Summary: Taking a look at the dynamics involved in Jesus' encounter with the religious leaders and with the woman caught in adultery. The religious leaders set the trap, Jesus turned it back on them and in the end the woman was released from her trap.
The woman caught in adultery
1) Setting the trap (Vs. 1-6a). Unlike today, the sin of adultery was a serious crime in biblical day-punishable by death. We don’t know how she was caught in the act. Perhaps it was a set-up. And the Pharisees could’ve brought her to Jesus alone but here they do it in the midst of everyone, after Jesus had just finished teaching. Or they could’ve posed the question to Jesus without exposing the woman publically. But along with their disregard for the woman their motive was to trap Jesus. This was not uncommon behavior for the religious leaders. They had tried numerous times to trap him with topics like paying taxes to Caesar and divorce and marriage. Here they were using the law to back their actions up although they weren’t completely accurate in the law they were trying to trap him in-Lev. 20:10, “If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife-with the wife of his neighbor-both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death.” As in Deut. 22:22, “If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife, both the man who slept with her and the woman must die. You must purge the evil from Israel.” So, where was the man? The Pharisees only bringing the woman showed that they didn’t really care about fulfilling the requirements of the law they just wanted to trap Jesus. They thought they had him right where they wanted him. If Jesus said, “don’t stone her” then they could accuse him of going against the law which would have turned the Jews against him. If Jesus said, “stone her” then they could report him to the Roman officials since the Romans did not allow the Jews to carry out any capital punishment. Either way he would be labeled a lawbreaker. They thought there was no way out for Jesus, he would be doomed no matter what he said. They were in for a rude awakening.
2) Turning the tables (vs. 6b-9). They tried to trap Jesus but he keeps his cool. Like Jesus did so many times, he doesn’t directly answer their question. He knows it’s a trap so he uses wisdom and turns the tables. He stoops down and writes. This is the only place in scripture where Jesus wrote something. And ironically, the only record we have where Jesus wrote and we don’t know what he wrote. There have been different suggestions but the most plausible one comes from the meaning behind the Greek word used here, “katagraphein” which is taken from the two Greek words “kata” which means against and “graphein” which means to write. Therefore the word, “katagraphein” means to write down a record against someone. With this in mind many believe Jesus, knowing the hearts of these men, was listing their sins. Then we see they started pressing him further. Whether they were ignoring what he was writing on the ground or they didn’t like what he was writing we’re not sure. Nonetheless they were persistent in getting Jesus to answer them. He interrupts his writing and stands up and makes the bold statement that turned the spotlight around and put it on them. “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then he stoops down and starts writing again. The Greek word used here “anamarthov” means the same kind of sin. Therefore, if Jesus was writing down their sins it more than likely included adultery, as well as any other sins that would get them stoned. Therefore, when Jesus said, “he who is without sin cast the first stone” he was probably pointing to what he had written. “Whoever is not guilty of these sins I’ve written down can cast the first one. If you want to stone her go ahead; by the law this is just punishment for her actions. However, if you do stone her to death; you will be next for the offenses you have committed and have kept a secret-until now.” Rom. 2:1-4, 21-24. Paul highlighted the same principle Jesus was trying to get across to these religious leaders. As one writer put it, “Jesus held up one mirror for each stone and suddenly sin had a different face. As the blood flow came back to the knuckles, the fingers extended and released the rocks. Every stone fell to the ground.” This encounter illustrated the wisdom of Jesus. He didn’t go against the law; he wasn’t saying she didn’t deserve to be put to death. But he used the opportunity to highlight their hypocrisy. And so, realizing their trap had backfired, they dropped their stones and left. The older ones first, probably because they were wiser, until there was just the woman and Jesus.