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Written in the Dust

 Let's revisit a well known incident for a new look: "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 anyone 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 8:3-11, NIV).

Here are important points to consider: 1) The accusers did not present the mandates of the law correctly. Not only was stoning not prescribed by law (the means of execution was left open except in the case of an engaged virgin (Deuteronomy 22:23-24),) but the law required the execution of both the woman and the man (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22). The accusers could have kept the woman in private custody while they questioned Jesus. But they looked the other way from the adulterous man and paraded the woman in public to humiliate her.

 2) It was a trap because the Jewish people were stripped of their authority to execute anyone by the Roman occupiers. (If this isn't known from biblical history, those who saw The Passion of the Christ  would have picked on it.) If Jesus gave permission to proceed with the execution, He would have been prosecuted for violating Roman law. If Jesus would have said that Roman law was above Mosaic law and said no to the execution, He would have been prosecuted by the Temple authorities.

 3) The accusers did not drop their rocks and walk away because they were conscience-stricken people or penitent contemplatives. Jesus had previously exposed them for the self-righteous and self-important ecclesiastical snobs they were, and would do it again.

 Jesus' action of writing in the dirt must be of importance. Unfounded and way-out-there speculations about what He was writing have been proposed and even finding their way into mainstream beliefs.

 Among the most popular is that Jesus was writing the sins of the accusers into the dusty ground. The passage, however, says "they kept on questioning Him" while He was writing. After Jesus made His famous one sentence response to all this, "Let he who is without sin throw the first stone," He crouched back down and kept writing.

 The symbolism of this writing gesture would have been well-known to the scriptural scholars of that time, being recorded in the Scriptures as well as in the literature and annals of Mesopotamia and Canaan. The prophet Jeremiah proclaimed, "Those who turn away from you [Yahweh] will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the Lord, the spring of living water." (Christ referred to Himself as "Lord" and as the "Living Water.") Being "written in the dust" (literally the earth) is a reference to the destiny of death. Recall from Genesis how "you are dust and into dust you will return." This sharply contrasts with being "written in the book of life."

 The combination of this powerful gesture and Jesus' one line answer overwhelmed the accusers into silence. However, Jesus does not tell the woman "your sins are forgiven" as He had told others. He does not say, "I condemn you and forgive you." Remarkably, Jesus informs her He is not condemning her, then states something to her that He tells all of us as well, "Leave your life of sin." "Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death" (Romans 8:1-2).

 This image of the woman standing alone with Jesus, abandoned by her accusers, and set free by Him is the image of redemption for us all. Some of us are the Pharisees and some are the woman. The Pharisees among us best drop their rocks of condemnation and contemplate the writing in the dust. The accused among us can gratefully and lovingly embrace the Christ who frees us.

John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
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Spiritual Resource Services  © June 25, 2004

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