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Finishing your drink.

By Tom Pfingsten   |  Read the verses.

Numbers 5:11-31

11And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, 12“Speak to the people of Israel, If any man’s wife goes astray and breaks faith with him, 13if a man lies with her sexually, and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband, and she is undetected though she has defiled herself, and there is no witness against her, since she was not taken in the act, 14and if the spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife who has defiled herself, or if the spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife, though she has not defiled herself, 15then the man shall bring his wife to the priest and bring the offering required of her, a tenth of an ephah of barley flour. He shall pour no oil on it and put no frankincense on it, for it is a grain offering of jealousy, a grain offering of remembrance, bringing iniquity to remembrance.
16“And the priest shall bring her near and set her before the LORD. 17And the priest shall take holy water in an earthenware vessel and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water. 18And the priest shall set the woman before the LORD and unbind the hair of the woman’s head and place in her hands the grain offering of remembrance, which is the grain offering of jealousy. And in his hand the priest shall have the water of bitterness that brings the curse. 19Then the priest shall make her take an oath, saying, ‘If no man has lain with you, and if you have not turned aside to uncleanness while you were under your husband’s authority, be free from this water of bitterness that brings the curse. 20But if you have gone astray, though you are under your husband’s authority, and if you have defiled yourself, and some man other than your husband has lain with you, 21then’ (let the priest make the woman take the oath of the curse, and say to the woman) ‘the LORD make you a curse and an oath among your people, when the LORD makes your thigh fall away and your body swell. 22May this water that brings the curse pass into your bowels and make your womb swell and your thigh fall away.’ And the woman shall say, ‘Amen, Amen.’
23“Then the priest shall write these curses in a book and wash them off into the water of bitterness. 24And he shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that brings the curse, and the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain. 25And the priest shall take the grain offering of jealousy out of the woman’s hand and shall wave the grain offering before the LORD and bring it to the altar. 26And the priest shall take a handful of the grain offering, as its memorial portion, and burn it on the altar, and afterward shall make the woman drink the water. 27And when he has made her drink the water, then, if she has defiled herself and has broken faith with her husband, the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain, and her womb shall swell, and her thigh shall fall away, and the woman shall become a curse among her people. 28But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be free and shall conceive children.
29“This is the law in cases of jealousy, when a wife, though under her husband’s authority, goes astray and defiles herself, 30or when the spirit of jealousy comes over a man and he is jealous of his wife. Then he shall set the woman before the LORD, and the priest shall carry out for her all this law. 31The man shall be free from iniquity, but the woman shall bear her iniquity.”

It is one of God’s strangest laws, to be sure. And, to the modern believer, perhaps it even seems cruel. In the text, we are ushered with an unfaithful wife and a jealous husband before the priest to witness an offering for bringing iniquity to remembrance.

Verses 11-13.

Hidden sin, not the husband’s dignity, seems to be God’s actual concern here. We can only imagine that a woman in this scenario needed no reminding, but God would not allow his people to presume that their sin had escaped notice. When suspicion matured into jealousy, there was no way out but through Moses’ so-called law of jealousy.

Verses 15-16.

Their instructions were now to make their way through the camp toward the last place a red-handed sinner wanted to go—a place of death and bloodshed, where sin is dealt with in the most brutal terms. The husband presents her to the priest, and the priest presents her before the Lord.

Verses 17-18.

The husband’s role is finished now, his authority exhausted. The rest is between the woman and her God. The priest removes her covering and she is, in the truest sense, exposed. Her mind turns from the red-hot jealousy of her husband to the white-hot holiness of the God she has offended. This is no mere ritual. This is the most terrifying, humiliating moment in her life.

Verses 19-30.

She knows what comes next. The priest will put her under oath, and she will hear herself agreeing to become a curse among her people, the barren woman whose swollen abdomen and rotting thigh will serve as a public reminder—for the rest of her miserable days—of the seriousness of concealing sin.

Her husband was right about her. When this is over, he will be free from his jealousy and from guilt. But she will never be free.

These are the God-ordained instructions for exposing an adulteress under the old covenant. Her fate rested in a ceremony that is obscene to us, but the law points us to Jeremiah 31, where God’s promise of a new covenant culminates with these words:

“I will remember their sin no more.”

Imagine an adulteress, having endured the ceremony, now reading this prophecy. Her mind races: How is it possible? This from the same God before whom I once stood in my shame?

But then who would drink the cup?

In Matthew 20, Jesus asked his disciples, “Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” Six chapters later, in Gethsemane, he prayed, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” Now we see the historical weight of what he was asking. Is it possible to save my bride without drinking your wrath? We know the answer.

Jesus is the husband with the guilty wife who stands before the Lord and finishes her cup. And, in the exchange, gives her something new to savor in place of her sin.

“This cup is the new covenant in my blood,” he says—and now we hear the voice of an adoring husband. If the cup of the old covenant is for remembering iniquity, the cup of the new covenant is for remembering Jesus. “Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”

Photos by Tom Pfingsten.

Numbers 5:11-31

Finishing your drink.

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