[This is another one of my older personal blog articles that I've touched up a bit for part of our conversation here at CRN.Info]
It has been pointed out to me that I tend to pick on those more theologically aligned with me than with those who are rather liberal in their theology. Upon reflection, this is a fair criticism, as I guess I would think folks who take the Bible seriously (which, some of my liberal mainline brothers may claim with their mouths but often not with their actions) would know better. In looking to my own Rabbi as an example, he was much harder on the Pharisees (who were of the same theological stripe) than on the Sadducees and Herodians (Hebrews who were in bed with the Romans for the sake of power) or the zealots (who were zealous for the Lord, but wanted to use violence) or the pagan Romans.
With that said, though, the scripture I’d like to examine today is one that tends to be abused by those who pay lip service to scripture on a normal day, but who all the sudden consider it highly important when talking about law and order.
But Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:1-11)
Where this passage of scripture seems to get (ab)used today is in criticism of tough laws and in opposition to the death penalty. In reality, this narrative in its original context, is more about the incompatibility of hypocrisy and the kingdom of God (including social justice, mind you), than about justice systems and sentencing.
According to numerous first-century sources, the approved method of execution by stoning in the Jewish culture is this: The accused person is taken to a drop-off that is 18-feet high (or higher), and stripped naked with their hands bound behind their back.Â At this point, the accused is given a chance to confess his or her sin.Â If he or she confessed, it was believed that their sin would be forgiven.Â If they did not, their sin would not be forgiven.Â In either case, once the condemned was given this opportunity, the execution could take place.
The two (or more) eyewitnesses of the crime then would push the person off the edge. All those who believed that the accused was guilty would then pick up a single stone (they only got one) and throw/drop it on the person from the edge of the drop-off. If they died (which was often the case), that was God’s judgement upon them. If they lived, then it was His judgement, as well (which is why Paul lived to write about himself being stoned).
The two witnesses are very important. These two to three witnesses cannot be complicit in the crime, and without them, you cannot condemn the person to death. These witnesses must also be the first to cast the stones on the guilty person.
On the testimony of two or three witnesses a man shall be put to death, but no one shall be put to death on the testimony of only one witness. The hands of the witnesses must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people. (Deut 17:6 -7a)
(I think it would be a fair debate to decide what constitutes a ‘witness’ today, now that we have forensic science with DNA, fingerprints and such that are considered to be more reliable than an eyewitness.Â Too often, I think we rely on strictly circumstantial evidence in death penalty cases, which moves away from the biblical requirement of witnesses.)
The Case at Hand
When the woman is brought before Jesus, instantly there should be some questions in the mind of the observer – If their purpose was to trap Jesus, how did they know where to catch the woman in the act? Where is the man who was part of the act of adultery? The law they were asking Jesus to rule on required both partners be stoned.
‘If a man commits adultery with another man’s wifeâ€”with the wife of his neighborâ€”both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death.’ (Leviticus 20:10)
The man who sinned with the woman was not there, which should be a red flag that there is some injustice going on, as the man should have been present, as well. The woman was of lower social status than the man, and so to demand consequences for her sin, but not that of her accomplice – who would have been seen as more responsible for the sin – would have been seen as mistreatment of someone of lower status.Â This type of oppression as forbidden in both the written and oral Torah. It is possible that the woman was a prostitute (since neither the man, nor her husband, were present), which would indicate an even lower social status. In any case, without the man with whom she committed the sin or a wronged husband asking for justice, there could be no reasonably just ruling involving only the woman.
And I charged your judges at that time: Hear the disputes between your brothers and judge fairly, whether the case is between brother Israelites or between one of them and an alien. Do not show partiality in judging; hear both small and great alike. Do not be afraid of any man, for judgment belongs to God. Bring me any case too hard for you, and I will hear it. (Deuteronomy 1:16-17)
Also, since they were bringing her to Jesus, who had no formal authority in the Temple, and they were not taking her to the Sanhedrin, who had the formal religious authority over such matters (but who could no longer pronounce death sentences at this time, as a result of Roman law), they were asking him to make a legal ruling that even their own rulers could not make. However, his actions give us distinct clues as to what his ruling was, and what it might mean to us.
Jesus first response when the woman was brought to him was to bend over and write with his finger in the dust. He continued doing this, even as they questioned him. We, as westerners, always want to ask the question – WHAT did he write? To the listener in the first century, particularly a Jewish listener with intimate knowledge of Torah (as most observent Jews had), what he wrote may have been superfluous, as they would have understood the story without it. In its Jewish context it is his act of writing in the dust that would bring to mind (as an unspoken remez) the prophet Jeremiah:
“I the LORD search the heart
and examine the mind,
to reward a man according to his conduct,
according to what his deeds deserve.”
Like a partridge that hatches eggs it did not lay
is the man who gains riches by unjust means.
When his life is half gone, they will desert him,
and in the end he will prove to be a fool.
A glorious throne, exalted from the beginning,
is the place of our sanctuary.
O LORD, the hope of Israel,
all who forsake you will be put to shame.
Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust
because they have forsaken the LORD,
the spring of living water.
If this is the case, from the verses around the remez, what should we conclude about Jesus’ action? I suspect it was the names of the individuals standing there that Jesus was writing in the dust, but (as noted) the very act of writing in the dust would call this passage to mind. And what is the sin for which those who turn away from God? From this passage of scripture, it is “the man who gains riches by unjust means”.
And so, after writing in the dust, Jesus tells the men that “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her”. Because this is part of the ritual of stoning, it would mean “If any one of you is without this sin…”. Which sin, though? As suggested by David Flusser, Ray VanderLaan and others, I would suggest it is the sin of injustice – which Jesus was referencing by writing in the dust. However, it may also be the sin of adultery – for how would the men know how/where to catch the woman if they were not in some way complicit in her crime (if she was a prostitute), or in only partially prosecuting it (by leaving the adulterer out of the judicial proceedings).
Remember also that the two witnesses had to push her off of a drop-off, and that they had to stone her first – as witnesses.
At this point, the men – the oldest (and therefore, culturally, the wisest) left first, followed by the youngest. And then, when Jesus is alone with the woman, he gives her his ruling, as well. Without any witnesses as accusers, she had no one to condemn her. And so, Jesus sent her away, telling her not to sin any more.
While a number of people who like to quote this passage use it to support arguments for leniency/absence of consequences (particularly the death penalty) for crimes or sins committed, Jesus was not making such an argument. Neither here, nor elsewhere, does he undermine the authority of the government to maintain order (which later Paul affirms that Christians are to obey their governmental leaders), nor does he advocate leniency in earthly consequence for societal sin.
Instead, what he gives us is a reminder to seek justice, particularly for those of lesser status, and to not take advantage of others less fortunate than ourselves.