If you’ve been reading along with us in our Garden to City plan, this week we came up on a strange passage about wives caught in adultery. You can read the whole thing in Numbers 5:11-31 but to give you a quick recap, essentially it is an entire passage about a test that can be performed by the priests of the community to determine if a woman had committed adultery against her husband. if a man suspected his wife had cheated on him he could bring her before the priests, have her drink a weird concoction of water and temple dust and then wait to see if she became ill and cursed or if she was fine. If she became ill then she was guilty and the husband could divorce her or even have her killed. If nothing happened, then she was found not guilty and the couple went on their way.
But let’s pause here.
This is a strange law. A strange ritual. It brings up a lot of questions.
What exactly was in the temple dust? Was this magic or divine? Why wasn’t there a test for if a man had cheated? All valid questions…but lets step back and see the larger story and message here.
Why was a law like this needed?
At first glance it can appear to be a law put in place to benefit the men, but in reality this is a law of protection for women.
This is how God works. Let me explain.
In Leviticus we read a law that said, if a man commits adultery with another man’s wife, then both the man and woman should be put to death. This may sound harsh, but at least it sounds fair. Both are punished. But here is the problem.
In a male dominated and Patriarchal culture – there came a problem. If a man became jealous or accused his wife of adultery, he could have her put to death or divorce her and besmirch her name in society and suffer no repercussions. Often he didn’t even really need proof. You can see how this could lead to abuse of women. A husband gets tired of his wife and simply accuses her of adultery and gets off scot-free while still appearing to be pious and religious and keeping his good name. Sound familiar? It sounds eerily similar to how when men want to discredit a woman’s testimony or character they call her a “whore” or a “slut” or any other degrading name.
There are other instances where we see a woman punished as the law required but not the man. Similar to victim shaming. Somehow the man gets off with no repercussions but the woman’s reputation is run through the mud. We see this in our own society. It’s often how it is in Patriarchal societies–but what we see is that it is not how it should be.
So this is where Numbers 5 comes in. Rather than allow women to continue to be abused, discarded, discredited or killed, God created a law that forced men to be honest and not abuse their power. A law that took judgement and control out of the hands of men and gave it to God. This was a law of protection. A law that valued women and their word. A law that changed the relationship dynamic in it’s culture. (didn’t fix it, but moved it in the right direction)
We get an interesting glimpse into Jesus’ view of this law in the Gospel of John.
In Chapter 8 John tells us about an encounter Jesus had with a woman caught in adultery. It’s interesting that there doesn’t seem to be a man caught as well. Somehow only the woman was caught. And the cultural practice of shaming this woman began while the man was left out of it.
The religious leaders dragged the woman into the streets, naked and scared and declared that she must be killed. Notice the tactics used here. They hurled insults. They threw her naked into the streets. They did everything they could to bring shame to her.
But rather than join the crowds and condemn the woman, Jesus flips it and brings the judgement on the men who brought her into the streets. He tells them that whoever is without sin can cast the first stone and the men walk away ashamed.
Now – adultery is different from sexual assault and not ever case is cut and dry – but here is what these stories show us. God cares deeply about sexual sin. He also cares deeply about women being taken advantage of and being abused. God stands in the gap and protects women in the midst of a male dominated culture and seeks to give them a voice and equal treatment.
There are many passages in scripture that reference rape, sexual assault, marrital infidelity and abuse. They don’t all make sense and we aren’t sure why all of them are included or why people acted the way they did – but one thing is clear throughout the narrative of scripture. God will not stand for victim shaming. God does not stand for the powerful taking advantage of others. God values healthy sexual relationships. God values women and seeks to give them voice, influence and power in the midst of a world that was often (an still is) dominated by powerful men who abuse that power.
What does this mean for us?
Well – its sad to me that the Israelites lived in such a world where a test was needed to see if men were being truthful and to make sure women didn’t get abused or wrongfully shamed and killed.
Instead of living in a world where we need a test to make sure men are being honest and don’t abuse others – let’s live in the Kingdom God intended. One where women are valued and believed. That values their voice. That holds men accountable for their actions, teaches a different way to approach relationships, values healthy relationships and leads the way in that regard. What if we were a safe place for all people suffering from abuse and sexual assault to heal and have their voices valued?
Let’s not continue to be content participating in a world and system that has long abused and overlooked women. Let’s be a different people. Let’s show the world a different way.
Places to start:
1. Educate yourself – Listen to stories of victims – reflect on where you are complicit and commit to change
2. Partner with local resources
The Boston Rape and Crisis Center is a safe place and offers trainings for the community in advocacy, support, intervention and much more – https://barcc.org/help/services/training
3. Speak up
One of the biggest problems in the church right now is silence. Victims are silenced. Perpetrators are quickly forgiven and moved into different roles. While we believe the Gospel forgives all sins and provides a way to restoration for all people, we also believe in consequences of our actions, especially when we harm others. If you see abuse happening, speak up. If you hear of it, say “I believe you!’, don’t be a bystander.