Foul Mixtures and Fools

Sotah Drash by Stan Satz

Naso: Numbers 4:21-7:89  

Numbers 5:11-31 contains the distasteful sotah ritual instigated by a husband who is convinced, even though there are no witnesses, that his wife has been unfaithful to him.  Sotah means astray, for the wife is accused of defiling her marriage by being intimate with another man. Etymologically, sotah is derived from shtut, traditionally translated as folly. In fact, according to midrashic sages, one does not sin unless that person is overcome with folly. And the sotah ritual is folly personified.

A priest officiates over this unceremonious ceremony.  He first mixes some scraggly barley, a bitter herb like wormwood, unsanctified water from the basin in the temple courtyard, and bits of earth from the Tabernacle floor. To top it off, the priest adds dissolved ink from the parchment on which the verses of the allegation were written.  Then he makes the wife swallow this reeking concoction. The distraught husband awaits the verdict. If his wife is innocent, there will be no immediate or lingering side effects: She becomes reconciled to her now contrite husband, and she is guaranteed to have many children with him. But if she is guilty, an ominous transformation occurs: her belly will miraculously swell, and her thigh will explode with an excruciating miscarriage. From then on, the wife would be rightly accursed and forever barren.

This is my take: Over the centuries, it has been debatable whether or not the sotah was ever put in practice. After scouring rabbinical archives, Torah scholars have found just one instance of the jealousy meal-offering test ever being administered. Regardless of the extent of its implementation, it is clear that the sotah was conceived to irrevocably judge wayward wives, no? I don’t think so. As I see it, the priests are well aware that their potion is phony. The whole rigmarole is no more than an elaborate hoax to placate jealously enraged husbands who are gullible enough to think that the process really works. Remember, there were no witnesses to attest to the wife’s infidelity; such corroboration is the basis for assessing the guilt or innocence of anyone who violates God’s commandments. Accordingly, the husband’s unfounded suspicion that he has been cuckolded can never be objectively proven otherwise. I can imagine the priest secretly smirking as the husband anxiously awaits the results. And I can imagine the wife, whether or not she has committed adultery, going along with this superstitious charade.

I don’t feel sorry for the wife (except for the fact that she will have to swallow that nasty-tasting meal offering). As I see it, she is triumphant. Thanks to the priest’s ploy, she hoodwinks her jealous husband, who becomes the dupe of his own insecurities. The sotah will disprove his misbegotten, misguided claim that his wife has betrayed him. The husband will be placated. Domestic peace will prevail.

But perhaps the wife would feel more aggrieved than joyfully vindicated. This is how she might respond: “First of all, I would never cheat on my husband, unless, of course he took me for granted or cheated on me first. So far, he has been a model husband, a blessing to me. But this Torah portion from Numbers unfairly gives him a weapon against me if he becomes paranoid and delusional. Whenever he wrongly suspects that I am unfaithful to him, he could (in his jealous rage) drag me to a priest to make me undergo the humiliating ordeal of the inane sotah ritual. During this degradation, I would be forced to swallow a foul mixture. Then I am to fearfully wait to see if God would, after being conjured up by some mumbo jumbo, arbitrarily decide to rot my womb and sexual organs. And to consecrate this indignity, I am supposed to say amen to this violation of my body, not to mention my up-to-now impeccable reputation.

Can God be relied upon to protect an unjustly accused wife? After all, He is always referred to as a long-suffering male who, on occasion, sadistically threatens to wipe out his uncooperative Chosen People. And in the books of the prophets, He considers Israel to be a prostitute who has betrayed Him by lusting after idols. In fact, in Hosea, God tells his prophet to marry a prostitute to see just how much grief God has endured in being wedded to Israel. I think God has a built-in bias against all women. I don’t trust him to be objective.

And even if God proclaimed my innocence, and I remained fertile, I still might have to suffer more inquisitions if my husband had another jealous seizure. We women have become scapegoats. Oh, why couldn’t God be female, or why can’t God have a female counterpart who could intervene on our behalf? To that prospect, and only that, will I say amen.”

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