Reprinted from Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia with permission of the author and the Jewish Women’s Archive.
Sotah (beginning in Talmudic literature) is the term for a woman suspected of adultery, who must undergo an ordeal that will establish her guilt or innocence. Numbers 5:11-31 describes in detail the ritual, which a priest performs in the Tabernacle to determine whether a woman whose husband suspects her of adultery is indeed guilty.
The Torah determines that a husband who suffers from “a spirit of jealousy” and suspects his wife must bring her to the priest at the Tabernacle. There the priest performs a series of ritual acts: he offers a “meal-offering of jealousy,” an offering of ground barley without oil or frankincense, unbinds the woman’s hair, makes her swear an oath that she had sexual relations with no man other than her husband, writes the oath in a scroll and erases it in water mixed with dust from the Tabernacle, and finally makes the woman drink the mixture. This mixture, which the Torah calls “the bitter, curse-causing waters,” contains the oath and the curses that accompany it, and ultimately determines the woman’s fate.
As the woman drinks the potion, the outcome of the trial appears on her body, confirming or refuting her husband’s suspicions: If she is guilty, the water will cause the woman to become infertile (the expressions “her thigh falls” and “her belly distends” are probably euphemisms for harm to the sexual organs), but if she is innocent the water will do her no harm and even cause her to become fertile.
Compared to the Ancient East
The biblical ritual is structured as a divine ordeal, which was a customary way of resolving doubt in the ancient East. However, while the surrounding cultures used trial by ordeal for many areas, from murder to theft, in biblical law it exists only in the case of the sotah. This has led researchers to suggest various reasons for its uniqueness.
Jacob Milgrom, for example, believes that for this instance biblical law adopted a foreign pagan institution in order to save women from public lynching, which was the probable fate of a woman with a reputation as an adulteress. Others said that in a case of suspected adultery, as in murder (Deut. 21:1-9), doubt is a usual occurrence, but at the same time it is perceived as dangerous and defiling, and thus must be resolved in metaphysical ways.