Sunday, April 06, 2008

Rules, regulations, and legalized abortion!: Numbers 5

This post is part of a revolutionary Bible commentary by the Church of the Orange Sky.

Back to lists of rules, it seems. But what's interesting is that the rules here seem to be a lot darker, and the institutions a lot more elitist, than they were in Exodus, or even in Leviticus.

Numbers 5 gets off to an interesting start when it says that if you wrong someone, you have to pay them back anything you've cost them, and then add 20% on top of that as a fine. So far so good, and it's actually kind of cool that God specifically describes this as a "sacred gift" on the grounds that when you wrong someone, you have wronged the Lord. I thought we wouldn't get that sort of linkage until the gospels.

Then things get a little murkier, however, when God says that if the person has died without "close relatives," then you have to give the payment to a priest instead, and whatever you give becomes the personal possession of the priest. Blood money! How nice for the priests.

Then we're beyond just wandering off track. The remainder of the chapter details a truly bizarre and ghoulish ritual for simultaneously testing whether a woman has committed adultery, and inducing a forced abortion if she has. So much for the Bible being anti-abortion! Here it actually commands abortions! I wonder how the pro-life crowd rationalizes the fact that their pro-life God considers marital purity more important than human life. Doubtless they've contrived one half-ass reason or another. Next time you end up in a Biblical argument on the subject, this one might be worth bringing up.

The problem with adultery, God tells Moses, is that if you don't catch them in the act, it can be pretty tough to prove anything actually occurred. The exception, obviously, is if the woman gets pregnant. So, if your woman is pregnant and you suspect it's not yours, you take her to a priest, along with a payment to the priest for his services, otherwise known as a "grain offering." The priest will bring her into the porta-temple, make a "bitter water that brings a curse" by mixing together some holy water and some dust from holy ground, and she will drink it. If she's innocent, nothing will happen. If she's guilty, her abdomen will "swell" and her "thigh" will "waste away." We may presume that "thigh" is a euphemism in this case, unless God really has it in for leg muscles. Interestingly, the woman is expected to experience "bitter suffering" either way.

This ritual is almost unbelievable. At one point the priest is actually told to wash a written curse into the water, suggesting that the power of the words will somehow contaminate the water. In any other context I'm pretty sure that conservatives would denounce such a process as black witchcraft.

Even more interesting, this entire ritual is supposed to take place "in the presence of the Lord." Men don't usually get to go that far, unless they're sacred priests. So women get to the face of God, but only if they're under suspicion.

In theory, adultery is supposed to be punishable by death for both parties, but not in this case! The woman, if she's convicted, is "accursed." No man is ever accused, though; the Bible doesn't even bother with such a detail as asking the woman who she slept with, I guess because you couldn't trust a woman's answer anyway. So, despite all the Exodus and Levitican rules being written by and for men, in the case of adultery the sin and the punishment evidently lie largely with the woman. The Bible even takes pains to rule that the husband will be innocent either way, since apparently it's every Jewish man's right to accuse his wife of adultery provided he can pay the appropriate processing fees to a priest.