Male Jealousy and the Suspected Sotah: Toward a Counter-Reading of Numbers 5:11-31

Brian Britt


Until recently, discussions of the Sotah ritual (Numbers 5) stood at an impasse between the view that it provides wives protection from jealous husbands and the view that it mainly subordinates women. This article examines the place of writing and curses in the biblical text, highlighting its almost compulsive concern to bring certainty to uncertainty. Dynamics of body and text, writing and erasure, uncertainty and linguistic power inform the Sotah text in ways that resist univocal readings. With the full weight of priestly and legal authority brought to bear on the problem of male jealousy, there can be no doubt that the ritual enforces patriarchal controls on women’s agency. It thus instantiates the development of what Deleuze and Guattari call the ‘despotic sign’, whereby ‘[t]he mouth no longer speaks, it drinks the letter’. Yet as the law on oaths later in Numbers (ch. 30) attests, women could also exercise powerful speech, making their agency a reality in biblical times. Building on theoretical models from Irigaray and Butler, I sketch two strategies of counter-reading the Sotah text: reversal, in which the tables of suspicion are turned on the accusing husband, and parody, in which the entire ritual, like the exchange of sandals in Ruth 4, seems strange from a particular point of view.


Numbers 5:11-31; Sotah

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Bible and Critical Theory: ISSN 1832-3391