I’ve been reading Numbers. I basically started with the beginning of the Bible, read an OT book, then a NT book, then an OT book, and so on… and I’m currently reading Numbers, which begins with a bunch of numbers – go figure. The first four-ish chapters are about counting different groups of people who are able-bodied enough to perform tasks surrounding the setting up, tearing down, transporting, and maintaining of the camp, including the tent of meeting and dealing with the Ark of the Covenant.
So I was pretty excited to be on chapter five, because it isn’t a bunch of numbers; it’s more along the lines of, “This is what you do if (very specific sin thing) happens. I’ve unexpectedly found these kinds of laws pretty interesting of late. My interest in the details of law that in most ways are impossible to apply today probably makes me a weirdo, but I’ve been really into thinking about atonement lately, digging animal sacrifice and how that and the gospel overlap and align. Also, with the taking some first steps towards vegetarianism, I’m pretty grossed out by some of the sacrifices because they seem real and graphic to me, whereas they used to seem so far removed that they were irrelevant.
Chapter 5 is mostly about what to do if a man suspects that his wife has committed adultery – if he has no evidence of the adultery, but feels what’s described as “jealous of his wife.” That doesn’t read well in modern American English, but I think it means he has all of those jealous, betrayed, bitter feelings that come along with wondering and maybe even believing your spouse cheated on you.
The chapter goes on to explain an oath, some water of bitterness, and the possibility of bitter physical pain, a swollen womb, and a thigh falling away. I’ve read some commentaries that suggest “thigh” there is a replacement word to sanitize the language when it’s really talking about lady parts… no one really seems to know for sure what it means. It’s all very, “It probably refers to…” or “It might mean…” Also, I should note, there’s a supernatural aspect to this situation and its justice, as the oath and the water will not bring pain on an innocent woman.
Numbers is one of those books that people often don’t read because it soooo gets into the minutia that it’s hard to stick with it. It’s too specific for our attention spans or something. It’s this consistent level of detail in addressing every possible scenario in this part of the Bible that led me to assume chapter six would be about what should occur if a woman is “jealous of her husband.” However, I was highly disappointed that the book seems to keep its silence on that one.
Is it just me, or does it seem unfair not to have the complementary chapter where a guilty man’s thigh falls away?
Of course Numbers is a book that can’t be taken out of its historical context, so I get that things weren’t particularly fair to women. I get that all of my thoughts are tinted with the insidious effects of having lived in a time when men sometimes decide to become women, and get to be all over the Facebook and the news for having had a sex change. I get that my idea of gender roles is wonked out by this crazy culture I inhabit… but I feel dissatisfied with what I read today. It feels unfair and unjust.
In this same category of thing: I haven’t written about it before now because I don’t know how to write about it well, but my reading of this chapter is also tinted by the recent adultery of someone I’d consider to be my brother. The ripples of betrayal that spread out around any infidelity are too shocking for words. And, while I feel a sense of defensiveness towards Brother, because his actions don’t make him any less my brother who I love, I read that chapter in Numbers and my heart cried out at the unfairness in the unaddressed situation where the husband rather than the wife has sinned (or is suspected of sin). My heart cries out for the Bible to explicitly condemn the great men in its pages who had multiple wives, but, as far as I know, it remains silent there as well. The double standard bothers me. I lack resolution with it that I feel I should find there, but I can’t see it.
Then, there’s the added thing of how a friend called me last week, needing advice because one of his close friends had cheated, and Friend wanted to talk through how to be a friend to his friend, how to think, how to forgive…
Unfortunately, I didn’t have answers for him. I hope I said some things that are helpful, but it isn’t an equation:
Friend cheated + (something I need to say or do) = I’m a good friend
or, worse yet:
Friend cheated + (something I need to say or do) = problem solved
Maybe that’s why I’m annoyed at the Bible right now. Numbers went at this scenario as if a man would and should want his cheating wife to suffer physical pain and be publicly shamed; it’s a foregone conclusion that he would, without evidence beyond his intuition that she’d cheated, take her to the priest and subject her to a test of her character.
Did my wife cheat on me? + Test the priest can perform = Problem solved!
This equation doesn’t account for the affection and gentleness that a man should have toward his wife. Numbers and the law boil life down to what must be done, omitting the ineffable human parts…
They exclude mercy and its provision. They exclude the mercy I want for Brother.
I’m angry. It would be dishonest to ignore the anger I have, that mostly manifests itself in a desire to list all the ways Brother’s actions impacted me and others I love. Though I try to remember that love keeps no record of wrongs, it feels like an injustice for him to remain ignorant of his affect on the entire body of Christ. I’m sure he’s aware, when I actually think about it. The body is mysterious in its interdependence, and he knows, but that’s still where my anger rests… in wanting him to know and care about the parts that matter to people who aren’t him… the little ripples that are easy to miss while focused on the big picture.
Yet, even in my angriest moments, my lack of desire for Brother to suffer physical pain stands conspicuous to me. Maybe it’s different when it’s closer… maybe if I was the spouse of infidelity I’d want him pummeled. Maybe.
However, it seems universally true to me that the affection and desire for a person’s good doesn’t vanish when he sins or betrays, no matter how personal and evil the sin.
One of the reasons reading Numbers is so dissatisfying is it takes sin out of the context of Christ. The only hope I have for simultaneous mercy and justice for myself, Brother, and the rest of the people who mean something to me… the only hope is the cross. The only place the anger and hurt can be worked out satisfactorily is Calvary. No law, penalty, consequence, or punishment can provide what Christ gave us on the Cross.