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Background Scripture: John 8:1-11


Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.  John 8:6

Jesus was teaching in the temple.  There was a commotion.  A group of scribes and Pharisees approached escorting a woman.  As the group drew near, a circle formed around Jesus.  These men accused the woman of adultery.  The proof seemed indisputable: she was taken in the very act (although the man with whom she had sinned was not brought with her).  They cited the Law’s proscribed punishment.  Perhaps stones were taken up by the accusers.  Then, the question was posed: “What do you say?” (John 8:5)  It was meant to put Jesus between a rock and a hard place.  Would He affirm the Law by calling for the death penalty in this case or would He affirm the moral laxity of the day by letting her go free?

Jesus responded quite curiously to the question.  He stooped down and wrote in the dirt with His finger.  Then He said, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (john 8:7).  Once again he bent down and wrote in the dirt.  When looked up, the crowd had dispersed.  Jesus asked the woman if anyone remained to condemn her.  “No one, Lord,” she said.  And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go now and sin no more” (John 8:11 NKJV).

In this passage, we have a story of law, morality, and even possibly salvation.  The woman’s acknowledgement of Jesus as “Lord” may indicate a saving faith in Jesus.  But we will concentrate on the legal aspect of the story.  From this perspective, the intriguing thing about the passage is Jesus’ writing in the dirt.  Why did He do this?  Perhaps His actions were meant to suggest proper procedure for a trial of this sort.  They do bear a resemblance to the instructions found in Numbers 5:11-31 for a trial by ordeal involving an accusation of adultery.  A husband who suspected his wife of unfaithfulness was instructed to bring her to the temple, where the priest mixed dirt from the floor of the temple with holy water in an earthen vessel.  After putting the woman under an oath, the priest wrote the charges in a book, afterwards blotting them out with the bitter water.  The woman was required to drink the water, whereafter, if she were guilty, she would become ill.

Drawing the parallel to John 8, the scribes and Pharisees stood in the place of the husband.  Jesus was the priest.  He made the floor of the temple His book.  He stooped down and wrote the charges on the ground.  He then demanded evidence – a witness rather than illness.  None appeared.  The accusers dispersed; the stones dropped.  Without a witness, there was no case.  The charges were blotted out as Jesus stooped down once again.

Jesus’ response confounded those who had set a trap for Him.  But more importantly, He demonstrated His passion for the Law and His compassion for the guilty.  He confirmed the importance of procedure – convictions require competent witnesses even where guilt is certain.  He confirmed the importance of caring for and about the guilty – He defended the woman in a legal proceeding and then encouraged her to go and sin no more.

These are important reminders for lawyers called to stand alongside those accused of civil and criminal wrongs.  We surely must represent our clients with a passion for justice.  Following proper procedure is an important element of justice.  Many biblical passages evidence a concern for notice of charges, opportunity to be heard, competent witnesses, truthful testimony, collaborating witnesses, and impartial judges.  Insisting on these protections for our clients is one of the more important ways in which we are called to serve them.  But our service must not end with the legal things.  We must also have compassion for our clients.  We must approach them as human beings, not just clients.  We must be willing to touch upon the social, psychological, economic, ethical, and spiritual dimensions of the problems that they bring to us.  We diminish our clients, and ourselves, if we send them on their way with only legal advice.

Mark Greenlee

Suggested Readings:  You may want to study the following passages dealing with procedure: Zechariah 8:16-17, Deuteronomy 16:18-20, Leviticus 19:15, Job 31:35, and Numbers 35:30.


– This article comes from AI’s devotional for lawyers titled, “What Does the Lord Require of You?”