She who is Deviant Drinks the Divine
How do we deal with deep doubt? The ancients had ritual protocols for that. This particular procedure was quite problematic.
The focus shifts in chapter 5 from who’s at the sacred center to the people on the fringe who make their way to the main altar for ritual needs. It’s an odd, likely partial list, including those guilty of embezzlement, women or men taking on vows of monastic service, and the woman accused, without evidence, of adultery. There are volumes written about this third case - the ordeal of the Sotah - the Adulteress. (for a basic overview try this brief read )
On the face of it this ritual is a way to deal with jealous husbands and wayward wives in a society where women are property. Tragically, we haven’t changed that much. Shakespeare’s Othello and countless other more recent news stories come to mind. .
Probe deeper and it’s perhaps a much more ancient ceremony meant to deal with deeper doubts. To the modern reader this is horrific patriarchal misogyny at its fiercest. But the cruel details of this ordeal have already puzzled and enraged readers for millenia. In the 2rd century CE, the rabbis declared that this ritual had been completely discontinued. Some wonder if it ever existed at all.
Adultery, infidelity, jealousy and lust have determined much of our domestic, romantic or erotic wellbeing since we’ve begun recording our emotions. The Babylonian Hammurabi laws already list this legal option: “If a husband accuses his own wife of adultery, although she has not been seized lying with another male, she shall swear to her innocence by an oath by the god, and return to her house.”
The Torah takes it a step further. Chapter 5 describes the Sotah ritual - it’s complex, and has her drink a unique mix of holy water with a hand written spell and sacred soil which yield two possible options - either the woman ends up having some sort of abortion - or she’s vindicated and acquited. Throughout the ordeal she only speaks once, in response to the oath administered by the priest:
וּ֠בָ֠אוּ הַמַּ֨יִם הַמְאָרְרִ֤ים הָאֵ֙לֶּה֙ בְּֽמֵעַ֔יִךְ לַצְבּ֥וֹת בֶּ֖טֶן וְלַנְפִּ֣ל יָרֵ֑ךְ וְאָמְרָ֥ה הָאִשָּׁ֖ה אָמֵ֥ן ׀ אָמֵֽן׃
“May this water that induces the spell enter your body, causing the belly to distend and the thigh to sag.” And the woman shall say, “Amen, amen.”(Ba. 5:22)
I cannot prove this but I have a deep gut feeling about the hidden origin of this ritual in which this possibly wayward woman drinks the name of the divine - that’s what’s in the handwritten spell they mix in the water. Could this be a cruel twist of an earlier non patriarchal ritual in which a priestess, center stage, took inside her body the representation of god, ingested some medicinal brew to release any doubts about the power of life?
Only in the ownership obsessed male culture that eventually takes over our indiginous traditions does this ceremony of the SHOTA - She Who Drinks, become a punishing public spectacle - SOTA - the Wayward Wife??
Speculation, history, herstory, myth or made up ritual - the legacy of abusing women like suspected property is sadly still the law of this land. When it comes to our doubts about what’s sacred and how to best evolve as a species - perhaps we ought to open up more fertile ground for doubting the validity of what we inherited and imagine balanced beautiful ways of living with the mystery and loving all sorts of love?
Image: Ceremony of the Suspected Adulteress, Matthijs Pool, 1686 - 1727
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