The woman caught in adultery – did Yeshua really set aside the Law and replace it with grace?

I would like to take a look at the account in chapter 8 of John’s Gospel, when the Scribes (the soferim) and the Pharisees (Prushim) brought to Jesus (Yeshua) a woman “caught in adultery”. It has been said that “Jesus set aside the Law of Moses in dealing with this woman, and replaced it with grace”. Is this, in fact, a true statement?

First, some context. John chapter 7 makes it clear that this event takes place in Jerusalem, just after the end of the Feast of Tabernacles (a.k.a the Feast of Booths or, in Hebrew, Chag ha Sukkot). The Feast of Tabernacles is a memorial of the fact that when Israel was brought out of Egypt they dwelt in “booths”, tents or tabernacles. It lasts for 7 days and is immediately followed by the “Last Great Day” – an 8th day when the “water libation ceremony” takes place in the temple. The feast had concluded but Yeshua remained in Jerusalem and the next day returned to the temple to teach.

We pick up the story in John 8:2.

Jhn 8:2-11 ESV – [2] Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. [3] The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst [4] they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. [5] Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” [6] This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him.

The Scribes and Pharisees claimed that the Law of Moses commanded that such a woman be stoned – this is almost universally accepted amongst Christians reading this account today but is it, in fact, true? Or were they misapplying Moses’ teaching in order to trap Jesus? What, in fact, does the Torah say about adultery? Did Jesus really set Moses aside in favour of grace? Or did he uphold the Torah and demonstrate the grace embodied in the instructions given through Moses?

[For anyone who is unfamiliar with the term torah, this is the Hebrew term for the first 5 books of the Bible. It is usually translated as “law” in our English Bibles but contains much more than just “law”. The word literally means teaching or instruction – it is from the root word yarah which has a number of meanings such as to shoot straight (as an arrow), to hit the mark or to cast forth as rain.]

The first mention of the word “adultery” is found in Exodus 20:14, when God spoke the ten commandments from the top of Mt Sinai and all those present heard God’s voice.

Exd 20:14 ESV – [14] “You shall not commit adultery.” (This is repeated in Deut 5:18 when the ten commandments are reiterated to the next generation).

The phrase in Hebrew is lo na’aph – literally, “not adultery”. The word na’aph can apply not only to the act of breaking the trust relationship between husband and wife, but has a secondary meaning of “idolatrous worship”. Many times in the scriptures it is used to describe Israel’s tendency to go after pagan gods. In the context of the ten commandments, it could easily imply both meanings.

Lev 20:10 ESV – [10] “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbour, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.

The Torah clearly states here that both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death. Both have to be found guilty and both have to be punished. You cannot punish just one. So, where was the adulterer with whom the woman brought to Jesus allegedly committed adultery? Why was he not brought to Jesus along with the woman? By the way, the phrase “the wife of his neighbour” does not necessarily mean “the person next door”. It can mean the wife of a friend, or the wife of another person in the community, or a fellow citizen, or simply another person.

This commandment assumes that the man and woman have been caught in the act, or that there is enough evidence to convict them of the crime. How then is the death penalty to be determined and carried out?

Deu 17:6-7 ESV – [6] On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. [7] The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

In other words, they had to be caught in the act by more than one witness, and the testimony of those witnesses had to agree.

And again, in Deuteronomy,

Deu 19:15 ESV – [15] “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offence that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.

Yeshua himself upheld this principle in another context in Matthew 18:16, as did Paul (Sha’ul) in his second letter to the believers in Corinth (2 Cor 13:1) and again writing to Timothy.

Mat 18:16 ESV – [16] But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.

2Cr 13:1 ESV – [1] This is the third time I am coming to you. Every charge must be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.

1Ti 5:19 ESV – [19] Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.

So, we require at least two or three witnesses, whose testimony agrees, in order to pronounce the death penalty. Those witnesses who bear testimony that leads to conviction are required to “cast the first stones”. The penalty for bearing false witness is equally severe:

Exd 20:16 ESV – [16] “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.

Deu 5:20 ESV – [20] “‘And you shall not bear false witness against your neighbour.

Deu 19:16-19 ESV – [16] If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing, [17] then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days. [18] The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, [19] then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

Now, what happens if a woman is suspected of adultery, but it cannot be proven? The Torah provides a means of dealing with that situation, too, as detailed in Numbers chapter 5 – this is called the “trial by ordeal” or the “trial of the bitter waters”.

Num 5:12-31 ESV – [12] “Speak to the people of Israel, If any man’s wife goes astray and breaks faith with him, [13] if a man lies with her sexually, and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband, and she is undetected though she has defiled herself, and there is no witness against her, since she was not taken in the act, [14] and if the spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife who has defiled herself, or if the spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife, though she has not defiled herself, [15] then the man shall bring his wife to the priest and bring the offering required of her, a tenth of an ephah of barley flour. He shall pour no oil on it and put no frankincense on it, for it is a grain offering of jealousy, a grain offering of remembrance, bringing iniquity to remembrance.

A couple of things to note here – this procedure is to be done if a husband suspects or is jealous of his wife, to determine her guilt or innocence. It is a very elaborate procedure for which much detail is given (which I’ll break up into sections to make it easier to read) but for which there are no historical records of it every being carried out. More on that later. It begins with the man bring his wife before the priest along with an offering to God. Any time a man desires to come before God, an offering (called korban, literally “drawing near”) is to be brought.

[16] “And the priest shall bring her near and set her before the LORD. [17] And the priest shall take holy water in an earthenware vessel and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water.

Remember that later – the reference to the dust on the floor of the tabernacle (or, beginning with the reign of Solomon, the temple) is significant to our discussion of the account in John’s gospel.

[18] And the priest shall set the woman before the LORD and unbind the hair of the woman’s head and place in her hands the grain offering of remembrance, which is the grain offering of jealousy. And in his hand the priest shall have the water of bitterness that brings the curse.

The water of bitterness is the water mixed with the dust of the floor of the temple.

[19] Then the priest shall make her take an oath, saying, ‘If no man has lain with you, and if you have not turned aside to uncleanness while you were under your husband’s authority, be free from this water of bitterness that brings the curse. [20] But if you have gone astray, though you are under your husband’s authority, and if you have defiled yourself, and some man other than your husband has lain with you, [21] then’ (let the priest make the woman take the oath of the curse, and say to the woman) ‘the LORD make you a curse and an oath among your people, when the LORD makes your thigh fall away and your body swell. [22] May this water that brings the curse pass into your bowels and make your womb swell and your thigh fall away.’ And the woman shall say, ‘Amen, Amen.’

The priest dictates the prescribed oath to the woman and makes her take the oath. The woman responds by saying, “Amen, Amen”. This is the first occurrence of the word “Amen” in the scriptures! It literally means, “Let it be so!” and is from the root word emet which means truth, reliability, absolute steadfastness and trust. The first 13 times that amen appears in the scriptures all have to do with a person (or the people) agreeing to accept the specified consequences for breaking covenant! Think on that for a while.

[23] “Then the priest shall write these curses in a book and wash them off into the water of bitterness. [24] And he shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that brings the curse, and the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain. [25] And the priest shall take the grain offering of jealousy out of the woman’s hand and shall wave the grain offering before the LORD and bring it to the altar. [26] And the priest shall take a handful of the grain offering, as its memorial portion, and burn it on the altar, and afterward shall make the woman drink the water.

The priest writes the curse “in a book”, or more correctly, on a piece of parchment, and then literally washes the words off the page into the water, which the woman is going to drink. The passage seems to suggest that she does this twice – this is typical of Hebrew writing or storytelling, where certain phrases are repeated, either for poetic effect or for emphasis. The priest would offer the grain offering, and then the woman would drink the “bitter waters”.

[27] And when he has made her drink the water, then, if she has defiled herself and has broken faith with her husband, the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain, and her womb shall swell, and her thigh shall fall away, and the woman shall become a curse among her people. [28] But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be free and shall conceive children. [29] “This is the law in cases of jealousy, when a wife, though under her husband’s authority, goes astray and defiles herself, [30] or when the spirit of jealousy comes over a man and he is jealous of his wife. Then he shall set the woman before the LORD, and the priest shall carry out for her all this law. [31] The man shall be free from iniquity, but the woman shall bear her iniquity.”

If the woman is innocent, then the curse which she has spoken in the oath will have no effect (“a curse without a cause cannot alight”) and her innocence is proven, however if she is guilty she will bear the pain (and the shame) of her punishment.

As previously mentioned, there are apparently no recorded instances of these instructions ever having been carried out as specified here. Rabbinic tradition has it that, when a man and his wife came before the priests to resolve an issue of jealousy and were confronted with the reality of going through this procedure, usually one of two things would happen – the wife would confess, or the man would realise through his wife’s willingness to go through this that he was wrongfully accusing her and, either way, the man and his wife would begin the process of reconciliation, often assisted by the priest, without needing to go through the full ordeal.

As an aside, God describes himself as a “jealous God”. He also describes Israel and Judah as an adulterous bride. Paul says that we (as believers in Yeshua) are grafted into the commonwealth of Israel, that all who are “in Christ” are Abraham’s seed. It is this passage in Numbers that gives God the right to subject his bride to the “trial by ordeal” through the bitter waters of the Great Tribulation, to prove who is faithful and who has been unfaithful (by committing na’aph with other gods) – that is perhaps a subject that needs to be developed further another time. Back to the account in John.

Jhn 8:6b ESV – Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.

Where did this take place again? Go back to John 8:2:

Jhn 8:2 ESV – [2] Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them.

Yeshua bends down and begins writing in the dust on the floor of the temple. This would not have been lost on any of those present. The scribes, remember, were the ones who wrote (copied) the Torah scrolls – they knew intimately every word, indeed every letter and every scribal mark (the “jots and tittles”) of the Torah. Exactly what it was that Yeshua wrote we’re not told, but it certainly caused the woman’s accusers some discomfort, and the allusion to the instructions in Numbers regarding the “waters of bitterness” would have been obvious, even if not to those of us today who have not studied Torah.

[7] And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” [8] And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground.

What about this reference to “him who is without sin?” I’ve heard it said that this could be rendered “Let him who is without this sin…” but I don’t think that this is supported by the Greek text. It is possible, given what happened in verse 19, but I personally believe that there is a better explanation. Let’s look back at the instructions given in the Torah for proclaiming and carrying out the death sentence.

Deu 17:6-7 ESV – [6] On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. [7] The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

Exd 20:16 ESV – [16] “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour

Deu 5:20 ESV – [20] “‘And you shall not bear false witness against your neighbour

Deu 19:16-19 ESV – [16] If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing, [17] then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the LORD, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days. [18] The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, [19] then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

Deuteronomy 17:7 appears to be a key verse here. “The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death…” which assumes that a) there are a minimum of two or three witnesses whose testimony agrees and establishes the matter and b) the charge is therefore proven. Add to that the commandment to not “bear false witness” and the penalty prescribed to be carried out against one who does bear false witness, especially for malicious purposes, and I think that next verse makes perfect sense. In other words, the implication that I see here is “let those who are the two or three true witnesses (those who are without the sin of bearing false witness) cast the first stone”.

[9] But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.

So now, Yeshua is left alone with the woman, with none of the alleged witnesses remaining.

[10] Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” [11] She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

Yeshua could not pronounce the death penalty, because there were not two witnesses prepared to bear testimony to her offence. Far from setting aside the “Law of Moses” and replacing it with grace, he fully upheld the instructions in the Torah, following the higher principle of requiring the testimony of two or three witnesses to condemn a person accused of a capital offence. He did not minimise the offence of adultery, nor did he fully absolve the woman (“…from now on sin no more.”).

I propose therefore that Yeshua demonstrated the grace that is found in the Torah by demonstrating both the justice and mercy of God. God is the only one who can balance justice and mercy, and he always prefers to show mercy when given the opportunity. We give God the opportunity to show mercy when we truly repent – the Hebrew word is teshuvah which means to return to the place where we we belong (the place of obedience). If we refuse to repent, to return to the ways of God, then he has no choice but to do justice and allow us to suffer the consequences specified for breaking the covenant.

Did Yeshua really set aside the “Law of Moses”? I suggest that the writer of the letter to the Hebrew believers in Jerusalem (just prior to the destruction of the second temple) didn’t think so.

Hbr 10:28-31 ESV – [28] Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. [29] How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? [30] For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” [31] It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Notice that this is translated in the present tense (from the Greek aorist tense, which indicates an incomplete, ongoing action). This implies that the author believed that this is a continuing state of affairs, forty or so years after the death and resurrection of Yeshua. Does this suggest that the “Law of Moses” was done away with according to the apostolic writings?

[This passage is also using a rather typical rabbinic teaching technique (common in Paul’s writings, although we don’t know for sure whether or not Paul wrote this letter), called kal v’khomer – literally “light and heavy” – characterised by the phrase “How much more…”. ]

How do we “spurn the Son of God”? How do we “profane the blood of the covenant”? How do we “outrage the Spirit of grace”? Might I suggest, in the context of our discussion, that we do this by setting aside the Torah and by committing na’aph – adultery – with foreign gods, just as Israel and Judah did, mixing the worship of the One True God with pagan festivals and false gods, when we should be faithful to our husband, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?

May God give us grace to repent, and may we be found faithful to Him when He tests His bride.

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