Sunday, March 15, 2009

Sudanese Sotah Reference


One of the stranger sections of the Bible is the law of the Sotah (wayward woman). Indeed the Talmud devotes a whole tractate to discussing it. It is first mentioned in Numbers 5:12-31

12. Speak to the people of Israel, and say to them, If any man’s wife goes astray, and commits a trespass against him,
13. And a man lies with her carnally, and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband, and this is kept undetected, and she is defiled, and there is no witness against her, since she was not caught in the act;
14. And the spirit of jealousy comes upon him, and he is jealous of his wife, and she is defiled; or if the spirit of jealousy comes upon him, and he is jealous of his wife, and she is not defiled;
15. Then shall the man bring his wife to the priest, and he shall bring her offering for her, the tenth part of an ephah of barley meal; he shall pour no oil upon it, nor put frankincense on it; for it is a offering of jealousy, an offering of memorial, bringing iniquity to remembrance.
16. And the priest shall bring her near, and set her before the Lord;
17. And the priest shall take holy water in an earthen utensil; and of the dust that is in the floor of the tabernacle the priest shall take, and put it into the water;
18. And the priest shall set the woman before the Lord, and loosen the hair of the woman’s head, and put the offering of memorial in her hands, which is the meal offering of jealousy; and the priest shall have in his hand the bitter water that causes the curse;
19. And the priest shall charge her by an oath, and say to the woman, If no man has lain with you, and if you have not gone astray to uncleanness with another instead of your husband, be you free from this bitter water that causes the curse;
20. But if you have gone astray with another instead of your husband, and if you are defiled, and some man has lain with you other than your husband;
21. Then the priest shall charge the woman with an oath of cursing, and the priest shall say to the woman, The Lord make you a curse and an oath among your people, when the Lord makes your thigh fall away, and your belly swell;
22. And this water that causes the curse shall go into your bowels, to make your belly swell, and your thigh to fall away; And the woman shall say, Amen, amen.
23. And the priest shall write these curses in a book, and he shall blot them out with the bitter water;
24. And he shall cause the woman to drink the bitter water that causes the curse; and the water that causes the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter.
25. Then the priest shall take the meal offering of jealousy from the woman’s hand, and shall wave the offering before the Lord, and offer it upon the altar;
26. And the priest shall take a handful of the offering, its memorial, and burn it upon the altar, and afterward shall cause the woman to drink the water.
27. And when he has made her drink the water, then it shall come to pass, that, if she is defiled, and has trespassed against her husband, that the water that causes the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter, and her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall fall; and the woman shall be a curse among her people.
28. And if the woman is not defiled, but is clean; then she shall be free, and shall conceive seed.
29. This is the Torah of jealousies ...


The whole thing is primitive, magical and just plan weird. One of the weirder parts is verse 23/24:

23. And the priest shall write these curses in a book, and he shall blot them out with the bitter water;
24. And he shall cause the woman to drink the bitter water ...
The Talmud explains that these very verses (12 - 31) where written with charcoal on a piece of parchment. Then the parchment was placed in the water and the words where washed off - the charcoal dissolved in the water - and the woman forced to drink it. The Talmud even comments that this is the only time we are allowed to erase the written name of God.

I always thought this as a uniquely strange ritual, and long ago out of practice.

But maybe not. In an article on Arab dissatisfaction with the International Criminal Court's indictment of Sudanese President Omar Bashir re crimes in Darfur (see my previous blog entry) the following line appears.
In Khartoum the answer [to the ICC] is clear. The carnival Bashir organized for himself after the indictment was publicized was proof of it: Donkeys bearing the prosecutor's picture, dog puppets bearing Ocampo's name, and Bashir's dances to songs cursing the prosecutor and condemning his supporters. In his speech, he recommended they dissolve the paper in water and drink it.
Does the law of the Sotah appear in the Koran? Or is this a common folk custom in Sudan? Or has Bashir been studying Talmud? Curious minds want to know.

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