5:18 Then the priest will have the woman stand before the Lord, uncover the woman’s head, and put the grain offering for remembering in her hands, which is the grain offering of suspicion. The priest will hold in his hand the bitter water that brings a curse.35
tn The expression has been challenged. The first part, “bitter water,” has been thought to mean “water of contention” (so NEB), but this is not convincing. It has some support in the versions which read “contention” and “testing,” no doubt trying to fit the passage better. N. H. Snaith (Leviticus and Numbers [NCB], 129) suggests from an Arabic word that it was designed to cause an abortion—but that would raise an entirely different question, one of who the father of a child was. And that has not been introduced here. The water was “bitter” in view of the consequences it held for her if she was proven to be guilty. That is then enforced by the wordplay with the last word, the Piel participle הַמְאָרֲרִים (ham’ararim). The bitter water, if it convicted her, would pronounce a curse on her. So she was literally holding her life in her hands.
sn This ancient ritual seems to have functioned like a lie detector test, with all the stress and tension involved. It can be compared to water tests in the pagan world, with the exception that in Israel it was stacked more toward an innocent verdict. It seems to have been a temporary provision, for this is the only place that it appears, and no provision is made for its use later. It may have served as a didactic force, warning more than actually legislating. No provision is made in it for a similar charge to be brought against the man, but in the case of the suspicion of the woman the man would be very hesitant to demand this test given the harshness on false witnessing in Israel. The passage remains a rather strange section of the Law.