FALLING AWAY (OF WOMAN’S THIGH)
The divine punishment that came upon an adulterous woman whose transgression was concealed from her husband but who suspected her of unfaithfulness and therefore brought her to the priest. The priest made the woman stand before Jehovah, took some holy water (evidently pure, fresh water), sprinkled into it some dust from the tabernacle floor, and washed or wiped into it the cursings he had written down. After swearing to her innocence, she was required to drink the water. If guilty, her ‘thigh fell away’ and her belly swelled. If she was innocent, no harm would come upon her.—Num. 5:12-31.
The thigh is apparently used euphemistically in this passage to refer to the sexual organs. (Compare Genesis 46:26.) Logically the punishment affected those organs that were involved in committing the wrong. (Compare Mark 9:43-47.) The expression “fall away” is understood to mean “waste away” (The Holy Bible, translated by the Catholic Biblical Association of America), “shrink” (Da) or “shrivel” (Mo), and hence would suggest that the sex organs atrophied and that there was a loss of fertility and ability to conceive. The fact that the innocent wife was to be made pregnant by her husband (Num. 5:28) would seem to indicate that future pregnancy would be denied the adulterous woman. Moreover, the belly of the guilty wife would swell because of the curse, but not due to the blessing of pregnancy.
This was by no means a trial by ordeal such as those practiced in the Dark Ages and that sometimes required a virtual miracle to survive. There was nothing in the water itself to cause the affliction. However, it was holy water and had in it holy ground or dust and the writing of the cursings washed off in it. Therefore, it contained powerful symbolisms, and it was drunk before Jehovah and with a solemn oath to him. There was no uncertainty as to the outcome of matters. If the woman was guilty, Jehovah caused the drink to have miraculous potency to produce the deserved results. Adultery carried the death penalty, but in this instance there were not the required two witnesses. (Num. 35:30; Deut. 19:15) Also, usually in this case the identity of the guilty man, who would likewise be worthy of death, had not been revealed.