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What did Jesus Write in the Sand?

by Brant Pitre April 17, 2019 0 Comments


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[N]otice Jesus responds to them by writing in the dirt. Now that’s a weird response, but John’s really clear that Jesus responds by bending down and writing with his finger on the ground. And John tells us this (people usually miss this): that Jesus did it twice. So he’s clearly emphasizing it, it’s a gesture that’s meant to be called attention to, it’s meant to draw our attention, and yet, at the same time it’s strange. What is Jesus doing writing in the dirt? Well, you can imagine, over the centuries, commentators have gone wild trying to figure out “What is Jesus doing? Why is he writing in the dirt?” And again, you’ve probably heard preachers or homilists speculate about this. Some people will say that Jesus wrote the sins of the scribes and Pharisees in the dirt, and when they saw their sins being listed in the sand, they were kind of moved to repentance and they left in shame. That’s a very popular explanation of it. Others will say that he was just ignoring the scribes and Pharisees, kind of “doodling on the ground”, that’s one possibility as well. If you look at the history of interpretation there are kind of three major explanations. First, some people just say that it’s a sign of indifference. In other words, he is just basically snubbing the scribes and Pharisees. That’s one possibility. A second one is that he writes the sins of the accusers in the dirt. That actually goes all the way back to Jerome (interestingly enough, I just learned that as I was researching for this explanation; it’s fascinating). So in Jerome’s book against Pelagius, he speculates that that might be what had happened. But the most popular explanation, the one that’s taken actually not just by St. Ambrose, but by St. Augustine himself, as well as more recent Catholic biblical scholars, is that Jesus here is performing a sign that’s a fulfillment of prophecy. So if you go back to the book of Jeremiah 17, there is a passage in the Old Testament that actually talks about writing in the dirt, and it’s got a couple of striking parallels with the Gospel of John. In Jeremiah 17: 1, 13, we hear these words:

“The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron”

That’s verse 1. If you skip down to verse 13, this is the main verse. It says this:

O Lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake thee shall be put to shame; those who turn away from thee shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living water.

Alright, let’s pause there. In its original context what Jeremiah is basically describing is that the names of those who forsake the God of Israel (who’ve abandoned him), they’re going to be written in the dirt as a kind of sign of condemnation, like a sign of judgment upon them, because they’ve forsaken the fountain of living water (the Lord).

Now, in light of that prophecy, if you fast forward to the New Testament, it’s really fascinating. In John 8, Jesus is writing in the dirt and saying, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” And then in John 7, what does Jesus identify himself as? The fountain of living water. He says, “out of his heart shall flow rivers of flowing water”. So when you link up the image of sin being written in the dirt and the fountain of living water, being rejected by the leaders of Judah, the leaders of Israel, some scholars have suggested that what Jesus is doing is basically performing a sign of judgment against the leaders in Jerusalem, the scribes and the Pharisees, who have rejected him (the fountain of living water), so that their sin is being written in the earth as a judgment against them; as a condemnation of them. It’s a riddle. It’s a prophecy that puts the Scribes and Pharisees in the role of the sinful leaders of Judah that Jeremiah had prophesied against in the Old Testament. And when they see the sign performed in light of that prophecy, they are convicted and it says that each one of them, beginning with the eldest, walks away and leaves Jesus and the woman alone. So that’s the third explanation for it, a kind of prophetic sign (which Jesus does all the time in the gospels), and that’s the one I’m most inclined to, and that’s the interpretation of St. Augustine. In any case, what matters for us is Jesus springs the trap on them. They are unable to push him (force him) into either letting the woman go or authorizing her being stoned and then getting in trouble with the Roman authorities.

Now there’s one other aspect of this that I would just highlight (real quick) as a side note. Which is this: some of my students when I used to teach on this would say, “Well, Dr. Pitre though, doesn’t Jesus break the law in doing that? If the law of Deuteronomy 22 says she was to be stoned, isn’t he breaking the law by not stoning her?” Well, what’s interesting is, in the book of Deuteronomy 17:6 it also says that “no one shall be put to death on the testimony of just one witness”, you have to have the testimony of 2 or 3 witnesses (in Deuteronomy 17:6). So what happens in John 8, is that all of the witnesses depart, and so when Jesus looks up from writing in the dirt, what does he say to the woman? “Has no one condemned you?” Everyone’s left, no one’s testified against her. All that are left are he and the woman. So it’s just him and her. And she says, “Well no one, Lord.” And Jesus says “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and don’t sin again.” I’m speculating a little bit here but I think it’s interesting at least that Jesus creates the situation where there actually aren’t two witnesses to testify against her, which is what would be necessary in the law for someone to be put to death. So even here, by springing the trap, he is faithful to the Mosaic Law. In other words, it would be a violation of the Mosaic Law for him to pick up a stone and put her to death just with one person. That would break the law. You had to have two public witnesses to testify. If you want an analogy of this, remember at the Trial of Sanhedrin? They’re trying to drum up two witnesses to testify that Jesus said he would destroy the temple, because they can’t put him to death if you don’t have at least two people willing to publicly charge him with a crime, and that’s what doesn’t happen here with the woman. So he says to her, “Neither do I condemn you” and then his final words (so important), “Go and sin no more.” He calls her to repent, to change her life, to turn away from her life of adultery and to not commit that sin again. It is a beautiful, beautiful story of divine mercy, and also the call to change one’s life from a life of sin.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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