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Bitter Waters (Naso)

Below are some very quickly written thoughts regarding the symbolism of the curious “sotah” ritual described in last week’s parshah, Nasso, and relevant as well to this week’s parshah, Beha’alotcha. The basic argument is that the “bitter waters” central to the sotah ritual ought to be understood in light of the “bitter waters” which b’nei Yisrael drank shortly after Moshe and Miriam led them in “shirat ha-yam.” Particular attention will be placed upon the contrast between Miriam and the sotah; as part of that analysis, we will touch upon the larger significance of Miriam’s argument with her brother, Moshe, recorded at the end of this week’s parshah.

The sotah ritual is puzzling on many levels (see Num. 5:12-31). To gain insight into its meaning, perhaps we ought to focus on its central symbol: the “bitter waters” [מי המרים] which the sotah is required to drink (Num. 5:19).

water-flowing-over-rocksThere is one other place in the Torah where we find bitter waters: at “Marah.” Marah literally means “bitterness,” and it was here that B’nei Yisrael drank “bitter waters” shortly after the splitting of the sea (Exod. 15:20-27). [Note: Structurally, the incident of the bitter waters at Marah is presented as part of the same narrative as the splitting of the sea; see our earlier article, “The Sound of Music,” for the literary evidence to the effect that these episodes ought to be read in tandem].  

Interestingly, there are several other details of this incident—the splitting of the sea/the drinking of bitter waters at Marah—which evoke the sotah procedure, as well. Most importantly, perhaps, is the purpose of each incident. The Torah tells us that Hashem led B’nei Yisrael to the bitter waters of Marah as a form of “trial/ordeal:” “There He gave Israel a statute, and presented them with a trial/ordeal” (Exod. 15:25). The sotah, procedure, meanwhile, is the only “statute” in the canon of Biblical law which calls for a trial-by-ordeal.

Moreover, at Marah—just as in the law of the sotah (Num. 5:21-22; 28)—those who fail the trial succumb to sickness, while those who pass are offered healing: “If you hearken to the voice of the Lord, your God, and you do what is proper in His eyes, and you listen closely to His commandments and observe all His statutes, all the sicknesses that I have visited upon Egypt I will not visit upon you, for I, the Lord, heal you” (Exod. 15:26).

Even the methods of treating the “bitter waters” are similar. Both at Marah and during the sotah procedure, Hashem instructs a religious leader (Moshe/the kohen) to cast material (wood/ink) into the waters before they are to be “drunk” (Exod. 15:24-25; Num. 5:23-24). Besides for this, the sotah procedure also calls for mixing “עפר” [dirt] into the “מים” [waters] (Num. 5:17). The only other time we find such a combination in the Torah is at the splitting of the sea, whereat the Egyptians are described as having drowned as “עופרת” [lead] in the “מים” [waters] (Exod. 15:10). Along with the bitter waters, then, the sotah must consume the dust of the earth—an ironic reversal of the Egyptians’ fate, who were “swallowed” themselves by the “earth” (Exod. 15:12).

The “sanctuary” also plays prominently in both texts. At several points throughout the “song of the sea,” B’nei Yisrael note that Hashem’s purpose in delivering them through these waters is to lead them towards His sanctuary (Exod. 15:13; 17). That sanctuary later serves as the site of the sotah procedure, and is directly involved in the ritual: it is from the floor of this sanctuary, specifically, which the kohen must gather the dirt that is mixed into the sotah waters (Exod. 5:17). One might also propose a linguistic parallel between the phrase “עד יעבר עם זו קנית,” describing the “passage” of Hashem’s “acquired” nation towards Hashem’s sanctuary (Exod. 15:16), and the phrase “או עבר עליו רוח קנאה,” describing the “passing” of a spirit of “jealousy” over the husband, which leads him and his wife to that same sanctuary (Num. 5:17). [Note also the role played by “רוח”— “wind/spirit”—in precipitating both of these “passings” (Exod. 15:8, 10; Num. 5:14, 30).]

Finally, it is fascinating to spot, in the sotah procedure, details which remind us of the main actors at the splitting of the sea/incident of the bitter waters. As part of the sotah law, the sotah undergoes the process of “פרע,” i.e. letting her hair loose (Num. 5:18)—a rare expression, but one which immediately calls to mind the name of the Egyptian king who drowned during the splitting of the sea: “פרעה” (Exod. 15:4, 19). [Note: We have conjectured previously that, at least in the context of the Torah, the connection of the name פרעה, “Pharaoh,” and the word פרע, associated with “hair,” may reflect a broader relationship between the Egyptians and the ritualizing of hair—for more, see The Hair Affair along with comments].

Another figure who features prominently at both the splitting of the sea and the sotah procedure is, of course, Hashem. That fact might not in itself seem remarkable, but what is remarkable is the most unique title by which Hashem is referred to in both of these contexts. Based on a subtle textual redundancy in the law of the sotah, Rashi, citing the midrash, tells us that the “איש” [“man”] whom the sotah has betrayed with her infidelity is not only her husband, but also he who is referred to as “איש מלחמה” [“the Man of War”] (Num. 5:12 s.v. איש איש). That title—איש מלחמה—is a rarely used name for Hashem. In fact, it appears only once else in the Torah—in the song of the sea: “The Lord is a “man of war” [איש מלחמה]; the Lord—that is His name” (Exod. 15:3).

But even this striking allusion is topped by the allusion, in the sotah laws, to yet a third individual from Marah: Moshe’s sister, Miriam. The name Miriam, in Hebrew, is spelled מרים—the exact same spelling as the word for “bitter,” used to describe the waters in both the sotah laws (Num. 5:18-19, 23-24, 27) and, of course, at Marah (Exod. 15:23). In fact, Miriam is really the central character of the Marah incident—she leads the women in song following the splitting of the sea, and the Torah leaves it clear that this act is somehow pivotal in shaping the “bitter waters” incident that follows. And it’s this connection that may be most helpful in pointing us towards the meaning of all the other connections we have noted between the sotah waters and those of Marah/the split sea.

For, in a way, Miriam and the sotah are polar opposites. The sotah represents marital infidelity and, in a broader sense, the breakdown of the family unit. By contrast, Miriam, in both Biblical and rabbinic literature, stands out as the people’s greatest advocate of marriage, specifically, and familial propagation, more generally. Whereas the sotah commits adultery, leading her husband to divorce her, Miriam convinces the men and women of her generation to remain married, despite the great pressures placed upon them by the Egyptians to separate (Sotah 12a). And whereas the sotah forfeits her ability to raise children, Miriam works tirelessly to bring children into the world, even under the most oppressive of regimes (Exod. 1:15-21; Sotah 11b). Most notably, Miriam personally assures the survival of one boy, in particular—Moshe, her brother (Exod. 2:4-10). She does this by helping to “hide” him from his persecutors (c.f. Exod. 2:2)—another point of contrast with the sotah, who also “hides” (Num. 15:13), but does so for the nefarious purpose of keeping secret her extramarital affair.

Nor is Miriam finished there. Later in life, she returns to Moshe, and admonishes him to remarry his wife—as she had once admonished their father—after Moshe divorces (Rashi Num. 12:1 s.v. ותדבר מרים ואהרון). Even Miriam’s own marriage requires great effort to establish: she struggles at first to find a suitor, for she is frail and sickly, not unlike the sotah following her ordeal; yet—perhaps because she proves herself so committed to the institution of marriage on behalf of others—Miriam eventually merits to marry a leader among her people (Sotah 12a).

Of course, several of the sources cited here in connection with Miriam are midrashic in origin. But they are undoubtedly prompted by, and consistent with, the portrait of Miriam which emerges from a plain-sense reading of the Biblical text. And did you notice, by the way, where exactly these midrashim are located? As a rule, they are all found in the Talmudic book of… Sotah!

That is no mere coincidence. For, as it turns out, we are not the first to suggest a contrast between Miriam and the sotah; indeed, what triggers this placement of the “Miriam midrashim” in masechet Sotah is the contrast made by the Mishnah itself: “In the measure that a person measures, so it is measured out to him: she [the sotah] adorned her body in order to transgress, but in the end God disgraces her…. And so it is for good things: Miriam waited for Moses for one period, as it says, “and his sister stood by him from far away,” therefore the Jewish people waited for her for a week in the desert, as it says, “and the nation did not travel until Miriam was gathered with them…”” (Mishnah Sotah 1:7;9). Miriam is patient, exhibiting staying power and commitment even in the face of enormous challenge. The sotah is her opposite.

More generally: the sotah, we might say, represents but one particular, ritualized iteration of a struggle that persists throughout much of Chumash. In some sense, it is a struggle against the corrupting influence of Egyptian society—a society which the Torah singles out for its lewdness (Lev. 18:3), and which can be found undermining the marriages of b’nei Yisrael already from the days of their earliest fore-bearers (Gen. 12:10-20). And, at every turn, the struggle is fought over waters both literally and figuratively “bitter.” The stress of “bitter” labor (Gen. 1:14) imposed by the Egyptians upon b’nei Yisrael nearly tears families apart. But the Hebrew women respond by drawing water for their husbands to drink at the end of each day, so that they can restore their energy and their desire to propagate (Sotah 11b). The Egyptians then plot to drown all baby boys in the water (Exod. 1:22). But Miriam oversees the rescue of one such boy as he is deliberately cast into the water, and emerges to deliver his people (Exod. 2:3). Finally, the Egyptians attempt to chase the entire nation into the sea. But in the end, they are consumed by it themselves (Exod. 14:5-31).

Thus, Miriam sings in triumph (Exod. 15:20). But the nation then drinks bitter waters of its own—as a reminder, perhaps, that the aftertaste of Egypt persists. No longer under direct threat from external forces, the integrity of b’nei Yisrael’s family structure may nevertheless not be taken for granted. For if commitment to the institution of marriage erodes from within, the bitter waters will return—this time, in the form of the sotah procedure.

Indeed, it was by no accident that Chazal taught (on the opening folio of none other than masechet Sotah, of course!) that Hashem has a harder time bringing couples together than He did splitting the sea (Sotah 2a). The splitting of the sea, our analysis has demonstrated, represented a one-time flashpoint in the saga of “bitter waters.” But the struggle of building a marriage made to last—a struggle represented by the “bitter waters” of the sotah—demands an investment that is lifelong.


  1. Sam Larson says:

    Awesome stuff!!! You might also enjoy seeing the Kli Yakar on the Sotah incident (bamidbar 5:17) he connects the sotah, marah ,and the egel incident as well… the idea of making the Jews drink as a test, also midrashim say there was avodah zarah at marah, and the general connection between avodah zarah and marital infidelity…

  2. Ephrayim Naiman says:

    The Me’am Lo’ez also discusses that the Egyptians claimed the Jewish women were Sotas, so Hashem tested them after they left Egypt.

  3. Alex says:

    Sam, Mr. Naiman – amazing sources! Thanks for sharing.

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