by Timothy S. Wilkinson
As common and important as sacred rituals and divine interactions are in the Biblical record, everyday ancient Hebrew worship lacked the supernatural element so common in other religious practices of the times. Canaanite wives placed clay idols of women with swollen bellies around their homes in the hope of getting pregnant. Mothers hung amulets around their children’s necks to ward off evil spirits. Diviners consulted the stars, the internal organs of slaughtered animals, the swirling of oil poured on water, the smoke of incense, and cast dice to foretell the future. Sacred texts uncovered in the ruins of the Hittite city of Ugarit describe the Dagil Itstsuri as priests who gained divine direction by observing the flight patterns of birds. The Gdazerin would make voodoo-doll-like wax images of calves and then cut them in half to cause the death of an oath-breaker. Newborns were buried under the cornerstones of buildings to guarantee the safety of the structure.
Israelite worship did make use of potent symbolisms at times: libations poured out over an altar; sheaves of grain waved back and forth in the temple in offering. A red heifer that had never been used for work was burned with hyssop and scarlet cord and the collected ashes were mixed with spring water to make “holy water.” This was sprinkled over people, garments, or domiciles that had become ceremonially unclean. But the “cleansing” was understood to be symbolic, not miraculous.
There were, though, a handful of common supernatural elements to the Torah, or the Law given to Moses by which the Israelites were to live.
The Urim and Thummim
In Exodus chapter 8 Moses adorns his brother, Aaron, in the ceremonial clothing of the High Priest. In verse 8, he puts a breastpiece on him—a sheet of worked gold in which were set twelve gemstones representing the twelve tribes of Israel. In the breastpiece he places “the Urim and the Thummim.” The actual translation of the Hebrew here (ha’urim’ we’eth-hattummim’) is unclear. The Greek Septuagint calls them “the explanation (manifestation) and the truth”; the Syriac Peshitta opts for “the light and the perfection”; and the Latin Vulgate “the doctrine and the truth.”
Literal translation aside, scholars generally agree that the Urim and Thummim were some sort of sacred lots kept in a pouch in the High Priest’s breastpiece “over his heart” (Exodus 28:30). A perusal of 1 Samuel chapters 14 and 23 indicate that they seemed to produce “yes” or “no” answers, and chapters 14 and 28 add the possibility that they could also give “no answer.” Jewish tradition holds that they were two flat stones, each black on one side and white on the other. The High Priest would inquire of Jehovah with a “yes” or “no” question and toss the stones. If both stones landed with the white side up, the answer was “yes”; black sides up meant “no.” If one white and one black side were revealed, it indicated a divine unwillingness to answer for some reason.
This arrangement made the monarchy dependent on the priesthood for divine direction, creating a sort of “checks and balances” system to prevent the king from gaining too much power.
According to the Babylonian Talmud (Sotah 48b), the Urim and Thummim were no longer used after the destruction of the temple in 607 B.C.E.
The original house of worship for Israel was the Tabernacle, a portable temple constructed in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt. This rectangular prism was divided into two sections: the “Holy” and the “Holy of Holies.” The Holy of Holies was a perfect cube in which was kept the Ark of the Covenant. As most people now know from Hollywood’s depictions, this ark had a lid adorned with two cherubs facing one another. According to Exodus 25:21 and 22, the Divine Presence resided (in a symbolic sense) between the wings of the two cherubs in a “cloud” (Leviticus 16:2). The cloud was luminous—it was the only source of light within this room, wherein the High Priest went once a year during the Day of Atonement ceremony to sprinkle blood upon the Ark and the floor. Only the High Priest ever saw it, but its existence is attested to by a number of the men who bore this title.
In the Targums (Aramaic translations of the Bible from the 2nd and 3rd centuries), this miraculous light is called the Shechinah. Jewish tradition also records that anyone who saw this light unworthily—that is, anyone but the High Priest, and even him on any day but the Day of Atonement—would immediately be struck dead. For this reason in later years the priests would tie a cord to the ankle of the High Priest when he entered the Holy of Holies on that day. If he had somehow dishonored his office and was struck dead, they wanted to have a way to pull the body out without entering the sacred chamber themselves.
The Falling Away of the Thigh
The most unusual of these supernatural manifestations, though, is found at Numbers chapter 5 verses 12 through 31. Here the Torah describes what should be done if a man suspected his wife of having been unfaithful (the colorful Hebrew says “the spirit of jealousy has passed upon him, and he has become suspicious of his wife’s faithfulness”).
The husband brings his wife to the Tabernacle with an offering of barley flour for “bringing error to remembrance.” The wife is brought “before Jehovah”—probably a reference to her standing alone (without her husband) near the entrance of the Tabernacle. The priest gathered some dust from the floor of the Tabernacle and sprinkled it into “holy water” (probably just clean water in this case, taken from the basin in which the priests ritually washed) in an earthenware vessel. The mixture thus produced was called “the bitter water that brings a curse.” The priest then ‘loosened the hair of the woman’s head,’ removing the tsa’iph or head covering all Israelite women wore in public. This may very well have been the psychological equivalent to having her stand naked in front of him—not, of course, in a sexual sense, but in that the woman would have felt very exposed. The grain offering her husband had brought was put into her hands.
The priest then intoned:
“If no man has lain down with you and if while under your husband you have not turned aside in any uncleanness, be free of the effect of this bitter water that brings a curse. But you, in case you have turned aside while under your husband and in case you have defiled yourself and some man has put in you his seminal emission, besides your husband…May Jehovah set you for a cursing and an oath in the midst of your people by Jehovah’s letting your thigh fall away, and your belly swell. And this water that brings a curse must enter into your intestines to cause your belly to swell and the thigh to fall away.” To this the woman must say: “Amen! Amen!” (Numbers 5:19-22)
After the woman so swore, the priest wrote a copy of the above onto a small scroll and then washed that scroll in “the bitter water that brings a curse.” He tossed some of the grain offering onto the altar and made the woman drink the water.
According to Numbers 5 the result to a guilty woman was disastrous: “The water that brings a curse must then enter into her as something bitter, and her belly must swell, and her thigh must fall away, and the woman must become a cursing in among her people.”
The thigh was commonly used by Jewish scribes as a stand-in word for the genitals (they could not bring themselves to write the Hebrew words for reproductive organs in the holy book). The “falling away” referred to here was an idiomatic reference to becoming sterile—although it appears that the swelling of the belly was literal and became an outward sign of the woman’s guilt.
In the Torah the punishment for adultery was death. As with all criminal penalties, the sentence could not be executed unless there were two or three witnesses to the crime. Evidently since the crime of adultery was highly unlikely to have the prerequisite two witnesses, this alternative method was provided for establishing guilt. Even when the woman failed the ritual she was not put to death. The Mishnah seems to indicate that this was because the identity of the guilty man was still unknown, and it would be an injustice for the woman to be executed and not the man.
(All Scripture quotations taken from the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, 1984).