Abusing scriptures: “Go and sin no more.”

Nicolas Poussin, from Wikimedia Commons

Jesus’ parting words to the woman caught in adultery are “Go your way, and do not sin again.” This is a favorite line for Christians who wish to maintain that Christian ethics demands forgiveness, but not the excusing of continued sexual immorality. It crops up with tiresome regularity in discussions about the acceptability of gay and lesbian love in church communities. (The argument only makes sense if you already agree that homosexuality is a sin). Jesus forgives the woman, goes the reasoning, but he doesn’t excuse her sin.

This is certainly one way to read the passage, and I’m happy to consider this understanding of it (even if I reject the implication that gay or lesbian love is the moral equivalent of adultery). But I find it troubling how we use this passage to construct a theological system about sin and how we approach it within Christian community. Doing so places us right back in the position of the murderous men.

A couple of preliminary points:

First, I think it’s important to point out that this story is an addition to John. I don’t think that necessarily decreases its legitimacy as a Jesus story, or as an authoritative, inspired text, but I think it’s important to point out before exegeting it.

Second, there’s a great detailed summary of the social situation of the woman in this blog post, which suggests that the title should not be “The Woman Caught in Adultery” but “Jesus and the Murderous Men.” Capital punishment by subjugated people under Roman occupation was actually illegal. Occupiers tend to frown upon native populations carrying out their own executions, which is why Jesus was handed over to the Romans to be killed. These men bring the woman to Jesus to be stoned in violation of Roman law and accepted Jewish practice, which called any council that condemned more than one person to death in seven years a “murderous” council.

If we want to figure out how “sin” is used in this story, it doesn’t make sense to talk about Jesus’ words to the woman without also connecting it to his statement to the men. They bring a woman (and not a man) to Jesus to be stoned. He tells them, “Let the one without sin throw the first stone.” So nobody does. They all walk away. But Jesus doesn’t tell them to go and sin no more. They leave of their own accord.

Why? Why wouldn’t they stick around to see if someone would pick up a rock? Why didn’t they engage in a discussion with Jesus about which sins are punishable by death and which ones are not? This is the usual pattern in discussions with Jesus and religious leaders. I honestly can’t imagine Christians who quote the “go and sin no more” line giving up so easily and melting back into the crowd. They would at least want to stick around and hear what Jesus said to the woman.

Is “sin no more” implied in Jesus’ words to the men? If he were to tell them to sin no more, what sin would he be referring to? To their private (and perhaps sexual) sins? To the sin of dragging a woman in front of him to be stoned? Or is their sin just sort of a generic, “We’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) variety?

I really like Tony’s observations about the “muddy” situation that the woman is in, and that the whole violence-against-women narrative is not incidental to the story. Discussions about what constitutes sin (sexual or otherwise) and who is guilty of it are frequently tied to ways we legitimize violence. We don’t actually know her story. We accept the men’s accusations at face value. It is entirely possible that she has been sexually mistreated, married off at an early age and against her will. It is possible that she has been set up, or even raped. If so, “Go and sin no more” sounds like blaming the victim. Is Jesus complicit in a culture of rape and violence?

Or maybe Jesus means the words differently. Do we hear Jesus’ words to her in the same way we hear his words to the murderous men? Are we sure that his “Go and sin no more” is a reference to her adultery, or might it refer to something else? After all, if we’re going to let the men off with generic sinfulness, why do we assume the word “sin” refers to her alleged adultery?

Or maybe Jesus is just treating her as their equal (and equally capable of judgment and violence). Perhaps, having been cleared of her sin (“neither do I condemn you”), she is truly free from slut-shaming culture. If so then the men, it would seem, are still stuck in their sin. After all, Jesus doesn’t tell them to sin no more. Their shame keeps them from asking forgiveness from either Jesus or the woman they have dragged before him. They wander away before hearing any words that release them from their condemnation.

Shouldn’t they have apologized? Does our shame keep us from reconciling with people we have judged? It’s possible that this is not a happy ending. Her accusers go back to their judgmental ways. Are we to imagine that the crowd that had shamed her will treat her as an equal from now on, and not refer to her as “The Woman Caught in Adultery,” the way we do?

I also don’t think the story is complete without looking at the ways Jesus discusses sin in other places in John. In one story, he tells a formerly paralyzed man not to sin so that nothing worse happens to him. In another, when his disciples ask him whose sin caused a man to be born blind, Jesus says, “No one.” Is it possible to put together a coherent theology of sin, forgiveness, and the divine will from these passages without doing intellectual acrobatics?

I love this story. It’s one reason I’m not content to say it doesn’t belong in John’s gospel. But I think it’s sad that we appropriate a scripture that explicitly rejects violence and inequality to legitimize more violence and inequality. It’s abusing scripture: abusing it and using it to abuse.

Judah, Tamar, and “Slut Shaming”

Horace Vernet: Judah and Tamar

The following is an excerpt from my book God Shows No Partiality. Given Rush Limbaugh’s recent insults toward Sandra Fluke, I thought it might be appropriate to share this ancient story. “Slut shaming” is a toxic aspect of our culture. I won’t say much more about Limbaugh’s comments, since others are doing such a good job of it already. But I do feel it’s important to point out that the Bible (which is often recruited to justify policing women’s sexuality) contains several stories that turn the tables on men who use such tools of social control.

One good example of an “unmasking” story is the drama of Tamar and her father-in-law, Judah, in Genesis 38. Tamar’s husband dies unexpectedly, leaving her with neither a source of financial support nor a male heir. In the tradition of their culture, the responsibility for providing her with a male heir falls to her brothers-in-law. Unfortunately, the middle brother also dies when he tries to cheat her out of an heir.

Judah grieves over his two lost sons. According to their tradition, the duty of providing Tamar with a child now falls to Judah’s youngest son. Having already lost two sons to this woman under mysterious circumstances, Judah hems and haws about whether he will allow his youngest son to make love with Tamar. Years pass. Tamar is stuck at home, shamed and seemingly abandoned by God and her in-laws.

Tamar then comes up with a ploy worthy of classic theater. She learns that her father-in-law will be going on a business trip to the city of Timnah, so she disguises herself like a prostitute and seduces him while he’s away from home. Like modern cheats, he may have believed that “what happens in Timnah, stays in Timnah.”

After he has returned home and forgotten about the affair, he learns that Tamar is pregnant. Outraged that she has “played the whore,” he commands that she be burned to death. Just as she is being dragged from her tent to her death, she produces evidence that he, Judah, is the father. Filled with shame, he admits “she is more righteous than me” (v. 26).

Like many great stories, Tamar’s tale plays with the boundaries between right and wrong. On the surface, she is a wanton, a black widow, and Judah is the pillar of the community who speaks for society in sentencing her to death. But God shows no partiality, and knows that Judah is a hypocrite. God takes the side of Tamar, the woman seemingly trapped by circumstances beyond her control who uses her sexuality to win her freedom. Even situations that human beings consider scandalous violations of propriety, God may see as acts of justice.

The story itself unmasks something ugly about our society. Even today we use double standards when judging men’s and women’s sexual behavior, holding women to a higher standard while excusing men’s bad behavior by saying, “boys will be boys.” Legislators and popular evangelists still loudly condemn what they perceive as sexual immorality even as they cheat on their spouses and sleep with prostitutes. This story in the first book of the Bible works as a subtle critique of anyone who would use the Bible to police others’ sexual behavior. There is more to the story than the surface appearance of things, the author says.

In the New Testament, Matthew mentions Tamar as one of four women included in Jesus’ genealogy (Matthew 1:3). All four women are involved in similarly scandalous stories, which indicate Matthew’s awareness of a divine (and somewhat feminist) pattern in Jesus’ ancestry. Jesus, like Tamar, will be judged by an unjust system and sentenced to death. Jesus, like Tamar, will be vindicated in a radical reversal that will unmask the earthly powers.