If I wrote that homily... Thoughts on John 8, The Woman Caught in Adultery
We begin with those portions of the holiness codes in Leviticus 21 and Deuteronomy 22 which pertain to the adultery that Jesus confronts in John 8. The Levitical regulations required death by stoning as the capital punishment for such sexual sins as fornication, adultery, incest, and bestiality; the reason given for such harsh punishment is the fact that those who have committed such sins have “defiled God’s sanctuary (the ecclesia) and profaned His holy name.” Consequently, the defilement brought about by such sins must be purged from Israel, the corporate ecclesia or “sanctuary” in which God dwells.
This legal prescription points us back to the basic doctrinal principle which the legal prescription illustrates: God and the ecclesia are “married.” The text of Leviticus 21 explains that Israel’s strict laws are given because she “must not live according to the customs of the nations… you are to be holy to me because I the Lord am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own.” This statement is an elaboration of the briefer statement which constitutes the covenant between God and Israel in Exodus: “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” The prophets and theologians of Israel would later interpret this agreement as a wedding vow, as we find explicitly provided in the language of Hosea 2:
(God says): "Therefore I am now going to allure (Israel); I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her. There I will give her back her vineyards, and will make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. There she will sing as in the days of her youth, as in the day she came up out of Egypt. "In that day," declares the Lord, "you will call me 'my husband'; you will no longer call me 'my master.'…In that day I will make a covenant for them with the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the creatures that move along the ground….I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the Lord. I will plant her for myself in the land; I will show my love to the one I called 'Not my loved one. I will say to those called 'Not my people, ' 'You are my people'; and they will say, 'You are my God.' "
Given this understanding of God’s covenant with Israel as a marriage which is ratified by Israel’s obedience, even a small sin becomes an act of “adultery;” for instance, Leviticus 21 describes how the mere act of consulting a sorcerer constitutes an act of “prostitution.”
However, sexual sins are particularly important because they explicitly reflect the nuptial nature of God’s (personal) relationship with Israel, as one spouse relates to another. In other words, given the fact that the ecclesia is a nuptial ecclesia, sexual regulations are mandated with great specificity and severity so that the individual lives and behavior of each Israelite person can reflect the true identity of the ecclesia as a whole; each individual tells the story of Israel as God’s “wife” through his behavior. We have noted that the law forbids homosexuality, bestiality, fornication, adultery, and incest. We might say that the law which restricts sexual relationships to persons reflects the fact that God engages in nuptial relationship 1) only with humanity, that aspect of the creation which has a share in His personal image, and more particularly, 2) only with Israel, that aspect of the creation that engages in God’s life through obedience and sacrifice; God has called humanity to Himself for unique relationship from among the creatures, and He has then called the ecclesia to Himself from among the rest of humanity. Furthermore, we might say that the law forbids sexual relationships between family members to reflect the fact that God engages in nuptial relationship with His creatures, which are in no way naturally “related” to Himself; rather than being a reltionship of kinship, God’s relationship with humanity can only be secured by a covenant. On another note, we might say that the law restricts sexual relationship to marital relationships between a man and a woman, thus forbidding homosexual relationships, to reflect the fact that the encounter between God and Israel is initiated, sustained, and provided for by God (who acts in the gendered role of masculinity), while Israel (acting in the differentiated, gendered role of femininity) only and always receives from God and responds to God. It is easy to recognize that the requirements of purity and chastity both prior to marriage and within marriage reflect the idea that Israel is a “bride” who was preserved in purity by God for Himself; and having been consecrated to Him, she must remain totally faithful to her marriage vows. Finally, the fruitfulness which is expected of Israelite families reflects the fact that Israel was the one creature in the universe who is enabled to obey God fully, which includes the primordial mandate to “be fruitful and multiply.”
The message that God has a nuptial relationship with Israel is communicated by Israel’s laws, and these laws are honored in each individual’s life in order to bear witness to Israel’s corporate status as God’s “bride.” These messages a only intensified by the merciful message which continues in the book of Hosea, where God explains what kind of merciful “husband” He intends to be. In this text, God commands a holy prophet of Israel to marry a prostitute, and to live with her in love and fidelity, even though she continues to commit the fornication and adultery which contaminates Israel: “The Lord said to me, "Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods.” (Hosea 3)
When we turn to John 8, we are struck by the fact that Jesus seems to contradict God’s Levitical law when He spares the adulterous woman from her penalty. Jesus is understood in the text to be God, and therefore acting as God. Why would God overthrow His own law? God’s actions in Hosea 3 offer the interpretive key; In John 8 we see that God in Jesus is not acting as Israel’s “judge” or “master,” but as her “husband;” this is the basic fact to which all of Israel’s laws merely bore witness. Therefore, John 8 depicts Jesus acting as God, the forgiving bridegroom. As such, Jesus shows that God has taken His adulterous “wife” (here represented by the woman caught in adultery, as well as by the sinful Pharisees who have also done their part to contaminate Israel and contribute to her corporate adultery by their smaller and secret sins) back into His embrace, therefore re-asserting Jesus’ claims to be one with the forgiving husband-God of Israel.
This story also highlights the fact that despite her covenant, Israel shared the same problem with the rest of the creation: original sin. The voice of God had called the world into existence, and the world said “no” to God. Then the voice of God called Israel into existence, and offered her particular means of managing the problem of original sin, to which Israel said “yes,” as a community of one person after another who makes covenant with God. As a Jewish rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled the typical role of the faithful Jewish person: He kept covenant with God. He lived a life of faithful obedience under the Jewish law. He even offered Himself to the fullest extent of the Jewish law, by being killed as a Jewish martyr under the Roman authorities. However, Jesus claimed something else: He claimed actually to be the God of Israel.
The evidence for Jesus’ resurrection validated His claims, and His followers began to reason that if the God of Israel- the Creator of the universe- had fulfilled Israel’s covenant in the Jewish man Jesus of Nazareth, there would be implications for the whole world. The rest of the nations- the Gentiles, who had not been given means for managing original sin- had finally been given their own means of managing original sin and living with God, through the person and teachings of Jesus. Thus, Jesus would be the way that the Gentiles could also dwell with God; thus the original ecclesia would have to be expanded to include the Gentiles who followed Jesus. In fact, when the earliest Christian apostles reasoned about the status of Gentiles Christ-followers in relation to Israel, they explained that the Gentiles could now be part of God’s ecclesia; in fact, they too could be God’s “bride.” (See Ephesians 1-5) In this way, Jesus’ extension of mercy to the woman caught in adultery in John 8 illustrates the radical extension of mercy not only to adulterous Israel in her persistent concupiscence, but also to the Gentile nations, who had always lived in the deadly sin from which Israel had been separated.
On another note, it is also important to recall too that God does not contradict His requirement that adultery be purged from His “bride;” rather, the Christian narrative holds that God does just that. However, as Israel’s committed “husband,” God Himself becomes her purgation when He takes on the iniquities of His “wife” when He-in the body of Jesus of Nazareth- dies a criminal’s death (it is interesting that under Jewish law, a husband was allowed to take on his wife’s penalties). Again, we see the same line of thinking: if God Himself has done this, then not only has a particular sin been eradicated, but rather the primordial, original sin itself has been purged- and all of humanity can now enter, clean and pure, into God’s embrace, and become the sanctuary in which God dwells.