What Did Jesus Write in the Sand? And How Does the Woman Caught in Adultery Relate to the Prodigal Son?

Pharisees and Scribes tested Jesus repeatedly, such as when they challenged him to stone an adulteress or risk disobeying the law in front of a crowd. Jesus famously wrote something in the sand, the specifics of which are not recorded in the Bible. What did Jesus write in the sand, and what parallels are evident between this account in John 7:53-8:11 and the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15?
Contributing Writer
Updated Aug 01, 2019
What Did Jesus Write in the Sand? And How Does the Woman Caught in Adultery Relate to the Prodigal Son?

Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery

“The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.” (John 8:3-6)

Since “evidence for prosecution of adultery is scant in the Bible,” as the Jewish Virtual Library stated, one cannot assume that the adulteress would have automatically been sentenced to death if found guilty.

The point of the Pharisees’ exercise, however, was not to establish her guilt or innocence but to trap Jesus in a no-win situation. The religious authorities set a trap, believing Jesus would either be pressured to stone the woman or challenge their authority and, by implication, the law of God. Stoning the woman would not have fit with Christ’s character. Defying the authorities would have appeared rebellious and sinful, even though they were distorting Jewish law. What mattered most to the Scribes and Pharisees, however, was not right and wrong but humiliating Jesus and reasserting their authority among His followers.

Jesus remained consistent in mercy while simultaneously obeying the law. Correct legal procedure required that both perpetrators in an adulterous act must be charged, and there had to be witnesses. A priest would have written the names of those accused in dust or sand on the temple floor or using another temporary method, so it is reasonable to assert that when Jesus first stooped, He wrote the name of the accused woman in the dust.

The accusers “kept on questioning him” as He stooped there, so Jesus “straightened up and said to them ‘Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’” (John 8:7) Then, He stooped again to write something on the ground. This time, “those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there” (John 8:9).

Modern audiences often look down at the religious rulers of Jesus’ time whose plans to catch Jesus in the midst of sin or scriptural error were always futile. The sinless Christ knew Scripture thoroughly and revered His Father’s word: “Blessed […] are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:28).

In her Crosswalk.com article, Dr. Julie Barrier reminds modern readers, however, to show mercy towards religious authorities in Jesus’ time, “wounded people” who “spent every waking moment trying to live up to the 643 laws and a huge list of […] traditions.” They were “terrified of failing to measure up to a demanding God – an angry taskmaster,” she said. Afraid of being unclean, they “washed their hands until they bled,” according to Dr. Barrier.

Jesus understood the Pharisees’ anger towards sinners treated with grace without having to work for it; still, they were sinning. When you “try to please a demanding God, you become filled with hypocrisy, pride and prejudice. You can never know the rest of God’s grace,” Dr. Barrier said. She suggested that “Jesus gave them a chance – they could have been just embarrassed and repented before the LORD” but when they “refused to repent” and “rejected the Messiah,” these men “had their names written in the dust” as guilty of sin.

Jesus loved the law-keepers as much as He loved the lawbreakers. Unfortunately, the Pharisees and Scribes rejected His invitation to experience a loving God by way of repentance and forgiveness. Instead, as “they heard the voice of God in their conscience,” the accusers “departed.” (v.9)

When it comes to Jesus’ compassion, The Parable of the Prodigal Son might be the one passage to rival the account of Jesus and the adulteress.

Humiliation Covered: The Prodigal Son and the Adulterous Woman

Picture this: The Prodigal Son returns home with nothing, perhaps having sold his garments for food. The father runs out and covers the son literally with his body before calling for the best robe – his own. The father provides literal covering, just as God did in the garden for Adam and Eve, foreshadowing Christ’s propitiation.

Now imagine the adulteress in her semi-naked state, hurriedly gathering her few clothes around whatever areas of her body she could cover. Jesus provided the covering of forgiveness – “How blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.” (Psalm 32(:1) He probably shielded her in practical ways, too, from the view of her accusers and an audience of followers.

Confession and the Gift of God’s Grace

While confession is necessary for sinners to receive forgiveness, Jesus made a point about the gift of grace versus the honor Pharisees believed was their due. Neither the adulteress or the Prodigal Son was given the opportunity to confess, perhaps in order to emphasize the gift.

Perhaps, Jesus was bringing to light another minute detail of Jewish law, recognizable to the religious rulers: self-incrimination was unacceptable testimony. Two or more witnesses were required to testify against any accused person. Furthermore, “a wrongdoer is incompetent as a witness, being presumed to be unjust and untruthful,” Encyclopedia Judaica stated.

Dr. Barrier’s article pondered the desperate state the adulteress was in, too, and Encyclopedia Judaica noted, “Melancholy and depressed persons must be prevented from confessing to crimes which they have not committed so as to be put to death.” She may have wanted her life to be over.

In a court of Jewish law, confession was not the path to freedom as it is with believers for “the one who confesses and renounces [sin] finds mercy” (Proverbs 28:13).

Jesus called a mistrial, not asking the woman to confess, but forgiving her anyway because He had the power to do so, and He knew forgiveness was the foundation for making substantial changes in her life. After turning His back on the Pharisees and Scribes to write once more in the sand, Jesus rose to ask the woman if she was condemned? “No” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” He said (John 8:10-11). Christ emphasizes that she had nothing to do with her freedom. The woman was guilty – all people are sinners – but His grace would change her life the way no law could.

When the Prodigal Son returned to his father’s estate, he declared, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” (Luke 15:21). His father was quick to muffle this confession with an embrace and overwhelmed his son’s words with loud, joyful commands to get a feast started. He would not hear his son accuse himself. The father listened to the boy confess and still showed grace and excitement. He abandoned formality and legality to shower the boy with life-changing love, a free and unexpected gift the boy was unable to earn.

His older brother believed he had earned these kinds of rewards, but they were for the father to give. No one is entitled to grace, but one must understand their need to fully appreciate the gift.

Pride in the Older Son and the Accusing Pharisees

Both the older son in Luke 15 and the accusers in John 8 refused to repent of their sins when given an opportunity.

In John 8, Jesus stooped a second time; he waited. No one condemned the adulteress, but neither did they show awareness of their unrighteous behavior. Jesus left the story open-ended to “provid[e] the Pharisees with the opportunity to repent” of their hard-hearted pride, as Dr. Graig Keenersaid.

In Luke 15, the older son dishonored his father by “failing to greet [him]” as “father” or “sir,” Dr. Keenernoted. The older son, angrily feeling he deserved the honor being lavished on his younger brother, lacked humility and only sought justice, unaware He would be subject to the same justice if he continued in his sin. Again, by leaving the story unfinished, Jesus provided a pause for the Pharisees to respond with repentance, but they refused.

Why didn’t the Older Son and the Pharisees benefit from that same mercy stated above – the law against confession? Their sin was accusing someone else instead of looking inward at their pride and repenting of that.

Humility and Repentance in the Prodigal Son and the Adulterous Woman

The Prodigal Son and the adulteress represent two marginalized members of Jewish society: women and Gentiles. They were scorned, exploited, hated, whether rich and powerful or poor and forgotten. Many women and Gentiles came to Jesus in humility, revealing their awareness of deep needs beneath those negative identifiers. Faith led these men and women to the right person.

The Prodigal Son came back, head bowed low. The adulteress cowered behind her Savior, a picture of helplessness. Religious adherence did not cure illness, clothe the naked, bring people back from the dead, restore relationships, or free anyone from the weight of sin. God’s grace did that in the lives of believers. And He is as triumphant in grace now as He was 2,000 years ago.

Candice Lucey lives with her husband and daughters in (mostly) tranquil Salmon Arm, BC, Canada. Here, she enjoys digging into God’s word when not working or taking part in ministry activities. Her prose and poetry has previously appeared in such publications as Purpose and Creation Illustrated, and her short plays were performed at Christmas by Sunday School students for several years. Catch up with Candice’s scriptural studies at her blog Wordwell.ca.

Photo Credit: GettyImages/HbrH


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