Preachers have provided us with a plethora of postulations. I think I have a pretty definitive answer to that question. Here are some lame ones. Was Jesus doodling to stall for time until He collected His thoughts? Give me a break. He was the Son of God. His thoughts were definitely collected. Was He writing in “sandskrit?” (Forgive the pun). Did Christ scrawl the names of some prostitute these pious pretenders had visited in town? Highly unlikely.
One interesting theory is that Jesus wrote the name of each “stone-holding accuser” from the oldest to the youngest. They were so amazed at His supernatural knowledge that they dropped their ammunition, stunned and silenced. All accusers departed, from the oldest to the youngest. Many “sermonizers” I’ve heard suggest that Jesus wrote the sins of each religious leader in the sand, and the schemers were so convicted, they dropped their rocks and ran away. A close preacher friend of mine stated that Jesus knelt in the sand because the woman was there and He wanted to support her in those terrible moments.
However, verse three states that the scribes and Pharisees forced the adulteress to stand before the group.
Just to refresh your memory, let me remind you of the passage in John 8:
2 At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 “No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” NIV
Jeremiah 17:13 is the secret to the “finger-writing” passage. But before we discuss it, let me give you a little Hebrew history:
Whenever someone was caught in adultery, both the man and the woman would be brought to the Nicanor temple gates and accused. If witnesses could be gathered to confirm that adultery had indeed been committed, then there was a certain ceremony that would be done in order to bring judgment. However, in this instance they only brought the woman. This was a violation of the Oral Law of God.
Secondly, the priest 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 (which Jesus did) [actually, the priest could write the law and the names anywhere, as long as the marks were not permanent - and the dust of the floor of the Temple was the most common place]. By doing this, Jesus showed these accusers that THEY were not keeping the law, but He would anyway. (As an aside-two eyewitnesses must be present, and there is no mention of the witnesses’ presence in this scene. The Scribes and Pharisees just say she was caught in the act. By whom?)
The Scribes and Pharisees ignored the law, brought the woman only, and then continued with accusations. So Jesus stood up (after plainly demonstrating they were violating the law themselves) and said "He who is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her" John 8:7). THEY did not want to cast the stone, they wanted Jesus to condemn her, so they continued accusing.
To truly comprehend the pivotal verse that answers this age-old question, we need to know a little Hebrew history. Every year on Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement), the Kohen HaGaddol, or High Priest would immerse up to 11 times in a Mikveh (a baptismal tank) in order to be ceremonially cleansed between each separate portion of the day's sacrifices. (I’ll bet he got a little pruny.) At the end of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, there was a celebration at his home, and there would be great rejoicing that God had received the sacrifice, and everyone’s sins had been rolled forward another year until Messiah came. To end the day and announce to everyone the party was over (and it was time to go home), the High Priest would come out and quote this verse:
"'Oh YAHWEH, the Mikveh of Israel...' just as the mikveh (purifying bath) cleansed me on this day, may the Holy One (Messiah), blessed be his name, cleanse all Israel when He comes." Jeremiah 17:13.
Any religious Jewish man had heard this verse quoted by the High Priest every year since he was 12 years old. At 50, he would have heard it 39 times! (although Yom Kippur was NOT a Feast of ascension, many Jews would come up for it anyway, because of it's close relationship in time to the Feast of Booths (Tabernacles), when they had to be there anyway). The entire verse is as follows:
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.
The exact Hebrew translation is this:
"Oh YHVH, the Immerser (BAPTIZER ) of Israel, all those who leave your way shall be put to shame (publicly embarrassed), those who turn aside from my ways will have their names written in the dust and blotted out, for they have departed from YHVH, the fountain of Mayim Hayim (the waters of life).."
So Jesus gave them a chance -- they could have been just embarrassed and then repented before the LORD. but instead they refused to repent, rejected the Messiah, and in turn had their names written in the dust. This passage in Jeremiah is a Messianic prophecy of what Jesus would do when He came - and in this passage in John, we see Jesus fulfill the prophecy.
In my opinion, the most interesting part is verse 9 of John 8:
“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.”
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 the verse -- but instead of receiving the conviction and repenting, they departed from Him (just as it was prophesied!). They left from the eldest to the youngest, the older having heard the verse quoted more often.
The verses in John 7:37-39 occurred just prior to this incident. Jesus had just proclaimed that He was the fountain of living waters. (as one more aside, then Jesus returns to his teaching of the multitude in the Temple, by saying "I am the light of the world"... this was the very morning that the four great lamps of the court in the Temple (which were called "The light of the world" were being extinguished after being kept lit for the entire week of the Feast of Tabernacles).*
Now, for some application. What motivated this woman to commit adultery? She knew it was against God’s laws and punishable by death. What was her life like? Little girls were betrothed and married by the ages of 12 or thirteen, usually to an older man in the extended family like an uncle. 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 even go to church with the men. They were considered to be property.
Perhaps this young woman had been beaten 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? Humiliation, terror, shame….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? Was she depressed—did she really want to be found out to end her miserable existence?
What did Jesus see in those tear-stained eyes? …fear, condemnation, shame? Perhaps this man that she had the affair with, was the one person she could talk to. Maybe he told her she was beautiful. Maybe he 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, dragged her into the Temple grounds where Jesus was teaching. She was probably half-dressed, ashamed and terrified.
Jesus knew the Scriptures. Adultery is mentioned in the Ten Commandments, all four Gospels, and ten other books of the Bible.
So why did Jesus respond to this woman with such compassion and forgiveness? Jesus knew that those trapped in even the worst sins were not hopeless. They could be redeemed.
Let’s look at the second group of wounded people. The religious leaders: the Scribes and the Pharisees. The Scribes were like lawyers, they wrote, taught and interpreted the law. The Pharisees were middle class people. They weren’t rich like the Saduccees but they spent every waking moment trying to live of to the 643 laws and 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, because they were unclean. The religious leaders were terrified of failing to measure up to a demanding God-an angry taskmaster. So the thought that this Rabbi could give grace-undeserved love and forgiveness to people instead of working for a mean, demanding God just made them furious. After all, they had racked up a few brownie points and deserved favor with God and respect from men. Jesus came claiming to be the Messiah they had been waiting and praying for all of their lives, He did miracle after miracle, even raising the dead, but he didn’t look or act like they expected. Christ wanted them to repent.
The Scribes and the Pharisees were proud of how hard they tried to please their “inspecting” God.
John the Baptist said of them:
"But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, He said to them, 'Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance, and do not say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father''" (Mat 3:7-9).
Jesus also said:
"For I say to you, that unless your righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven" (Mat 5:20).
Jesus came to the religious leaders as the hope they had waited and prayed for. But this was what happened when you try to please a demanding God: you become filled with hypocrisy, pride and prejudice. You can never know the rest of God's grace.
Two kinds of people faced Jesus that day. The religious leaders were the pretenders who thought that if they were just smart enough, worked hard enough, prayed hard enough, that somehow they would earn their way into Paradise. The woman had given up. She thought she was hopelessly trapped in a cycle of sin. God could never love her. God could never forgive her.
Both the woman and her accusers needed forgiveness, restoration and hope. Jesus offered all three.
“Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”
*Historical information by Kevin Cornette, of prophecyfellowship.org.
Don't forget Jeremiah 17:13, "Hope of Isra’el, Adonai! All who abandon you will be ashamed, those who leave you will be inscribed in the dust, because they have abandoned Adonai, the source of living water."