Is This Why Jesus Wrote in the Dirt?

 The Word of God stands forever, but your sins don't have to.

The Creation of Adam, detail, Michelangelo

If you've never had your vehicle impounded after getting pulled over by a police trooper, let me say I wouldn't recommend it.

One summer in the not too distant past I was driving home on the interstate when a police car approached my vehicle from behind. Needing to exit soon anyway, I slid over to the right lane to let the cruiser pass. He seemed eager to get on with his business.

To my dismay he followed suit and changed lanes along with me, still riding my bumper. We drove along for another mile or so playing this fun game of Get the Heck Away from Me/I Don't Have to I'm a Cop when at last he illuminated his emergency lights, flagging me to pull off the road and onto the shoulder.

There's no good way to answer "No" to the inevitable question the patrolman asks. He always thinks you're lying. But I wasn't going to conjure up a vehicular sin just to make myself appear more honest.

"Do you know why I pulled you over?"

I had no idea.

Who Could Be So Stupid?

As it turns out, the State of Oklahoma, and, I'm willing to go out on a limb on this one, every other state in the union frowns on people neglecting to pay their taxes. They can call it registration if they want, but let's be honest: registration is a car tax. And my tax was well overdue. Like by a year.

I figured I'd have to pay a fine and move on with life, so I was surprised to learn the officer was impounding my beautiful red Nissan pickup truck.

You're probably wondering why I'd be so dumb as not to pay vehicle registration to an institution that burns through cash as if the world is going to end in a few years. I assure you the oversight was not for principle, lack of funds, malice, or even neglect. It was ignorance. A young driver, I did not know one had to renew his red truck registration every year! Stupid, right?

The worst part, if you ask me, was having to sit in the trooper's car while he attempted to make small talk. I generally dislike small talk anyway, but the man who was confiscating my car and leaving me stranded at a gas station wanted to comment on my bumper stickers? Really? I acknowledge my fault and ignorance and that he was merely doing his job, but I felt insulted he thought we were buddies. Police officers and criminals do not get along. Did he never play cops and robbers as a kid?

The next worst part was having to deal with the District Attorney's office. Not the people themselves--the lady with whom we interacted was rather pleasant and kind--but the fact that we had to interact with the DA at all before I could get the truck back. My father pleaded with her that this was an oversight, and that we would pay back what we owe. It's been long enough that I can't remember all of the details, but I know the woman we spoke with granted release of the vehicle and I believe she even forgave many of the fees we owed.

I tell this story not merely to entertain you, but also for another reason. I had all but forgotten about this incident--it was traumatic but had no lasting impact on my life, just an annoying and costly bump in the road one Oklahoma summer--until it reared its head a few weeks ago.

You see Katie and I are reopening our home for foster care, and one of the necessary steps in the vetting process is running a background check on prospective foster parents. You can understand why. So when the DHS worker showed us the results, in standard Microsoft Word typeface the letters read:

Andrew Gilmore vs. The State of Oklahoma, dismissed.

Although the record has no bearing on foster parent eligibility, or anything really, I was still shocked to see the item there. In my mind the case had been forgiven, expunged, erased. Instead, there it was, in black and white for all industrious public record seekers to find. It might as well have been written in stone.

What Did Jesus Write in the Dirt?

No one really knows what Jesus wrote with his finger when he stooped to write in the dirt at the impatience and amazement of the Pharisees. But some have speculated he was writing the sins of the onlookers.[1] Such a postulation would account for the reaction of the adulteress's accusers who slinked away one by one, uncomfortable with their criminal past on display for the crowd to see.

And if that's what Jesus wrote, then his point is obvious: You are not without sin, and you don't enjoy your sins on display any more than this woman does. Yes, she may deserve death according to the Law of Moses, but you probably do too. (It is also worth noting that this woman was likely a victim of entrapment. After all, it takes two people to have sex. Where was the man?)

Speaking of the Law of Moses, let's put a finger on this page in John 8, and flip back to Exodus for a moment. I've always found it interesting that Old Testament law in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) is known as the Law of Moses. Yes, tradition teaches that Moses wrote the Torah. Yes, Moses came down from Sinai and gave the Law to the people. Yes, he was the leader of the Israelites. But Moses, as great of a man as he was, was a mere stenographer. God gave Moses the Law.

In fact, God didn't just dictate the Law. Exodus 31 tells us God wrote it himself. After wrapping the first law-giving session, the Scripture reads:

And he gave to Moses, when he had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God. Exodus 31:18

So you see our episode in John 8, when Jesus stooped to write in the dirt, isn't the first time God wrote with his finger. But up on the mountain with Moses, God wrote not in sand or dirt which can be wiped away but on tablets of stone. These words were permanent, unchangeable, binding. As the Scripture reminds us in many ways, God's Word will stand forever:

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. Isaiah 40:8

And again:

Truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Matthew 5:18

The bad news is that we are all law-breakers. No one can keep the law perfectly. As Paul wrote, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Rom. 3:23).

But here's the beauty of Jesus and his mission. He came not to condemn the world, but to offer salvation. He did not come to turn criminals into law-abiders, but rather to transform sinners into saved. Or, as the late evangelist Leonard Ravenhill said, "Jesus did not come into the world to make bad men good. He came into the world to make dead men live."[2] Although the Law was written in stone, our sins need not be. Jesus offers forgiveness, and as the Scripture tells us, "As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us" (Psa. 103:12).

So you want to know why Jesus wrote in the sand? Unlike words in stone--unlike my permanent record of vehicular delinquency--what's written in sand can be wiped away. And that's exactly what Jesus wants to do for you and for me. All we need to do is accept the grace he offers and he'll rake away those sins forevermore.

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1. We find this story in John 8 in modern Bibles, but it is worth pointing out that scribes likely added the account later. This does not, necessarily, render the passage inauthentic. As Senior Research Professor of New Testament Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, Dr. Daniel B Wallace, said regarding these verses, "“There’s a distinction we need to make. Is it literarily authentic—in other words, did John actually write this story? My answer is an unquestionable no. Is it historically authentic? Did it really happen? My answer is a highly qualified yes—something may have happened with Jesus being merciful to a sinner, but the story was originally in a truncated form.” For more, see Lee Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus: (Grand Rapids, MI, 2007) Zondervan, Location 1640-1687, Kindle Edition.



  1. We’ve all seen lots of speculation about what Jesus wrote in the dirt. I think that type of speculation totally misses the point. First, Jesus wasn’t writing in the dirt (or sand). This should be obvious since we’re told that this incident took place in the Temple complex, probably in the outer courtyard area since women were not allowed in the inner parts of the temple and CERTAINLY not a woman caught in adultery. All of these areas were paved in stone. There were no dirt floors anywhere in the Temple. That leads me to realize that the focus of the story is not WHAT He was writing but THAT He was writing. Exodus 31:18 gives us the significance of writing on stone. Also, since God is a God of order it seems reasonable to me to think that every word in the Bible is there for a reason and every word left out is left out for a reason. As for the accusers walking away, I believe that they knew their hypocrisy had been exposed since they only brought the woman and not the man involved (Leviticus 20:10). This would also account for the oldest among them walking away first they were the most seasoned experts in the Law.

    1. Thank you for the comment.

      You're right that Jesus would have likely been in the Court of Gentiles (the outer courtyard), but as this was a center for quite a bit of cultural and commercial activities, it is not unlikely the ground of the courtyard would be covered in dirt from the heavy foot traffic.

      Nevertheless, you're also right that what he wrote is not critical since Scripture doesn't record the message. We can understand the meaning of the passage without knowing all of the details.

      For me, I think the intrigue lies in the unknown. What Jesus wrote obviously had an impact on the accusers, so it must have had some meaning to them.

      Not squabble-worthy fodder, just an interesting discussion to have. Thanks again for stopping by.