John (Part 25): Mission Illustration – Adulteress Pericope continued (ch 8)
Finally, scholars who view the adulteress periscope as a later addition to John’s Gospel find its placement awkward, as if just thrust into the text making an otherwise flowing narrative suddenly change course. If it is removed, so they say, the text moves seamlessly from 7:52 to 8:12. But I would disagree. The last scene in chapter 7 is among the Pharisees and priests who are irritated that the temple guard had not brought Jesus back with them. Verse 12 of chapter 8 begins: “Then Jesus spoke to them again.” Jesus was not even in the last scene of chapter 7.
Furthermore, several themes continue in the adulteress pericope that are found in the surrounding passages. We find a growing resentment among the Jews. They want to kill him (7:1, 7:19), they send the temple police for him (7:32), they try to trap him in a legal dispute (8:5), and then they actually attempt to kill him (8:59). Additionally, this story speaks of Moses and the Law just as the surrounding passages do, and also of judging and condemning, a topic Jesus speaks to as chapter 8 continues. As we discuss the story at length, we will see an even greater connection.
The story also seems typical for what we have already seen in his writing. He seems to intentionally leave his stories a bit cryptic to make his readers wonder and look more closely. In this story we wonder what Jesus wrote? Why did Jesus write? Why did these arrogant men, intent on trapping Jesus, suddenly start to leave? Why did they leave one by one? Why did the older ones leave first? And why did Jesus forgive her? Any interpretation of the passage must deliver cohesively on all these questions.
The events of the passage are familiar. The Jews bring a woman before Jesus, charging her with adultery. Their intent is to trap Jesus in how he responds to the situation. But Jesus just begins to write on the ground. The Jews persist in demanding an answer. Jesus stands and tells them that the one without sin should cast the first stone. Then Jesus goes back to writing on the ground. The Jews leave one by one with the older ones leaving first. Jesus stands again when they are gone and asks the woman if no one is left to condemn her. She answers, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus then also forgives her.
The trap the Jews were setting was probably a little different from the trap concerning paying taxes in Matthew 22. There they were looking for an answer that would have gotten Jesus in trouble politically. Here the intent seems to be on Moses’ law. It is possible that they Jesus had been speaking of forgiveness and these Pharisees took exception to the apparent contradiction with their more ascetic teaching. If Jesus said, “Don’t stone her,” they could accuse him of disregarding Moses’ (and God’s) law. If Jesus agreed that they should stone her, they could show he was inconsistent with his previous teaching theme of forgiveness.
But I think the trap was a bit more involved. Through chapter 7 we saw the scribes and Pharisees upset because they were the ones that the crowd was supposed to be listening to if they wanted to learn about the law. They charged Jesus with being uneducated concerning the law in 7:15. In 7:49 they were exasperated with the crowd who followed Jesus because they were ignorant of the law. So now, they decide, to trap him in some point of law. Again, if Jesus says to let her go, he denies God’s command. If he says to stone her, he’s ignoring the fact that the law says to stone both the woman and the man involved (Lev 20:10; Deu 22:22). So, the Pharisees can prove to the crowd, then, that Jesus doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to law. But when they present their designed trap, Jesus stoops to write on the ground.
What did he write? Was he merely doodling, buying time to think of an appropriate answer? Was he trying to ignore them to treat them with disdain, and in essence, say that the question was beneath him? Did he expect everyone to be able to see what he was writing?
We should start with John’s description. John does not simply say that Jesus wrote on the ground. He said that he “started writing on the ground with His finger” (8:6). John’s concern is more than that he doesn’t want anyone to imagine Jesus writing with a stick. The writing on stone with his finger parallels the writing of God with his finger. We see the image twice in the OT. In Exodus 31:18 we learn that the two stone tablets were “inscribed by the finger of God.” And in Daniel 5:5, the fingers of a man’s hand wrote on the wall. Since Paul tells us the Law was given to show us our need for God’s intervening grace, both writings by the finger of God show a demand and judgment by God. The first idea to strike us, then, should be that Jesus is intimating God’s demand and judgment in this situation. But in what way?
There is a verse in Jeremiah that should help us with this. Jeremiah 17:13 states, “Lord, the hope of Israel, all who abandon You will be put to shame. All who turn away from Me will be written in the dirt, for they have abandoned the Lord, the fountain of living water. Before we jump to the main idea in this verse, let’s look closely at the beginning. Calling God the “hope of Israel” is not a throwaway expression that we can blithely skip. The Hebrew word there is not the one normally translated “hope” in the OT.
The word in Hebrew is מִקְוֶה (miqveh). The word is mostly used in Jewish writings and discussion as a baptismal/purification pool. It is used only 12 times in 10 verses of the OT. And, strangely, in those just 12 occurrences, the KJV translates it 6 different ways: hope, gathering together, pool, plenty, abiding, and linen yarn. This seems to be a strange assortment. Let’s take a closer look.
The first time it is used is in the opening chapter of the Bible. There we read in verse 10, “God called the dry land ‘earth,’ and He called the gathering of the water ‘seas.’ And God saw that it was good.” We definitely see the gathering/pooling idea in this verse.
In Exodus 7:19 we read, “So the Lord said to Moses, ‘Tell Aaron: Take your staff and stretch out your hand over the waters of Egypt—over their rivers … and all their water reservoirs—and they will become blood.’” Here the KJV translates it “pools.” Again, we see the same gathering/pooling idea. In Leviticus 11:36 we read, “A spring or cistern containing water will remain clean, but someone who touches a carcass in it will become unclean.” (KJV – plenty) Here again is the gathering/holding together idea of miqveh.
But when we get to I Kings 10:28 (which is the same as II Chronicles 1:16), we seem to have a change in meaning. The verse reads, “Solomon’s horses were imported from Egypt and Kue. The king’s traders bought them from Kue at the going price.” Clearly, modern translators consider this word a place. But how did they come to that conclusion? Additionally, the KJV seems even more puzzling. There we read, “And Solomon had horses brought out of Egypt, and linen yarn: the king’s merchants received the linen yarn at a price.” The secret, I believe, to unraveling this translation mystery is found in the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the OT that was created in 200s to 100s BC. It is here that we read the word translated as a place Thecue. So perhaps the LXX translators understood miqveh in this verse to indicate the gathering/holding sense of a fortified city. There was a city with this name in the area of Judah. However, since that city would be part of Solomon’s kingdom, the verse would not make sense for Solomon to purchase horses from that area. Modern translators have changed this to Kue, which is a region in what is now Turkey. The Greek name for this region is Cilicia. Cilicia means coarse cloth. Coarse cloth is used for tentmaking and therefore, again, you come upon the same gathering/holding sense because of a tent defining the extent of your belongings and abode. Perhaps, then, it was this cloth idea that led the KJV translators to think of linen yarn. Since the text mentions Egypt and Egypt was known for its linen, they translated it linen with the miqveh sense of pooling in a collection of yarn. Thus, much conjecture surrounds the translation of this verse. However, the gathering and holding together idea of the Hebrew word is still in evidence in all the transations.
In I Chronicles 29:15 we read, “For we live before You as foreigners and temporary residents in Your presence as were all our ancestors. Our days on earth are like a shadow, without hope.” Miqveh is here translated as hope and as abiding in the KJV. The hope speaks of life as opposed to falling away, not lasting, falling apart in death. Therefore, the gathering/holding idea remains present in the translation as hope. Hope is the translation in the remaining four uses in the OT, including the verse we are concentrating on in Jeremiah 17:13.
With this understanding of miqveh, our verse could be better understood as starting, “Lord, the gatherer and holder of Israel ….” This verse, then, even from the very beginning, speaks significantly to the mission purpose of Jesus. We learned in our Isaiah study that God was adamant that he was the rescuer of his people. And yet he also emphasized that he would do so through his appointed one – the Messiah. It is Jesus, then, who, coming from the Father, performs the rescue work of gathering and holding those who come to him. In John 8, the woman represents those whom Jesus is intent on gathering. But Jeremiah 17:13 goes on to say that those who turn away will have their names written in the dirt.
So what and why did Jesus write in the dirt? The Pharisees were turning away from God by rejecting God’s Messiah. Jesus, therefore, fulfilled the Jeremiah passage by writing their names in the dust of the temple. No doubt they came close to see what he wrote, the older ones with greater authority/seniority coming first. And as they read their name, recognizing the correlation with Jeremiah 17:13, they left one by one with the older ones leaving first.
But would these highly arrogant men really be so humiliated because this man wrote their names? They still claimed to be THE teachers of Israel. How did they make the correlation from what Jesus was doing to their own hard hearts?
Jeremiah 17:13 had more of a history with the feasts. This even took place at the end of the Feast of Tabernacles (Tishri 15-22). The previous feast—the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur)—took place on Tishri 10, only a couple of weeks earlier. The Day of Atonement was a solemn feast in which the Jews recalled their sin and offered the sin sacrifices in making atonement. During this solemn day, the high priest would ceremonially cleanse himself between all the offerings of the sacrifices. He would cleanse himself by dipping in a miqveh—a baptismal pool for purification. At the end of the day, the solemnity would end. The high priest would announce that God had accepted their sacrifices and atonement had been made. And in this announcement, he would quote Jeremiah 17:13.
So Jesus writing names in the dirt was no cryptic act. The Pharisees immediately recognized the purpose. They had just heard Jeremiah 17:13 quoted within the last couple of weeks. They had heard it quoted yearly all their lives in connection with an inward look at their own sin, repentance, pleading with God for their own sin, and having it forgiven by the compassionate and merciful God. So these Pharisees suddenly get the picture of what they are doing. They have dragged a woman in for judgment. They have argued for her stoning. They have shown no compassion or mercy. Jesus powerfully reminds them of what they had just down on the Day of Atonement a few days earlier—pleaded with God and received atonement for their own sin. Thus, even these arrogant men are caught up short and shamed. Jesus had reminded them by calling out for the one who had no sin to cast the first stone. It made them look inward. That inward look along with their names in the dirt reminding them of God’s mercy toward them was enough. They walked away in shame.
The interpretation of this incident then is that the Messiah Jesus came from God to do God’s work of atonement—to gather together those who wanted relationship with God. Those who would and will come to him, like the woman, guilty and accused, find God’s compassion, mercy, and forgiveness in Jesus. Those who abandon him, like the scribes and Pharisees who turned away, have lost their hope—the gathering embrace of God.
In the first verse after this section—verse 12 of chapter 8—we find Jesus saying, “I am the light of the world.” This is the 2nd of the 7 “I AMs” sprinkled through John.
1. I am the Bread of Life (6:35)
2. I am the Light of the World (8:12)
3. I am the Door (10:9)
4. I am the Good Shepherd (10:11)
5. I am the Resurrection and the Life (11:25)
6. I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life (14:6)
7. I am the Vine (15:1, 5)
Each of these others is a response or reference to something just said—either a teaching or illustration from Jesus or a question or statement by a disciple/friend.
I am the Bread of Life was in reference to his discussion of Moses and manna.
I am the Door was in reference to his sheep pen illustration.
I am the Good Shepherd was in reference again to the sheep pen illustration.
I am the Resurrection and the Life was in response to Martha’s comment on the resurrection.
I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life was in response to Thomas’s question on knowing the way.
I am the Vine was in response to Judas’s question on revelation.
If we would assume, as many scholars do, that the adulteress pericope had not been a part of the original, the “I am the Light of the World” statement would be the only one of the seven that began a section rather than be given as a response to an illustration or question just presented. But with the story of 7:53-8:11 as part of the original, Jesus’ statement, like all the others is a response. By saying that he is the light of the world, Jesus explains his gathering mission that was just illustrated. He had been a revealing light to both the woman and to the Pharisees. But the Pharisees, as Jesus had mentioned in John 3:19, were of those who, seeing the light, rejected it, having “loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.”
The mention of the light of the world takes us back to 8:1 and John’s mention of the dawn. The parallel is the beginning of a chiasmus throughout this whole passage.
8:2a At dawn He went to the temple complex again, and all the people were coming to him.
8:2b He sat down and began to teach them.
8:3 Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, making her stand in the center.
8:4-5 “Teacher,” they said to Him, “this woman was caught in the act of committing adultery. In the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do You say?"
8:6a They asked this to trap Him, in order that they might have evidence to accuse Him.
8:6b Jesus stooped down and started writing on the ground with His finger.
8:7 When they persisted in questioning Him, He stood up and said to them, “The one without sin among you should be the first to throw a stone at her.”
8:8 Then He stooped down again and continued writing on the ground.
8:9 When they heard this, they left one by one, starting with the older men. Only He was left, with the woman in the center.
8:10 When Jesus stood up, He said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
8:11a No one, Lord,” she answered.
8:11b “Neither do I condemn you,” said Jesus.
8:11c “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”
8:12a Then Jesus spoke to them again:
8:12b “I am the light of the world. Anyone who follows Me will never walk in the darkness but will have the light of life.”
Notice that the midpoint (main point) of the chiasmus seems a little strange. Jesus continues writing on the ground. Why is this the point of the passage? While the forgiveness granted the accused woman is the mission of Jesus, the pericope (as well as the entire previous chapter) has been intent on revealing the failure of the Jews who, although having light revealed, choose to reject that. This chiasmus highlights this rejection, and thus this midpoint (8:8) points out those turning from Christ having their names written in the dirt, as mentioned in Jeremiah 17:13. Actually turning back to that verse, we find it also is in chiastic format with the same emphasis:
Lord, the gatherer and holder of Israel,
all who abandon You
will be put to shame.
All who turn away from Me
will be written in the dirt,
for they have abandoned
the Lord, the fountain of living water.