Writings in the Dust

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(Here’s an excerpt of what I shared to our local congregation recently)

In the ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra, which is now part of modern day Syria, archeologists found an inscription in one of the walls, which is actually an ancient graffiti. It was written in Arabic by someone who called himself, Musa, son of Imran. This is what he etched on the stone wall: “This is an inscription that I wrote with my own hand; my hand will wear out, but this inscription will remain.” It was estimated that it was written 1300 years ago.

Today we will study about some writings made by Jesus himself, except that it did not last, for it was written in the dust.

John 8: 2-11

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. Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst, they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?” This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear.

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. 10 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?”

11 She said, “No one, Lord.”

And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”

Let us picture the scene in our mind. It was a beautiful sunny morning. Jesus was teaching in the Temple which is at that time was called Herod’s temple as he made some impressive renovations to the existing temple. Jesus was probably in one the courts of the temple and people were gathered to hear him. Then Scribes and the Pharisees burst into the scene dragging a half-dressed woman whom they were accusing of being caught in the very act of adultery.

Who are the Pharisees and Scribes?

Pharisees are members of a religious group or party, that besides being religious leaders they are also involved in national politics. They spent every waking moment trying to live upholding the 643 laws they have plus a huge list of what the New Testament calls “traditions” of men. They washed their hands until they bled, they were afraid of the diseased and sinful in their society, who they consider unclean and separate themselves from them. The name Pharisee means “one who is separated.”

The Scribes on the other hand is a sect of the Pharisees who are like lawyers – they wrote, taught and interpreted the law. But beyond interpreting the law they added regulations and traditions that sometimes becomes more important than the law.

This group brought that woman to Jesus to trap him as they were looking for something to condemn him.

Why is it a trap? If Jesus said yes to stoning the woman, then He will be breaking the Roman law that Jews cannot enforce a capital punishment like a death sentence, as they are under the Romans. If He said no, He will be accused of taking the law lightly for He is going against Moses Law, which is actually God’s law. It is a lose-lose situation for Jesus.

Let’s look at the law of Moses that the Pharisees are basing their accusation. Adultery is a sin. There’s no question about it. God’s own finger wrote it in tablets of stone as the 7th commandment. But to commit adultery it takes 2 people. Both the woman and the man are guilty, and both are condemned to be stoned as stated in Leviticus 20:10. But where is the man in this story?

Adultery is hard to prove because it is mostly done in secret. Unless you caught them in the act. However, Jesus raised the bar on this sin. In Matthew 5: 27-28, He said:

27 “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

Action is not needed, even with our thoughts alone we can commit this sin. Just an errant look or thought, perhaps from what we saw, watch, or read. Then it could be very easy to fall into this sin for God can read our minds. Are we guilty of this sin too?

The Scribes and Pharisees said that the woman was caught in the act. How? Looks like it was a set-up. Did they trap this poor woman in order for them to trap Jesus? See how scheming these Scribes and Pharisees were? They would go to the trouble of catching this woman with complete disregard of her welfare, and would willfully kill her just to condemn Jesus. She was just a sacrificial pawn in their evil plot.

Now let’s look at this woman. Who is she? The Bible did not say. Though tradition says that it could have been Mary Magdalene, yet there’s no Biblical record to prove that.

What is the state of women in the Bible times. They are definitely considered lower than men. I’m sorry, I’m not anti-feminism, I am just stating a historical truth or a cultural fact.

What motivated this woman to commit adultery? She knew it was against God’s laws and punishable by death. What was her life like? In their culture little girls were betrothed to be married by the ages of 12 or 13 usually to an older man in the extended family. Fathers always wanted sons to carry on the family name and to provide for them in their old age. Daughters were usually hidden from society until they were adults. Women had no civil rights. They could not be educated or taught the Torah (the Jewish Bible). They could not even go to church with the men. They were considered to be property.

Perhaps this young woman had been maltreated by her father. He certainly must have told her that he was disappointed in her. Perhaps he said, “I wish I had more sons. All I have is this worthless daughter!” What must she have been feeling? What would have driven her to the point that she would risk her life to be with a man in an illicit affair? Was her husband abusive? Did she feel trapped? Was she desperately unhappy?

What did Jesus see in those tear-stained eyes? Fear? Shame? Worthlessness? Maybe this man that she had the affair with, was the only one person she could talk to. Maybe this man told her she was beautiful and precious. Maybe this man told her he loved her and he was sorry she had to be forced to marry someone she didn’t love.

Now this does not excuse her sin. She had broken the Law of Moses and the consequence for adultery was stoning. Jesus knew that. The leaders caught her and dragged her into the Temple grounds half-dressed, terrified and extremely humiliated.

When Jesus saw the woman and heard the accusations against her, He stooped down and started writing in the ground.

Why did Jesus stoop down and wrote in the dust? And what did He write? There are many speculations.

Some say that Jesus just doodled in the sand to stall for an answer. Some say He stooped down, so not to look at the woman who was probably half-naked. I don’t think they were the right explanations, but I’m afraid we cannot really know for sure.

However let us dig a little deeper using Jewish history, their culture and traditions.

The normal Greek word for to write is graphein; but here the Greek word used is katagrapheini, which can mean to write down a record against someone. It is like writing charges or accusations against a person. So that gives us a better insight already.

The culture and law of that day makes it clear that when adultery took place, both parties involved and accused, would be taken to the temple gates, specifically Nicanor gate, which leads to the women’s court, the only outer court in the Temple where women are permitted to enter, and there judgment would be handed down. We see in this story that only the woman was brought before the accusers. The accusers broke the oral law themselves.

Secondly, they have to present the accused to the priest who in turn was required to then stoop down and write the law that had been broken, along with the names of the accused, in the dust of the floor of the Temple. Actually the priest could write the law and the names anywhere as long as the marks were not permanent, so the dust on the floor of the temple was the most common place.

So when Jesus stoop down and wrote in the dust, He most likely is doing what a priest would do anyway, that is to write the law that was broken and the names of the accused. But He probably not just wrote the name of the woman but the other party involve as well, or maybe even some other laws that were broken. Jesus most likely acknowledged that the law was broken. But that was not enough for the accusers. They wanted more.

What the accusers were pressing for was judgement. What they want is for Jesus to condemn the woman. And that’s when Jesus stood up and proclaim in John 8:7 –“Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

It is very easy to see the fault of others than our own. This is very true even in our time. We condemn others of theirs sins, while we may be worse than them. Just like Jesus said in Matthew 7:3 – And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?

A story is told of two traveling monks who came to a river crossing. There they saw a girl dressed in all her finery, obviously not knowing what to do since the river was high and she didn’t want to spoil her clothes. Without much discussion, one of the monks took her on his back, carried her across, and put her down on dry ground on the other side. The monks then continued on their way. But the other monk started complaining, “Surely it isn’t right to touch a woman. It’s against the commandment to have close contact with women. How could you go against your rules as monks?” This went on and on. The monk who carried the girl walked along silently, but finally he remarked, “I set the girl down an hour ago. Why are you still carrying her?”

Back to our story, in John 8: 8, Jesus stoop down again and wrote on the ground once more. What did He wrote this time? The hint and perhaps the most powerful part of the passage, at least for me, is in verse 9 – Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last.

What convicted the conscience of these accusers? What did they hear or read that changed their hearts? Did Jesus write their names and their sins in the dust as well? Probably. Though there is no way to prove it. But let us again look into their culture and traditions.

What is the implication of their names being written in the ground in the Jewish culture?

In Jeremiah 17:13 it stated: “O Lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake You shall be ashamed. ‘Those who depart from Me shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living waters.’ ”

This passage is recited by the High Priest every Day of Atonement or Yom Kippur when he undergo the purification rituals before he can be considered clean to perform his duty. For the scribes and the Pharisees they were very familiar with this scripture passage. They have heard this every Yom Kippur. They knew this by heart.

So when the accusers saw their names written in the ground, they most likely realized just like the passage written in Jeremiah 17:13 – that they have forsaken the Lord and their names were written in the earth. They heard the voice of God in their conscience. The Spirit of God bringing to their remembrance all the times they heard the High Priest quote that verse.

I can just imagine those people who accused the woman, their firm grip on the stones that they pick up ready to hurl into the woman, those grip slowly became looser and looser that one by one those stones fell back to the ground where Jesus wrote their names. And one by one those accusers turned away and left.

When Jesus looked up He saw nobody else left but the woman. And that’s when He asked the woman has there anyone who condemned you? “No one Lord,” answered the woman. Then Jesus said “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”

The sins were written on the dust because they were not permanent. They can be wiped away easily. You see the sins of both the accused and the accusers were written on the dust, for all of them were meant to be forgiven. Forgiveness was offered not only to the woman caught in adultery but even to the scribes and the Pharisees.

When God wrote the Law, it was written in stones. But when He wrote our sins when we broke the Law, it was written in the dust.

Jesus knew that not too long from that event, He will die to redeem everybody. Yes He will die for all sinners, including that woman as well as the scribes and the Pharisees. Forgiveness is offered to all those that will repent and accept Him.

The Law, He wrote it in stone. Our transgressions, He wrote it in the dust. When He wrote redeemed over our names, He wrote it with His blood.


Happy Easter everyone.

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