The following poem is a meditation on the story of the women caught in adultery in John 8. The story contains one of the most intriguing moments in the life of Jesus—his mysterious writing in the dirt. Many people have speculated about what he wrote, but the narration draws our attention, not to what he wrote, but simply that he wrote in the dirt, and I think it’s fascinating to consider this stooping, communicative act as a parable of the incarnation.
The story itself is short and unembellished. This makes it easy to quickly read without feeling the intensity of the moment, the uneasiness in the room, the brute treatment of this woman, and her devastating shame as she is caught in “the very act.” Then, the strangeness of Jesus’ response, the crushing one-liner that indicts everyone, and the bewildering dismal of the woman. The story is not reducible to its propositional content or a single, pithy maxim. Of course, in the second half of the chapter, John harnesses a rich array of truth statements to the story to help us understand its theological significance (as is his pattern in all the cases he presents in his gospel), but the story itself does something that only stories can do—it deeply moves us, profoundly shapes us, and evangelizes our imagination. If we breeze past the story to get to “the part that matters,” we miss one of God’s most formative ways of teaching us.
This poem is one attempt to “figure forth” the story in vivid hues and bring it to life—to engage our imagination and make the moment felt, because if we don’t see ourselves in this woman and feel her shame and terror and the ugliness and disgust of her condemnation, then we won’t appreciate the teaching John develops from it in the rest of the chapter. This is a poetic expansion and retelling of the story, one that seeks to make visible some of its implications. It obviously doesn’t capture everything or exhaust the interpretive task or substitute for exegesis. But there is an excess of symbolic potency and some universal themes that make it ripe for my purposes—the downward and upward movement (stooping and lifting up), the writing in the dirt, the lust for judgment of the religious leaders that dehumanizes them and embodies the devil’s desires (the same Greek word for lust), and the paradox of the woman’s release, which only makes sense as Jesus later takes her place and judgment on the cross, and, like her, is stripped before a crowd. In the end everyone is caught in this story—the woman in her sin, the scribes in their hypocrisy, Jesus in his love, and the readers in the reading. I originally ended it with this line: “He is the figuration Moses wrought: / a ram in thickets by its horns is caught.” It’s an allusion to Genesis 22, and I really liked the line, but it seemed to be trying to do too much and detracted from the main thrust of the poem’s insight, which I wanted to end on—the writing in the dirt.
It’s a bit of a long poem (4 stanzas of 24 lines each) and sustaining the momentum in each part was a fun challenge for me. Let me point out just two allusions that will elude most people: the phrase “pure concentration” comes from Seamus Heaney’s essay “The Government of the Tongue,” in which he takes Jesus’ writing in the dirt as a parable for the efficacy of poetry. Besides that, the title was inspired by two sources, 1) a lesser known modern Catholic NT translation by Kleist and Lilly, who have that Jesus “drew figures in the ground,” and 2) a short story by Henry James entitled, The Figure in the Carpet, which comes into play in the last lines. Of course, “figure” in the title has the double meaning of a drawing and a person. I hope you enjoy it!
The acclaimed teacher stoops down in the dirt
amid the scandal and ravenous crowd
and writes with his finger a word to restrain
the legal experts pressing for a sentence.
They grip their stones and ejaculate judgment,
standing erect, hurling their pronouncements
like lusty stallions stamping in aggression,
persistent dogs barking out their questions.
The look in their eye is reptilian,
wild, like hawks mantling over their prey—
inhuman impulses imbrute them ’til
the primal stamp of godlikeness is gone.
These other teachers are exposed as tempters
who wield the Torah like an iron rod,
crushing the people into compliance,
silencing the clamor of the compromised,
not seeing that their own entrapment snares them
in the very act of their own affair—
unfaithful to the premise of the law,
to love and lead to life and cover sin.
They’re as untrue as her who stands condemned,
and pride, which clouds their eyes and clogs their ears,
silences their guilt with noise alone:
“What sayest thou when Moses says to stone?”
Their shouts go over his head as he stoops
under her sin, communing with her lowliness.
He humbles himself in silent contrast,
stepping between the sinner and the scribe
like a shore between the land and sea,
where violent waters crash and then recede.
His weathered, skin-cracked, carpenter hands don’t
sweepingly gesture about in the air
to make his argument more persuasive
(no casuistry or rhetoric here).
He draws in the dirt something hard to discern,
a delicate trace of earth-etched letters
that feet will shuffle over and erase.
And in a few days’ time none will recall
the words in the dirt in the midst of the mob,
just the tenseness of that swelling stillness
that opened like a rift in their religion,
and how it caused those scribes to clearly see,
or rather, see double—themselves in this creature,
yanked from the spot where the deed was a-doing,
helpless, half-dressed, and still breathing hard,
placed like a specimen under the light
exposed for dissection. A cunning thing—
the gambit of the girl to mate the king.
She casts her eyes in shame upon the ground,
motionless like a cockroach in the light,
awaiting, but unable to process,
the deadly verdict swiftly coming down.
All of a sudden, lines are drawn and crossed,
the words take shape marking time and space;
six days are traversed in a moment’s time,
a creative pause of pure concentration
that reflects back on their darkened faces
a light that forms a future from the waste
and loneliness our lives revolve around—
a new creation crowding out the past.
“Let him without sin be the first to cast.”
And in the silence of the empty space,
still humid from the heat of pressing bodies,
still reeking from the frenzy of their sweat,
she’s alone again with a man in a room,
so different from those hours just before.
He stands in front of her and seems to bloom
with something more than human forms contain.
He questions not the history of her choices
but the presence of the shrill, accusing voices:
“Where are they? Has nobody condemned you?
Neither do I. Go; from now with sin be through.”
A dialogue unfolds that draws again
the light and dark distinction, truth and sin,
origin, fate, slavery and freedom—
a hard to swallow existential brew,
but “the testimony of two men is true.”
His strange appropriation of the verb
to be teeters on the brink of blasphemy.
The naked conjugation stirs their lust
and brings the devil’s native language from
their throats, sputtering with blackened bile.
The murder in their minds seeps to their hands,
which slowly reach for recently dropped stones,
as the trial of the girl becomes his own.
He speaks no more, for now they lift him up
onto the wood from whence his language fails;
uncovered there, we understand he is…
He is the message written in the dirt,
the Word made flesh who speaks in every act,
who stoops in grace and holds our speechless gaze,
stoops even into death’s eternal grave;
but like a thrilling secret hard to keep,
the Word escapes and spills into the street.
The figure in the carpet of the earth
bespeaks redeeming love and human worth.