Numbers 5:13–22—Doesn’t the Bible condone a superstition here?
Problem: Paul condemns “old wives’ fables” (1 Tim. 4:7). But, Moses here commands the practice of a superstition that has no basis in science. The accused wife was found guilty after drinking bitter water only if her stomach swelled. But, both the innocent and guilty wives drank the same bitter water, thus showing that there was no chemical or biological basis for one swelling and the other not.
Solution: The text does not say that the difference in the guilty woman’s condition had a chemical or physical cause. In fact, it indicates that the cause was spiritual and psychological. “Guilt” is not a physical cause. The reason the belly of a guilty woman might swell can be easily explained by what is known scientifically about psychosomatic (mind over matter) conditions. Many women have experienced “false pregnancies” where their stomachs and breasts enlarge without being pregnant. Some people have even experienced blindness from psychological causes. Experiments with placebo pills (sugar pills) indicate that many people with terminal illnesses get the same relief from them as from morphine. So, it is a scientific fact that the mind can have a great effect on bodily processes.
Now, given that the text says the woman was placed under an “oath” before God with the threat of a “curse” (v. 21) if she was actually “guilty,” the bitter water would have worked like a psychosomatic lie detector. A woman who believed she would be cursed and knew she was guilty would be so affected. But those who knew they were innocent would not.
Furthermore, the text does not say anyone actually drank the water and experienced an enlarged stomach. It simply says “if ” (cf. vv. 14, 28) she does, then this will result. No doubt just the belief that this would happen and that one would be found guilty would have convinced the woman who knew she was guilty not even to subject herself to the process.
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This excerpt is from When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992). © 2014 Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Click here to purchase this book.