Saturday, March 10, 2007

Scribbling in the Sand

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court, they said to Him, "Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. "Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?"

They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground.

But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, "He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her." Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground.

When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court.

Straightening up, Jesus said to her, "Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?" She said, "No one, Lord." And Jesus said, "I do not condemn you, either Go From now on sin no more."

John 8:3-11

This is a passage that has been preached, written, and sung about quite a lot, and it's funny how many different meanings are attributed to it. But I find the OT law referred to interesting, and wonder if it sheds any light on the incident:
On the evidence of two witnesses or three witnesses, he who is to die shall be put to death; he shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness.

The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

Deuteronomy 17:6-7

I'm not sure I ever realized the law required an eye-witness whose testimony condemned the accused to throw the first stone. To me this seems like a control on the death penalty, requiring witnesses to weigh the seriousness of their testimony before going forward; it's easy to lie, but when you have to throw the first stone yourself you want to think about it twice.

I think it's pretty clear that the witnesses in the gospel weren't lying, so Jesus isn't accusing them of perjury. But what is he saying about their role as witnesses/executioners?

Weird. My iTunes shuffle just went to "Scribbling in the Sand" by Michael Card.


Anonymous said...

Josiah says:

I think the idea is that witnesses to adultery tend to themselves be involved in the adultery

The passage reminds me of a similar story in the Catholic part of the book of Daniel (chapter 13). Two dirty old men try to seduce a beautifl young woman while she is bathing, and when she refuses they accuse her of adultery. The townfolk are getting ready to stone her when Daniel steps in and through skillful cross-examination shows that they are lying. Daniel would have made a great lawyer.

Ryan said...

Josiah: While that may be an interesting extrapolation of the case in John, that doesn't seem to have anything to do with the situation in Deuteronomy. I think Becca is right there: by forcing the witnesses themselves to be involved in the execution, the law not only discourages false testimony but also emphasizes the goal of such executions: purging the community of evil. By stoning the wrongdoer, the covenant community distances itself from their sin, an image of just how seriously God's family is to be about holiness. Execution is not to be foisted off on some disinterested third-party. No, those who saw the sin occur and who testified to it shall be the first to condemn.

This, I think, is what Jesus is trying to get at. As the point of stoning was the public, community renunciation of evil, inquiring about the moral status of the crowd reveals the evil that would not be expunged by the adulteress' death. The Jews wanted to enforce the law because it was the law and had forgotten that the point of the law is and has always been the gospel. He had come to take the place of the one who was stoned and cast out from the presence of the faithful.

Stephen said...

My thoughts:
1. I really like the cross reference -- I did not know about that law in the Old Testament.
2. I find it unlikely that there were multiple witnesses to the adultery. Its not like the act is done out in the open where anyone would see it. But, judging from the legalisticness of the Pharisees and the response of Jesus, this must have been the case. Josiah has point in that the witnesses "tend to themselves be involved in the adultery". I think I have heard it before suggested that those stoning her were the ones involved with her and that is what Jesus was writing.
3. I think the Old Testament requirement of multiple witnesses indicates the seriousness of the death penalty. While in our legal system, the accuser does not execute the sentence, doesn't our law require guilt beyond a shadow of a doubt?

My favorite part of the story is the creativity of Jesus. I think that is one of the things Michael Card's song points out: "It was silence, it was music, it was art, it was absurd. He stooped and shouted volumes without saying a single word."

Jesus was intentionally put in between a rock and a hard place by the Pharisees. It was a trap. But, Jesus was able to minister both what the Pharisees and the woman needed at the same time with one simple solution.

One thing about creativity is simplicity. While many times we want to come up with some bombastic, elaborate solution, the truly creative person will build or do something small and easy that has a tremendous impact. Jesus could have preached a sermon detailing why everyone was wrong and how they were trapping him, but one simple line exposed the intentions of all involved and taught a great lesson for generations to follow.

The conflict between the situations is wonderful too. Just imagine all of the prayers that are made of God across the world. You have got to imagine that a good number of them are conflicting. Only God could answer each one perfectly without slighting a one. We just have to expect that the answer we get may not at all be what we expected, but it will be perfect for the situation!