The next prompt from Writing in the Margins relates to the story of the woman caught in adultery:
Writing in the sand helped Jesus gain his composure in John 8. Read the story in your Bible. Write in the margin one thing to remember from the text, one thing to wonder about the text, and one thing to live into action from the text.
One thing to remember:
It seems the most important thing to remember from the story is that Jesus showed mercy.
One thing to wonder about (For me, wondering always seems to lead to one question after another. I’ve done my best to organize my thoughts and questions, but this got a little long!):
This is a bit morbid, but I wondered about the history of stoning (not something that that was covered in Sunday school!). The Bible that is in my heart is filled with love, faith, hope, and mercy. Stoning feels at odds with everything I’ve been taught and heard preached at church. The first mention of stoning I could find mentioned in the Bible is when Moses is just about to head up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments from God on stone tablets:
And you shall set limits for the people all around, saying “Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death. No hand shall touch him, but he shall be stoned or shot; whether beast or man, he shall not live.”-Exodus 19:12-13
As I spent some time rereading the story from Exodus of when Moses received the Ten Commandments, I suddenly saw the action of Jesus bending over to write in the sand with his finger in a new light. Like Lisa Nichol Hickman suggested in the prompt, I have always heard that Jesus was writing in the sand to gain a little time to formulate an answer to the question posed by the scribes and Pharisees, but now I am wondering if maybe Jesus was reliving Exodus story:
And he gave to Moses, when he had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.-Exodus 31:18
In the story from John 8, Jesus parallels the action of God coming down to Mount Sinai, “Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.” I can imagine Jesus smiling in that moment as he recalled that first meeting with Moses that brought the law. If the scribes and Pharisees only knew who they were standing before. The presence of God in his full glory on Mount Sinai was too much for most mortals and here was God fully divine and fully human, available for questions.
I wondered about the specific Old Testament reference that the scribes and Pharisees referred to. I found this…
If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel. If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. But if in the open country a man meets a young woman who is betrothed, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. But you shall do nothing to the young woman; she has committed no offense punishable by death.-Deuteronomy 22:22-26
Reading this passage made me wonder: what happened to the adulterous man in John 8? The passage seems to demand the same punishment for both (and greater leniency for the woman if her screams could not be heard).
I still wondered with a certain amount of horror about stoning in general. I found a list of more crimes punishable by stoning (which gave me more to wonder about!):
- Breaking the Sabbath (Numbers 15:32–36)
- Laying with a male as with a woman (Leviticus 20:13)
- Giving one’s children to Molech (Leviticus 20:2–5)
- Practicing as a medium or a necromancer (Lev. 20:27)
- Blaspheming the name of God (Lev. 24:10–16)
- Serving/worshiping other Gods or the sun or the moon (Deuteronomy 17:2–7)
- Rebelling against parents (Deut. 21,18–21)
- Getting married as though a virgin, when not a virgin (Deut. 22:13–21)
I wondered if there were a common thread in these crimes (and just generally felt grateful to be living in modern times!). These crimes all seem to reflect a lack of reverence for God and a lack of faithfulness, especially if you consider the possibility that our relationship with our parents is a model for how we are to relate to God individually and that marriage is the metaphor for the relationship between God and God’s people. Truly I feel personally horrified at the thought of stoning a rebellious child or an adulterer (and about the poor man who simply picked up sticks on the Sabbath! What?!? Heaven help me!), but the message I read through these laws is that a lack of reverence and a lack of faith will surely lead to death.
As I read the terrible fate assigned to those who commit adultery, I found myself thinking of the most well-known example of adultery and murder in the Bible: King David. And I remembered that he was not stoned to death nor was Bathsheba. In beautiful Psalms, David wrote of his repentance and also gratitude to God. When David sensed what he deserved, he responded with gratitude and a changed heart. I found new appreciation for these words:
Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed I the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit.-Psalms 32:1-2
I wondered if God is like the teacher, who starts the school year strict and as the classroom finds order, becomes much softer. God certainly showed kindness and mercy to David. Or maybe the stoning rules were written to inspire fear with the idea that they would rarely be enforced, given that probably just about everyone has broken one of the rules (Who hasn’t at least broken the Sabbath? Or rebelled against parents?).
When God’s people sin, it becomes a kind of adultery. The prophets use the image of the adulteress to characterize the whole of Israel:
And the Lord said to me, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by another man and is an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the children of Israel, though they turn to other gods and love cakes of raisins.”-Hosea 3:1
And the message is always that God remain faithful and loving to his people even when we make mistakes or insist on living without God:
For the Lord has called you like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit, like a wife of youth when she is cast off, says your God. For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,” says the Lord, your redeemer.-Isaiah 54:6-8
Seen in this context, Jesus response to the woman caught in adultery is not really a reversal of the Old Testament, but a continuation of the mercy and love that God showed to those who hear him and belong to him in faith.
God gave the law to Moses on stone tablets. As Christians, we understand that Jesus is one with God and also the fulfillment of the law. Through the gift of faith, Jesus also restores us to eternal life. As I reflected on this story and the stoning offences, I gained a better understanding of Paul’s assertion in his letter to the Romans that faith is righteousness and a greater appreciation for the long discussion that Paul provides about the effect of the law, which is nicely summed up:
Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.-Romans 5:20-21
To recognize Jesus as the light of the world, to have faith in Jesus, to be reverent and turn from sin as we encounter Jesus is a response that is met with mercy and brings eternal blessing. When Jesus comes to earth, he gives us a simpler, easier version of the law: “Love one another as I have loved you.” He also shows us how to live the law so that we know what love means.
I marvel at how Jesus was able to have everyone present examine their own conscience. Jesus simply told the scribes and Pharisees: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And the story says: “They went away one by one, beginning with the older ones.” And when Jesus was standing alone with the woman, he said to her: “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” Everyone in the story was turned inward. It’s difficult if not impossible to throw stones at others when one is fully aware of one’s own need for mercy before God. Maybe that’s the most important lesson that can be learned from studying stoning in the Bible.
When God came to write on the earth with his finger a second time, it was not to deliver the law, but to save us from sin and death. I can only imagine the range of emotions the lady must have felt as her shame and fear were met with mercy, love, and the opportunity for a new life.
To live into action:
Be faithful and reverent, giving thanks for God’s mercy and the free gift of eternal life in Christ.