It’s one of the most frequently repeated stories in the New Testament—the woman caught in adultery—but nearly every commentary I studied forgot about the woman!
As with most stories in Scripture, there are multiple layers of learning. True with this story as well. Yet, commentaries through the centuries (largely written by men, for men) forgot the woman. Their focus was solely on the trap set for Jesus and His response. And, while those are good lessons, they are not the only lessons.
And, herein lies the reason it is critical for women to explore and investigate the Scriptures. Why blogs like this … and readers like you are so important! For without women’s addition to the study of theology and the Bible, all of Christendom is viewing half the picture—getting half the story—half an understanding of God.
Try it, cover one eye … half the picture is missing. Your view and understanding of the world is inaccurate and misleading.
As a case in point, most commentaries—seeing only half the picture—overlooked the woman caught in adultery. There was, after all, a woman! … She was the trap! … It was her life on the line! … It is right to ask…
What about her?!
Here’s the background to the encounter—
It was the Festival of Tabernacles. Jerusalem was packed. Every Jewish male from near and far was required to journey to Jerusalem for this Festival. A parade filled the streets as crowds made their way to the Temple. Celebration was in the air. Tents were everywhere for God had said, “For seven days live in temporary shelters … so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in temporary shelters when I brought them out of Egypt ” (Lev. 23:42-43).
Yet, by this time in Jesus’ life, the scribes and Pharisees had tried multiple times to have Jesus shamed, proven a shyster, even arrested—and failed—multiple times. They were furious … the eating-nails-for-breakfast kind of furious. So the Pharisees connived what they believed to be a full-proof trap for Jesus.
Early in the morning he [Jesus] came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him (John 8:2-6a).
She was viciously snatched. Brutally yanked through the streets. Shoved to the middle of the crowd. Whispers loud in her ears. Shouts even louder. Forced to stand. Terrified.
Did they allow her to dress? Given their mood, I doubt it. Did she grab a blanket to wrap herself in?
And, by the way, where’s the man? The Law states both the man and the woman should be put to death (Lev. 20:10). If, as the Pharisees said, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery, how did the man escape? Was the whole thing a set-up? Probably. Was he paid to betray her? They paid Judas. Were women so disregarded that to use this woman as a pawn … as bait … that throwing her life away meant nothing?!
In light of a culture where the leaders—the righteous ones—would deliberately and thoughtlessly murder a woman for their own agenda … well … it makes Jesus’ actions and encounters with women revolutionary, radical, even extremist.
Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. One commentary explains this action as Jesus blatantly refusing to engage in the interrogation.
When they kept on questioning him, (read: nagging, pestering, prodding) he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders (John 8:6b-9a).
Her muscles tense and braced. Staring at the ground. Shaking. Waiting. Waiting to feel the first stone meant to draw blood.
Did she see the rocks being dropped to the ground? Falling, not thrown? Did she flinch when the younger ones angerly threw theirs to the ground in disgust?
And here is where most commentaries end. Jesus won the day. Don’t judge, they say, Oh, and don’t commit adultery. The end. But missed by nearly every commentator from ancient times to modern is the rest of the story … the woman’s story.
This woman caught in adultery is still being overlooked, neglected, and mishandled.
If that was all the Gospel writer wanted us to learn, the story would stop when the Pharisees left one by one.
But the story continues …
Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (John 8:9b-11).
Jesus stands to address the woman, just as He stood for the Pharisees. And for the first time in the story, the woman is addressed. She—the adulterer—is given dignity.
This is God’s way toward us—you and me—toward this woman. God’s crazy, unbridled love.
Dignity while we yet sin.
Can you imagine the look in Jesus’ eyes? Such tenderness. Such love. Such sorrow for us sinners who try so hard to find life and love in earthly things.
Can you imagine the woman? Weeping. Full of gratefulness. Words spoken through sobs of relief.
This, I believe, is the main point of the story. Not that Jesus again slipped out of the trap set by the Pharisees. But, rather, that while we are yet sinners … before we have even asked for forgiveness … Christ’s love surrounds us, encircles us, envelopes us and swallows up our sins.
It is Grace.
For the Pharisees. For the woman. For us.
Did she turn and run? Or slowly and numbly walk away? Whichever way she left, I’m betting she turned for a final look at the One who had exchanged death for life.
She had sinned. She knew it. Jesus knew it. And, she had been restored to life by God. Given a new start.
As a part of the Festival of Tabernacles, worshipers would go to a section of the Temple complex called the Court of the Women, where a wonderful celebration would take place. There would be four golden candelabras, each with golden bowls, and four priests pouring oil into the lamp stands to light up the sky. The men would dance and sing, “Happy is every man on whom guilt rests, and he who having sinned is now with pardon blessed.”
This time … I wonder … was there a woman singing along?
Reflections: The story of the woman caught in adultery would be a phenomenal story in which to imagine yourself. We have all sinned. We know it. God knows it. And, yet, we all need to look into the eyes of Jesus and be enveloped in His grace-filled love.
May you be aware of God’s grace resting upon you this day.
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>All Scripture taken from NRSV
>Every Jewish male from near and far… by Rabbi Jack Zimmerman. Sukkot, The Feast of Booths, 12/1/15, Jewish Voice. Retrieved 5/25/20 from: https://www.jewishvoice.org/read/blog/sukkot-the-feast-of-booths-known-to-some-as-the-feast-of-tabernacles
>One commentary explains this action as Jesus… by George R. Beasley-Murray. Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 36. (Word Books, Publisher: Waco, Texas, 1987), p. 146.
>Jesus stands to address… by Gail R. O’Day. The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Volume IV The Gospel of John. (Abingdon Press: Nashville, TN, 1995), p. 629.
>As a part of the Festival of Tabernacles… by Rabbi Jack Zimmerman. Sukkot, The Feast of Booths, 12/1/15, Jewish Voice. Retrieved 5/25/20 from: https://www.jewishvoice.org/read/blog/sukkot-the-feast-of-booths-known-to-some-as-the-feast-of-tabernacles
Art in Order of Presentation
>Title Painting: by Russian Artist Vasily Polenov. Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery. 1886-87. Retrieved 5/22/20 from: http://19thcenturyrusspaint.blogspot.com/2012/08/vasily-polenov.html
>Magdeburg Ivories. Commissioned by Emperor Otto I for the Magdeburg Cathedral in Magdeburg, Germany. 968. Artist unknown. Retrieved 5/22/20 from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magdeburg_Ivories
>by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. The Woman Taken in Adultery. 1644. Art resides in The National Gallery, London. Retrieved 5/22/20 from: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/rembrandt-the-woman-taken-in-adultery
>by Carla Manea. adultera. Malo, Vi, Italy. Retrieved 5/22/20 from: http://carlamanea.blogspot.com/2009_08_01_archive.html
>by Sebastiano Ricci. Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery. 1720’s. Italy. Retrieved 5/22/20 from: https://collections.artsmia.org/art/1672/christ-and-the-woman-taken-in-adultery-sebastiano-ricci
>by Guercino. Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery. 1621. Italy. Retrieved 5/22/20 from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guercino
>by Horace Pippen. The Woman Taken in Adultery. African American Folk Artist, 1941. Retrieved 5/25/20 from: https://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/tools/image-gallery/w/woman-adulterer-motif
> Artist Unknown
>Vaux Passional. Illuminated Manuscript, circa 15th Century. Manuscript held at The National Library of Wales. Retrieved 5/27/20 from: https://www.library.wales/discover/digital-gallery/manuscripts/the-middle-ages/the-vaux-passional/
> by Robert Scott Lauder. Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery. Scotland, 1881. Art resides in the National Galleries of Scotland. Retrieved 5/27/20 from: https://collections.artsmia.org/art/1672/christ-and-the-woman-taken-in-adultery-sebastiano-ricci
>Song: by Chris Tomlin. Amazing Grace: My Chains are Gone. Retrieved 5/26/20 from: https://www.christomlin.com/