. See SPECIAL TOPIC: THE TABERNACLE (chart) and SPECIAL TOPIC: LAVER OF BRONZE.

The LXX has "pure living water," which in some rituals, refers to spring water (see Josephus, Antiq. 3.11.1). The NJB has "fresh water."

▣ "holy water. . .some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle" These are the three physical elements in the water of bitterness.

  1. holy water came from the Laver
  2. the dust from the floor of the Tabernacle (where exactly is unknown)
  3. ink from the curse scroll (v. 23)
  4. one wonders if some of the grain offering was included (v. 15)

5:18 "The priest shall then have the woman" The woman's part is seen in a series of acts.

  1. she had to stand before the Lord
  2. the hair on her head had to be loose
  3. she had to take an oral oath
  4. she had to swear along with the priest
  5. she had to affirm the oath with an "amen"
  6. she had to drink the water

▣ "let the hair of her head go loose" This may show

  1. her uncleanness, like that of a leper (cf. Lev. 13:45)
  2. or it was a sign of mourning (see IVP Bible Background Commentary, p. 145)
  3. it could be a sign of openness, like the removal of one's shoes

5:19 "be immune" This is literally the Niphal IMPERATIVE "be free," "be exempt," or "be clean" (BDB 667, KB 720).

  1. free from guilt ‒ Num. 5:31; Ps. 19:13; Jer. 2:35
  2. free from punishment ‒ Num. 5:28; Exod. 21:19; 1 Sam. 26:9; Pro. 6:29; 11:21; 16:5; 17:5; 18:5,9; 28:20; Jer. 25:29; 49:12
  3. free from effect ‒ Num. 5:19

5:21 "the priest shall have the woman swear with the oath of a curse" The oath and consequences are spelled out in vv. 20-22. The results of unfaithfulness without the appropriate witnesses could not be the death penalty, Lev. 20:10, but would be the punishment of not having children, which to an Israelite, would be an ultimate curse (cf. Num. 5:28). However, it may be that the woman, being pregnant already, was the source of the husband's "spirit of jealousy."

For "curse" see NIDOTTE, vol. 4, pp. 491-493. Curses are the clearly stated result of disobedience to God's revealed will. They are the opposite of what to do (cf. Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 27-28; 30:15,19; Psalm 1).

5:22 "Amen. Amen" "Amen" is a form of the Hebrew word for "faith," but here it is used in our modern usage of "I affirm," "I agree," or "may it be so." See SPECIAL TOPIC: AMEN.

23"'The priest shall then write these curses on a scroll, and he shall wash them off into the water of bitterness. 24Then he shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that brings a curse, so that the water which brings a curse will go into her and cause bitterness. 25The priest shall take the grain offering of jealousy from the woman's hand, and he shall wave the grain offering before the Lord and bring it to the altar; 26and the priest shall take a handful of the grain offering as its memorial offering and offer it up in smoke on the altar, and afterward he shall make the woman drink the water. 27When he has made her drink the water, then it shall come about, if she has defiled herself and has been unfaithful to her husband, that the water which brings a curse will go into her and cause bitterness, and her abdomen will swell and her thigh will waste away, and the woman will become a curse among her people. 28But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, she will then be free and conceive children.'"

5:23 "The priest shall then write these curses on a scroll, and he shall wash them off into the water of bitterness" The ink from the scroll would come off in the water and thereby, the curse itself would be drunk by the accused woman.

5:25 "he shall wave the grain offering before the Lord" The MT has the VERB (BDB 631, KB 682, Hiphil PERFECT with waw), which is used for a wave offering. The motion is uncertain.

  1. lift up then back down (i.e., give to YHWH and receive back)
  2. side to side (i.e., to show YHWH)

Notice the different "wave offerings."

  1. Exod. 29:27; Lev. 9:21
    1. breast wave offering
    2. right thigh heave offering
  2. Exod. 29:22-25; Lev. 8:27, several items waved
  3. Lev. 14:12,24, guilt offering waved
  4. Lev. 23:11-12,20, first fruits
  5. Num. 6:20, part of Nazirite offerings
  6. Num. 8:11,13,15,21, part of Levites' dedication to service

5:26 "make the woman drink the water" These drink curses are not common in the Bible. The only other one known is Exod. 32:20, which has to do with the golden calf experience. Drink curses were quite common in North African and Hittite cultures.

29"'This is the law of jealousy: when a wife, being under the authority of her husband, goes astray and defiles herself, 30or when a spirit of jealousy comes over a man and he is jealous of his wife, he shall then make the woman stand before the Lord, and the priest shall apply all this law to her. 31Moreover, the man will be free from guilt, but that woman shall bear her guilt.'"

5:31 "the man shall be free from guilt" This could possibly refer to

  1. the death of the woman involved
  2. her inability to bear children
  3. the fact that he accused her but she was not guilty

The concepts of the equality of the sexes and women's rights are both modern, western concepts. Individual rights are a western political affirmation. I do believe that there was an original mutuality (Gen. 1:26-27) damaged by the Fall (Genesis 3).


This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought-provoking, not definitive.

  1. Why was the "holiness" of Israel's camp so important?
  2. Does Num. 5:5-10 specify what kind of "sins of mankind" are being referred to?
  3. Why was "restitution" plus 20% important?
  4. Define "the kinsman redeemer."
  5. How does Num. 5:11-28 protect the wife?

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