In Rom 7:1–6, Paul appears to draw on Num 5:11–31 as a metaphorical way of characterizing the Christian community’s history.1 While her husband lives, the wife’s involvement with another man would make her liable to the charge of adultery from her current husband. From this charge, the wife would also become liable to the ritual of Num 5:11–31, and the serious consequences that it would entail if she had indeed committed adultery (Num 5:21–22, 24, 27–28).2
Such would also have resembled the situation for those whom Paul addresses in Rom 7:1–6 but for one thing: they have “put off the old man [and] walk not in the oldness of the letter but in the newness of the spirit” (cf. Rom 6:6; 7:1, 4, 6).3 Having become unlinked from τὸ σῶμα τῆς ἁμαρτίας (Rom 6:6; the body of sin; cf. Rom 7:24), they have become united with τὸ σώμα τοῦ Χριστοῦ (Rom 7:4; the body of the Messiah). Because of the old person’s death,4 they do not have the fruit that comes from an accurate accusation of adultery (Rom 7:1, 5; cf. Num 5:21–22, 24, 27–28).5 Rather, in union with Messiah Jesus, they have the fruit of righteousness, which is pleasing to God, and of eternal life (Rom 6:12–23; 7:5).6
2. Numbers 5:11–31 suggests that only the wife would undergo the ritual (Ephraim Syrus, On Our Lord, 6 [NPNF2 13:308]; cf. Jerome, Epist., 55.3 [NPNF2 6:110]). Yet, Prot. Jas. 16 (ANF 8:364–65), has Mary and Joseph both drink water from the priest’s hand. Because they both “return unhurt,” they are both cleared from wrongdoing in Jesus’ conception (see Prot. Jas. 15 [ANF 8:364]).
3. Jerome, Epist., 69.7 (NPNF2 6:146); cf. Augustine, Tract. Ev. Jo., 112.5 (NPNF1 7:417); see also Rehmann, “The Doorway into Freedom”; Tertullian, Marc., 5.13 (ANF 3:456–59); contra Origen, Comm. Matt., 12.4 (ANF 9:451–52).
4. Cf. Sanday and Headlam, Romans, 171–72; Thielman, Paul and the Law, 196–97; Wright, Climax of the Covenant, 196; Wright, “Letter to the Romans,” 558–59; see also Barrett, Romans, 127–28; Barth, Romans, 231–34; Bruce, Romans, 144–45; Chrysostom, Hom. Rom., 12.7.1–6 (NPNF1 11:418–20); Dunn, Romans, 363, 365, 368; Moo, Romans, 413; Rehmann, “The Doorway into Freedom,” 102. Chrysostom, Hom. Rom., 12.1–4 (NPNF1 11:418–19), suggests that, in Paul’s scenario, both the husband and the wife die (Rom 7:1–4). In Chrysostom’s reading, because the wife has also died, her resurrection to be united with her new husband leaves her so much the freer from her previous spouse’s claims on her.