Numbers: The Adultery Test

Sermon by on February 14, 2007

Numbers 5:11-31

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Wednesday Evening

February 14,

Numbers 5:11-31

“The Adultery Test”

Dr. Ligon Duncan

I’m always so edified and instructed and encouraged by
listening to you pray. The brother that prayed earlier,…I thought, “There’s a
book title in that prayer: ‘We are in Christ, but I’m still in Jackson.’” You
know, my life is hid in Christ, but I’m still in Jackson. There’s a whole sermon
series and a book, maybe even a franchise in that one prayer. It says so much.

Well, it was about three days ago, friends, that it
began to dawn upon me what I had done to myself and to you. And you’re scanning
the passage tonight, and you’re asking yourself the question, “What kind of
idiot would preach a sermon on the adultery test – on Valentine’s Day?!” Well,
you know, after working through this passage for a few days, more and more I saw
how appropriate it was, and how rich it is, and how filled it is with God…the
sovereignty of God…amen. So let’s look to God’s word and read it here in Numbers
5, beginning in verse 11. And before we do, let’s look to Him in prayer.

Heavenly Father, You surprise us in so many and
so amazing ways, and You’re going to surprise us again in this passage tonight.
It’s really hard to imagine a more bizarre, a more obscure ritual in all of
Scripture; and yet in it there is so much truth. There is so much of You,
there’s so much of Christ, there’s so much of grace, there’s so much of the
gospel, there’s so much of the gospel imperatives of God, and we thank You for
that. Open our eyes to behold wonderful things from Your word. We ask it in
Jesus’ name. Amen.

Hear God’s word:

“Speak to the sons of Israel, and say to them, ‘If any man’s wife
goes astray and is unfaithful to him, and 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, if 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, the 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.

“‘Then the priest shall bring her near and have her stand before the
Lord, and 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. The 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. And the
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; if 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,’ 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; and 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, and Amen.’

“‘The priest shall then write these curses on a scroll, and he shall
wash them off into the water of bitterness. Then 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. And the 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; and 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. When 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 shall 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. But if the woman
has not defiled herself and is clean, she will then be free and conceive

“‘This is the law of jealousy: when a wife, being under the
authority of her husband, goes astray and defiles herself, or 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.
Moreover, the man shall be free from guilt, but that woman shall bear her

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God’s holy, inspired,
and inerrant word. May He write its eternal truth upon our hearts.

You know, when you first read this passage, it not
only strikes you as bizarre…something left over from some very remote place and
time…but it could potentially strike you as chauvinistic, abusive, oppressive,
pointless. But I want to assure you it is not.

As we look at this passage tonight, I want you to
understand four things.

First of all, I want you to appreciate the larger
theological significance of this ritual.
This ritual is actually intimately
connected with what we’ve already studied in this passage. It makes perfect
sense once you understand verses 1-10. It fits in with the whole theme of this
chapter. It makes perfect sense.

Secondly, I want you to understand what the
ritual teaches us about the importance of sexual purity to God.

Thirdly, I want you to understand what this
ritual teaches us (brace yourself!) about the sacraments
–about the signs and
seals of the covenant of grace that God has given to us–because this ritual
actually goes a long way in explaining biblical ritual to us: what it means, how
it functions, what it’s supposed to do.

And then, fourth and finally, I want you to
appreciate what this ritual teaches us about the importance of the marriage
How appropriate is that for Valentine’s Day? I want you to appreciate
what this ritual teaches about the importance of the marriage bond, and about
what it means to be the people of God. Four things, then, I want you to see

I. The significance of this

First, let’s start with the big
picture of this ritual.
Let’s try and appreciate this ritual in context and
understand the nature of this trial. In the ancient world, had we lived when the
Israelites had lived, we would be familiar — if not first hand, at least second
hand — with things that were called trials by ordeal. Other cultures in
the Near East had them. We have records, for instance, in the Mari Laws about
trials by ordeal. They were things that were done to prove the innocence of
people who were accused and there was no way of proving their innocence
empirically. Jealous husbands, wounded debtors, various others in society would
be provided a way of bringing a charge against someone that they suspected of
being guilty, and some sort of trial by ordeal would be done to prove them
innocent. Unfortunately, in those particular practices, the accused were often
proceeded with as if they were guilty until proven innocent. Furthermore, often
these trials by ordeal were cruel. A woman is accused of adultery. She is
brought before the judge of her land. A trial of ordeal is ordered, and she is
told, “You see this bowl of boiling water. Submerge your hand in that bowl of
boiling water. If you remove your hand and it is not scalded, you are innocent.”
Well, how often did that work, friends? You’re guilty, and the trial by ordeal
is cruel and scarring. No one is going to survive that trial. Or, you’re told,
“Grasp this red hot rod with your hand, and if your hand is not burned, you are
innocent.” Cruel tests are ordered.

But notice, by contrast here, this test does not
impose any cruel trial by ordeal. What is done here from a physical standpoint
is perfectly safe – water mixed with a little bit of dust. Furthermore, notice
that it’s controlled. In many cultures, even to this day, a suspicious husband,
assuming that his wife has been unfaithful to him with regard to their marriage
bonds, and in those cultures what will happen? She will just disappear, and none
of the fathers of the village will ask any questions. She just disappears. He
takes matters into his own hands. He suspects her, she cannot prove her
innocence, and he takes care of it.

Here, however, this may not be done in Israel. If a
husband cannot get relief from his fears and his jealousy, he must go — where? —
to the church. There, in this controlled environment, the priest becomes
involved. Repentance is constrained. You understand as we study through this
passage that the whole passage is designed to give the person every opportunity
to confess the sin, to encourage that confession. And of course, here the test
is public. No dealing with this person behind closed doors, but at the very
tabernacle, the place of worship. No, this trial is totally different from the
trials of ordeal that would have existed in cultures around Israel.

But you’re still asking me the question, “Why is
this text here? Why is this being said and commanded by God through Moses to the
children of Israel in the wilderness?”

Well, there are several obvious reasons. The
first one is simply this. In this passage already, in verses 1-10, we have seen
what? Physical impurities that lead to defilement, and thus require you to be
removed at least for some time from the camp, because you don’t want to defile
the camp; then, moral offenses that lead to defilement and thus require that you
be removed from the camp because God is in the camp; and we are in the camp if
we are in the children of Israel; and to be with God and to dwell with God
requires that we be pure and undefiled; and, therefore, what’s happening here?
It is another case of defilement.

The whole point is that sexual impurity is
defiling, and it requires removal from the camp.
The whole point is that
adultery defiles and thus pollutes the camp. What more profound way can God
explain to His people that our belief and our behavior go together? You can’t
say ‘I’m a follower of the God of Israel, but I’m going to live sexually like a
pagan.’ Uh-uh. No. God says no, not here in My house, not in My people, not in
My camp. Your belief and your behavior go together. You’re going to follow the
God of Israel with your lips — you’re also going to follow the God of Israel in
your sexual purity.

And then, of course, it’s so clear that here God
wants to tie the issue of unfaithfulness to the spouse to unfaithfulness to Him.

Did you notice the language that is used in verse 12? “If a man’s wife goes
astray and is…” [what?] “…unfaithful to him….” And then what is she required to
do in this ritual? She’s required to go before God and offer an offering and
protest — what? — “Lord, I’m innocent.” So if she’s found guilty, what has
happened? She’s not only been unfaithful to her husband, she’s been unfaithful
to whom? To God. She’s not only lied to her husband, she’s lied to God. What’s
God’s point? ‘When you are unfaithful to your spouse, you are unfaithful to Me.’

And of course the bitter cup in this particular
passage — what’s it connected to?
You’re a child of Israel; you’ve just
heard Moses teach you the truth of Genesis; you’ve just heard Moses teach you
the truth of Exodus. You’re here in Numbers in the wilderness, and Moses is
telling you this law and you’re hearing about a woman who has to drink a cup of
water with dust in it. What comes into your mind? What’s the first thing that
comes into your mind? What happened at Mt. Sinai while Moses was receiving the
Ten Commandments? The people of God were — what? — unfaithful to Him. How were
they unfaithful to Him? They built a golden calf. When Moses came down and God
rendered His judgment, what did God tell Moses to do? Have Aaron do what? Melt
that sucker down, pound it into dust, pour it into water, and make the children
of Israel drink it.

And of course that has behind it another story.
There was once a serpent who plunged the whole world into sin by his temptation.
And what was required of him to do in the curses that God administered in
Genesis 3? Crawl on his belly and do what? Lick the dust of the earth.

You see, it’s a picture of unfaithfulness here, and
the consequences of it when God pours out His just judgment. And so this
passage…don’t think this is just some bizarre, arcane, obscure, pointless
ritual! No, this is hooked right into what God wants to teach His people: ‘The
way you live matters. The way you live towards one another is directly connected
to your living towards Me. In fact, the way you live together as husband and
wife is directly connected to your faithfulness to Me.’ You see, this is not
some bizarre ritual designed to force an oppressive chauvinism in Israel. No, it
is a picture of God’s call for faithfulness and His promise of judgment on
unfaithfulness. God’s ways may be strange, but they’re right and they’re just,
and we learn that in this passage. That’s the first thing I want you to see.

II. The importance of sexual
purity to God.

But here’s the second thing I want
you to see.
In this passage we have an aggrieved or suspicious man required
to take his wife to his priest in the case of his fear, his jealousy that she
has been sexually impure and she has been morally unfaithful to him in their
marriage. And we learn something about this with regard to God’s concern for
sexual purity, and that concern is simply this: As far as God is concerned, He’s
saying to Israel ‘Your sexual purity is not a private issue. Your sexual purity
is not a private issue. It is an issue that impacts the whole camp of Israel.’
You can be off in a tent where you think no one knows, but this is an issue of
the whole people of God, and it’s a spiritual issue because sexual purity is a
test of faithfulness to God. And sexual impurity is an indication of
unfaithfulness to God, and it brings about defilement on the whole camp of

When I was a seminarian, I moved from Greenville,
South Carolina, where in my county there were 256 Baptist churches, to St.
Louis, Missouri. And you remember in those days there was no direct satellite
TV, there was not even much cable when I was leaving college and going to
seminary, and so I had never seen the Roman Catholic, very conservative
television network “The Eternal Word Network.” You can get it on your cable now
— you can see Mother Angelica and all these very Catholic folks doing their
talks. Well, I was watching one day, flipping through the channels one night and
came upon The Eternal Word Network, and there was a priest doing a lecture to a
bunch of Catholic students at a large university in the Midwest, and he was
addressing the issue of sexual purity, and he was talking about young Catholic
students who came to him on one occasion. They were cohabiting together, they
were engaging in immoral sexual relations. And they said to him, you know,
“Father, surely there couldn’t be anything wrong with something so beautiful as
this. Our love for one another overflows into our physical relations with one
another.” And he said to them, and he said to this whole crowd, “I said to them,
‘Of course there’s absolutely nothing wrong. Absolutely nothing wrong with your
fornication–if you’re a pagan.’” Oh, it was a very powerful apologetic. He says
‘Of course…you act that way, that’s how pagans act. That’s not how Christians
act.’ And that’s precisely what God is saying in this passage. Sexual purity is
an issue that He’s concerned about. It’s a spiritual issue. It’s not just a
private issue. It’s not just a personal issue. It’s an issue that affects all
the people of God. God cares about sexual purity.

You know at the end of the Book of Revelation, when
John is listing those who will not be in heaven, do you know who he lists in
Revelation 21:8, 22:15? Those who are sexually immoral. Now you see his point is
not that sexual immorality is the unpardonable sin; the point is this: no child
of God goes on in sexual immorality unrepentant of it. God cares about sexual

III. What this teaches us about
the sacraments.

There’s a third thing that we see in
this great passage, and it is a pictured oath.
This oath is pictured for us
in the ritual that’s set forth. I can’t go through all of the steps, but think
of this great day. The husband has gone on and on trying to get a confession,
trying to get clarity for his wife. Don’t think that every husband in Israel
that has an inkling that his wife is unfaithful marches her up to the priest
straightway. In fact, in the Old Testament we have no record of this law ever
being put into practice. The law itself presupposes that the husband has gone to
great extents to keep from getting to this point. Can you imagine what it would
do to your relationship to take your wife to the tabernacle like this, and she
turns out to be innocent? Where are you going to be sleeping for the next
ten years?

No, the law is a case in extremity. But think of the
picture. This woman must go into the presence of God at the tabernacle with the
priest, and she must drink — what? Holy water, that water that has been at the
laver near the altar. And not just holy water, but holy water with dust from the
tabernacle floor. She is going to take things that have been in the presence of
God and she is going to pour them into her body. What’s the picture there? She’s
taking into herself holy things, and if she is being untruthful and if she is
hiding a grievous sin, those holy things are going to come inside of her and be
right next to her infidelity. You see, the oath that she is taking is played out
in all of the steps of the ritual.

Secondly, think of it: she’s here while all of
this is going on, and the offering is handed to her.
You know in the
Old Testament, who is it usually that’s bringing the offering to the Lord? It’s
the head of the family. Now she’s holding this barley meal offering, this cereal
offering in her own hands.

What is it that Jesus says in Matthew 5:23-26?
You’re on your way to the temple to offer sacrifices and you remember — what?
You’ve offended someone. And what does Jesus say? ‘Don’t you go to the temple.
You go do — [what?] You go confess. You go get right. You go be reconciled,
because if you come to the temple and you offer a sacrifice and you are offering
that sacrifice in hypocrisy and sin, what will happen to you?’ He says you will
be rejected by God. And so what’s this woman doing? She’s holding the sacrifice
in her hands, and she must call down upon herself a curse. Even the
language…it’s the only time in the Bible where the very prayer that the priest
is supposed to pray is given to him. He’s not to alter from it. This is ‘The
Book of Church Order’! You use these words, priest. And what does it remind you
of? Doesn’t it remind you of the oaths that God Himself takes in Genesis 15? “Be
it done to Me as we have done to these animals if I am unfaithful to My
promise.” And she here takes an oath where she calls down on herself a curse:
‘If I have been unfaithful, the curse of God be upon me.’ And she must face the
prospects of barrenness and public execration and exile, excommunicated from the
people of God.

Now we’re seeing here a picture of how sacraments,
visible signs and symbols do what? They reinforce the truths of God’s word.
They’re designed to picture before our eyes the truth that God has spoken, and
just as in this ritual the actions illustrate visibly, pictorially, what is
happening with regard to this transaction between the woman, the priest, her
husband, and God. Each step of the way in the ritual illustrates, makes tangible
and visible, some truth that is entailed in the whole process. It’s a pictured
oath. It’s an oath of self-curse dramatized in the ritual.

Well, I have to hasten on.

IV. The ritual and marriage.

The last thing we see in this passage
is that these public measures highlight the sacredness of the marriage bond.

They show to us the importance of marriage to God. Again, here we’re being told
that marital fidelity is a spiritual issue. It impacts the whole community. It
impacts our relationship with God. The whole passage makes it clear that
unfaithfulness in marriage is incompatible with membership in the people of God.
If she is found to be unfaithful and she is unrepentant of it, she is to be
exiled from her people — cut off. She is to be barren.

You know marriage is a picture of the gospel. Paul
teaches us that in Ephesians 5. And God is so serious about that that Peter says
to husbands in I Peter 3:7 that if you do not treat your wife with
understanding, God will not hear your prayers. You see how serious God is about
marriage? Because marriage is a picture of the gospel, and so what is at stake
in our marriages, men, is the gospel. Do we realize that in our marriages? Do we
take our treatment of our wives that seriously, that the gospel is at stake in
the way we treat our wives? What is God doing in this passage but saying to
Israel ‘Your marital fidelity to one another is not just a matter of your
personal relationship. It is an indication, it’s a manifestation, of your
faithfulness to Me. If you’re unfaithful to one another, you cannot be faithful
to Me.’

My friends, there’s one last thing I want to
leave you with, and that’s simply this.
Yes, the people of God would have
thought of the golden calf incident when they saw this woman drinking this
bitter cup of dust and holy water. Yes, they would have thought of the serpent
in the wilderness licking the dust under the curse of God. But we, Christians,
we remember another bitter cup. It’s recorded for us in Matthew 26, and Jesus
wrestled all night, asking God, “If it’s possible, take this cup from Me.”

Have you ever wondered what the disciples were
missing while they were sleeping and Jesus was praying that prayer? Let me tell
you what they were missing. They were missing what every Christian who
understands this whole complex of truth…they were missing what every Christian
would have thought if they had seen Jesus praying that prayer. They would have
been saying ‘Lord Jesus, don’t drink that cup of my contamination! Don’t You
take my sins, my contaminated life, my wickedness, my adulteries, my
unfaithfulness and pour it in Your precious body! Don’t do it! Because it will
make You unclean.’

And you remember how this whole passage started…the
leper, the hemorrhaging woman, the defilement that comes by touching a dead
body. And do you remember how we said that in the New Testament Luke tells us
that Jesus touches the leper and He doesn’t become unclean:. The leper becomes
clean. And Jesus touches the hemorrhaging woman, and He doesn’t become unclean,
she becomes clean. And Jesus touches that dead little girl, and He raises her
from the dead. He doesn’t become unclean. She becomes clean and alive. And here
again the believer is saying ‘Lord Jesus, don’t take that cup of contamination
into You. Don’t become unclean. Don’t defile Yourself with our sin.’ And we
watch Him go through that great fight at the cross. And when He emerges from the
tomb, you know what we see: He is not unclean! He’s touched, and He’s taken into
Himself our sin and the punishment of God for it. What we find is – we’re clean.

Oh, my friends, I wish I could take another half
hour to go with you through this passage, because it is shot through with the
gospel of grace: Our Savior who takes in His own body the cup of the wrath of
God, and He drinks it to the dregs, and He makes you clean.

Let’s pray.

Lord God, we’re so ashamed when we think that
Your word doesn’t make sense, but we’re so amazed at Your grace to us in Jesus
Christ. Grant us grateful hearts and joy in the Holy Ghost because of the glory
of the gospel of Your Son. We pray this in His name. Amen.

Let’s sing The Doxology.

[Congregation sings.]

Grace to you. Amen.

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