Chapter 8: The Jealousy Offering
by Alan Summers, Scotland
The “jealousy offering” is described in Num.5.11-31. It takes its name, in Num.5.18,25, from the emotion that arises when that which a person loves is taken away unjustly by someone else. Jealousy does not always have a negative connotation. God was jealous over Israel in that He desired its wholehearted affection and did not wish to share that affection with idols, Ex.20.5; 34.14; Num.25.11. Paul was jealous over the Corinthian church, 2Cor.11.2, and the Lord was zealous (or jealous) over the temple, Jn.2.17.1 But jealousy in a man is usually sinful. This is because man is possessive. He treats things as his own which are not in fact his own. Man is reluctant to share what God has given for the benefit of others. There are some things however that neither a man nor a woman are expected to share. The affection and loyalty of their spouse is such a case. In the jealousy offering God deals with the jealousy that arises when a husband suspects his wife has been unfaithful to him. The procedures described in this chapter apply whether the husband has good reason to be suspicious or not. No distinction is drawn between jealousy which is understandable and jealousy which is the product of baseless suspicion.
- 1 In the Septuagint the word zelos (‘zeal; ardour; jealousy’) translates the Hebrew word quana which means ‘to be jealous’. Zelos is the word in Jn.2.17 used in the expression “the zeal of Thine house hath eaten Me up”.
It is perhaps also worth pointing out that jealousy is to be distinguished from envy, though it is closely connected to it. Envy is the emotion that arises when a person wishes to have something possessed by another person. Envy seems to have been a problem in the book of Numbers. Aaron and Miriam were envious of Moses, chapter 12, and Korah, Dathan and Abiram were envious of Moses and Aaron, chapter 16. Envy is always sinful. Envy, not jealousy, was the problem in the Corinthian church, 1Cor.3.3.
Of all the offerings only two take their name from the sentiments of the offerer. The peace offering was named for the sense of wellbeing and gratitude on the part of the offerer. The jealousy offering was named for the sense of distrust and betrayal experienced by the offerer. By contrast the burnt offering takes its name from the idea that worship ascends to God; the meat offering from the idea that food must be provided for the priest and for God, and the sin offering and trespass offerings from the idea that sin in its various forms must be atoned for.
The book of Numbers opens in chapters 1 to 4, with a series of commands from the Lord to Moses and Aaron, designed to forge the Israelites into an orderly society. The men that can hold weapons are counted and organised into tribal units. The tribes are arranged around the tabernacle. The Levites are separated for service. God’s purpose is clear. When they march into Canaan they will be a well-disciplined army with God in their midst, and not a helpless rabble.
The census establishes that Israel had a population boom in Egypt, Ex.1.7. Thousands of men are counted in each tribe. If we adjust the totals mentioned to take account of women and children, it is thought that the camp was populated with about two million people. Evidently when large numbers of people live in close proximity to one another and have no gainful occupation, the risk of friction and discord is significant. Once the nation reached Canaan and settled there the people would spread out over a large area. The families of the nation would then engage in agriculture and industry of various sorts. This would be a healthier state of affairs in contrast to that which obtained in the wilderness. In the wilderness people had more time on their hands. This increased the risk of illicit relationships. The book of Numbers contains a series of measures devised by God to equip Israel to deal with their time in the wilderness. The jealousy offering is part of such provision.
After dealing with the order of His people, the Lord deals with their holiness. Chapters 5 and 6 are principally dedicated to purity and holiness. The defilement of the leper is dealt with, 5.1-4, and the separation of the Nazarite is described in chapter 6. In 5.11-31 the idea that adultery is a form of defilement is mentioned on a number of occasions, 5.14,20,27,28,29. The jealousy offering is therefore part of the purity code given to Israel.
The expression ‘trial of jealousy’ is somewhat misleading, as no trial, as usually understood, takes place. In fact the problem is that a trial cannot take place because there is no proof that the crime2 in question has been committed. All that the husband has is a suspicion. No doubt the degree of suspicion and the basis for the suspicion varied from case to case. However, regardless of the position, the husband could not prove that his wife had been unfaithful. On the other hand, it is a trial to the extent that it tested the woman’s position. Plainly she denied her husband’s accusations otherwise there would be no need for the procedure. If she was innocent the procedure must have been very taxing. If she was guilty and (as the passage assumes) believed that what man cannot find out God will find out, the procedure would have created pressure to confess. It may be, therefore, that the main purpose of the trial of jealousy was to exonerate innocent women. If she had been faithful she would suffer no ill effects, 5.19, but if not, she would suffer a physical ailment that would prevent her bearing further children, 5.21,22.3 There is no indication she should be stoned as a proven adulteress. Instead she became “a curse among her people” 5.27.
- 2 Adultery was a capital offence under the Law and both parties’ lives were forfeited, Lev.20.10.
- 3 Some commentators take the expressions in 5.22 to be euphemisms for miscarriage or stillbirth, meaning that there would be no fruit from an illegitimate union. If this interpretation is correct then the idea is that the woman has become pregnant, and that has aroused the suspicion of the husband.
The jealousy offering differed from the Levitical Offerings in that it was offered as part of a series of symbolic acts. It could not be offered in its own right. The order in which events occurred is as follows. The couple left their tent and made their way to the tabernacle. The offering (presumably in a basket) was brought by the husband, 5.15. The offering was handed to the priest when they reached the gate. The priest’s first act was to place the woman “before the Lord” 5.16. He then filled an earthenware vessel with water, probably from the laver, and sprinkled dust from the tabernacle floor into the water. Having done this, he uncovered the woman’s head4 and placed the offering in her hands, 5.18. The priest then pronounced a curse orally, 5.19-22, and then recorded it in writing, 5.23. After the oral curse the woman said “Amen, amen” 5.22. The priest dipped the scroll in the water and the ink dissolved, thus symbolically transferring the curses from the parchment into the water, 5.23. Although the text seems to suggest that the woman then drank the bitter water, the better view is that the memorial was offered before the woman drank the bitter water, 5.26; cf. 5.24. The drinking of the bitter water was the last act in the sequence. Once the water was drunk the woman was in the hands of the Lord. She could have confessed and withdrawn at any point before that final act. It is noteworthy therefore that before she submits to God’s judgment, she acknowledges Him with her offering. So too in our lives, our last act before any vital moment should be to acknowledge God and submit to His will.
- 4 Some translations interpret these words to mean that the priest untied her hair so that it hung loose but there seems no reason to depart from the view of the A.V., R.V., J.N.D., N.K.J.V.
The jealousy offering was bloodless. This strongly indicates that it was not designed to make atonement, Lev.17.11; Heb.9.22. While it is possible in some situations to make atonement without shedding blood, Lev.5.11; Num.16.46,47, the obvious explanation for the lack of blood is that no sin was admitted or proved at the time the offering was given. That being so, the parallel with the meat offering is clear. It should be noted that there were two possible sins: on the one hand adultery and on the other the sin of baseless suspicion. In some cases, no doubt, suspicion was understandable but there were probably also cases where jealousy was completely unfounded. Scripture acknowledges that the husband could be acting unreasonably. The husband was only “guiltless from iniquity” if his suspicions were proved correct, 5.31. So iniquity was possible by both husband and wife.
The purpose of the offering was therefore to present a gift to God and thus honour Him. In giving the offering the couple were acknowledging God in their time of trouble. A memorial was taken from the offering and burnt on the altar, representing God’s part. The remainder of the offering was for the priest. The jealousy offering therefore resembles the meat offering in that it was not designed to atone for sin, but to present to God a gift which honoured Him.
The offering was of barley. Most consider that the fine flour of the meat offering in Lev.2.1 was wheat since the word used (solet) refers to fine grain (see also Ex.29.2). Barley was a coarse grain and considered the food of the poorer people and animals, 1Kgs.4.28; 2Kgs.7.1; Jn.6.9,13. The offering was not to include any frankincense or oil, 5.15.
The offerings of the Old Testament can be looked at from a number of angles. They can be understood as typical of the Lord. The New Testament makes it clear that the offerings speak of the death of Christ e.g. Eph.5.2. The offerings also shed light on the spiritual state of the worshipper. If the offerer had committed a sin, the size and value of his offering would disclose the nature of the wrong done and his valuation of it. The offerings also revealed the personal circumstances of the offerer. Thus, a poor man would bring a small offering, Lev.5.11.
If the jealousy offering is interpreted as a type of Christ, the barley reveals Him as the One Who was “meek and lowly” Matt.11.29. Unlike wheat, barley was the common man’s food. It had the appearance of humility at harvest time as the heavy ears of barley made its head hang down. Wheat by contrast stood upright. Barley was a fitting type of the One Who “humbled Himself” Phil.2.8. Certainly, when the Lord dealt with the case of adultery in Jn.8.3-11 He underlined the need for humility in the judgment of sin. The accusers would have been unsparing with the woman without any thought of their own sinfulness. Although the Lord was in fact the only one morally fitted to condemn the woman, He dealt with her gently and sought to open up a way of forgiveness and repentance. This reveals the Lord’s humility of mind. The absence of frankincense and oil did not signify that Christ’s life was not sweet or lacked the power of the Spirit. It stressed instead that the key issue was the humility of the Lord as depicted by the barley.
We can also see in the jealousy offering a depiction of the offerer’s state of heart. An innocent wife must have found the whole experience deeply distressing. The husband would, if truly anxious about his marriage, also realise his inability to deal with his injured feelings and his dependence on the Lord to resolve the problem. The barley therefore links with the dust in the water and shows that man is weak and fallible. The meat offering was accompanied by both frankincense and oil, Lev.2.1. The jealousy offering lacked these features. It is clear therefore that, although God must receive His portion, He takes no delight in the jealousy offering. There is no sweet smell. Whether we consider the man who brought the offering or the woman in whose hands it was placed, it is evident that, in them, the power of the Spirit, as typified by oil, is lacking, Lk.4.18.
The offering also reflects the offerer’s state of mind. The husband should have been humbled by the thought that his wife had not been faithful and the wife humbled by the imputation on her honour. In taking the matter to the Lord they acknowledged that the problem could not be resolved in their own strength. The husband might have acted in a highhanded way and tried to get rid of his wife. In taking the course prescribed by the Law he acknowledges that he may be wrong. The offering therefore was a reflection of his willingness to put the matter before God and expose himself to the possibility that he was wrong. This mirrors the fact that the matter that had brought them to the tabernacle was in a sense small, although it had the potential to destroy the marriage. That the Lord had to deal with such an issue reflected badly on them. The size of the offering proclaimed their spiritual poverty!
Humility is also indicated by the size of the offering. A tenth of an ephah is about 1.5 litres, a very small quantity. This is the equivalent of the offering brought by the poor man in Lev.5.11 as a sin offering, but in this case the offerer brought barley, and not wheat. It may therefore be the least valuable offering prescribed by the Law. This indicates that everyone, no matter how poor, could come to the Lord.
The jealousy offering was offered as part of a series of symbolic acts. It is suggested that before the wife handed the offering to the priest he had performed six symbolic acts:
- removing the woman’s head-covering
- filling a vessel with water
- sprinkling dust into the water
- pronouncing the curse
- writing the curse on parchment
- washing the curses into the water.
The seventh act required the woman to hand the offering to the priest and he then burned the memorial on the altar. Seven is a significant number in Scripture. It was the last day of the week of creation. Thereafter it is linked with completion or perfection, e.g. seven Feasts of Jehovah, seven branches in the lampstand, seven churches in Revelation. The eighth and last act of the trial of jealousy was the presentation and consumption of the bitter water by the woman. Thereafter the couple went home to wait.
In the tabernacle the priests wore bonnets and in covering their heads they were accepting the authority of the Lord over them. Women were not eligible for the priesthood and so they never stood in the court. In the trial of jealousy an exception to this was permitted. In uncovering her head she was not asserting authority over the priest or taking the role of the Lord; that would be entirely out of place. It may be that the uncovered head symbolised the idea that she was exposing herself to God’s scrutiny. Some argue that this was a form of humiliation for the woman, but that also seems unlikely since at this stage she was treated as innocent of her husband’s complaint.
The earthenware vessel stands in contrast to the golden bowls, Ex.25.29, and silver bowls, Num.7.13, used in the tabernacle. They were valuable and robust, whereas the earthen vessel was cheap and fragile. These features emphasise that the trial of jealousy dealt with a problem that exposed man at his weakest and basest.
Water in a vessel usually speaks of the Word of God, whereas running or living water is normally linked with the Spirit. Here the water is still and may be connected with the Word of God in its spoken or written form. However, in this case the water is not pure but mixed with dust and the curse. The water therefore symbolises that aspect of the Word of God which exposes human weakness and condemns its sin. By drinking it the woman symbolically accepts the judgment of the Word of God on her sin and her weakness and fallibility to sin. Five times over the water is described as “bitter” 5.18,19,23,24 (twice), and once the result of drinking the water is said to produce bitterness, 5.27. This last reference is the key to understanding the point. The water was not bitter in the sense that the water at Marah was bitter because of the salt deposits in the area, Ex.15.23. Dust and ink do not make water bitter. The bitterness was because of the bitterness of the experience, for the woman and the bitterness she would experience if the curse came to pass, cf. Ruth 1.20. The water the woman drank was mixed with dust. Dust is first mentioned in the Bible in Gen.2.7. It is the basic material from which man is made. Dust symbolises the weakness of the human condition. This idea is also evident in the composition of the vessel from which she drank.
The Law promised great blessings to Israel if they obeyed its demands, but it also brought curses for disobedience, Deut.27.15–26. The curse here, however, is a specific curse. It was spoken by the priest over the woman and then written out on a parchment. It was a conditional curse in that it only came into effect if the Lord judged the woman to be unfaithful. It is noticeable that the first element of the curse assumes the wife’s innocence, 5.19. It is only in its second element that her guilt is supposed, 5.20. Although her husband may have rushed to judgment, the Lord is even-handed.
In general, the tabernacle was a place for deeds not words. Apart from the tribes’ names on the breastplate and the words “Holiness to the Lord” on the high priest’s mitre, there were no written words, Ex.28.36. Apart from the confession on the Day of Atonement, Lev.16.21, the priests were not under obligation to say anything. They were not instructed to preach or pray at the tabernacle.5 However of this offering the priest both spoke and wrote. The woman also spoke when she uttered her ‘amens’ Num.5.22. The jealousy offering was therefore part of a unique procedure. It is not an obscure and rather boring offering. In both words and symbol its purpose was to bring home to the participants vital lessons: lessons about adultery, lessons about human nature, and lessons about God. Above all they learned that when wrongdoing is undetected by man, God sees and will judge, Num.32.23. The passage is also an illustration of the nation’s future. In the centuries that followed Israel was unfaithful to Jehovah. She had been betrothed and wedded to the Lord but turned into a spiritual adulteress, Jer.3.1-8. While the trial of jealousy acknowledged the possibility of baseless suspicion, Jehovah’s complaint with Israel was just. He might have ‘stoned her’ and ended her national existence. Instead she became spiritually barren. After separations in Assyria and Babylon He took her back. Israel is at present “cast away”, Rom.11.2,15, but her future as the wife of Jehovah is secure. Some may protest that this is a fanciful interpretation. That may be so. Nevertheless it is striking that among the many causes of marital disharmony, the cause for which the Lord made specific provision was jealousy as a result of suspected infidelity. The Old Testament is full of references to the rejection of Jehovah by the nation and His consequent jealousy, Deut. 5.9; 6.15; Zech.1.14. The Lord may have been drawing attention to an issue that began in the wilderness and would develop when they entered Canaan.
- 5 Although Num.6.22-27 indicates that the priests blessed the people at times, see Lk.1.22. No doubt they instructed them in the Law, Mal.2.7.
In the Church age the personal applications are many and varied. The barley reminds us of the need for humility if marriages are to be restored. The parties must seek God’s mind rather than consulting their own minds. The absence of oil and frankincense reminds us of the sorrow that accompanies marital discord. It reminds us of how jealousy and distrust can rob God. The fact that God provided a means of clearing up the cause of discord stresses His commitment to marriage. In it all we see the humility of the Lord Jesus, Who gave Himself to restore not only man’s relationship with God, but also to restore human relationships disrupted by sin.