Unfaithful wives suspected and warned in Numbers 5:19-21

admin apologetics, Old Testament

GotQuestions already did a wonderful short answer to the question:Is Numbers 5:11-31 referring to God causing an abortion? 
This article is a long response to one of the points in the polemics between PineCreek and Dr. James White on the subject of interpretation of Numbers 5:19-21. Mr PineCreek who runs the YouTube channel called PineCreek challenged Dr. James White director of Alpha and Omega Ministries to answer some questions affirmatively, which seem to undermine the character of the God of the Bible.
Goals: to clarify the meaning of 4 Hebrew words yə·rê·ḵêḵ nō·p̄e·leṯ, and biṭ·nêḵ ṣā·ḇāh (rotting thigh and swelling belly) and to show that God does not want a suspected adulteress to miscarry the baby.
In this article I would like to answer the meaning of yə·rê·ḵêḵ nō·p̄e·leṯ (and to rot (your) thigh) in Numbers 5:21 and try to see if Christians should believe that God (Jesus) sanctioned abortion (killing of the unborn) if an unfaithful wife was pregnant. For those who are lazy to read it all, I want to answer shortly: no, God (Jesus) did not sanction abortion (killing of the unborn) in Numbers 5:11-28. To read the full account, buckle up and read on.
Numbers 5 was written between 1445 and 1405 BCE, and when they heard that phrase yə·rê·ḵêḵ nō·p̄e·leṯ (and to rot (your) thigh) – , then they understood what that threat (sickness) was. For me on the first reading without any commentaries it literally means that one’s thigh is rotting.
For us there are 2 options:
a. Word-for-word translation, meaning that in case the suspected adulteress will be found guilty, then her thigh will literally rot or “fall away, waste away” regardless the fact of her pregnancy and her belly shall swell. The plain sense of the all passage is threefold a) way for husband to prove if his wife is faithful, 2) the way for the wife to prove her innocence, 3) keeping the society free from sexual pollution.
Mark that the text does not say that she already carries a baby from adultery. It does however present a serious threat to the woman if proved guilty of adultery.
There is bitter water, there is an oath written on a scroll and mixed with bitter water that the priest gives her. If she is innocent — the water does her no damage. If she is guilty of adultery, then the same water damages her body in the way described in Numbers 5:21 (Num. 5:27) “and her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall rot.”
Damage is clearly done to the body of the woman, not the unborn child.
Verse 27 adds that if she is found guilty then, and then only the curse will take effect: “…and her belly SHALL swell, and her thigh SHALL rot: and the woman shall be a curse among her people.” Numbers 5:27
And then the verse 28 adds important info: “And if the woman be not defiled, but be clean; then she shall be free, and shall conceive seed.” (KJV) or ERV if you prefer “But if the woman has not sinned against her husband and she is pure, the priest will say that she is not guilty. Then she will be normal and able to have children.”Numbers 5:28 (ERV)

So we see that the curse affects the woman in 2 ways: first, it makes her a pariah, cursed, unacceptable in the society, viewed upon as an unclean person and second it affects her health and ability to conceive children due to yə·rê·ḵêḵ nō·p̄e·leṯ, and biṭ·nêḵ ṣā·ḇāh (rotting thigh and swelling belly) curse. Again in order to find there some ritual abortion sanctioned by God one would have to insert his/her interpretation of the Numbers 2:11-22 directly into the Numbers 5:21. And that’s what I believe is done in ERV text. However they add a footnote: “Literally, “Your loins will fall and your belly will swell.””

What hinders them from accepting that nice wording? I don’t know. Maybe a desire to make another translation.

 Though I don’t know for sure, yet I am not far from agreeing with those who see here the prolapse of the uterus. That’s a sickness which does hinder your sexual life. That’s a sickness that can hinder her from conceiving children. We are not told however what degree of prolapse it is going to be. Is it going to be a 3d degree prolapse when the cervix is very low, or 4th degree when the uterus drops outside? Those are just our speculations based on the medical conditions that are known to us today and not on the ceremonial law described in Numbers 5:11-22.
b. Dynamic translation, implies that yə·rê·ḵêḵ nō·p̄e·leṯ cannot simply mean “your thigh will rot”, and biṭ·nêḵ ṣā·ḇāh cannot simply mean “belly will swell”.
Here is a simple plan on how they make translations:
Yes, this can be interpreted dynamically like you read in ERV: “her belly shall swell” (meaning) “You will not be able to have any children.” or NIV/NIVUK = “when he makes your womb miscarry” or The VOICE = “you will have a miscarriage” and “her thigh shall rot.” (meaning) “And if you are pregnant now, your baby will die.” or NIV/NIVUK = “your abdomen swell”, or The VOICE = “your belly will swell”
That’s why they came up with what you read in ERV “You will not be able to have any children. And if you are pregnant now, your baby will die.[a]” And though that is possible outcome of the rotting thighs and swollen belly, yet do you see how far fetched that is? Even if your thighs rot, woman’s baby can survive. Even if you will have a prolapsed uterus, woman’s baby can still survive.
But you have to see clearly that the original text of Numbers 5:21 didn’t mention neither pregnancy, nor miscarriage, or death of the unborn baby. All those are only possible if one makes many false logical assumptions. For instance:
1. If this woman is an adulteress, then there is high chance that she is pregnant before drinking the bitter water.
2. God killed many people in the Old Testament, so it is “all right” for him to kill the unborn baby of an adulteress.
3. We cannot quite understand what ə·rê·ḵêḵ nō·p̄e·leṯ, and biṭ·nêḵ ṣā·ḇāh (rotting thigh and swelling belly) really mean. So we will just explain it to the best of our abilities and then put the literal translation to footnotes. Agreed! Let’s print that. No, that’s a wrong route.
In Numbers 5:11-28 noone but God and the suspected woman probably know whether she is pregnant or not. There are several scenarios. She could be faithful and pregnant from her husband. She could be unfaithful and pregnant from adultery. She could be faithful and not pregnant. She could be unfaithful and not pregnant. Drinking bitter water with words of oath in it is just a litmus test, like GotQuestions explained. Yet the translators want clarity in the punishment of the suspected lady. They are not satisfied with plain yə·rê·ḵêḵ nō·p̄e·leṯ, and biṭ·nêḵ ṣā·ḇāh (rotting thigh and swelling belly) for mysterious reasons. Maybe on seeing the ambiguity of the fate of the baby in the text, they think:
If she is an adulteress. She is pregnant by now. If she is pregnant by now and the curse takes effect, then it will affect not only the adulteress, but the child as well.  Right? How could the child survive if her thighs will rot and her belly will swell? Impossible. That’s the possible logic.
Yet here’s the dilemma. None of the word-for-word texts say anything about the harm to the baby. Only to the woman in case the bitter water proves she was cheating on her husband. Therefore all the thought-for-thought translations propose a false logical idea of what could have happened if the woman was pregnant, but that’s not in the text.


So, does God support abortion for unfaithful wives?

The short answer is “no”. God does not teach abortion in Numbers 5:11-28.
At this chart I want to show how the miscarriage and abortion creep into the text.
If you check ESV, KJV and NASB – you get 4 words, in 2 phrases. We already been repeating those words so often, that you probably learned them by heart: yə·rê·ḵêḵ nō·p̄e·leṯ, and biṭ·nêḵ ṣā·ḇāh (rotting thigh and swelling belly)
ESV: when the Lord makes your thigh fall away and your body to swell
KJV: when the Lord doth make thy thigh to rot and thy body to swell
NASB: by the Lord making your thigh waste away and your abdomen swell
But as soon as we come to ERV and NIV we find ourselves in a conundrum. We see that the translators in a way instead of plain Numbers 5:21 “your thigh fall away and your body to swell” put their interpretation of Numbers 5:21 and even of Numbers 5:11-28 instead of yə·rê·ḵêḵ nō·p̄e·leṯ, and biṭ·nêḵ ṣā·ḇāh , and we get either the 2 summary thoughts in case of ERV or comments of the translators of NIV written into the text. Both include the harm done not only to the woman but to her child as well if she is pregnant.
That’s not a good translation. That’s the way to bend the meaning of the text. Translators shouldn’t think that if the Scripture doesn’t say something, explicitly, it’s their duty to explain away all the difficult texts inside the canvas of the Scripture text. That’s why I prefer word-for-word translations. Want to explain something? Put your comments in the footnotes, and not the original text.
I don’t like that kind of dealing with the text. It does explain the passage, but it compromises the preciseness and the original meaning of the text. That’s why that question about “miscarriages” and “sanctioned abortions” was able to sprout up. Had we only the word-for-word translations, or if everyone would read Hebrew, then we wouldn’t talk about God sanctioning the abortions in the text, but rather see both God’s mercy  and justice to both the jealous husband, and to his wife. We would see the holiness of God and separation of the people of Israel from other nations. That’s just my opinion.
Finally, we have to remember 2 things about this interesting word “nofelet”:
1) There is a strong connection of the word “nofelet” and verbs fall (318x), fall down (25x)
 2) Some translators translated “nofelet” with the verb “shrivel” like these:
“he makes your womb[a] shrivel- CSB,
“private parts shrivel” – CJB,
“He makes your thigh[a] shrivel ” – HCSB
“he makes your womb shrivel” – The Message
“causing your womb to shrivel[a]” – NLT
But I think that “shrivel” is a rather loose translation of “nofelet”.
I think they just went logically like this.
1. Word-for-word translations translated “nofelet” like “rot, waste away”. Ok.
2. What happens with organs when they rot (KJV, ESV) or waste away(NASB)?
A. They either grow smaller (shrivel), or B. grow bigger (swollen).

What is our case?

3. Here it looks like both things are happening.
4. Let’s translate it this way: “nofelet”=”shrivel”. Done!
Yet they(CSB, CJB, HCSB, The Message, NLT) totally disregard the fact that “nofelet” is used like “fall” (318x times), and “fall down” (25x times) and like “rot” only thrice. That’s why I would rather stick with either “fall away” or “rot”.
When in NLT we read that suspected wife’s womb will shrivel (becomes smaller?) and abdomen will swell (becomes bigger?) Which one do we accept? Or is it thighs that become smaller and belly (or abdomen) becomes bigger?
I think if Moses chose to put the phrases yə·rê·ḵêḵ nō·p̄e·leṯ, and biṭ·nêḵ ṣā·ḇāh “thigh will rot and belly swell” here then he meant some specific sickness that was observable on other women who just were sick with it even without having that curse, but just because of old age or some mishap during child birth. How that looked we don’t know. It all depends on the meaning of yə·rê·ḵêḵ nō·p̄e·leṯ, and biṭ·nêḵ ṣā·ḇāh (rotting thigh and swelling belly)
To me it looks like signs of a prolapsed uterus.
But we have to keep in mind that the main damage here is rather to the mother than to mother and the possible baby in the womb.
Her yə·rê·ḵêḵ (thigh, loins, haunch, buttocks) will become nō·p̄e·leṯ, and her biṭ·nêḵ (belly, womb, abdomen) will be ṣā·ḇāh (swollen) So accepting that “nofelet” is most likely to signify “falling down” and “yə·rê·ḵêḵ, or yə·rê·ḵ” means thigh or “private parts”, and then all of that is followed by biṭ·nêḵ ṣā·ḇāh – swelling of the belly, that brings me to this possible translation of the Hebrew text:
“And shall say the priest to the woman: “Make the Lord a curse you and an oath among your people, when does make the Lord your thigh fall away and your belly to swell.” (Numbers 5:21 AK translation)
In any case even when we don’t know how precisely that sickness looked like, we can be sure of one thing, that it was a horrible disease.
It made woman sick, infertile and accursed, not welcome in the society.
Verse 27 answers what happens after the woman suspected of adultery drinks that bitter drink.
“And when he has made her drink the water, then, if she has defiled herself and has broken faith with her husband, the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain, and her womb shall swell, and her thigh shall fall away, and the woman shall become a curse among her people.” (Num.5:27) ESV
You see? Nothing about the baby or abortion, unless you accept the thought-for-thought Easy to Read version.
Conclusion: I support most word-for-word translations (KJV, ESV, NASB) which are not afraid to leave ambiguity in the curse symptoms of Numbers 5:11-28(which was very clear to everyone in 1400 BC) and even though the outcome of the oath/curse is rather strange: yə·rê·ḵêḵ nō·p̄e·leṯ, and biṭ·nêḵ ṣā·ḇāh (rotting thigh and swelling belly), I think it is best to leave it as it is, wooden, rough, unpolished. I think that this one as all other ceremonial laws and practices in Israel were created to keep the spirit of holiness inside the camp of Israel. I agree here with ShemSeger‘s concusion on this passage:
Thus, in a world where the rights of women were often abused, the Lord provided a means for protecting their rights as well as seeing that evil was put away and justice done. (Source)
yə·rê·ḵêḵ nō·p̄e·leṯ, and biṭ·nêḵ ṣā·ḇāh (rotting thigh and swelling belly)
https://i2.wp.com/viz.bible/cms/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/History-of-Translations.png?fit=1004%2C657&ssl=1 Here you can find ERV hidden in this chart (complete Bible published in 1987 byWorld Bible Translation Center, revised in 2004)