Bitter Water

BITTER WATER (מֵ֥י הַמָּרִ֖ים; LXX το ὕδωρ του̂ ἐλεγμου̂; water of bitterness). A drink consisting of holy water, dust from the Tabernacle floor, and the ink of a written curse and designed to be used as an “ordeal” to establish the guilt or innocence of a suspected adulteress and, if guilty, to mete out punishment (Num 5:11-31). As such it seems to have been peculiar to Israel among Near Eastern peoples, though ordeals of various kinds are common enough in primitive societies.

The husband who suspected his wife of adultery but had no proof was to bring her to the priest along with a cereal offering. The priest would set the woman “before the Lord,” unbind her hair, and place in her hands the cereal offering. The priest would hold an earthen vessel containing holy water into which dust from the floor of the sanctuary had been mixed. The priest would then declare a lengthy and frightening oath to which the woman would reply “Amen, Amen.” The priest then wrote the curse out and washed the ink off into the water of bitterness. The woman was then made to drink the aqueous mixture of dust and ink and the cereal was offered up to Yahweh. If the woman had been unfaithful, the bitter water would cause great pain and distortion of the lower body and the woman would be considered accursed by her people. If, on the other hand, the woman was innocent she would be free to bear children.

Whether such a test is explainable in terms of the chemical properties of the ink and/or the dust is uncertain. The modern medical profession appears to know of no oral test for adultery, however.

The rite was evidently carried on until the early days of our era. The LXX refers to the holy water as “living” (i.e. running) water, and Josephus indicates that the rite was practiced in the Temple with, perhaps, some slight modifications (Antiq. III. xi. 6). The Mishnah has an entire tractate on “The Suspected Adulteress” (Sotah). It indicates that, in later times, the woman was seated at the E gate of the Temple and that she was clothed in black with her bosom bared (1. 5-6). Protevangelium, 16, suggests that the test was applied to both Mary and Joseph and that both passed the test successfully. According to Sotah 9.9, Rabbi Johannan ben Zakkai (1st cent. a.d.) abolished the rite when adultery became too frequent. Hosea 4:14 is given in support of this abolition.


G. B. Gray, Numbers, ICC (1903), 43-56; R. Press, “Das Ordal im alten Israel,” ZAW, X (1933), 121-140; R. deVaux, Ancient Israel (1961), 157, 158.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

See Adultery (2); MARAH.