Like the bitter water that it talks about, this passage in Numbers 5:16-31 may be difficult for a 21st century reader to swallow. As you read this passage, you may have questions such as:
- "How could the Bible demand that a wife undergo such a strange and cruel test based solely on her husband's suspicion and feelings of jealousy, even if she has not actually done anything wrong?"
- "Why is there not a reciprocal test that can be used against a husband if the wife suspects that he has been unfaithful?"
- "Why apply a test that seems superstitious: the idea that the wife is innocent if nothing happens to her after she drinks the bitter water, and that she is guilty if she suffers physically?"
I have asked those questions too and am thankful that this test no longer applies to God's people. Christ has set us free from the law of the Old Testament and brought us into a new covenant with Him.
Still, here are some valuable lessons we can learn from this passage:
1. This passage shows how strongly God views unfaithfulness in marriage. Elsewhere in the Jewish law, if a married man engaged in an affair with someone he is not married to, the man and the mistress were both to be put to death (Leviticus 20:10). God takes adultery very seriously.
2. It could be that the suffering that was supposed to result from drinking that bitter cup was more due to the guilt, stress and shame that come when attention is brought to our sins than any physical ingredients in the bitter water itself. It's a reminder that sin does not just hurt us spiritually, but affects our entire well-being, our relationships, even our physical health.
3. You and I are like the wife in Numbers 5. All of us have sinned and been unfaithful to God. All of us were destined to drink the cup of suffering that our sins deserve. Yet rather than us having to drink the bitter cup of suffering, Jesus drank the cup for us and suffered on our behalf, even dying on a cross for us. So though we were guilty, God pronounced us not guilty and set us free, all because Jesus took our place. Like the woman caught in adultery in John 8, we deserved to die for our sin, but Jesus came to our rescue, setting us free from the punishment and condemnation our sins deserve.
Aren't you glad that because of Jesus we no longer live under the old covenant law but under new covenant grace? You and I could not survive the wrath of a holy God without it.
Thank You, Lord Jesus, for drinking the bitter cup for us and for suffering in our place. Thank You for trading Your righteousness for our sin, Your innocence for our guilt, and Your freedom for our suffering. Because of Jesus I am set free!