Cleansing Fire

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Thoughts on John Chapter 8: 1-11

April 7th, 2019, Promulgated by Diane Harris

Today we have the Gospel reading from John Chapter 8, regarding the woman caught in adultery. It is often preached as the mercy of God, the inequality between historic gender punishments, the oldest leaving first as either wisdom or a burden of his having more sins because of his age. And we are often told that the reading is an insertion, didn’t originally ‘fit’ where it is placed, and, besides, is not in the Synoptic Gospels. But it seems that there is more to be said, without in any way denying the more common interpretations.

In studying more of John in particular for the reflections on Sifting Simon (yes, the intermission between the stage setting in Gethsemane and the High Priest’s courtyard is nearly over, and “Sifting Simon” will return to CF this week). But in the meantime, it is difficult not to comment on today’s Gospel. One thing we seem to see in the Gospel of John is actual insertion of new information, not contradicting the Synoptics, but adding on. Identifying Peter as wielding the sword in the Garden, e.g., illustrates additional information, as does the ‘falling down’ of the Temple Guard. In a number of places, John seems to add something he considers significant (and possibly, in some cases, the Synoptic writers didn’t feel free to add, like naming Peter as the ear-lopper before Peter was crucified, and therefore risking prosecution.)

What about today’s reading?  There seems to be a reason for John’s considering it important enough to add over and above the Synoptics’ writing. I also wouldn’t be surprised if redactors had at one time missed its importance, taken it out, and then put it back in when its importance was better understood, in a place convenient to them. Here’s what I think lies hidden in the text: Jesus’ giving a manifestation of His being God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. It seems not to be a mere story of forgiveness, important as His Mercy would be to show, and which of course shows in many other situations.

Here are the related key verses:  John 8:6 and 8.  In each of those verses, as presented in today’s NAB Lectionary, Jesus writes “on” the ground. But the Greek word which is translated as the word “on” is actually “eis.” While it can in a minority of situations be translated “on,” a better translation of “eis” is “into.”  So: “Jesus bent down and began to write  [into] the ground with His finger.”  Two verses later, the Evangelist writes: Again He bent down and wrote  [into] the ground.”

Is there anything else to be noted, to reinforce this observation? Yes. Although many of us imagine Christ’s writing on sandy ground, much as we might write into beach sand and then erase it. But that would not seem to be the case in John’s Gospel. Those who have visited Jerusalem, and the grounds near the Western Wall, know that the earth  itself is very hard, like rock. And it also wouldn’t be logical to have sand dragged through the Temple by walking from the more public areas into more sacred space repeatedly. No, it seems exactly as what we see — the Finger of Christ cutting into the rock, just like the Finger of God cut the 10 Commandments into the stone tablets on Mt. Sinai.

In John’s Greek, he uses the word “daktulos” for the word finger. If we look into the Septuagint, i.e. the Greek translation of the Old Testament, we read the use of the same work, “daktulos” for the following text in Exodus 31:18:  “And He gave unto Moses, when he had made an end of communing with him upon mount Sinai, two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.”

 

Woman Caught in Adultery
Rembrandt: detail only

And, indeed, the word for “finger” in the term “Finger of God” is “daktulos”, the same word as used for Christ’s finger in John 8:6.

From this observation, it seems quite reasonable that John recognized the profound manifestation of God’s Divinity in the event of His forgiving the woman caught in adultery, as Christ cut the word of God into stone with His Finger. He presented His Oneness with God as Lawgiver to the crowd gathered. That crowd missed what Christ showed them, entirely.  And, among the elders who confronted Him, the oldest even walked away first, missing the point, as if to say: “Nothing to see here!” It seems that John knew there was much to see here, so he shared it with us.

 

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