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No. 82: Jesus at Belshazzar’s Feast:
Being an Explanatory Disquisition on an Aspect of the Story of the Woman Taken in Adultery

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 82
February, 1996
Copyright 1996 Biblical Horizons

The story of the woman taken in adultery (John 7:53-8:11) has been part of the canonical Christian Bible from its earliest times, and modern lower criticism has provided no good reason for removing it; thus, we should presume it authentic unless we are overwhelmed with strong evidence that it is not. The following discussion shows that the story fits perfectly with the theology of John’s gospel, which provides strong confirmation of its canonicity.

The question of why Jesus wrote on the ground is an important aspect of the story. Some have suggested that marking in the dust should be related to the dust drunk by the woman suspected of adultery in Numbers 5, but that will not do, because in this case the woman was already known to be guilty. Others have tried to come up with what Jesus might have actually written, but since the text does not tell us, it cannot be important to know for certain what He wrote.

Rather, we have to ask why He wrote (v. 8) or drew (v. 6) on the ground. The clue lies in the statement that He wrote with His finger, which points to the previous two times God so wrote. The Ten Words were written with the finger of God, as was the phrase "mene mene tekel upharsin" at Belshazzar’s feast (Ex. 31:18; Dan. 5:5).

John 8:2 tells us that Jesus was in the Temple courts when the woman was brought before Him. The day before Jesus had also taught in the Temple (John 7:14-53). Several aspects of the previous day’s discussion lead into John 8. For one thing, Jesus compared Himself to Moses as lawgiver (7:16-19), and some of those in the multitude recognized Him as the promised Second Moses (7:40). Thus, for Jesus to write with His own finger in the ground (= stone) carries forward the theme that He is not only a Second Moses, but Yahweh Incarnate.

Also, when the Pharisees considered arresting Jesus at the end of John 7, Nicodemus objected: "Our law does not judge a man unless it first hears from him and knows what he is doing, does it?" (7:51). This leads directly into the John 8, as an instance of a true judge sitting in judgment. The Pharisees plotted to judge Jesus without Biblical due process, but Jesus used due process to judge them.

The Temple context is, however, more specific also. Mount Sinai was the archetype of the Tabernacle and Temple complexes. The Law given within the cloud was enshrined in the Holy of Holies, the Tabernacle being a symbolic cloud. The altar in front of the Tabernacle and Temple symbolized the mountain itself, and was anticipated by the altar built at the foot of Mount Sinai. The people gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai were, thus, gathered in the courts of the Tabernacle/Temple.

Recall now that the people committed spiritual adultery with the golden calf while they were gathered in the courts of God’s house, at the foot of the Sinai Temple. On that occasion (Exodus 32), an inspection of jealousy was conducted, as the people were forced to drink water in which were mixed the calf and the law of God (compare Numbers 5). On that occasion, then, the people were condemned in the courts of the Temple for committing spiritual adultery.

The Pharisees wanted Jesus to condemn the sinful woman in the courts of the Temple, but instead Jesus condemned them for adultery. Jesus said, "Let him who is without sin among you be first to throw a stone at her"; after which they all departed one by one. We might assume that Jesus was accusing them all of actual sexual infidelity, and that each of them was guilty of it. If any of the men had actually been sexually chaste, he might have cast a stone. This interpretation does not do justice to the passage, however.

Remember that the setting is the Temple. If this had been a civil law court setting, in the "gates of the city," then it would have been conducted as a civil proceeding. In that case, Jesus would have replied, "Man, who made Me a judge over you?" as He did in another case (Lk. 12:14). Jesus would simply have refused to act as a civil judge.

In the Temple, however, Jesus was a teacher and in that sense a judge. But since this was a religious rather than a civil context, Jesus rightly pointed to the fact that only God can pass a true judgment in the Temple, because only God is without sin. Any sin–any sin at all–disqualifies us from passing ultimate judgments, Temple judgments as it were. Jesus reminded the Pharisees of this, and each of them, one at a time, became aware that he was not sinless and perfect, and therefore unworthy to remain. They all left, but Jesus did not leave! Jesus remained behind, because he was indeed without sin. Jesus was able to pass judgment, and He did so. Jesus is the Man who is entitled to sit in the Temple (8:2).

To sum up this point: John 8:1-11 does not comment on judgments that must be administered by human civil courts. Rather, the locus of the discussion is the ultimate judgments that come from God’s Temple. "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone" does not apply in civil society, but it does apply to the Last Judgment.

The Temple location also points us back to Daniel 5. Belshazzar’s feast took place in the Temple. This is clear from both the larger and the immediate contexts. As regards the former, Daniel 1 begins by telling us that the implements of the Temple were taken to Babylon. Just as the Ark was taken to Philistia in 1 Samuel 4-6, and there defeated the Philistines, so the Temple implements make war on Babylon in Daniel 1-5. In Daniel 1, the youths (implements) emerge victorious over Babylonian foods. In Daniel 2, the stone cut without hands (altar of God; Ex. 20:25) defeats the apostate statue of humanity. In Daniel 3, the entire setting is of an outdoor temple, with an obelisk (temple), a fiery furnace (altar), and an orchestra (Levites). In Daniel 4, Nebuchadnezzar is defeated through conversion.

And so we are not surprised when, in the immediate context, Daniel 5:1-5 tells us that the Temple implements were used in Belshazzar’s feast, and that the Lampstand was present. This creates a Temple environment, which judges Belshazzar.

Notice that it is God’s Lampstand that casts the shadow of the Hand on the wall: "Suddenly the fingers of a man’s hand emerged and began writing opposite the Lampstand on the plaster of the wall of the king’s palace, and the king saw the palm of the hand that did the writing" (Dan. 5:5). Now, in the Tabernacle and Temple, the lamps were positioned on the front of the Lampstand (Ex. 25:37), which was designed as a symbolic watcher (almond) tree. The Watcher Lampstand watches over the twelve-loaved Table of Facebread. The configuration represents God and His priests watching over Israel. In Daniel 5, the thought is that the Watcher Lampstand is watching over Babylon, and has judged it. They have been weighted in the balance and found wanting; their kingdom will be taken from them and given to others (Dan. 5:25-28).

In John 8, Jesus’ finger writes on the ground in plain view of the Pharisees. Because of their unrighteousness, they are weighed in the balance and found wanting, and their kingdom will be taken from them. Now, in John 8:1-11, the Lampstand is not mentioned, but it is mentioned immediately in verse 12: "Again therefore Jesus spoke to them, saying, `I am the light of the world.’" Notice the "again" and the "therefore," both of which connect this discourse with what precedes.

Jesus’ self-presentation as the Lampstand of the world continues without a break until 10:21, to wit:

Thus, just as the Lampstand cast a hand on the wall in Daniel 5, so Jesus as Lampstand puts His hand on the ground in John 8. If we may hazard a guess as to what Jesus wrote, the most obvious would be "mene mene tekel upharsin."

Conclusion

As I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, lower criticism (a legitimate Christian enterprise) has not provided good reasons to reject this passage from John 8, even though the Alexandrian-type texts do not have it. Perhaps, though, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The story of the woman taken in adultery is thoroughly connected to the Biblical theology both of the Bible as a whole and of John’s gospel in particular. It flows seamlessly out of what precedes it in John, and flows seamlessly into what follows it. If this story did not belong in John’s gospel, there would be clear discordant notes present. Quite the opposite is the case. The more the pericope is studied, the more obvious it becomes that it is authentic.