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Saturday, February 19, 2022

What Did the Lord Write in the Dirt in John 8?

Now early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people came to Him; and He sat down and taught them.
John 8:1


The account of the woman taken in adultery is one of the more well-known parts of scripture. The main takeaway for most preachers and people is that the Lord asks those without sin to cast the first stone, does not condemn the woman, and tells the woman she is forgiven and to go and sin no more. I can't quibble with any of that.

But in the course of John's reporting on the incident, after the Pharisees try to corner the Lord by pointing to the Law, we see this odd detail:

Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear.

Many thoughts have been offered on what the Lord was writing. Here is just a sample:

And Jesus stooping down. By this attitude he intended to show that he despised them. Those who conjecture that he wrote this or the other thing, in my opinion, do not understand his meaning. Nor do I approve of the ingenuity of Augustine, who thinks that in this manner the distinction between the Law and the Gospel is pointed out, because Christ did not write on tables of stone, (Exodus 31:18,) but on man, who is dust and earth. For Christ rather intended, by doing nothing, to show how unworthy they were of being heard; just as if any person, while another was speaking to him, were to draw lines on the wall, or to turn his back, or to show, by any other sign, that he was not attending to what was said.

-Calvin's Commentary on the Bible

The finger which wrote in the ground was the same which had written the law in the tables of stone. What He wrote we do not know; but it was symbolical of the fact that the law against man is written in the dust, the dust of death. Not alone had the woman deserved death, but all were equally guilty.

-A.C. Gaebelein Annotated Bible

Wrote with his finger, as one that was musing about something else.

-Haydock's Catholic Bible Commentary

God wrote once in the Old Testament; Christ once in the New: perhaps the words which he afterward spoke, when they continued asking him. By this silent action, he, 1, fixed their wandering, hurrying thoughts, in order to awaken their consciences: and, 2, signified that he was not then come to condemn but to save the world.

-Wesley Explanatory Notes

These are all worthy of consideration. They have some merit. The references to the Lord writing with his own finger once in the OT and once in the NT is an intriguing point. It may very well supplement what I am going to propose.  Also, writing "in the dust" as as opposed to the writing in stone of the Law is interesting. The Law that failed under the Old Covenant will one day be written on the hearts of the children of Israel under the future New Covenant. And, even in the age of the Law, the law was written, in a sense in the hearts of Gentiles as Paul argues in Romans 2:14-16.

For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;) in the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel.

So, under the Law, there is none who has excuse. In this case, Adultery is inherently wrong. The heart will condemn the atheist until he hardens his heart against his conscience.  

So now let's look at an interpretation of John 8:6 offered by E.W. Bullinger.


The temptation was in the word "such" [verse 5, "Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned..."], and of two cases they mention the punishment without defining what it was: for the one in Deuteronomy 22:23 , Deuteronomy 22:24 (a virgin) the death was stoning; but in the case of a "wife" the punishment was not stoning, but required a special procedure (Numbers 5:11-31) , which left the punishment with God.

Let's look at the referenced parts of the Law, plus verse 22:

If a man be found lying with a woman married to an husband, then they shall both of them die, both the man that lay with the woman, and the woman: so shalt thou put away evil from Israel.

-Deut 22:22
If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her; then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die; the damsel, because she cried not, being in the city; and the man, because he hath humbled his neighbor's wife: so thou shalt put away evil from among you.

-Deut 22:23-24

When comparing these two punishments, we notice that death by stoning is not required in verse 22. I suppose the punishment could be by stoning, but such a form of execution is not laid out. In both cases, it is BOTH the offenders who are to die. We know from the account in John 8 that only the woman is brought forth.

Let's step back to John 8:

So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” Then Jesus spoke to them again, saying, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.”

I would like us to see here the use of "heard" (Greek: akoúō). That is, the listeners were "convicted by their conscience" not at the writing alone, but at the words "He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first." Perhaps they read something which appealed to their consciences? I'm inclined to believe we see the results of both hearing and reading. The word "then" follows  "And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground," (for he had written in the dirt right after the scribes and Pharisees posed their question). He wrote "again" (v.8), and "then" (v.9) they were convicted and started to leave. 

So what may he have been writing? E.W. Bullinger proposes he wrote the Law as it applies in this matter. We refer back to the last part of our quote above from Bullinger's Companion Bible Notes, "the punishment was not stoning, but required a special procedure (Numbers 5:11-31) , which left the punishment with God."

When we turn to this passage in Numbers 5, we first want to know the target audience:


And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them...

 The context is the Law, given by Moses, to the children of Israel. You can do this on your own, but try and read this chapter and try to insert the "church" of this age into the passage as some sort of "spiritual Israel" still under the Law. That is not central to this study directly, but we must always note where were are in the Word of Truth.

We will walk through this passage in chunks and I believe we'll see that it differs from what the Pharisees and others called for in John 8 (i.e. stoning).

If any man’s wife go aside, and commit a trespass against him, and a man lie with her carnally, and it be hid from the eyes of her husband, and be kept close, and she be defiled, and there be no witness against her, neither she be taken with the manner; and the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be defiled: or if the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be not defiled: then shall the man bring his wife unto the priest, and he shall bring her offering for her, the tenth part of an ephah of barley meal; he shall pour no oil upon it, nor put frankincense thereon; for it is an offering of jealousy, an offering of memorial, bringing iniquity to remembrance.

We have the case of a woman who may or may not have slept with a man who is not her husband. In John 8, the text tells us, "this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act" (John 8:4). This brings clarity to the situation (if their witness is true), but Numbers 11 still applies. It is just easier to apply. Let's assume they are telling the truth and she is "defiled." 

if thou hast gone aside to another instead of thy husband, and if thou be defiled, and some man have lain with thee beside thine husband: then the priest shall charge the woman with an oath of cursing, and the priest shall say unto the woman, The Lord make thee a curse and an oath among thy people, when the Lord doth make thy thigh to rot, and thy belly to swell; and this water that causeth the curse shall go into thy bowels, to make thy belly to swell, and thy thigh to rot: And the woman shall say, Amen, amen. And the priest shall write these curses in a book, and he shall blot them out with the bitter water: and he shall cause the woman to drink the bitter water that causeth the curse: and the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter. Then the priest shall take the jealousy offering out of the woman’s hand, and shall wave the offering before the Lord, and offer it upon the altar: and the priest shall take an handful of the offering, even the memorial thereof, and burn it upon the altar, and afterward shall cause the woman to drink the water. And when he hath made her to drink the water, then it shall come to pass, that, if she be defiled, and have done trespass against her husband, that the water that causeth the curse shall enter into her, and become bitter, and her belly shall swell, and her thigh shall rot: and the woman shall be a curse among her people. And if the woman be not defiled, but be clean; then she shall be free, and shall conceive seed.

I'd like to know what those who hold that believers today are "spiritual Israel" are supposed to do with this passage. The supposed law-keepers have to deal with this. Even if the argument is presented that the sacrifices, specifically, were done away with in Christ, they still have to deal with the curse, the priesthood, and the procedure. If they maintain that ALL of that is done away in Christ, their clinging to any part of the law must them go away. 

The last three verses of this chapter are specific to the Law of Moses and do not refer to any sacrifices.

This is the law of jealousies, when a wife goeth aside to another instead of her husband, and is defiled; or when the spirit of jealousy cometh upon him, and he be jealous over his wife, and shall set the woman before the Lord, and the priest shall execute upon her all this law. Then shall the man be guiltless from iniquity, and this woman shall bear her iniquity.

We have looked at other passages where fathers are required to have their daughters' virginity checked and, in certain cases, specific fines paid by husbands, etc.

If any man take a wife, and go in unto her, and hate her, and give occasions of speech against her, and bring up an evil name upon her, and say, I took this woman, and when I came to her, I found her not a [virgin]: then shall the father of the damsel, and her mother, take and bring forth the tokens of the damsel’s virginity unto the elders of the city in the gate: and the damsel’s father shall say unto the elders, I gave my daughter unto this man to wife, and he hateth her; and, lo, he hath given occasions of speech against her, saying, I found not thy daughter a [virgin]; and yet these are the tokens of my daughter’s virginity. And they shall spread the cloth before the elders of the city. And the elders of that city shall take that man and chastise him; and they shall amerce him in an hundred shekels of silver, and give them unto the father of the damsel, because he hath brought up an evil name upon a virgin of Israel: and she shall be his wife; he may not put her away all his days. But if this thing be true, and the tokens of virginity be not found for the damsel: then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she hath wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father’s house: so shalt thou put evil away from among you.

False accusation will cost you 100 shekels, but if the charge is true, she is to be stoned to death. This is Deuteronomy 22:14-21. As we have noted, verse 22 does not mention stoning. The next charge does bring stoning, but that punishment is missing from 22 (as we've noted previously).

This brings us to another point I believe worth considering. What if the woman accused of adultery was actually being raped? 

But if a man find a betrothed damsel in the field, and the man force her, and lie with her: then the man only that lay with her shall die: but unto the damsel thou shalt do nothing; there is in the damsel no sin worthy of death: for as when a man riseth against his neighbour, and slayeth him, even so is this matter: for he found her in the field, and the betrothed damsel cried, and there was none to save her.

A betrothed virgin who is forced shall receive no punishment.

If a man find a damsel that is a virgin, which is not betrothed, and lay hold on her, and lie with her, and they be found; then the man that lay with her shall give unto the damsel’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife; because he hath humbled her, he may not put her away all his days.

A virgin who is not betrothed is not punished either. The man must pay her father 50 shekels and must marry her. Perhaps the woman in John 8 fell into one of these latter categories? Regardless, the righteous judge does not accuse her. Either she had committed no sin or her sin was forgiven. 

Since the Lord calls on her to "go and sin no more," it is not unreasonable to believe she was caught in sin. The Lord, under the Law, in light of her guilt, did not see her sin falling under Deuteronomy 22, but rather under Numbers 5. In his office as priest in the order of Melchizedek (Psalm 110:4; Hebrews 5:6), he declared that he would not accuse her and lifted the punishment. The priesthood of Melchizedek is before the Law (Gen 14:5). 

The Lord was not a high priest under the Law, but just as Abraham was declared righteous by faith 400 years before the Law, so the Lord was declared a high priest in the order of Melchizedek, who was before the Law.

So also Christ glorified not himself to be made an high priest; but he that said unto him, Thou art my Son, to day have I begotten thee. As he saith also in another place, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec [Ps 110:4]. Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared; though he were a Son, yet learned he obedience by the things which he suffered; and being made perfect, he became the author of eternal salvation unto all them that obey him; called of God an high priest after the order of Melchisedec.

-Hebrews 5:5-10

Even in these very Jewish contexts, the truths of Galatians and Romans shine forth. The gift of life is by grace through faith apart from the works of the Law. This high priest is not subject to death. He has satisfied the Law and has declared grace.

The account of the woman caught in adultery is in John's gospel. This is the gospel of the Lord's deity (John 1:1), the gospel sent to "the world" (John 3:16). As God, as one who had no beginning, who had no mother or father (as scripture testifies), he did not accuse the woman as those under the Law had.

What we see in the passage is the Law, most likely wrongly applied, come to life in the God of Numbers 5 who judges this woman to be free of any guilt. How wonderful for her and even more wonderful for those of us in the Body of Ephesians in this age. We were declared blameless and without blemish from "before the foundation of the ages." We are not in Abraham. We are not subject to any earthly priesthood. We are hidden in Christ in God, waiting to be revealed. The Lord has reconciled us to himself by the cross and justified us in his resurrection. 

Do not let men spoil you with the vain deceit that you can keep a law that could never save, a law that was never given to Gentiles. It is not for this age.

I don't see law-keepers or "spiritual Israel" trying to apply all the standards of either Deuteronomy 22 or Numbers 5 amongst themselves. And if they are trying, they are fooling themselves. By trying to usurp Israel's place in God's plans for the earth, they are forced to make the Word and Promises of God of none effect. This is why we must "rightly divide the Word of Truth." 

The people in John 8 wanted to pick and choose what suited them and we see the same thing today in those who call themselves Jews ("spiritual Israel," "Hebrew Roots," etc.) and are not. I would suggest these are guilty of terrible heresies.