Friday, November 16, 2012

Writing in the Dust

Why did Jesus write on the ground. This is a question that has puzzled many commentators. I think the answer is simple.

The teachers of the law and the pharisees had brought a woman caught in adultery before Jesus.

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” (John 8:4-5)?
They were testing Jesus, so his response is really important. Many commentators assume that Jesus rejected the requirements of the law of Moses and replaced them with forgiveness and mercy. That would be surprising, because Jesus had already said that had not come to abolish the law, and that not one jot or tittle would pass away while heaven and earth continued to exist (Matt 5:17-20).

The truth is that Jesus applied the law correctly in this situation.
If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbour—both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death (Lev 20:10).
If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel (Deut 22:21).
These laws demonstrate the seriousness of adultery. The family is the basic unit in society, so adultery is treason against society. It is an evil that must be purged from society, or it will be destroyed.

However, the law has more to say about how the penalty for adultery should be applied. Firstly, a person can only be convicted of a crime if there are three witnesses to it.
One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses (Deut 19:15).
The Pharisees and teachers of the law understood this, so they stood the woman in front of the crowd and claimed as proof that she had been caught in the act.

Jesus knew that the law had another requirement. The witnesses must not have committed the crime they are testifying against. Adulterers cannot testify against adulterers. A witness who has committed the same crime is a false witness (Deut 5 :20) Jesus reminded the teachers and pharisees of this requirement, when he said,
Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her (John 8:7).
This was not a new idea, it was a requirement of the law of Moses.

After saying these words, Jesus then continued writing on the ground. Commentators have speculated on what words he wrote that caused the crowd to slowly disperse, but they have missed the point. Jesus did not write any words. If he had, they would have been recorded. He wrote in the dust on the ground, because he wanted the people gathered to know where he was looking. Jesus was the only man in the crowd, who was not looking at the woman, and he wanted them to know that.

This woman had been “caught in adultery, in the very act”. Women in those times wore a single garment. They did not have fancy lingerie. So she would have removed her garment when she was caught in the adulterous act. When they dragged her out of the house and placed her in front of Jesus she would have been standing naked. This was part of their proof that she had been caught in adultery.

I presume she was an attractive woman, or she would not have been in this situation, so every man in the crowd would have been ogling at her. Except Jesus who was looking at the ground. When they noticed that Jesus was not looking at her, they would remember that Jesus had taught on the nature of adultery.
I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matt 5:28).
As they looked at her, and noticed Jesus had not, they would realised that they had committed adultery where they were standing. They disqualified themselves as witnesses, because they were guilty of the crime that they were accusing her of committing. There was nothing for them to do, but to leave in case Jesus revealed their sin.

When they had all gone, Jesus looked at her. He was the only man on earth who could do that without sinning. However, he had not witnessed her sin, (although he had witnessed the sin of the men who accused her), so he could not condemn her. He told her to leave, and to stop sinning.

There was no witness, who was not guilty of the same sin, so the woman could not be put to death. Therefore, Jesus fulfilled the requirements of the law of Moses, he did not set them aside.

Jesus did more than that. He demonstrated that the adultery laws could not be applied. Given the nature of human hearts, it would be impossible for three men to observe a man and a woman completing an act of adultery without committing the same sin by lusting after the woman. If they did not do it at this time, they would have done so previously. Therefore, there could never be innocent independent witnesses to testify against the adulterers. Adultery was an unenforceable crime.

This was not new. Moses understood this. Jesus had already explained that Moses did not enforce the laws against adultery.
Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard (Matt 19:8).
Moses did not apply the death penalty for adultery, because he understood human hearts and knew that he could not get three independent, innocent witnesses. Instead he allowed divorce as a pragmatic solution to the problem Jesus did not change Moses’ standard.
I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery (Matt 19:9).
Jesus did not abolish the law that required the death penalty for adultery. He left it on the books, to demonstrate God’s abhorrence for adultery. It is a serious evil that undermines society from the inside out. Jesus also confirmed that this law should not be enforced, because human hearts are not up to it.

Jesus demonstrated how judgment and mercy meet. He did not undermine the law, but he ensured that the women received mercy.

See Crime and Punishment for more.


Anonymous said...

Hi, interesting piece. Are you able to back up "A witness who has committed the same crime is a false witness (Deut 5 :20)" a little bit more?


Blessed Economist said...

It is the nature of an honest witness. Character counts. A witness who is guilty of the same sin cannot be trusted.

The biblical confirmation is in John 8. The teachers and Pharisees asked Jesus if the Law of Moses should be applied. He did not say no. He answered their question about the law, by reminding them that a person who had committed the same sin could not be a witness. They knew what he meant. He was using the Law of Moses against the experts on the law. That is why they were trapped in their own trap.. If he had said the law of Moses did not apply, they would have grounds to accuse him.