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The adulterous woman in the Bible is one of the most intriguing and controversial stories. Jesus famously seems to let her off with merely a warning, but there is a greater lesson there. Actually there are several lessons that we can learn! Why does Jesus seem to both honor the law and yet dismiss her with a warning at the same time He sends her accusers packing?
In this blog post we will explore some interpretations of what Jesus might have been teaching us through his actions. So read on to learn some lessons from Jesus and the adulterous woman in the Bible.
The Adulterous Woman in the Bible – The Backstory
In John 8:1-11 we read the story of a woman who is caught in the very act of adultery.
There are a few interesting things to note about this story that could easily be missed.
First, it says early in the morning Jesus came again into the Temple area. There were only a few instances in scripture, we see them really spoken of in Mark, that Jesus went to the Temple as He was not always in Jerusalem. This particular morning, He was there.
We can understand why He would would be at the Temple when in Jerusalem as it was the center of Jewish life at that time. But why would Jesus be at the Temple at dawn (which is essentially what this indicates when it says “early in the morning”)?
Well, it would have been the time for the morning sacrifices. It was customary for people to pray the Shacharit or the morning prayers as the first of the three daily prayers that coincided with the daily sacrificial activities at the Temple. This continues even today even though the Temple no longer stands.
We also see in Daniel that prayer was said three times a day.
Daniel 6:10 says:
It says ‘just as he had been doing previously’. This indicates that this was his tradition, as a Jewish man.
This is important to mention as Jesus’ responses in the narrative we are studying are being approached through the lens of a Jewish Rabbi (and, as we know, the Jewish Messiah) whose opinion would be sought in the matter at hand.
Jesus, as a Jew, would have also prayed three times daily and this is why He was at the Temple at that time of day.
So He is now in the Temple area teaching after the morning prayers and we see the religious leaders come to where He is and they are bringing a woman caught in adultery with them. The Greek word for “brought” here is translated better as “lead” so they led the woman to Jesus. Oh think about the irony of those words because in essence, that is exactly what they did. They led this woman to the Lord!
The Adulterous Woman – Stone Her!
So in John 8:3-6 we again see:
So Jesus is sitting at the Temple where the morning prayers had taken place and He is teaching, as was customary for Him throughout scripture.
The Scribes and Pharisees, the Jewish leaders, put the woman caught in adultery IN THE MIDDLE. This was likely in the middle of the court.
They would have the woman in the middle as the person who was caught committing the crime and the accusers surrounded her.
How intimidating for this woman to be placed in the center of these men, likely in a state of undress.
What is interesting about John’s Gospel account of this story is that he doesn’t mention the sin of adultery being committed by anyone but a woman – not even the man with whom she had committed the act with. So it seems as though they were not at all concerned with matters of Law.
The religious authorities demanded she be stoned as the Law of Moses demands. The death penalty was in fact required in this case under typical circumstances.
Then Jesus did something unusual and scholars have no one explanation for it.
When faced with the Law and its demands, when faced with this woman who was clearly guilty of the sin and may have even led a life of sin, He bends down and begins to quietly write in the dirt.
We read in John 8:7-8:
It’s interesting that John says “When they KEPT asking Him”. This would seem to indicate He was silent for some time, writing away.
Now some people, including some Biblical scholars, have speculated that he was writing out the names of the woman’s accusers and their sins, which I don’t disagree with (since that is what I would LIKE for Him to have been doing) as it mentions in verse 9:
One interesting thing to note here that is easily overlooked is that it says Yeshua was left alone WITH the woman standing IN THE MIDDLE.
He was left alone with her in the middle. There would be no middle if it was just Him and the woman so this indicates that He didn’t surround her with the others in judgment; He knelt down on the ground alongside her. He stayed with her.
Jesus never leaves us when we are accused. He stands WITH us and fights for us in truth.
And that is what He did here.
I believe (and again, this is pure speculation) that He was writing their names, from the oldest to the youngest, and their own sins and that is why they left.
But again, that is only my opinion and there is nothing in scripture that backs that up. We can only speculate. All we know is that the first stone that was to be cast was instead thrown to the ground as the one among the religious leaders who held it walked away. Then another. And then another until they were all gone.
So then our Lord was left with the woman. In John 8:10-11 it says:One interesting thing to note that is easily overlooked is that it says Yeshua was left alone WITH the woman caught in adultery, standing IN THE MIDDLE.This indicates that He didn't surround her with the others in judgment; He… Click To Tweet
Jesus Never Argued Against the Law
Our Lord did not argue with the Law. How could the Living Torah, the Living Word, argue against God’s Word? He couldn’t! A house divided against itself can not stand.
Jesus’ words never argued against the Law that required the stoning of the woman who had committed adultery.
We need to remember that Yeshua always defended those on society’s margins and the outcasts. And the adulterous woman was the ultimate outcast.
But He didn’t argue with the Law this time and He never does.
He never disputed that the Law DID indeed call for the stoning of the woman. He did not negate Torah or the Old Testament.
But He DID call for RIGHTEOUS judgment and mercy.
He did point out that her sin, while it was a sin deserving of the right punishment according to Law, was no more severe than the sins the Scribes and Pharisees themselves have committed in their lives and was not beyond forgiveness and mercy.
The heart of the Law is found in the Shema and the V’ahavta, which is the first paragraph said with the Shema.
They are found in Deuteronomy 6:4-9:
There is a story about Hillel and Shammai, the two major schools of Pharisees (Hillel was more kind and temperate where the School of Shammai were believed to be the ones who always challenged Jesus…for the record, Hillel usually won out on about interpretation of Torah):
Jesus was also asked a similar question about the Law in Matthew 22:34-40:
Yeshua and Hillel gave answers that went back to the V’ahavta. Love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself. All of the Law and Prophets hang on this. It is the summarization and purpose of the commandments. It was not to exact judgment on another!
So, in essence, when Jesus told them to cast the first stone if they were without sin, He was saying that if they were to hold her to the punishment the Law demands, then they too should be held to that same standard and the sins that were hidden in the darkness may have been brought to light by Yeshua Himself if that IS what He was indeed writing on the ground.
Also, as I mentioned previously, they brought the woman out before Him but where was the man? Why was he not also brought before Yeshua? Were they protecting him? Was he ONE of them? Is that why they happened to catch her in the very act? Was this just so they could try to trap Him? It is difficult to say from the narrative.
It is an interesting thing to speculate but it is just that; speculation.
All we know for sure is that Yeshua did not say the Law was no longer valid. He did not dispute the Law’s validity…He clarified its purpose.Jesus never said that the Law was no longer valid. He did not dispute the Law's validity in the case of the adulterous woman; He clarified its purpose! Click To Tweet
So What Lessons Can We Take From the Story of the Adulterous Woman in the Bible?
– Christ Jesus was the only person who stood up for her and showed compassion toward the outcast. He never left her in the court alone, but rather went with her to the judgment seat (at least according to John’s account). And like the woman caught in sin, He will be at the judgment seat with us pleading our case.
– Jesus was not there to judge the Law or the woman. He was there to show us how the Law also requires compassion and mercy. It also dictates that those who make judgment be of clear character themselves. The adulterous woman had rights too. Even though she committed adultery according to the Law, the Law also provides for mercy and grace.
– Jesus was teaching us about the power we have over sin when we come from a place of humility before God (recall what it says in the passage, “Yeshua then stood up and said, ‘The sinless one among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her. Then He knelt down again and continued writing on the ground.”)
– Jesus was teaching us how to love others with the love of Christ (recall what it says in the passage, “Straightening up,” Yeshua said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” “No one, Sir,” she said. ‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Yeshua the Lord answered.”)
The good news is that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever and if He stood in the middle with this young woman in the midst of her shame, He will stand with us. Jesus’ response to the sinful woman should give us hope; “neither do I condemn you”.
But He does say “go and sin no more”.
The story of the woman caught in adultery shows us we all fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) but Jesus, the light of the world, turns our darkness and shame into light in His grace and mercy. We have new life in the fact that He paid the price for our sins. It doesn’t mean there IS no sin. It doesn’t mean there is no righteous standard.
If someone pays your fine for speeding, it doesn’t mean the Law against speeding goes away. It doesn’t negate your penalty under that Law.
We still have a penalty for sin.
But it DOES mean that He took the death sentence that we were given and turned it into eternal life.
NASB – “Scripture quotations taken from the NASB. Copyright by The Lockman Foundation“
Tree of Life (TLV) – Scripture taken from the Holy Scriptures, Tree of Life Version*. Copyright © 2014,2016 by the Tree of Life Bible Society. Used by permission of the Tree of Life Bible Society.