This past winter, I designed a new course entitled Learning the Art of Midrash (biblical interpretation) Using the Gospel of John. I’m a recent convert to the power of that Gospel (previously it never made much sense to me), and I wanted to use the many stories in John (none of which are literally true) to teach people how to use midrash to dig into a story and find the underlying truth often hidden in the details.
We gentiles tend to forget some important facts:
- Jesus was born and died a Jew.
- The Bible was written mostly by Jews.
- We read the Bible literally. It was written metaphorically.
- We try to put a Christian spin on it and often miss the punchline.
Let me try an example of midrash. John 8:1–11 tells the story of a woman accused of adultery, some religious leaders who were ready to stone her (her lover is mysteriously absent), and Jesus. The Pharisees bring the woman before Jesus and ask what they should do with her.
This is an entrapment story in which the Pharisees present Jesus with a dilemma designed so that no matter how he responds, he will be wrong. If he states that the adulteress should be forgiven and let go, he will defy the Jewish laws. If Jesus opts for stoning the woman, people will perceive him as cruel.
This story is easy to envision in my mind. A terrified woman faces Jesus as the priests wait in the background. The silence is deafening. Jesus looks at the woman, then at the self-righteous Pharisees. He says nothing. Then he kneels in front of the woman (a very humble position) and doodles with his index finger in the sand.
Jesus could have pointed that finger at the woman (“Bad girl!”) or the priests (“Bad boys!”), but instead he puts it in the dirt—the dirt from which we came and to which we shall return. Suspense reigns.
Without looking up, he states, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7).
Finally, Jesus stands. The religious leaders have disappeared. He looks the woman in the eye and, in a stern but loving voice, says, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? . . . Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (John 8:10–11).
Can’t you imagine the relief in the woman’s eyes as she realizes her life has been spared (a metaphorical Good Friday), and she has been given a new beginning (her Easter)?
What a lesson! This is midrash. Although John 8:1–11 is not a true story about a woman escaping death, it illustrates a great truth about the power of agape, the highest form of love (unconditional), which forgives, accepts people as they are, and always cares for the “least of these” (Matthew 25:40).
Jesus’s great words remind us that agape always supersedes the rules, the self-righteous, and the judgmental. I want to tattoo these words on my heart: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.”
Imagine if everyone who called themselves Christian put these powerful words into action—how different the world would be!
Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery by Pieter Brueghel the Elder is in the public domain.