QUESTION: Jesus said that he had come not to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them: “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” How then do I understand Numbers 5 in light of his teaching? Numbers 5 describes the torture of women accused of adultery by their husbands. They are forced by a priest to drink a bitter water concoction that causes them to miscarry. In a way, it can be viewed as a divine abortion. Since women could not enter the Temple, the rite was conducted in the women’s area, in full view of the public. The woman’s head scarf was removed to indicate that she was no longer under the protection of her husband. Her skirts were hoisted over her head so that the results of drinking the bitter water could be viewed. (Numbers 5:11-31)
COMMENT: This passage, and similar ones, can provide rich fodder for those who want to abandon the Bible as archaic and irrelevant. It does indeed describe a primitive ritual steeped in primitive consciousness about lineage and the insignificant and submissive role of women as the property of their fathers and husbands. To suggest that Jesus would have supported such a practice is absurd; throughout the gospels he is constantly causing outrage among Pharisees and Sadducees alike with his teachings that the literal dictates of Scripture must be constantly reexamined and newly understood as our spiritual consciousness becomes more elevated and more loving. “You have heard it said ... but I say to you” was one of his favorite teaching methods.
There is a difference between laws and The Law. Specific laws are expressed out of the collective consciousness of the time. The Law is the orderly way in which the Light and Love we call God express through us and into the world. Laws change as our consciousness grows. Even in Jesus’ time, literal adherence to the dictates of this passage from Numbers would have been considered extreme—although it must be noted that in some places and in some cultures a similar barbarity is still practiced today. The Law is constant and unchanging. Jesus was never calling anyone to abandon The Law, but he was more than willing to abandon understandings of it that emerged out of an earlier consciousness, one that we can now supplant with a higher awareness of divine love.
So is there a metaphysical point to this passage? Yes, but we can turn to many other places in the Bible to find the same point made more lovingly. The practice described was, in fact, intended to be more loving than earlier traditions that gave husbands and fathers total control over women. In those earlier practices a husband suspecting a wife of infidelity would have been fully within his rights to shame her in any way he chose, and to kill her if he wanted to. Requiring that such an accusation be submitted to a priest, and to a higher spiritual perspective, was in fact a step up in consciousness, however small. The metaphysical point is to bring God, spiritual awareness into our human disputes, not to simply rely on the “evidence” of our senses, feelings and human suspicions. Of course, a divine response can only be as loving as we are capable of perceiving it to be, which is why we must constantly seek to expand our heart-centered ability to be the love of God in expression.