In the Gospel of John, there’s a famous story of a woman caught in adultery, dragged before Jesus so that he could confirm her guilt and approve her execution. His verdict is so well-known in Western culture that it has even become part of our treasury of idioms. “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” But do we really get it? Do we understand the implications – the sheer power of his statement, and the liberty it gives ALL of us?
The event occurs right in the middle of Jesus’ teaching in the Temple during the last days of the Feast of Tabernacles. And in this context, some of the more subtle nuances come to light. The Feast of Tabernacles, Sukkot as it’s called in Hebrew, occurs in September or October, and commemorates how God provided for the people of Israel as they wandered in the desert for 40 years after the great exodus from Egypt. It is a week-long festival, and psalms of praise are sung or prayed each day, proclaiming God’s deliverance, his salvation, and extolling his mercy. These declarations, called the Hallel, are recitations of Psalms 113-118, and culminate in the last psalm with the phrase repeated over and over, “Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; For His mercy endures forever.” These were days of celebrating God’s goodness and mercy – hardly a time to be throwing stones at a woman and using God’s Law as a basis for the accusation.
The day immediately following this week-long festival was yet another holiday, Simchat Torah, “Rejoicing in the Torah,” marking the completion of the annual cycle of weekly Torah reading. The final passage of Deuteronomy is read along with the beginning verses of Genesis. In synagogues throughout Jerusalem, all the worshippers dance and sing with the Torah scrolls in joyous celebration that often lasts for several hours. It is a time of great jubilation over God favoring his people with his Torah, his Instruction. It’s easy to see why the Law of Moses would be on everyone’s mind.
With all these holiday festivities in the background, Jesus writing on the ground with his finger takes on special significance. Were they not even now celebrating God’s Law – written by his own finger? It was written in the very Torah they were dancing with: “When God had finished speaking with Moses upon Mount Sinai, He gave Moses the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written by the finger of God” (Ex 31:18). And in reading the first chapters of Genesis, had they not just been reminded how God had created us all from the very dust of the earth (Gen 2:7)? No one is free from guilt, no one is perfect. We are all children of dust. These images would be hard to escape, and when the religious leaders brought this poor woman before Jesus to be condemned by him, his stooping to write with his finger in the dust must have stirred the deepest roots of their consciences.
The Gospel does not tell us what he wrote. We can only imagine. Some early church teachers thought perhaps Jesus was writing the sins of the accusers there on the ground, exposing their deepest secrets to the world, just as they had dragged this poor woman to be shamed in public. But with the Torah so strongly in their minds, with the days being packed with celebrations all around them, it would not be too far a stretch to suggest that Jesus was not turning the accusing finger back on them, but simply writing the goodness of God that was being celebrated. Perhaps he was writing those verses from the Hallel, “For the LORD is good, and his mercy endures forever.” Or perhaps he was simply writing the 10 Commandments. The sight of him writing the Commandments with his finger side by side with the memory of the finger of God inscribing the stone tablets would be a powerful statement of his own identity.
What the Law Requires
“In the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They referred to the decree, “if a man commits adultery with another man’s wife – with the wife of his neighbor – both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death” (Lev 20:10). A similar statute in Deuteronomy specifies stoning as the means of execution (Dt 22:23-24), and they came to Jesus demanding he confirm the harsh requirement of the law. They want to trap him, force him into a compromising situation. If he validates their action, he is in violation of Roman law forbidding execution. But if he turns aside from the Law, they can accuse him of heresy, rejecting the Torah. It is at this point that Jesus bends down to write in the dust. He doesn’t say anything; he neither explicitly affirms nor denies. If he is in fact writing out the 10 Commandments, he may be quietly reminding them of their own shortcomings and that the same harsh standard of the law could equally be applied to them. “Measure for measure” was a common rabbinic maxim of the day, “the measure you use will be measured back to you” – both for good and for evil. Yet there they stood, perhaps stones already in hand, just waiting for the go-ahead from this Galilean rabbi.
Jesus gives the answer that defines his very identity and purpose; it shows his heart. “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” He does not reject the law, he did not even try to reinterpret it. Nowhere does he argue with the justness of it, or issue a contradictory degree, “you have heard it said, but I say to you …” In fact, his answer seems to actually confirm the law; stoning may indeed be justified. But at the same time, he limits who is competent to enforce that law. Only someone who could keep the entire Law without fault, only a sinless man, had the right to impose sentencing. And by that definition, no one present qualified – no one except himself. In this well-known judicial ruling, Jesus implies by writing in the dust that not only is he the Law Giver, but he is also the only one allowed to judge. He is the only one with the right to cast a stone at this guilty woman – and he chose not to. “Woman, where are your accusers? Has no one condemned you? Neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.” The Law Giver is the only Judge, and he chooses not to impose sentencing.
The LGBT Connection
This verdict is especially important for LGBT believers. Not simply because it disarms religious people from throwing stones, but because it demonstrates the attitude of the only Judge who matters. This accusation brought against the woman – Leviticus 20:10 – is only three short verses from the passage used to beat up, condemn, and prove the abominable guilt of homosexual men and women. “If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads” (Lev 20:13). So close together are the two commandments that one could almost read them in the same breath. And so Jesus’ perspective of one is a clear indication of his perspective of the other. Inscribed with the same pen, they are defined in the same verdict: only the sinless Judge may execute the punishment. No one else has the right. And that Judge has already issued his verdict: “neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”
Led by Light
John’s Gospel continues immediately after this scene with Jesus speaking again to the crowds around him. “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn 8:12). Imagery once again tying back into the Feast of Tabernacles and the wilderness experience of the Israelites. “After leaving Succoth” – a place named for the very tabernacles in which the ancient Israelites dwelled during their journey – “they camped at Etham on the edge of the desert. By day the LORD went ahead of them in a pillar of cloud to guide them on their way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light… Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people” (Ex 13:20-22). Like the cloud and light that led the people in their wandering, Jesus promised to lead those who will follow him. And that light always leads to freedom – freedom from bondage, freedom from blindness, even freedom from the tyranny of legalism.
In freeing us from condemnation, who can say what “life of sin” Jesus commands all of us to leave? Clearly, for the woman, he encouraged her to cease a destructive life of adultery. But his words were words of deliverance and salvation, a cause for celebration: “What is done is done. It is past. I neither accuse nor condemn you. Go on now, and live a new life. Follow me, and walk in the light that will never leave you in darkness.” That is our promise, our inheritance, and our hope.
Wrapped in the powerful imagery of the Feast of Tabernacles and Simchat Torah, Jesus has given us a priceless gift. The law once used to condemn has been taken out of the hand of the accusers, and has been replaced by the Joy of Following Him. Those who walk in his light are no longer subject to law. Only one Judge can apply a law against you: the one who gave it to begin with. And only his interpretation of the law matters. Only his verdict stands. And he has already ruled in your favor.
This is great news for most of us. His declaration sets us free from condemnation and accusation, it is a statement of affirmation and qualification. “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” It’s an invitation to life, to spiritual liberty, and the joy of fellowship with Jesus.
Let the meaning of his verdict sink in. Let it change your life, your view of yourself and your view of others. It’s cause for celebration. The only One who has the right to throw stones at you has already chosen not to.
Self-described “Gen-X reader, theological over-thinker and wannabe mystic” Stephen Schmidt is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity, and did doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. He is currently working on his doctorate of ministry in Christian Spirituality at the Virginia Theological Seminary and is pastor of The Abbey Church in Norman, Okla., and editor of https://impactmagazine.us.