Parshat Naso

Bamidbar 5:12-31 (Robert Alter, trans.)

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘Any man whose wife may stray and betray his trust, and a man lie with her in seed-coupling and it be concealed from her husband’s eyes and she hide and be defiled, with no witness against her, and she herself be not apprehended — then a spirit of jealously may come over him and he will be jealous about his wife, with her being defiled, or a spirit of jealously may come over him and he will be jealous about his wife, she not being defiled. The man shall bring his wife to the priest … for it is a grain offering of jealously, for it is a grain offering of remembrance, a remembering of guilt … This is the teaching of jealously, should a woman stray from her husband and be defiled. Or a man over whom a spirit of jealously come and he be jealous about his wife. … ‘”

The ritual of the sotah is bizarre to us. It involves a magical procedure that proves a woman guilty or innocent of betraying her husband who suspects her of adultery. It was also bizarre to the rabbis of the midrash and talmud, who comment that it no longer makes sense in their time. The magical procedure only functions in a culture of intense piety, according to the rabbis, not in a time like ours where betrayal is common.

Robert Alter

Alter notes that the ritual of the sotah is proceeded by situations of defilement of the camp by disease and impurity and betrayal of trust through theft. Adultery is a betrayal of trust and a defilement.

concealed … hide … no witness … not apprehended: The deployment of overlapping language stresses the clandestine nature of an act of adultery. With no concrete evidence of the sexual betrayal, with no more than his suspicions to go on, the husband is overcome by a fit of jealousy and has recourse to a trial by ordeal.

The man shall bring his wife to the priest: This troubling and also fascinating ritual is the only clearcut instance of trail by ordeal in the Bible. It became the basis for a whole tractate of the Talmud, Sotah (“the straying woman”), and with the concern for the status of women in recent scholarship, it has been the subject of voluminous discussion and debate. Apolegetic approaches seem questionable. The ritual reflects the strong asymmetry of sexual roles in the biblical worldview: a woman must submit to this ordeal on the mere suspicion of her husband, and the question of the man suspected of adultery is not even raised in the legal system. The ordeal, moreover, is based on a kind of archaic magic, however one seeks to square it with the loftier versions of monotheism …

offering of remembrance, a remembering of guilt: The verbal stem z-k-r manifested in these paired nouns refers both to the cognitive act of remembering and to making a record or explicit indication of something. …

Avivah Zornberg

The first narrative of Sefer Bamidbar is the painful case of the Sotah. This is a legal narrative, describing the fate of the woman whose loyalty to her husband is in question. The Sotah has provoked distrust and doubt: she is subjected to a “trial” that is to resolve the suspicion that hangs over her.

At the end of Sefer Bamidbar, another legal narrative also tells of women, five sisters, who claim their right to inherit their father’s land, in the absence of male heirs. One might say that the book is framed by the feminine; that women provide the armature for this Book of In-the-Wilderness.

These five sisters’ claim is not only accepted; it is met with God’s resounding words of praise: “The daughters of Tzelofchad speak ken — rightly, fairly, solidly, justly – beautifully.” For the first time in the book of Bamidbar, the Book of In-the-Wilderness — whose main issue has been the issue of dibbur, of speaking and misspeaking — for the first time in that forty-year chronicle of unhappy human forays into the realm of language, God congratulates human beings on the felicity, the aptness of their words.

The Sotah, the woman suspected of adultery, counterbalances the five sistesrs. If beauty and harmony is the subject of their narrative, here the narrative is a humiliating and repulsive one. The sin of which the Sotah is suspected, as well as the procedures that she undergoes, are demeaning.

With all the obvious differences between these two narratives about women, I suggest that they provide a framing structure of the book. Both involve women, who, by their very existence, raise a question, an uncertainty, that holds subversive implications. The five sisters articulate the injustice of their legal situation and are congratulated by God. The Sotah … she is silent throughout.

… Unlike the five sisters, she has no agency … She is silent, manipulated figure – a kind of puppet, speechless, uncertainly alive — in the narrative of others.

Two female narratives … structure central motifs in the book of Numbers. The movement from the first to the second registers the turbulent history of the people in the wilderness. … the most important feature of the Sotah episode is its ambiguity. The situation of the husband, the apparent subject of the passage, is one of doubt …

Central to the Sotah ritual … are acts that dismantle beauty; acts that withdraw meaning, coherence, harmony from the world.

[In contrast, the daughters of Tzelofchad represent] a language that has its roots in the desire for beauty and righteousness [and emunah]. 

For Zornberg the struggle of women that bracket the Wilderness reflects the struggle to form a relationship with God. Is our desire for certainty so crushing that we will erase beauty and God from our lives? Or are we willing to accept risk and vulnerability, and in doing so find beauty and connection? Our ability to find our voice, to be active participants in our future, may be essential to that journey to God.