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Reading the Sotah Text (Numbers 5:11-31): Holiness and a Hermeneutic Fit for Suspicion

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image of Biblical Interpretation

The sotah text of Num. 5:11-31 is a striking and ethically problematic passage concerned with a husband's jealousy and suspicion of his wife for adultery either real or imagined. It is argued that despite frequent labelling to the contrary, it is actually a passage about jealousy rather than adultery per se, and that historical-critical attempts to locate the described ritual in its ancient Near Eastern context are inconclusive with regard to substantial matters of interpretation. Various strategies for handling the ethical dimensions of the text are explored, including gender-specific and symbolic angles of approach. These are considered to be of limited value. The ethical issues presented by the text are then discussed with regard to its present canonical location in the book of Numbers. It is argued that owing to a unique combination of factors, an expected reading of the sotah text in its canonical context is one which is suspicious of the suspicion described in the passage. Some hermeneutical dimensions of this analysis are evaluated with a view to the wider question concerning theologically problematic passages in scripture.

Affiliations: 1: University of Durham


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