In ancient Israel, the scribes and Pharisees bring a woman “taken in adultery” to Jesus to be judged. They want her to be stoned. You know the story.
But Jesus does something mysterious that has left many of us wondering what it means.
He acts as though he has not heard, stoops down and writes with his finger on the ground.
Have you ever wondered about that?
What was Jesus doing when He stooped down, while the scribes and Pharisees had deadly violence on their mind, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not?
One possible explanation of this baffling scene has to do with what was happening right before the dramatic adulteress story unfolds. Let’s take a few minutes and examine that pre-story.
To keep it simple and brief, we’ll begin in John 7:38, just before the woman enters the picture: “In the last day, that great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.”
What feast was this? It was the Feast of Tabernacles – known otherwise as Sukkot.
So, why is Jesus proclaiming on Sukkot that rivers of living water shall flow from Him?
The concept of living waters has always been a fascinating topic to me. Interestingly, the first time “living waters” is used in Scripture is in the Song of Solomon. (At some point, you may want to read my newest book, “The Gospel in Every Book of the Old Testament,” to see what you think about my interpretation of Song of Solomon.)
The next time the phrase is used, it’s in Jeremiah 2:13: “For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.” This is a clue to file away in your mind.
Then there is what will become a very key verse from Jeremiah 17:13: “O Lord, the hope of Israel, all that forsake thee shall be ashamed, and they that depart from me shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living waters.”
Lastly, tuck this one away from Zechariah 14:8: “And it shall be in that day, that living waters shall go out from Jerusalem; half of them toward the former sea, and half of them toward the hinder sea: in summer and in winter shall it be.”
You can learn about those waters at some depth (quite literally) in Ezekiel 47. The “living waters,” I am persuaded, are both literal waters that have healing powers on the land as well as spiritual powers.
And there are a lot more “living waters” passages to explore that help to tell the full story, ultimately about the way Jesus, who is sometimes characterized spiritually as “living water,” uses them to restore the world to its splendor in His Kingdom.
There’s Jesus who, in John 4:13-14, tells the Samaritan woman at the well about the water that will allow people never to thirst again.
Ultimately, there is Revelation 7:17: “For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.”
The important takeaway for now is that Jesus came as the long-awaited Hebrew Messiah. And in John 7:38, He goes to the Temple in Jerusalem and announces that He is there to fulfill that destiny – on the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles.
Jesus was telling them – the Pharisees, priests – “I’m right here, the one you have been waiting for, the ‘living waters.'”
What was going on at the Temple at that time? Pharisees had instituted a water-libation ceremony called “Simchat Beit Hashoavah.” The priests would go down to the pool of Siloam, filling a golden vessel with the water. Then they would take it up to the Temple, through the Water Gate, accompanied by the sound of the shofar, pouring the water so that it flowed over the altar. They would then begin prayers for rain.
That’s when Jesus said this: “If any man thirst, let him come unto me, and drink. He that believeth on me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.”
But the Pharisees did not all acknowledge Jesus’ messianic role.
Let’s take a look at what happened next in John 7:40-49: “Many of the people therefore, when they heard this saying, said, Of a truth this is the Prophet. Others said, This is the Christ. But some said, Shall Christ come out of Galilee? Hath not the scripture said, That Christ cometh of the seed of David, and out of the town of Bethlehem, where David was? So there was a division among the people because of him. And some of them would have taken him; but no man laid hands on him. Then came the officers to the chief priests and Pharisees; and they said unto them, Why have ye not brought him? The officers answered, Never man spake like this man. Then answered them the Pharisees, Are ye also deceived? Have any of the rulers or of the Pharisees believed on him? But this people who knoweth not the law are cursed.”
That’s when Nicodemus, who would become a follower of Jesus at his death, came, saying “Doth our law judge any man, before it hear him, and know what he doeth?” They scoffed at him, mockingly asking if he, too, was from Galilee. That ended the celebration for the evening.
But some of the priests and Pharisees were still angry with Jesus. They were always angry with Jesus.
Now notice what happens next in John 8:1-2: “Jesus went unto the mount of Olives. And early in the morning he came again into the Temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them.”
That’s when the scribes and Pharisees brought the woman supposedly caught in the act of adultery – and Jesus stoops down to write in the earth. Was it a setup to discredit Jesus? Possibly. The text itself suggests they sought to test Him.
John 8:3-12: “And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou? This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground. And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee? She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more. Then spake Jesus again unto them, saying, I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life.”
What just happened here?
Remember the verse back in Jeremiah 17:13. I believe it deals directly with what happened the night before when Jesus made his proclamation about the “living waters”: “O Lord, the hope of Israel, all that forsake thee shall be ashamed, and they that depart from me shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living waters.”
What would happen, Jeremiah warned, when the “living waters” were forsaken?
Those who did the rejection would be “written in the earth, because they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living waters.”
Perhaps that’s what Jesus was doing at the time the woman accused of adultery was brought to Him. They were being written up – or written off.
By the way, there would have been no death penalty due in this case since Leviticus 20:10 would have required the death for both parties to be carried out. Yet, where was the man who broke the law “in the very act”? Jesus makes this clear below by citing the testimony of two men.
While the Pharisees question Jesus’ record, Jesus goes on to explain why his record is true.
Jesus answered in John 8:17-18, “It is also written in your law, that the testimony of two men is true. I am one that bear witness of myself, and the Father that sent me beareth witness of me.”
The Pharisee asks, “Where is thy Father?” And Jesus answers saying, “Ye neither know me, nor my Father: if ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also.”
It may be that the woman brought in adultery in the famous Bible story may have had little or nothing to do with the content of Jesus’ famous writing on the ground – possibly just another victim of circumstance.
What do you think?
Is there a better explanation?
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