A multitude has amassed in Jerusalem. For a week the city remains beyond full occupancy, alive with the spirit of celebration. Four spectacular menorahs, so tall that ladders lean against them, burn so bright at night that every courtyard in the city is illuminated by their firelight. Beneath these four towering torches, people dance and rejoice in the Temple courts; performers juggle and do handstands; the Levites sing and chant the Psalms of Ascent (120-134). The joyous clamor of harps, lyres, cymbals and trumpets ring out into the countryside. Shepherds hear the merriment from miles away; it begs them to come and join the party. Certainly, this is no ordinary week.
It is the festival of Sukkot (also known as the Feast of Tabernacles, or the Feast of Booths). Sukkot is the seventh of the feasts; it occurs during the seventh month of the year; and it is seven days long. It is not a “Jewish” festival, per se, but one of God’s sacred occasions, an appointment on His calendar. “God’s calendar is a Divine plan; a schedule whereby man can plug into a network of vast Heavenly resources. Each festival arrives just in time; each in its respective season.” All males are commanded to come up to Jerusalem for Sukkot, bringing and giving whatever they are able (Deuteronomy 16:16-17). Once here, pilgrims go without much sleep for the activities begin with a trumpet blast early in the morning and go on long after sundown. After all, the flaming menorahs never give out since each and every stem is daily fueled with four gallons of oil.
For seven days the celebration kicks off the same way. In the morning––following a procession down to the Pool of Siloam––a throng of people makes their way into the Temple courts to watch a priest perform the tradition of a libation ceremony. In the ceremony, a priest ascends the ramp onto the altar where two silver bowls wait for him: one holding water (from the Pool of Siloam) and the other holding a red wine. The surrounding audience grows quiet with anticipation as they wait for the priest to raise the bowls and pour out the contents. Symbolically this is an act of prayer, a prayer that God will pour out His blessing of rain upon the land. (Sukkot leads into the beginning of the rainy season in Israel. Rain and Sukkot are linked prophetically as well. See Zechariah 14:17.) The libation ceremony is each day’s main event, and Day #7––Hoshana Rabbah––is considered to be the greatest day of them all.
The main event on Day #7 has arrived. This is the epicenter of the entire celebration. The morning air is fresh, the autumn sun is rising, and the golden stone walls of the Temple are glistening. The crowd sits to watch the priest perform the final water-pouring ceremony of the festival. This time the priest builds the suspense by circling the altar seven times before ascending the ramp. When he finally reaches the top, he holds the silver bowls high into the air. The crowd is hushed but the feeling among them is electric. The priest raises his eyes to heaven and tips the bowls forward. Wine and water come spilling out. They are splashing against the altar when, without warning, Jesus stands up to make an announcement.
He declares with a loud voice, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink! Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”
All heads turn at once! Eyes are wide; jaws are dropped. Even the priest atop the altar looks over at Jesus. The priest is caught off guard. Here he is, having just poured out the water as an appeal to the Creator to provide water for Israel, and Jesus, as if to answer the prayer, tells the people to come to him for water!
As it will be pointed out, “Jesus promises living water for all who believe. What is living water? It is cool, fresh, non-stagnant spring water; it is water with a current, a life flow. In Israel water is especially precious, and the most prized source of water is a spring, the sweetest and best water available. It bubbles up from the depths and continues to flow even when cisterns and streams have dried up. This is the water Jesus promises, the best water, real spiritual satisfaction.” The water used in the water-pouring ceremony is indeed spring water from the Pool of Siloam (it having been channeled from the Gihon Spring), but Jesus is the true wellspring of life, the One from whom all blessings flow. He is the fountain of living water, and his life will be poured out on the altar––water and wine picturing the water and blood poured out at Calvary. Should a man believe in Him, his heart will welcome the kingdom of Heaven, a kind of Garden of Eden from which rivers flowed (Genesis 2:10-14).
For now, Jesus finishes his declaration and sits down. There are murmurs in the audience, curious looks, a few gasps and a few glares. Some go to the officers and request that he be arrested at once for such an interruption. The officers refrain from doing so because they are somewhat mesmerized by this man. No one has ever spoken like him before, and he has done nothing to threaten the people. When the officers later report to the chief priests and Pharisees, the officers are scolded. The Pharisees question their intelligence. “Have you also been deceived?” The Pharisees go on to scorn the entire crowd, calling them “a mob.” After all, anyone who knows the law would demand that Jesus be arrested. Clearly this accursed “mob” knows nothing of the law! The Pharisees seethe with anger. Sukkot is supposed to be the most joyous time of the year! Yet Jesus is a thief who has hijacked the traditions which bring them joy.
At this point, a respected member among the Pharisees named Nicodemus joins the conversation. Nicodemus has previously come to Jesus, has had a drink of living water. He came away refreshed with new insight. The others, though, do not know about his encounter, for he visited Jesus under the cover of night. Nevertheless, Nicodemus sees the whole situation differently. “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” he asks them.
A valid point, they come to realize. And a good idea, actually. Their minds are turning, scheming. Some of them agree: “Let’s test him. Let’s ‘give him a hearing to see what He does.’” So they hatch a plan. They select one of their own to initiate the process, a man under their authority. They designate him to do the deed; they grant him immunity and anonymity. The man disappears into the night to put their plot into action. Before the Pharisees part ways, they enjoy a good chuckle. “See you in the morning,” they say to each other, smiling.
Morning dawns. It’s now “the eighth day” (Leviticus 23:29), the special day immediately following the seven day festival of Sukkot. This day is called Shemini Atzeret (“the eighth [day] of assembly”), and in Israel, it is also Simchat Torah (“rejoicing in the Torah”). This fact is important; context is everything.
The Torah is kept on an annual reading cycle in every Synagogue. On the day of Simchat Torah, the cycle renews. In other words, on this day the final portion in Deuteronomy is read followed by the beginning of Genesis. Over the course of the rest of year, the Torah will be read portion by portion until the following Simchat Torah arrives when, again, the scroll will be finished and rolled back to its beginning. It is on this day, Simchat Torah, that Jesus returns to the Temple courts to teach again (John 8).
Since Sukkot is a pilgrimage feast, there are still a lot of people in town. There are Jews from all over the region in Jesus’ audience. A number of them were especially intrigued by his unprecedented statement at yesterday’s libation ceremony; they want to hear more. He is devoting all of his attention to them when suddenly there is an interruption. He is approached by a group of Pharisees and teachers of the law. Among them is a lone woman. She is silent, humiliated, and defeated. She’s been caught in the act of adultery, and in this town she is done for.
The Pharisees have been waiting for this moment. Hours earlier, they were pleased to learn that their plans had come together perfectly. Their designated man had arranged the meeting. She had foolishly shown up, and then right on cue, a few men busted in and seized her by surprise. She was caught red-handed: guilty, defenseless. She saw her whole life collapse into itself in an instant. But little did she realize, the take-down wasn’t about her at all. She simply served as the prop they needed to take Him down. Quite frankly, they had long known that she was an adulteress. It wasn’t until last night that they even cared. She had just become useful to them.
The Pharisees shove her in front of Jesus. She kneels voluntarily between Him and them, her arms limp and her face bent toward the ground. Center stage in front of a sizable audience, she has never been this embarrassed. She wears only her undergarments, further proof that she has been caught in the act. The Pharisees have thought this through.
The lead Pharisee engages Jesus. In this scene, he is an actor playing like he is angry at the woman. “Teacher!” he says to Jesus. “This woman has been caught in the act of adultery! Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”
Game, set, match. The Pharisees have Him. It’s a win/win for them. If Jesus says stone her, he’s in trouble with the Romans. If Jesus says don’t stone her, he’s in trouble with the Jews. Either way, he loses. Either way, they reclaim the joy that feels taken from them.
. . . . .
The carpenter and his apprentice kneel over the project, their backs to the rest of the house. Behind them sits the old rabbi of Nazareth, stroking his bearded chin and watching the father/son duo construct a lamp stand for his home. His attention is focused on the carpenter’s son––no more than 10 years old, an apprentice beginning younger than most. Perhaps such expedience can be attributed to the precociousness of the child, or, perhaps, to the industriousness of his father, Joseph. Joseph is among the very best that Israel can offer, both in character and in carpentry. The rabbi is blessed to have Joseph as regular member of his synagogue. But it is at the synagogue that the boy, especially, has impressed the rabbi.
“If I may say,” says the rabbi, now leaning back in his chair.
The duo stops and turns around, wood and tool still in their grasp.
“Your boy, Joseph, reads from the Torah in a way that is unlike anything I have ever heard. It feels like listening to the words from the mouth of Moses.” The rabbi grins. “If he weren’t studying under the most talented carpenter in town, I might ask him to study under me, the most talented rabbi in town.”
The boy lights up, and Joseph smiles at the old man. “What––so he can grow up to become a lawyer? I think carpentry better suits an honest man.”
The rabbi laughs at the blatant poke-in-the-ribs. “A teacher of the law, yes! Learned. Respected. Good looking.”
“Afraid to get his hands dirty.”
“Oh stop it!”
The rabbi swipes his arm at Joseph as if to slap him upside the head. He then stands and leaves the room to fetch his workers some water. Joseph turns back to the project after a hearty laugh. Refocusing on the task at hand, he pinches two pieces of wood together to hold them into place. A nail is poised to connect the piece on top to a larger piece beneath it. Joseph nods, so the boy lifts the mallet and takes a swing. The nail barely responds. Two, three more swings and the nail has barely moved.
“Let me try,” Joseph says. “Don’t be afraid to drive it home.” Drawing the mallet into his mighty grip, Joseph swings once and the nail sinks solidly into the wood, squaring the surface with the larger piece underneath. They smile at each other, the boy more so. Joseph passes the mallet back to the boy. “The greatest carpenters make the fewest strikes,” he says just as the rabbi returns to the room with a jug of fresh water.
. . . . .
“This woman has been caught in the act of adultery! Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”
The unfolding showdown is one between the Son of God and a group of practiced, professional lawyers. Much of what transpires is hidden in the mastery of Torah and Jewish law. At such a skill level, the Hebrew Scriptures have been memorized, and with regards to these Pharisees, they certainly reviewed select passages before bedtime just to have them fresh on recall. However, they’ve failed to realize that they are dealing with the very author of the textbook, and that he isn’t afraid to drive it home.
Deuteronomy 17 states, “On the testimony of two or three witnesses a person is to be put to death, but no one is to be put to death on the testimony of only one witness. The hands of the witnesses must be the first in putting that person to death, then afterward the hands of all the people. You must purge the evil from among you. If cases come before your courts that are too difficult for you to judge––whether bloodshed, lawsuits or assaults––take them to the place the Lord your God will choose. Go to the Levitical priests and to the judge who is in office at that time. Inquire of them and they will give you the verdict.”
This section in the law comes to Jesus’ mind immediately. He thinks: Where are the witnesses? The witnesses must be willing to cast the first stone. This is by God’s design so that, if the witnesses are found to be compromised, the execution becomes a murder scene, and the so-called witnesses become liable for murder in that they cast the first stone. A man ought not testify against someone unless he is ready to put his own life on the line.
Another question: Where is the other party? The Torah is clear: the adulterer is as guilty as the adulteress (Leviticus 20:10). And yet here they are presenting only the woman.
Jesus turns over another question: Why are they bringing this woman to me? In their minds, I am no more than an outsider, an impostor. The law is clear in its requirement to take such cases to the Levitical priests. If these men were genuinely concerned, they wouldn’t be bringing her to me.
These observations click through his mind in an instant. He recognizes their question for the trap that it is. He sees what this is about.
“So what do you say, teacher?” they ask him again.
When the enemy offers Option A or Option B, always choose Option C. In response, he says nothing. Instead he kneels down and starts writing in the dirt. What is He writing? The audience wants to know! The Pharisees just want him to fall into their trap, so they keep pressing him to answer their question. But instead he keeps writing on the ground with His finger. This is the only record of Jesus ever writing anything.
When the Pharisees begin to realize what he is writing, they are caught off guard. They can’t believe it, or make sense of it. For some reason, he is writing out their names in the dirt! This they find very puzzling. Not at all the response they expected.
Jesus stands up and faces them. Having gotten their attention, he says, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” That is to say, who is ready to put your life on it? Because if you testify against her and there is something that you are hiding––which I know you are––then your part in the execution becomes murder, and you yourself stand to be executed. He lets the question hang in the air.
Of course, they are hiding something! They’ve set her up! This whole case would be thrown out of court! And Jesus knows it, too. As a defense lawyer, he’s torn a gaping hole in the prosecution. As a teacher, he’s schooled them in the classroom of Torah. As the Son of God, he now looks them in the eye and sees right into their hearts which are suddenly more exposed than this woman. They realize that he is on to them. They realize he’s in on their secret. He has the moral high ground, and they have nothing to come back with. To keep appearances they don’t show it outwardly, but their hearts are stricken with shame. They really do think of themselves as pious individuals, yet looking into the eyes of this man, they catch a glimpse of their real condition. But they are resistant; another strike is needed. Once again Jesus kneels down and starts writing.
What is he writing this time? A portion of Jeremiah 17:13, a passage the Pharisees are familiar with, a verse beginning with God’s holy Name (YHVH)...
O LORD, the hope of Israel,
all who forsake You shall be put to shame;
those who turn away from You shall be written in the earth,
for they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living water.
Just yesterday he had declared, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.” Yet these Pharisees had rejected him and his message. They did not believe him to be the source of living water. And now, as Jesus carves this verse into the dirt, the Pharisees begin to leave the scene beginning with the oldest among them. The oldest are the ones most trained in the words of Torah. Not only first to recognize the passage, they are the first to grasp the brilliance of his response. Without speaking a single contrary word, he had nailed them to the dark reality of their actions. He had used to the law to bring grace. The very thing they used to condemn her, he used to protect her! The response was so solid and mighty that the Pharisees––these master-lawyers in Jewish law––went away from him, one by one, speechless. Here was a man of such stature that he could take a trap and turn it into a teaching.
Still on his knees, Jesus keeps writing while a few young Pharisees linger. Eventually they too leave the scene. Jesus is left alone with the alleged adulteress She still kneels motionless in front of him. His audience hasn’t said a word since the whole ordeal began. They now watch with curiosity as he continues to write in the dirt. What is he going to do next?
Jesus finishes writing, showing care for each letter in the passage. Finally he looks up from the ground and sees that all of the Pharisees have departed. He stands and says, “Woman, where are they?” She gazes up at him and they make eye contact. “Has no one condemned you?” he asks.
“No one, Lord.” A glimmer of Eden’s light in her eyes.
“Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on, sin no more,” he tells her.
His audience watches as she stands, turns, then walks away without another remark. She soon rounds the corner and exits the Temple courts. Jesus completes a silent prayer for her before he turns back to the audience and goes on teaching, picking up where he left off although now his hands are dirty.
“Do you see what just happened?” a man in the audience whispers to his son. “I’ll explain it to you later.”
Just before sunset, the man and his son––out-of-towners visiting Jerusalem to celebrate Sukkot, staying an extra day for Simchat Torah––discuss the events they witnessed earlier that morning. The father explains to his son something from the Torah called “The Sotah” (The Ordeal). It is described in Numbers 5. It deals with the case of a woman suspected of adultery. It can be called “Trial by God.” The procedure goes as follows: a husband, suspicious of his wife’s infidelity and overcome with jealousy, brings her to the Tabernacle (later to become the Temple). There a priest conducts a special ritual which promises to bring the truth to light. In this ritual, a liquid concoction is made. It begins as a strange combination made of holy water and dust from the Tabernacle floor. Next, a curse is written upon a scroll. The curse functions as an oath, for the woman is taking on an oath that she is innocent, but a curse if she is guilty. The oath includes the never-erased, sacred four-letter name of God: YHVH. It is the invoking of this holy name that gives the oath its weight, God being the primary witness and judge of the promises made. After the curse is written and the ink has dried, the ink is scraped off of the scroll and pushed into the liquid concoction. The woman suspected of adultery is then required to drink the final product––this bizarre mixture of holy water, dust from the Tabernacle floor, and the curse scrapped from a scroll. Once she drinks the bitter water, that is that. The ritual is complete. The husband and his wife go on their way.
It is only with the passing of time that the results become evident. As the Torah says, if the woman loses her ability to bear children, her guilt is known and her barrenness serves as punishment. On the other hand, if her womb is fruitful, she is thereby cleared of the crime and innocent of all charges. God promises children to such a woman as a reward. Her husband, knowing the truth, can breath a sigh of relief. And God, having saved a marriage, having laid down His sacred Name for the sake of the innocent party, is thus glorified.
“Son,” the father says, “don’t you see? Since the woman never confessed to the alleged crime, nor were there any witnesses willing to cast the first stone, it became a case of suspected adultery. The woman became a candidate for the Sotah from Numbers 5.”
The son looks at his dad, confused. “I don’t understand.”
“On Hoshana Rabbah, Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, the source of living water. Then this morning the notion was tested. Jesus, acting as Messiah, perfectly voiced the Word of the Lord. Having seen no witnesses willing to condemn the woman, Jesus moved to the laws of suspected adultery. He called upon all the elements of the ritual: the dust from the Temple floor; the writing of something that would be erased; the invoking of God’s sacred name––YHVH. He was acting as the priest. He offered her a drink of living water––the Spirit of God! ‘Anyone who is thirsty, come to me and drink.’ There is no doubt! Today she drank the most special drink of all. Not a bitter water that revealed her guilt but a living water that revealed his graciousness.”
The father pauses as a new thought occurs to him. From near laughter, he says, “What day is today, son?”
“Yes! Today is the day that the Torah is rolled back to be started again. This is exactly what Jesus did for that woman this morning. He rolled back the accusations and she began her life anew! So you see? Her experience is the scroll upon which the curse was written and from which the curse was removed! Truly, he is the Messiah!”