Professor of Religion and Folklore, Theodore Gaster, has made an extensive study of what he calls “The poison ordeal” (Myth, Legend, and Custom in the Old Testament, p. 280-300). He claims that the trial by potion of the suspected adulteress (Numbers 5:11-28) fits into a pattern well known in primitive societies across the world. According to the Torah, a woman suspected of infidelity by her husband is brought before the priest. After some preliminaries, the priest pours some holy water into an earthen vessel into which is added a small quantity of dust taken from the floor of the Tabernacle. After loosening the woman’s hair, she is made to drink the concoction while a curse that she should suffer physical distress is pronounced should she be guilty.
Gaster cites a number of African tribes in Senegal who try a person accused of witchcraft or sorcery by having them drink a potion made from tree bark. In Gambia the poison ordeal is used to test a person accused of theft. In Sudan the members of the entire tribe must drink a potion made of bark and water to determine who is responsible for the death of a young person who died suddenly. Like the Biblical potion, in another part of Sudan water is mixed with the earth taken from around the sacrificial altars. A poison ordeal of some sort has been practiced in India since time immemorial. On Gaster’s view the efficacy of the poison ordeal is based on the animistic idea that the poison has the power of detection. Once it enters the victim’s system, it inspects the accused interior. Upon being satisfied of the accused innocence, it departs the body. However, if the accused is guilty, the poison takes affect and dispatches the wrongdoer.
Gaster readily admits that the bitter water the Torah describes is not toxic. In fact, it is, unlike other ancient poison ordeals, innocuous. The sole purpose of the ceremony was to excite fear in the mind of the guilty person who drank it. Its potency was psychological rather than biological. Gripped by fear, the accused would confess. Should any accused overcome fear, the ceremony was meaningless. And should so many such ceremonies take place without any demonstrable resolution, the practice was no longer relevant. That was the case during the Tannaitic period. The Mishnah (Sotah 9:9) reports: “When adultery proliferated, the rite of the bitter water ceased.”
What we can learn from the ordeal and its termination is that once people lose their trust in the value of a ritual, the ritual no longer serves its purpose. How this applies today is the very subject that defines the various movements in Judasim.