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Naso: The Secret of the Sotah

Updated: 3 days ago

“Better a sinful person who knows that he has sinned than a righteous person who knows that he is righteous.” R’ Yaakov Yitzchak Horowitz

Bitter Waters

In Parashat Naso (Numbers 4:21–7:89), if a man suspects his wife of adultery, the Torah prescribes the following procedure:

‘If any man’s wife goes astray, and is unfaithful to him, and a man lies with her carnally . . . and there is no witness against her . . . The priest shall bring her near, and set her before HaShem; and the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel, and of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle the priest shall take, and put it into the water. . . He shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that causes the curse, and the water that causes the curse shall enter into her and become bitter.” Numbers 5:12-24

Today’s licentious society has little knowledge of the concept of tzniut, modesty. To this world, this ritual appears strange, barbaric and misogynistic. It is quite the opposite. This is a preventive law, that instills into the Jewish community the importance of unity in the family, and avoiding situations the can compromise the values that bind marriages together. The Torah includes an important detail,

“The Kohen shall have the woman stand before HaShem and uncover the woman’s head…” Numbers 5:18, Sforno, Mesorah Publications ltd., pg. 667

Notice that her head is covered, or alternatively that her hair is bound up. The women in this society actively practice tzniut, making the trial of the bitter waters a rare occurrence. Rabbi Ovadia ben Yaakov Sforno (1475 – 1550 CE) comments,

“If his wife goes aside. (She) deviates from the path of modesty.” Sforno on Parashat Nasso, Mesorah Publications ltd., pg. 664

Several prior breakdowns in communication and trust must have happened for the husband,

who truly loved his wife, to bring her before the priests in humiliation. If she is vindicated, he will be humiliated for causing his innocent wife to endure this. The woman, if she is guilty, would be unlikely to proceed with the ritual. She would likely confess, and in the absence of two witnesses, she would not be stoned. She would only be divorced. Rather than being misogynistic, this law provides a foundation for the concept of tzniut and avoidance of improper situations in Jewish society. The Shelah, R’ Isaiah Horowitz, describes the meaning of the earthen vessel, “When G’d fashioned man, He took from the dust around the earthen altar, and thus vapour rose to irrigate that dust, so that man was formed from dust and water. When man became corrupt and sinned, he became a vessel of earthenware on account of this dust contained in the material he was made of. . . This is why the sotah is given water to drink out of a vessel made of earthenware.” R’ Isaiah Horowitz, Shney Luchot HaBrit, translated by R’ Eliyahu Munk, Volume 3, pg. 861

The Christian Hebraist J.B. Lightfoot observes,

“When the woman hath drunk the bitter water, if she is guilty, her looks turn pale, her eyes swell up . . . So they turn her out of the Court of the Women . . . The same hour that she dies, the adulterer also, upon whose account she drank the water, dies too. . . But this is done only upon condition that the husband hath been guiltless himself: for if he have lain with any unlawfully himself, then this water will not try his wife.” J.B. Lightfoot

If the woman is guilty, she has caused HaShem’s Divine Name to be erased into the bitter waters. Rebbe Nachman’s Torah says,

“In the course of the sotah ceremony, which determines whether a woman was unfaithful to her husband, God’s Name is written on a shard of clay that is then dipped in water, causing the Name to be erased. It is as if God is saying, “My Name, which was written in holiness, may be erased in order to bring out peace between husband and wife.” Rebbe Nachman’s Torah, Parashat Naso, Breslov Research Institute, pg. 30, cf. Chullin 141a

Pericope Adulterae

A deep study of the Gospels will reveal a profound connection between the events in the life of Yeshua and the words of the Torah portion. The book of John preserves a controversial account called the Pericope Adulterae,

“Now very early in the morning, he came again into the Temple, and all the people came to him. He sat down, and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman taken in adultery. Having set her in the midst, they told him, “Rabbi, we found this woman in adultery, in the very act. Now in our Torah, Moses commanded us to stone such. What then do you say about her?” They said this testing him, that they might have something to accuse him of. But Yeshua stooped down, and wrote on the ground with his finger.” John 8:2-6

This passage is doubted by some because it is missing in several important manuscripts [1,2]. The Christian Hebraist John Gill summarizes,

“This history of the woman taken in adultery, is missing in the Alexandrian copy, and in other ancient copies; nor is it in Nonnus, Chrysostom, and Theophylact; nor in any of the editions of the Syriac version, until it was restored by De Dieu, from a copy of Archbishop Usher’s; but was in the Arabic and Ethiopic versions, and in the Harmonies of Tatian and Ammonius; the former of which lived about the year 160, and so within 60 years, or thereabouts, of the death of the Evangelist John, and the other about the year 230; it was also in Stephens’s sixteen ancient Greek copies, and in all Bezae’s seventeen, excepting one; nor need the authenticity of it be doubted of; Eusebius says, it is in the Gospel according to the Hebrews; nor should its authority be called in question.” John Gill’s Commentary on the New Testament 

The Jewish scholar Joseph Klausner says,

“It may here be pointed out that the story of the woman taken in adultery, found now only in the current text of John (7:52-8:11) – though actually belonging to Mark 12:18 or 12:35 – is to be found in Codex Bezae; it also occurs in several MSS., in Luke 21:38; other Gospels omit it, seeing in it something opposed to current morals (this in itself argues its genuineness: none could have invented it at a later date.” Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth, translated from the original Hebrew by Herbert Danby, The Macmillan Company, pg. 69

Eusebius of Caesarea (260 – 340 CE)
Eusebius of Caesarea (260 – 340 CE)

Eusebius of Caesarea (260 – 340 CE) says,

“Of Matthew he (Papias) had stated as follows: Matthew composed his history in the Hebrew dialect, and everyone translated as he was able.” The same author made us of testimonies from the first epistle of John and likewise that of Peter. He also gave another history of a woman who had been accused of many sins before the Lord, which was also contained in the gospel according to the Hebrews.” Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3:39, Hendrickson Publishers, pg. 106

From beginning to end, the Gospel of John includes attention to detail that would be important to a priest. It is possible that John was a priest, and was likely connected to the priesthood, as John says,

“Simon Peter followed Yeshua, as did another disciple. Now that disciple was known to the high priest, and entered in with Yeshua into the court of the high priest; but Peter was standing at the door outside. So the other disciple, who was known to the high priest, went out and spoke to her who kept the door, and brought in Peter.” John 18:15-16

The Talmud specifies the location of where this ritual would take place in the Court of the Women, in the Temple,

“If she says, ‘I am pure,’ they bring her up to the east gate which is by the entrance of Nicanor’s gate where they give suspected women the water to drink…” Sotah 7a, Soncino Press Edition

The Gospels describe Yeshua as being in the Temple, and a woman is brought to him. It appears he is in the Court of the Women, the same courtyard where the trial of the Sotah takes place. Details like this would likely not have been known if this account was invented at a later date.

The Finger Of God

This section in the Gospel of John records an amazing detail,

“…Yeshua stooped down, and wrote on the ground with his finger.” John 8:6

This is the only record that we have of Yeshua writing. What did he write? The answer is hidden in the Tanakh. When HaShem delivered Israel, He brought the plagues upon Egypt via the “finger of God,”

“Then the magicians said to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God” and Pharaoh’s heart was hardened . . .” Exodus 8:19

The demonic powers of the Egyptians could not contend with the ‘Finger of God.’ Yeshua says,

“…if I by the finger of God cast out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come to you.” Luke 11:20

It was the Finger of God that wrote the Ten Commandments,

“HaShem delivered to me the two tablets of stone written with the finger of God . . .” Deuteronomy 9:10

As Yeshua’s finger writes in the dust, it echoes the Finger of God writing the commandment, “You shall not commit adultery.” Like the marks written upon the dust of the floor of the Temple, the Torah also was trampled underfoot. As Yeshua wrote with his finger, so also did the priest write out the curse. Lightfoot comments,

“It was the office of the priest, when he tried a suspected wife, to stoop down and gather the dust off the floor of the sanctuary; which when he had infused into the water, he was to give the woman to drink: he was to write also in a book the curses or adjurations that were to be pronounced upon her… In like manner our Saviour stoops down; and making the floor itself his book, he writes something in the dust, doubtless against these accusers whom he was resolved to try, in analogy to those curses and adjurations written in a book by the priest, against the woman that was to be tried.” J.B. Lightfoot

The First Stone

In the first century, the Sanhedrin lost the authority by the Romans to try capital cases,

“And it has also been taught: Forty years before the destruction of the Temple, the Sanhedrin were exiled and … they did not try capital charges.” Sanhedrin 41a, Soncino Press Edition

The Jerusalem Talmud says,

“It was taught: Forty years before the destruction of the Temple the right to judge capital cases was withdrawn…” Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 2:2, edited by Jacob Neusner, Hendrickson Publishers

Therefore, the request by this group of Scribes and Pharisees was not in any real interest of justice. If that were truly the case, and this woman was caught in the act, then the man with whom she committed adultery should have been brought also. It is the ultimate rock and a hard place for Yeshua. If Yeshua shows mercy, knowing that she is guilty, he violates the Torah. If he agrees with a sentence of execution, his enemies will run to inform the powers that be that Yeshua is challenging Rome. John says,

“But when they continued asking him, he looked up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw the first stone at her.” John 8:7-11

Yeshua’s answer is stunning. He has completely turned the tables, and does so by quoting the Torah. Deuteronomy says,

“The hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people. So you shall put the evil away from among you.” Deuteronomy 17:7

The Talmud says,

“When adulterers multiplied the ceremony of the bitter water was discontinued and it was R’ Yochanan ben Zakkai who discontinued it, as it is said, ‘I will not punish your daughters when they commit whoredom, nor your brides when they commit adultery’ (Hosea 4:14)” Sotah 47a, Soncino Press Edition

If they decide to proceed, it is now they who challenge Rome. Lightfoot says,

“You may see by these passages how directly our Savior levels at the equity of this sentence, willing to bring these accusers of the woman to a just trial first. You may imagine you hear him thus speaking to them: “You have brought this adulterous woman to be judged by me: I will therefore govern myself according to the rule of trying such by the bitter waters . . . (if) the woman upon whom a jealousy is brought, though she be indeed guilty, yet if the husband that accuses her be faulty that way himself, she cannot be affected by those waters, nor contract any hurt or danger by them. If the divine judgment proceeded in that method, so will I at this time. Are you who accuse this woman completely guiltless of this kind of sin? Whosoever is so, ‘let him cast the first stone.” J.B. Lightfoot

Mayim Chayim

Yeshua quite possibly wrote the names of the woman’s accusers in the dust, fulfilling of writing in the dust fulfills the words of the prophet Jeremiah,

“HaShem, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you shall be disappointed. Those who depart from me shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken HaShem, the spring of living waters.” Jeremiah 17:13

The story of the woman accused of adultery was appropriately preserved in  John 7:52 – 8:11. The placement here is critical, as this would place it in the morning, the day after the last day of the Festival of Sukkot, Hoshana Rabbah. The previous night, in the Court of the Women, Yeshua said,

“Now on the last and greatest day of the feast, Yeshua stood and cried out, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink!  He who believes in me, as the Scripture has said, from within him will flow rivers of living water.” John 7:37-38

During this celebration, there was the ritual of the water pouring, in which everyone would sing a song based on a verse from Isaiah 12,

וּשְׁאַבְתֶּם־מַיִם בְּשָׂשֹׂון מִמַּעַיְנֵי הַיְשׁוּעָה

U’shavtem mayim b’sasson, mi'maanei ha'yeshuah! “You shall draw water with joy from the wells of salvation (yeshu’ah).” Isaiah 12:3

The Kallah

The Gospel of John does not tell us the identity of the woman. Who is she? Her identity remains a mystery. When Israel sinned with the Golden Calf, he broke the tablets of the Ten Commandments,

“I took hold of the two tablets, and cast them out of my two hands, and broke them before your eyes.” Deuteronomy 9:1

As the priest makes the sotah drink of the bitter waters, Moshe also made Israel do the same, after the sin of the Golden Calf,

“I took your sin, the calf which you had made, and burnt it with fire, and stamped it, grinding it very small, until it was as fine as dust, and I cast its dust into the brook that descended out of the mountain.” Deuteronomy 9:21

Exodus says,

“He took the calf which they had made, and burnt it with fire, ground it to powder, and scattered it on the water, and made the children of Israel drink of it.” Exodus 32:20

The book of John is written on the sod level [3]. The woman is Israel. She was indeed an unfaithful bride, as all the prophets have spoken. Her accusers surround, persecute and condemn her. Rebbe Nachman reveals the secret,

“The suffering endured by the Jewish people parallels the suffering of the sotah (wanton woman). The bitter waters that the sotah must drink represent the Jews’ suffering during the exiles (Zohar III, 124). The humiliation of being forced to drink the bitter waters that will prove her guilt or innocence is a means of forgiveness. If she is clean of sin, the waters she drinks (i.e. her suffering) will bring her relief from suffering and she will be blessed with fertility. . . The same applies to the Jewish nation. Despite their suffering throughout the exiles, the “bitter waters” they have “drunk” serve to make the Jews “fertile” and to grow physically, financially and spiritually.” Rebbe Nachman’s Torah, Parashat Naso, Breslov Research Institute, pg. 28, cf. Commentary on Likutey Moharan, Volume 1, Breslov Research Institute, pg. 5, footnote 6

Yet, in spite of all of this, within the framework of the Torah, HaShem justifies Israel, as the Talmud says,

“It is said: and I will sprinkle clean water upon you and you shall be clean, and it further says: ‘You Hope of Israel, the Lord! Just as the fountain renders clean the unclean, so does the Holy One, blessed be He, render clean Israel.” Yoma 85b, Soncino Press Edition

In the merit of Mashiach Tzidkeinu, the Messiah our Righteousness (Jeremiah 23:6) there will be a day when all accusers against Israel will be silenced. The Redemption is coming, and nothing can stop it. All around the woman, she heard the sound of stones dropping one by one. Her eyes filled with tears, she looked at the dusty feet encased on worn sandals. His tzitziyot flowed downward like waterfalls, and his eyes pierced her soul. Mashiach speaks to her, and to each of us,

“Where are your accusers? Does no one condemn you?”

“No one sir.”

“Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”



  1. Christian seminary professor Zane C. Hodges argued, “If it is not an original part of the Fourth Gospel, its writer would have to be viewed as a skilled Johannine imitator, and its placement in this context as the shrewdest piece of interpolation in literary history!” The Greek New Testament According to the Majority Text with Apparatus: Second Edition, by Zane C. Hodges (Editor), Arthur L. Farstad (Editor)

  2. Wikipedia provides a useful list of the textual variants:Exclude pericope. Papyri 66 (c. 200) and 75 (early 3rd century); Codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus (4th century), also apparently Alexandrinus and Ephraemi (5th), Codices Washingtonianus and Borgianus also from the 5th century, Regius from the 8th (but with a blank space expressing the copyist’s awareness of the passage), Athous Lavrensis (c. 800), Petropolitanus Purpureus, Macedoniensis, Sangallensis (with a distinct blank space) and Koridethi from the 9th century and Monacensisfrom the 10th; Uncials 0141 and 0211; Minuscules 3, 12, 15, 21, 22, 32, 33, 36, 39, 44, 49, 63, 72, 87, 96, 97, 106, 108, 124, 131, 134, 139, 151, 157, 169, 209, 213, 228, 297, 388, 391, 401, 416, 445, 488, 496, 499, 501, 523, 537, 542, 554, 565, 578, 584, 703, 719, 723, 730, 731, 736, 741, 742, 768, 770, 772, 773, 776, 777, 780, 799, 800, 817, 827, 828, 843, 896, 989, 1077, 1080, 1100, 1178, 1230, 1241, 1242, 1253, 1333, 2106, 2193, 2768 and 2907; the majority of lectionaries; some Old Latin, the majority of the Syriac, the Sahidic dialect of the Coptic, the Garima Gospels and other Ethiopic witnesses, the Gothic, some Armenian, Georgian mss. of Adysh (9th century); Diatessaron (2nd century); apparently Clement of Alexandria (died 215), other Church Fathersnamely Tertullian (died 220), Origen (died 254), Cyprian (died 258), Nonnus (died 431), Cyril of Alexandria(died 444) and Cosmas (died 550).

  3. Shorter pericope exclude. Minuscule 759 contains John 7:53-8:2 but excludes 8:3-11.

  4. Shorter pericope include (8:3-11). ℓ 4, ℓ 67, ℓ 69, ℓ 70, ℓ 71, ℓ 75, ℓ 81, ℓ 89, ℓ 90, ℓ 98, ℓ 101, ℓ 107, ℓ 125, ℓ126, ℓ 139, ℓ 146, ℓ 185, ℓ 211, ℓ 217, ℓ 229, ℓ 267, ℓ 280, ℓ 282, ℓ 287, ℓ 376, ℓ 381, ℓ 386, ℓ 390, ℓ 396, ℓ 398, ℓ 402, ℓ 405, ℓ 409, ℓ 417, ℓ422, ℓ 430, ℓ 431, ℓ 435 (8:2-11), ℓ 462, ℓ 464, ℓ 465, ℓ 520 (8:2-11). Include pericope. Codex Bezae (5th century), Codex Basilensis A. N. III. 12 (8th century), 9th century Codices Boreelianus, Seidelianus I, Seidelianus II, Cyprius, Campianus, Nanianus, also Tischendorfianus IV from the 10th, Codex Petropolitanus; Minuscule 28, 318, 700, 892, 1009, 1010, 1071, 1079, 1195, 1216, 1344, 1365, 1546, 1646, 2148, 2174; the Byzantine majority text; ℓ 79, ℓ 100 (John 8:1-11), ℓ 118, ℓ 130 (8:1-11), ℓ 221, ℓ274, ℓ 281, ℓ 411, ℓ 421, ℓ 429 (8:1-11), ℓ 442 (8:1-11), ℓ 445 (8:1-11), ℓ 459; the majority of the Old Latin, the Vulgate (Codex Fuldensis), some Syriac, the Bohairic dialect of the Coptic, some Armenian, Didascalia (3rd century), Didymus the Blind (4th century), Ambrosiaster (4th century), Ambrose (died 397), John Chrysostom(died 407), Jerome (died 420), Augustine (died 430). Question pericope. Marked with asterisks (*) or obeli (÷). Codex Vaticanus 354 (S) and the Minuscules 4, 8, 14, 18, 24, 35, 83, 95 (questionable scholion), 109, 125, 141, 148, 156, 161, 164, 165, 166, 167, 178, 179, 200, 202, 285, 338, 348, 363, 367, 376, 386, 407, 443, 478, 479, 510, 532, 547, 553, 645, 655, 656, 661, 662, 685, 757, 758, 763, 769, 781, 797, 801, 824, 825, 829, 844, 845, 867, 873, 897, 922, 1073, 1092 (later hand), 1187, 1189, 1443 and 1445 include entire pericope from 7:53; the menologion of Lectionary 185 includes 8:1ff; Codex Basilensis (E) includes 8:2ff; Codex Tischendorfianus III (Λ) and Petropolitanus (П) also the menologia of Lectionaries ℓ 86, ℓ 211, ℓ 1579 and ℓ 1761 include 8:3ff. Minuscule 807 is a manuscript with a Catena, but only in John 7:53-8:11 without catena. It is a characteristic of late Byzantine manuscripts conforming to the sub-type Family Kr, that this pericope is marked with obeli; although Maurice Robinson argues that these marks are intended to remind lectors that these verses are to be omitted from the Gospel lection for Pentecost, not to question the authenticity of the passage.Shorter pericope questioned (8:3-11). Marked with asterisks (*) or obeli (÷). 707Relocate pericope. Family 1, minuscules 20, 37, 135, 207, 301, 347, and nearly all Armenian translations place the pericope after John 21:25; Family 13 place it after Luke 24:53; a corrector to Minuscule 1333 added 8:3–11 after Luke 24:53; and Minuscule 225 includes the pericope after John 7:36. Minuscule 129, 135, 259, 470, 564, 831, 1076, 1078, and 1356 place John 8:3-11 after John 21:25. 788 and Minuscule 826 placed pericope after Luke 21:38Added by a later hand. Codex Ebnerianus, 284, 431, 461, 470, 578, 2174.

  5. The Shelah, R’ Isaiah Horowitz, described a deeper connection with the woman, linking the incident to Eve.

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