An analysis of Philo’s Exegesis of the Sotah Ritual

Susanna Clare Towers


This paper aims to explore Philo of Alexandria’s perception of gender through his writings on the Sotah ritual described in Numbers 5:11-31, the trial by ordeal of the wife suspected of adultery by her husband. Philo’s writings on the Sotah ritual appear in his texts “The Special Laws” and “The Allegories of the Sacred Laws.” These commentaries are analyzed alongside near contemporaneous Tannaitic texts (the Mishnah and Tosefta Tractates relating to the ritual) and Josephus’ account of the ritual in “The Antiquities of the Jews.” Philo’s texts are examined for innovative themes and interpretations of the Sotah ritual in the context of these alternative commentaries. It is argued that Philo’s treatment of the Sotah ritual reveals a tendency towards a dismissal of the central role of the woman in the ritual. It is suggested that the Sotah herself is alternately dissolved into body parts or subsumed into aspects of the male soul, reflecting Philo’s preoccupation with purely male spiritual development.

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