Women didn’t always have it so good in Bible times. Especially women with jealous husbands. Treated as "property," the majority of women were at the whim of their husbands. I suppose it is still like this in many, many countries around the world. So, it’s no wonder that we find this elaborate "test for an unfaithful wife" in Numbers 5.
If a husband was jealous — even if he only suspected his wife of cheating on him — he could take her to the priest, and he would conduct the elaborate test. As far as I can tell, the test was mainly designed to play upon a woman’s guilty conscience. If she had truly been faithful to her husband, she didn’t have anything to fear. If she hadn’t been faithful to her husband, at some point during the process, her "guilt" would probably start to show somehow.
Setting aside the reality of the test for a moment, however, let’s consider what it accomplished. First of all, it removed the burden of dealing with jealousy and suspicion from the husband’s shoulders. The husbands may not have liked this very much. But the women were probably ecstatic.
The Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary on Numbers 5 reveals that "from the earliest times, the jealousy of Eastern people has established ordeals for the detection and punishment of suspected unchastity in wives." Jealous husbands and suspected wives were commonplace in Bible times. Not just in Israel, but in every nation. And methods of dealing with women suspected of adultery were often brutal, left to the whim of the husband.
In Assyria, for example, the husband had total say over what happened to his wife if suspected of adultery. He could put her to death, mutilate her, or punish her in any way he saw fit. We can only assume that other cultures were similar. But not so in Israel. For the God of Israel loves and protects the vulnerable!
In Israel, a husband had to relinquish control of the situation to the wisdom of God. Whether he had proof of the adultery or if he was simply jealous, he had to bring that to God and let Him handle it. Likewise, his wife had to place herself in God’s hands. Whether she was guilty of adultery or not, she entrusted the judgment to God. I’m sure — especially for an innocent woman! — this arrangement was highly preferable to one where she was left at the mercy of a jealous husband’s whim.
I find it incredible that with this one procedure, God provided for both the husband and the wife. The husband was given a way to deal with strong and confusing emotions. He could bring his jealousy and suspicion to God and trust that He was going to judge correctly. And the wife was given a safe alternative to what could easily turn into a bad situation. She could come to God and know that He was a fair judge, not someone who was acting out of jealousy or suspicion.
I look around at today’s world and wonder just how many things in our culture would be modified if God were setting up His tabernacle on Earth. What rituals, traditions, values, or beliefs would He seek to re-educate us about? What powerful emotions would He give us an outlet for? Who would He view as the most vulnerable in our culture?
Amazingly, He cares for us all — the vulnerable and the strong. But I believe He has revealed a special place in His heart for the vulnerable. And as a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings, so God shelters the weak and helpless ones among us.