I received the following question:

Numbers 5:31 “Then the man shall be free from iniquity, but that woman shall bear her guilt.

Why does it seem unfair that it could be a man who was unfaithful to his wife or if the wife was jealous suspiciously?

Your question is worded rather strangely. It probably seems unfair because our culture is different from theirs, and so we don’t understand the issues. If we lived in their culture and knew more about the way things worked, it would seem perfectly fair to us. But I think the question you were trying to get at is why this was the way the LORD set things up. I will answer that question as well.

First of all, make no mistake that in the matter of adultery, both the man and the woman were guilty, and they both were to receive the same punishment. This is made clear in Leviticus 20:10.

The man who commits adultery with another man’s wife, he who commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress, shall surely be put to death.

So there was complete equality as far as the punishment was concerned. The penalty for adultery was death.

That said, I think we need to realize that the law in Numbers 5 is as much to protect the innocent wife as it is to punish the guilty one. Understand that a man had much power over his wife at this time, a power that was not necessarily reciprocated. A man who suspected his wife of unfaithfulness but could not prove it could make her life a living hell if he so desired. The jealous wife, however, would be much more limited in what she could do about it. The poor wife who had done nothing and had a jealous husband would be in deep trouble. The innocent husband who had a jealous wife, however, while she could probably be unpleasant to him, would not otherwise be in much difficulty. In their society, he could divorce her, or even go out and get a second wife, if he so chose. The woman, on the other hand, had no such recourse.

Therefore, there was a real need to settle the matter of a jealous husband. He should not be allowed to continue in burning jealousy against his wife, for if she was innocent, that would be a great burden upon her that would harm her greatly. (Of course, if she was guilty, she might well deserve it.) So the LORD set this way up so that the purity of the innocent wife could be revealed.

I think a good part of the answer can be found in the priest’s oath in verse 19. “If no man has lain with you, and if you have not gone astray to uncleanness while under your husband’s authority, be free from this bitter water that brings a curse.” He says here that she was “under your husband’s authority.” “Authority” is an elipsis, but I think a good one. She was under her husband’s authority, and so could be greatly damaged by his jealousy. The husband, however, was under the authority of God. He could deal with the adulterous man, and the wife was expected to let Him do so. The wife, however, being under her husband’s authority, needed some way to prove her innocence. Otherwise, that authority might fall on her unfairly, and the LORD did not want that to happen.

Another thought. A wife had no choice but to trust to the LORD to make things right if she thought her husband had been unfaithful to her. On the other hand, the husband did have authority over his wife, and could have done something about his suspicions. So by giving this command, the LORD actually made it equal between them. The man now had to depend on the LORD’s judgment on the matter, just like the wife did.