The woman caught in adultery
John 8:1-10. A dramatisation by R Robertson (this is my own imagining of the ‘story behind the story.’ I wrote this out of times of meditating on the real personal struggles of the many people Jesus encountered, ministered to, and brought eternal hope to.)
“Whore!” “Adulterer!” “Stone Her! Stone Her!”
The cries and shouts rang in Leah’s ears as she stumbled up the dusty path, the small crowd swelling behind her like a thirsting herd of cattle rushing toward the smell of water.
Oh, if only they would rush over her now, crush her to death, save her from further shame.
The Priests had already torn her tunic when their ruffians had taken her before them last night, as custom dictated. Leah recalled now her face had burned with humiliation as they had stood around her shouting their pious condemnations. Then they had thrown her into a dark room where she shivered in fear, listening to the muffled voices as men came and went outside.
Why they hadn’t taken her out and stoned her then, before the Roman guards made their rounds? They still did it occasionally, when it suited them, even though the Romans forbade it. That is, unless it suited their own purposes. Years ago she saw a stoning. The invisible hand of fear gripped around her heart as she recalled the contorted face of the writhing victim.
And now, before dawn, they had dragged her out of her temporary prison. Amongst the shouting and cursing she had overheard something about a plan, a use for her. At the temple, they said, and something to do with one of those itinerant preachers they hated so much. And laughter, some kind of joke about someone losing no matter his choice. And more laughter.
‘Oh please God, let them kill me now. I know I sinned against you, but not this humiliation too.’ Leah stumbled, falling to the hard ground. Someone grabbed her by the arms, jerking her upright and pushed her roughly in the back, recommencing the bizarre procession past the markets just filling with people in the early morning, and up towards the temple.
“Harlot! Harlot! Harlot! …..” The cries now formed into a rhythmic chant around her. ‘No!’ her mind cried out. ‘I’m not a harlot; we loved each other.’ But it was no use now.
Where was he? When those men rushed in and tore them apart she had cried out for him. Had they already stoned him? Surely not, after all he was one of them, at least his father was. He would be too one day, he said. And she did love him so. And he said he loved her too. She had felt so good, so loved, laying there in his arms. So good after everything else that had been happening these past years. The images flashed through her mind as she stumbled, hardly hearing the baying crowd any more, the taunts from women standing on the roadside now echoing distantly as the events of the past year rushed through her mind.
Images of the divorce came flooding into her mind, when Jathniel had thrown her out, accusing her of flirting with her cousin. Her own cousin? The man she had grown up with? Her friend? How could Jathniel have thought such things of them? No, it was an excuse she as she had realised soon after. So he could marry that woman; but no, it didn’t matter now.
She remembered the shame she felt when she was cast out of the house with nothing. She wanted to die that day, but not now. And the days of disgrace and humiliation as she tried to survive on her own, not able to see her beautiful sons. Leah’s family had refused to take her in, believing those awful things Jathniel told them. And trying to bake bread and sell it in the market to provide a small income to survive. But no-one would go near her, let alone buy from her.
Her mind skipped to that day when Nathan stopped in the back alley and spoke to her. That was her salvation. Oh yes, kind words he used. ‘Did she need a room to stay in, a little money for a new tunic?’ His gentle touch that first night he visited her in her rented room. She almost felt like a prostitute, told him so. But he was so reassuring, said he loved her, would look after her, it would be their secret. Life seemed to be better, at least a little, even though his visits were always at night, and she couldn’t tell anyone about him.
And then last night, when the ruffians burst in, it was all over, and Nathan was gone. ‘Oh Nathan, where are you. If only we had run away together.’ But she knew that would never have been. He was training to be a lawyer, one of them. Was he dead, or had they let him go back to his ordinary life. She had heard that they protected each other, the lawyers. Surely not Nathan though, he said he loved her.
The small crowd was now hustling her up the wide stairway that led through those huge wall and into the Court of the Gentiles. She saw the Roman guards watching intently. But no, there was no hope there. ‘Oh Lord, hide me from this shame!’ her heart cried out.
Lahad was enjoying the prospect of the moment. When those fools, Caiaphas and Annas had been wringing their hands at the last council meeting over this stupid prophet, only Lahad had the courage to offer to come up with a plan. Already the crowds were saying that this Jesus had the approval of the Council. ‘That’s what comes from inaction.’ He thought, smugly to himself. ‘Well, now was the time for action, and the man who could eliminate this heretic would certainly earn credit in both Herod’s eyes and even Pilate’s. Yes, both were useful allies even if they were abominations.’
Trapping this stupid preacher on a point of the law would be simple, he mused, as his lackeys shoved and prodded the pathetic figure along towards the temple. After all, he was an uneducated Galilean. Lahad had encountered them before; boorish and loud, but they crumbled when challenged and tested by a skilled lawyer every time. Hadn’t spent any time studying the Torah or Halakah, the fools. Not like himself, an expert in all the law. Why, he was the only man he knew amongst the scribes, or any of the Pharisees, that was able to recite so many entire scrolls by heart. And he had just finished memorising the book of Job. The entire book. That would impress his followers, and show up Caiaphas for the ignorant pretender he was.
Simple, he thought; but his plan was beautiful too. Just showing up this Galilean on some simple point was not enough. No, everyone would soon forget that. It was time to totally discredit him, with something dramatic, right in front of his mob of filthy followers. Lahad sneered at the thought of the last time he saw them, all clamouring around that Jesus, the fools. Tax collectors, fishermen, women. How flagrant, he thought, women sitting at the feet of a preacher. Never would he waste his time like that. Better uses for them, like this pathetic creature, stumbling and whining and loping along like a whipped dog.
He grinned to himself as he approached the steps leading up to the court of the Gentiles. His spies had already told him that Jesus had gone to the temple earlier, before dawn. If only he knew, the poor fool, what lay in front of him; the terrible choice that he was to be confronted with. ‘Well, let him choose.’ thought Lahad, smiling grimly.
Jesus could play safe and choose to defer to the Romans. But he would not do that. No, not in front of this idealistic rabble, always dreaming of freedom and their precious new kingdom. He’d lose all his followers that way. That’s why the mob hated the Pharisees. The fools didn’t understand the need to work with the Romans, get their stamp of approval in matters such as this.
He could choose to let her go. That would be good too, Lahad thought. If he chose this response it would just take a little longer to corner him. But siding with such flagrant sin would open up a huge hole in this preachers armour. Before long Lahad would be making this fool defend even murderers. Yes he could round one of them up easily too.
No, he would have to choose the law to save face with the crowds. The law was clear in these matters. No room for interpretation. That’s what the common Jew longed for, a return to the old ways, when Israel was a real nation. Ha, with the agitators he had planted in Jesus own crowd egging him on he would be seen as instigating an insurrection; and then; and then his men would alert Pilate’s guards and have this Jesus arrested on the spot.
Pilate didn’t take kindly to the Jews taking the law into their own hands, especially capital offences. He had already and often demonstrated his eagerness to enforce his will. Lahad shuddered as he recalled the torture and crucifixions he had already seen. That’s why it pays to work with them. Yes, his spies had already alerted the Centurion on guard in the temple of his plan. No point taking chances on some misunderstanding with the Roman guards.
They reached the outer porch. “Thomas,” he barked to his assistant, “get them to settle down. We must look dignified. Remember what I said. Get your ruffian friends to go now and sit amongst his disciples, ready to start their whispering if this Galilean chooses to free her, and to stir up a protest if he chooses otherwise. They know what to do don’t they?
“Oh, yes, master. They know well what to do.” Thomas turned to his men. “Go now, sit amongst his followers and be quiet until you see my signal.”
Sixteen men, the hirelings Thomas had enlisted, skulked off, disappearing into the crowds. That left the twenty of them, all Pharisees and masters of the law. Thomas looked up at Lahad. He was old now, tall, lean and leathery of skin; the wisest and most learned of the Pharisee sect by Thomas’s judgement. And wily too, like a fox. Yes, a good choice for a mentor for Thomas if he wanted to get ahead.
They checked their robes and phylacteries carefully. The woman whimpered, cringing against the wall of the hallway they had stopped in. “Shut up you whore. You’ll get what you deserve soon enough.” Lahad spat the words at her.
“Come on. We’ll see what this preacher is made of. And let’s solve Caiaphas’ little problem for him.” Lahad led the entourage out into the sunlit court of the Gentiles, already filled with people, most of them grouped around various teachers, listening and learning. Lahad’s demeanour soured as he saw that there was one crowd that was far bigger than any other. ‘Yes, this would be Jesus, making a name for himself certainly.’ He thought grimly. ‘Well, no more.
“Come on men, get her out in front. Now my dear is your time of usefulness.”
Jesus’ followers were already mostly seated. But those in the way parted swiftly as the procession approached. Twenty Pharisees, ornately dressed, heads high; and one lone woman, clothes torn and filthy from dust and many tears, desperately but vainly trying to hide her shame. The crowd murmured and then hushed as the Pharisees stopped in front of the teacher, who was already sitting down, ready for his lesson to them. They knew what she was purely by the circumstance, an adulterer, probably a whore. But why were the Pharisees bringing her here, to the master?
Thomas pushed her forward till she was standing right in front of Jesus. In her utter shame she cried, sobbed again, her tears plopping on the ground in front of this man, this teacher, who, despite the sudden commotion, did not even look up, seemed yet not to have noticed either her or the Pharisees.
Suddenly his head moved back. He looked up, straight into her eyes.
Her heart leaped.
She couldn’t identify the feeling at first, but, – hope, yes at last she felt hope. These eyes were kind and gentle, but his gaze was strong and steady, as though he were peering deep inside her. A glimmer of hope flashed through her. Perhaps he could save her. He arose slowly and looking away from her now surveyed the group of Pharisees, pausing at each to scrutinise, again seeming as though he could see deep inside each of them.
“Teacher,” Thomas called out, breaking the short silence. He was proud that Lahad had entrusted him to speak first, to issue the challenge. It was good planning to let the senior scribe wait, come in at the appropriate time and settle matters. Anyway, this was Thomas’s chance to show Lahad his worth.
“Teacher,” he was purposefully solicitous, but measured, ensuring that everyone present could hear, (‘get him off guard if you can,’ Lahad said) “this woman was caught in the very act of adultery.” He paused, the onlookers already knew that from her appearance of course but it didn’t hurt to let them look her over again, allow the disdain and revulsion to grow.
“In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women.” He paused again for effect, pleased at the steadiness in his voice. Yes, Lahad had trained him well.
“Now, what do you say?”
The preacher looked at the woman briefly then down at the ground, then slowly bent down as if to resume his lesson. Thomas was shocked at first, confused if only for a moment. The insolent fool was going back to his lesson to the crowd, ignoring the challenge totally.
Jesus began to write in the dirt, a habit of many preachers, writing the first verse of their scripture down and then commencing their discourse from there on. Thomas’s momentary panic was quickly replaced with glee though as he looked over at Lahad and saw his grin. ‘Yes we’ve got him all right. He is trying to worm his way out without a word.’
Lahad motioned with his eyes to several of the other Pharisees.
“Yes what do you say?” one added
“Will you speak against Moses?” “Interpret the law for us, teacher!” A small chorus rose from the Pharisees.
Still he remained seated, continuing to write out his scripture for the now murmuring crowd.
Lahad had waited long enough. “Tell us teacher, is Moses to be obeyed, or the Romans?” he called out in his stentorian voice, silencing all murmurs. All eyes were now on Lahad. ‘Yes,’ he thought ‘now he’s lost control. I’ve got him where I want him.’
The teacher looked up, directly at him. Lahad shuddered, as though a chill had suddenly descended. The man looked at him not with malice as he expected, nor fear as he hoped. No, the expression reminded him of the way his father would look at him so many years ago, when he was a boy. A look of knowing, knowing that he had done wrong today, but of loving him all the same. ‘What right does he have to look at me like… No.’ he curtly told himself, refocussing on the task at hand.
Jesus rose, his eyes steadily fixed on Lahad. “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” And then, incredibly, he bent down, continuing to write his passage.
Leah let out a sharp cry. Only the words ‘stone her’ sank in at first. Now she was dead, she knew; her heart sinking in an instant.
All hope was gone. ‘Oh let it be quick, Lord. I’m so sorry, just let it be quick.’
Through her tears though, she looked up as she realised that all was still silent. Why weren’t they carting her away? She had been condemned. What was wrong with them?
Every eye was looking at Lahad. Except for the teacher, writing in the dirt. But the crowd, the Pharisees, all looking at the venerable scribe. The Pharisees glancing furtively at each other in between their pleading looks to their leader for direction as moment by moment passed silently.
Lahad’s face revealed only the slightest tremor as he weighed the significance of the statement still ringing in his ears. His mind screamed out, ‘No, you’re not supposed to debate like that. She’s the issue we’re arguing. Not ME you fool…. No, he was no fool, this Galilean. We’ve miscalculated.’
‘What now?’ His mind raced; he could feel his pulse throbbing in his head, feel the eyes of the crowd. He quickly scanned left and right, seeing his compatriots looking to him, pleading for direction. Uncertain they were of what was transpiring in this silent exchange but willing to cart her off and cast a stone if only he would lead.
‘Idiots,’ his mind screamed at them, ‘can’t you see we’ve miscalculated, bringing this wretch here. He’s turned our own argument on us.’
He lowered his eyes. ‘Must think, fast.’ But all he could see were the stones laying on the ground, challenging him to stoop down and pick one of them up. ‘Without sin. Without sin.’ The Scriptures raced through his mind. All that memorising, all that training, brought them rushing to his minds eye. David’s cry in the Proverbs ‘Who can say, “I have kept my heart pure; I am clean and without sin”?’ He knew, an adulterer. And Job’s futile cry to God “I am pure and without sin;” He could see too God’s fury with Job as his mind rushed through the scroll and his voice answering like a mighty wind. “Who is this that darkens my counsel with words without knowledge? Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.”
‘I will question you. I will question you. What to do? What to do?’ His mind swirled.
He looked up. The woman had stopped her crying now and was staring at him too. And this damnable teacher was now stooped down, scribbling in the dirt again, leaving him to answer, to choose.
The silence of the crowd echoed in his ears against the challenge of God to Job, ‘I will question you. I will question you.’
Lowering his eyes at last, he turned without a word, and in silence walked slowly away from the paralysing scene. “I will question you.’ The words rang in his ears. ‘Could he really be? Might he be the one …’
He did not see as Thomas, eyes now full of fear and confusion, hesitated, and then, pulling his cloak around him tightly, scurried after him.
One by one they retreated. The most senior first, departing each in turn down to the most junior, in strict accord with their rank in their private pecking order, as each in turn realised that he could not take on the mantle declined by his superior.
Leah stood silently, alone with her confusion except for this preacher now standing before her. His followers remained seated and silent throughout the exchange, still not understanding what had just taken place.
Jesus turned towards her and looked into her eyes with that same gentle, enigmatic expression.
“Woman,” his words were clear and firm, but soft on her ears, “where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
She looked around her, not comprehending what had just transpired. But there was not one of her accusers left. “No one, sir,” she said. Tears flowed freely now, but tears of hope and relief.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” he raised his voice now so all could hear clearly. “Go now, and leave your life of sin.” In an instant she knew that somehow it was possible; possible to at last be free of this terrible condemnation she had been living with.
Pulling her torn tunic up over her shoulders she walked haltingly towards the rear of the crowd, and finding a bare patch of pavement, sat, waiting for her saviour to start his lesson.