Mary Was Protected By the Law
Never in the history of Israel was there a more opportune time for a husband to request his wife to undergo the “adultery test”, then when Mary confessed to Joseph that she was pregnant. Although the Scripture does not say what Mary said, it is reasonable to assume that she told Joseph exactly what had happened – she was visited by an angel, the angel told her she would conceive the Messiah, and the conception would occur by the power of the Holy Spirit. Whatever Mary said, it was not enough to convince Joseph to stay with her.
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. Matthew 1: 18 – 19
Joseph wanted to send Mary away, meaning he did not accept what she said. From his perspective, he was cheated on and lied to (if Mary told him about the angel’s visitation). Despite that, he obviously cared for Mary. Rather than charging her with adultery and risking the possibility of her being stoned to death, he kept the matter private and tried to end the engagement in secrecy. But if Joseph had charged Mary with adultery, and if he had sought a formal judgment of her actions, Mary would have been vindicated by the law, because of the aforementioned adultery test.
The test is an amazing provision within the Mosaic Law that protected a faithful woman from the suspicions of her husband, and at the same time exposed an unfaithful woman who had not been caught in the act, but who was indeed guilty. The test was divinely ordered – God Himself ensured the appropriate outcome, so that the innocent would be proven innocent, and the guilty proven guilty. Here is the procedure, as recorded by Moses:
Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘If any man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him, and a man has intercourse with her and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband and she is undetected, although she has defiled herself, and there is no witness against her and she has not been caught in the act, if a spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife when she has defiled herself, or if a spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife when she has not defiled herself, the man shall then bring his wife to the priest, and shall bring as an offering for her one-tenth of an ephah of barley meal; he shall not pour oil on it nor put frankincense on it, for it is a grain offering of jealousy, a grain offering of memorial, a reminder of iniquity. Then the priest shall bring her near and have her stand before the LORD, and the priest shall take holy water in an earthenware vessel; and he shall take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water. The priest shall then have the woman stand before the LORD and let the hair of the woman’s head go loose, and place the grain offering of memorial in her hands, which is the grain offering of jealousy, and in the hand of the priest is to be the water of bitterness that brings a curse. The priest shall have her take an oath and shall say to the woman, “If no man has lain with you and if you have not gone astray into uncleanness, being under the authority of your husband, be immune to this water of bitterness that brings a curse; if you, however, have gone astray, being under the authority of your husband, and if you have defiled yourself and a man other than your husband has had intercourse with you” (then the priest shall have the woman swear with the oath of the curse, and the priest shall say to the woman), “the LORD make you a curse and an oath among your people by the LORD’s making your thigh waste away and your abdomen swell; and this water that brings a curse shall go into your stomach, and make your abdomen swell and your thigh waste away.” And the woman shall say, “Amen. Amen.” The priest shall then write these curses on a scroll, and he shall wash them off into the water of bitterness. Then he shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness which brings a curse, so that the water which brings a curse will go into her and cause bitterness. The priest shall take the grain offering of jealousy from the woman’s hand, and he shall wave the grain offering before the LORD and bring it to the altar; and the priest shall take a handful of the grain offering as its memorial offering and offer it up in smoke on the altar, and afterward he shall make the woman drink the water. When he has made her drink the water, then it shall come about, if she has defiled herself and has been unfaithful to her husband, that the water which brings a curse will go into her and cause bitterness, and her abdomen will swell and her thigh will waste away, and the woman will become a curse among her people. But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, she will then be free and conceive children. This is the law of jealousy: when a wife, being under the authority of her husband, goes astray and defiles herself, or when a spirit of jealousy comes over a man and he is jealous of his wife, he shall then make the woman stand before the LORD, and the priest shall apply all this law to her. Moreover, the man will be free from guilt, but that woman shall bear her guilt.’” Numbers 5: 11 – 31
The summary of this test is that the woman was made to drink special water. If she was innocent then the water would not hurt her. But if she was guilty, if she cheated on her husband, the water would hurt her. The test was foolproof, since God directed the outcome. Only God knows the secrets of men and women. Only God is in a position to judge the secret sins that people commit and hide from others. In regards to whether a woman cheated on her husband, when there are no witnesses or confessions, only God is in a position to judge that situation. And He chose to judge it in Israel through the water test.
Despite this adultery test, given to the people by God and recorded by Moses, we have no reason to believe, upon reading the accounts in Matthew and in Luke, that Joseph had Mary drink the water. In fact, the evidence offered in Scripture would lead us to conclude otherwise. If Joseph wanted to send Mary away secretly, as Scripture says he did, it seems improbable that he would go to a priest with Mary and request the water test to be performed. Also, we have no way of knowing whether Joseph even knew of the test or considered it a viable option. Just because it is recorded in Scripture doesn’t mean it was known about or understood by the people in that day. All we can be sure about is that Joseph cared enough for Mary to protect her from punishment, but was hurt enough by her to end the engagement.
Now, because Mary did not perform the test, and because Joseph was convinced he was cheated on, he had to be convinced of Mary’s innocence in another way, no less divine than the adultery test – a dream from God. In the dream he was given, Mary’s innocence was proven, just as it would have been through the test.
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus. Matthew 1: 18 – 25