Across the Mediterranean world of the first century, every woman knew what it meant to be the possession of a man, initially of her father, and then of her husband or successive husbands. Slaves, both men and women, were the property of the head of the patriarchal household and were expected to be sexually available to the master who was also husband and father. Even free women had fewer choices than men in regard to such matters as choice of life partners and social contact outside the family. In the context of Second Temple Judaism, a woman’s sexual liaison with another man is a sin against her husband who is also her proprietor. Her shame is of less consequence than her husband’s loss of status and honour.
We are told nothing of the precise circumstances of the woman ‘taken in adultery’. We do know that she could not have been ‘taken’ alone: there is a man somewhere in the wings who is at least as guilty as the woman. But only the woman is ‘brought’ to Jesus in the public arena, a spectacle for the assembled crowd. Ironically, the lawyers have little interest in the woman or her fate. Their interest is in Jesus. They want to test him and catch him out on his attitude to and enactment of the law of Moses.
In other words, Jesus is the one on trial in this public setting, and the woman is no more than a dispensable object in the process, a means to a sinister end. Her life is of little concern to her accusers. They ask Jesus for a legal opinion in her case. Should the full force of the law be exercised? Should she be stoned to death? Jesus does not dignify their manipulation with a response. Rather, he takes away their power over the woman by bending down and writing with his finger on the ground. What does he write? We can never have an answer to that question. They keep asking him to provide a ruling. He then subverts their ploy by confronting them with their own sinfulness: let the one without sin cast the first stone. They move off one by one and the woman is finally accorded the dignity of responding for herself. She is freed from the burden of condemnation. She can move forward with a strong sense of her worth and the knowledge that she matters in the scheme of things.