Christians tend to assume that stoning was a method of capital punishment. They assume that the victim was tied up and a crowd threw stones at a them until they were dead. This view is not correct. An examination of the scriptures shows that God intended something quite different.

The Hebrew word usually translated as stone is "siqal". It comes from a root meaning to be "weighty". It can refer to gathering stones or throwing stones. The other word used is "ragam". As usual, the translators of the Old Testament usually choose the harshest possible meanings for these two words. There is no need for this, as it gives God a bad name.

To understand these Hebrew words better, we must look at the various ways that they is used in the Old Testament. "Siqal" is used for clearing stones to plant a vineyard in Isaiah 5:2 and laying stones on a road in Isaiah 62:10. We need to find out what the Holy Spirit was intending when he inspired writers to use these words in the Old Testament.

Egyptians

Moses said that the Egyptians would throw stones at the children of Israel, if they worshipped God close to where they lived.

Moses said, "That would not be right. The sacrifices we offer the Lord our God would be detestable to the Egyptians. And if we offer sacrifices that are detestable in their eyes, will they not throw stones at us? We must take a three-day journey into the wilderness to offer sacrifices to the Lord our God (Ex 8:26-27).

I presume that Moses expect this result, because it had happened before. Sacrifices to Yahweh were detestable to the Egyptians. Throwing stones was a way of showing the people that they did not approve and that they should go away. The Egyptians were not trying to kill the Israelites. They could have done that any time they liked, because they were their slaves. The Egyptians were not stupid, so they would not want to kill their slaves and lose the economic benefit.

The Egyptians just wanted to stop the Israelites worshipping a God they did not like. Throwing stones was a way of expressing strong disapproval and stopping them doing what they were doing. When attacked with stones, the Israelites would flee.

Angry Israelites

When the Israelites reached Rephidim, there was no water for them to drink. They complained to Moses. They accused him of bringing them into the wilderness to let them die of thirst. Moses cried out to the Lord and asked for help.

What shall I do to this people? A little more and they will throw stones at me (Ex 17:4).

The people were angry with Moses, because they were thirsty. They believed that he had led them to a place where there was no water, so it was his fault.

The Israelites had no legal basis for killing Moses, but they had stopped trusting him and did not want him as their leader. Throwing stones at him was a way of showing their disapproval. It was a way of saying that they wanted a different leader. They would pelt him with stones to make him leave and go back where he had come from.

Moses would not have been killed, because there was nothing to stop him running away. If they had picked up stones, he would have turned and fled. He would be safe, but they would be leaderless. In their anger, this was what they wanted. But once they calmed down they realised they were better with Moses as their leader.

Exploring the Land

When the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land, Moses sent twelve spies to spy out the new land. Only Joshua and Caleb said they could take the land. Ten of the spies were frightened and brought backa message of despair. When the people heard the negative message, they rebelled against Moses and Aaron.

Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?" So they said to one another, "Let us select a leader and return to Egypt" (Num 14:2-3).

The people decided they wanted a new leader. They expressed this desire by throwing stones at their existing leaders.

All the community said to throw stones at them (Num 14:10).

Moses and Aaron had not committed a crime, so the people were not wanting to kill them. Rather they were expressing their disapproval of their leadership. They were declaring that they had been tricked into going to a land that they could not conquer.

David's Defeat

While David was fleeing from King Saul, he sheltered in the town of Ziklag. While they were there, the Amalekites attacked the town and burned it. They took the wives and children of David and his men captive. When David and his men arrived back at Ziklag, they wept aloud until their strength was gone (1 Sam 30:3-4).

David was greatly distressed because the men were talking of stoning him; each one was bitter in spirit because of his sons and daughters. But David found strength in the Lord his God (1 Sam 30:6).

David's men became bitter and angry with him. They did not want him to kill him, because that would leave them without a leader. Rather they wanted to show their disapproval. Pelting him with stones was a way of expressing rejection of his leadership.

David Embarrassed

When David was forced out of Jerusalem by his rebellious son Absalom, Shimei cursed David and his servants as they passed by.

He pelted stones at David and at all the servants of King David and at all the people and at all the mighty warriors on his right and on his left. As he cursed, Shimei said, "Go out, go out, you murderer, you scoundrel (2 Sam 16:6-7).

Shimei was cursing David. He did not intend to kill him, because if he did, David's soldiers would attack and kill him. He threw stones as a sign of his disappointment and as a expression of his curse.

He yelled at David, "Go out, go out". He wanted David to leave the country. This was not execution. The stones were away to reinforce his message.

So David and his men continued along the road while Shimei was going along the hillside opposite him, cursing as he went and throwing stones at him and showering him with dirt. The king and all the people with him arrived at their destination exhausted (2 Sam 16:13-14).

Pelting with stones is a way of excluding a person from their community.

Protecting the Mountain

When God was going to come down onto Mount Sinai to give the law to Moses, he commanded the people to stay away from it. If they strayed onto the mountain, they would be destroyed by the power of his glory. God instructed Moses to put ropes around the base of the mountain, so that no one could wander onto the mountain by mistake, or to get a better view.

If someone went onto the mountain, God instructed the people to throw a stone or fire an arrow at them to warn them of the danger.

Whoever touches the mountain will die. Stones are to be thrown at them or arrows shot to warn them; not a hand is to be laid on them. Whether an animal or a man, they will not live (Ex 19:13).

This passage has been misunderstood. The purpose of the command was not that the person wandering onto the mountain should be killed, but that their life should be saved by warning them of the danger.

God's presence is so holy and glorious that any sinful person wandering into would be killed instantly. This would not be something God wanted to happen, but the inevitable consequence of his presence and glory. This was true for humans and for animals. God wanted his people kept safe and alive.

The passage says that no one should touch the person or animal who wandered onto the mountain (no hand is to be laid on them). This would be too dangerous, because if God came unexpectedly, the person trying to save the one in danger would also be destroyed.

The only safe way to warn the person or animal was to throw stones towards them, or if they were further away, to shoot arrows in front of them. Once a person's attention was gained, they could be signalled to leave. An animal might be frightened into fleeing. They must not go onto the mountain to save the person or animal, because it was too dangerous. They could die too.

The purpose of throwing stones and shooting arrows was not it kill the person. It was actually the opposite. If they did not get off the mountain quickly, God's presence would destroy them. The stones might alert them to the danger, and cause them to flee. The stones would save their life, not destroy it.

Dangerous Oxen

The law required the Israelites to pelt stones at an ox that had escaped and killed someone. This ox would be very dangerous to handle.

If a bull gores a man or woman to death, the bull is to be stoned and its meat must not be eaten. But the owner of the bull will not be held responsible (Ex 21:28).

The dangerous ox was not to be eaten for meat. This instruction was given for a reason. An ox that is no longer able to work would usually be butchered for meat. The problem is that the ox would need to be killed with a knife, so that the carcass could bleed properly. That would only be safe for an ox that was tied up or restrained in a pen.

This ox had escaped and had killed people, so it was too dangerous to attempt to pen the ox and kill it for meat. An ox is extremely strong. Dealing with an ox that has gone rogue is very dangerous. If it were not managed carefully, other people could be killed or injured. I grew up on a farm. I once had to repair 30 metres of fence that had been wrecked by two bulls fighting. They can do huge damage.

The safety of the community was more important than the meat. Therefore, the best solution was to throw stones at the ox and drive out of the village into wild country where it could not harm anyone. Once it was isolated in a wild place, it would most like be killed by wild animals.

The owner of the ox would have lost a valuable animal without compensation. They also lost usable meat. Pelting with stones was a safe way of driving a dangerous animal out of a community. (Many English translations say that ox should be stoned to death, but the word death is not in the Hebrew. The Hebrew word "siqal" is doubled to indicate the seriousness of the response).

If the ox had not given trouble before, the owner was not responsible for the ox's action. He lost his work animal. However, if that the ox tended to thrust with its horn in times past, and this has been made known to his owner, and he has not confined safely, then he is responsible (Ex 21:29). He was required to pay a ransom to compensate the family of the person killed by the bull for what they had lost.

Note: The ox was stoned, the owner was not. The owner was required to pay financial compensation to the family of the person killed.

Spiritual Protection in Leviticus

The laws in the book of Leviticus are addressed specifically to the children of Israel (Lev 1:2; 27:34). They are not universal laws, but were designed to provide spiritual protection for Israel during the season before the cross.

Leviticus 18 lists a range of detestable behaviours that would defile the Israelites. These behaviours are immoral, but more seriously, they allow evil spirits access into the community. Anyone engaging in one of these sins must be excluded from the community, because they have submitted to evil spirits, so they are threat to the spiritual safety of the community. God's people must remain holy and separate, so they can live with the presence of God

You shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be Mine. (Lev 20:26).

Leviticus 20 spells out the requirement to remain separate from people carrying evil spirits more clearly. The first sin listed is sacrificing children to Molech. Not only is this a terrible sin, but it opens the people up to ruthless evil spirits. Those who engage in this activity must be banished from the community. Leviticus 20:2-3 uses three different expressions to describe how people offering their children to Molech should be treated.

  1. The person must be put to death; literally "die death".
  2. The person must be cut off from among their people.
  3. The people of the community must stone the person.

Each of these expressions is a different way of describing the same action.

1. Die death

The Laws for Society specifies that a person offering their child to Molech must die. The word die is doubled in the Hebrew, as "die death".

Whoever gives any of his descendants to Molech, he shall surely die death (Lev 20:2).

The person committing this sin deserves to die, but that does not settle the matter. God is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness (Psalm 86:15) so his justice is always merciful. He wants to provide his people with spiritual protection, not destroy lives.

The expression "die death" is used throughout the Torah for a variety of spiritual sins. Most commentators assume that it means physical death, but to understand what it means, we really need to go back and see how God understood it, because the was the first to use it. He used this expression when he warned Adam that he would die if he ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will die death ( Gen 2:17).

The word die is doubled in the Hebrew, as "die death". However, God did not physically kill Adam and Eve when they ate the fruit. That is what they deserved, but he is merciful, so he bannished them from the garden instead. God was merciful towards those who deserved to die in the Garden of Eden. Adam lived on for hundreds of years, but he was shut out from the presence of God.

God implemented his penalty of "die death" as "exclusion". In a spiritual sense, Adam and Eve were dead. Their relationship with God had died. They lost their place of safety and were thrust into a dangerous world dominated by the spiritual powers of evil. They were spiritually dead

The same doubling of the word death (die death) is used in Exodus 21:12 as the penalty for murder and in Leviticus 20:2 for the sin of Molech. We must not apply this expression more literally than God does. If he implemented Adam and Eve's penalty as exclusion, the same penalty should apply for the person offering their children to Molech (and for murder).

They deserve death, but they should not be killed, as that would be doing evil to achieve good. Instead, they should be excluded from their community. Their relationship with the community that had sustained them would be dead. They would be cut off from the people they trusted for protection, and exposed to spiritual attack. They are spiritually dead.

2. Cut Off From Among their People

The second expression for the banishment of a person offering sacrifices to Molech is being cut off from among his people. Spiritual protection comes from living in a community of people who are serving God. The Hebrew word for "cut off" is karath. This word is also used to describe making a covenant. God used the same word for his making a covenant with Abram.

On that day the Lord make a covenant with Abram and said, "To your descendants I give this land" (Gen 15:18).

God "cut a covenant" with Abraham.

The person worshipping Molech breaks their covenant with their family and community. They must be banished from among the people, because they carry evil spirits that would harm the people of God. Prior to the cross, this was the only way to remove evils spirits. Their covenant with family and community is broken.

Being cut off from the community is serious, because it removes spiritual protection. The tabernacle sacrifices dealt with sin sufficiently to protect the Israelites from spiritual attack, provide their leaders obeyed God and followed the cloud. A person excluded from the community, immediately lost that protection and was vulnerable to a attack by the spiritual powers of evil, especially by a powerful spirit called Death.

Paul explained in Romans that Death reigned from the time to Adam to Moses.

Death reigned from Adam to Moses (Rom 5:14).

Death was the name of nasty spiritual power. This controlling spiritual power ruled the spiritual powers of wickedness from the time of Adam until Moses received the law. He focussed on destroying the people and the earth that God had created.

For if by the one man's offense Death reigned through the one (Rom 5:17).

This further clarifies the Hebrew expression translated as "you shall certainly die" in Genesis 2:17. A literal translation would be "To Death, you will die". Once we realise that Death is a powerful, controlling, spiritual power, we can understand that being excluded from their community left people under its control and open to destruction.

3. Pelting with Stones

A person found guilty of serving Molech should be given an opportunity to escape, providing they agree not return to their community. In Moses time, this exclusion from the community was expressed by the entire community pelting stones at the offender. While travelling through the desert, it was hard to persuade a person to leave the safety of their family and community. The stones were not intended to kill the offender, but were a dramatic way of telling the murderer that they no longer belonged to the community.

The entire community gathered outside the places where they were living. The witnesses to the crime would place their hands on the head of the sinner to affirm his guilt (Lev 24:14). There is no suggestion in the biblical text that the offender should be tied up or restrained, so when the people pelted him with stones, he was free to run away. The shower of stones was a forceful sign that the person was no longer a member of that community.

The fleeing Molech worshipper would lose the protection and privileges that came from being part of a strong community. Their reputation would go before them and make them unwelcome in many communities. They would be forced to live with other excluded criminals on the edge of society. This would be a dangerous place

In a sense, exclusion is a death penalty. The people of the community that supported them will have nothing to do with them. The excluded person will be treated as if they are dead. It will seem like they have never lived in the community.

Other Sins

All three of the descriptive expressions are used for the person offering their child to Molech. This ensures the spiritual protection of the community. The rest of Leviticus 20 lists a range of other defiling practices that would release evil spirits into the community. Most involve sexual immorality (some of the same sins are specified in Deut 22:22,24).

Only one of the three expressions above is used for each behaviour, mostly "die death". Cut off from the community is used for a couple. Pelt with stones is used for a person who is a medium of spiritist (Lev 20:27). The consequence for each sin was the same. The person was to be excluded from their community, so that they carried the evil spirits that they had picked up away. They would be pelted with stones as a sign that they should leave.

A couple of the sins listed were less serious, because they did not affect the community, but only the people who committed the sin. They were likely to end up childless, because they had placed a curse on themselves by defiling themselves (Lev 20:19-21).

Sexual immorality also defiles the land by letting powerful evil spirits into the land. If immorality is allowed to go on the people would be vomited out of the land.

If you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you (Lev 18:28).

The children of Israel needed to protect themselves from consequence of sexual immorality. It would contaminate the land they were entering by giving access to dangerous and destructive spirits.

The person engaging in immoral sexual behaviour invites an evil spirit into their community. They must be excluded from the community for spiritual protection. They were pelted with stones as a signal that they should leave their community.

God warns that this evil must be purged from the land. If the person committing the sin were killed, their blood would remain in the land, along with the evil spirits they carried. The land is still defiled, and the evil spirit will find someone else in the community to work through. Forcing the person to leave is a safer solution, because the land is not defiled, and the evil spirit will go out of the land with them.

Blasphemy

While the Israelites were travelling though the land, a man with an Israelite mother and Egyptian father cursed God's name. The Israelites did not know what to do, because the sin was not covered in the Laws for Society. In the Ten Words of the covenant God said that he would protect his own name. They kept the man who had cursed God in confinement until Moses had asked God what to do.

God told Moses what they should do. This was not a universal command, but only for the children of Israel. They needed spiritual protection and cursing opened them up to spiritual attack, so they needed a remedy. God told Moses that the penalty for cursing the name of God should be "die death".

The one who curses the name of the Lord shall die death. All the congregation shall throw stones at him (Lev 24:16).

This is the same penalty as for sacrificing children to Molech, which is exclusion from the community. This was necessary, as this was the only way to keep the community safe from the spirits that would take advantage of the sin. God told Moses how this exclusion should take place.

Take outside the camp him who has cursed; then let all who heard him lay their hands on his head, and let all the congregation throw stones at him (Lev 24:14).

The people did as Moses had commanded them.

They took the blasphemer outside the camp and threw stones at him. The Israelites did as the Lord commanded Moses (Lev 24:27).

This passage is the fullest description of pelting with stones. There is no suggestion that the man died. The people laid their hands on his head. They did not tie him up or hold him down. They purged the evil from their midst by challenging the man who tried to bring evil upon them to leave their community.

False Prophet

False prophets are dangerous because they encourage the people to worship false gods. This brings judgment on the entire community, so the evil must be purged from the community (Deut 13:5).

A person who is a friend or relative of the false prophet must be the first the exclude the false prophet. The rest of the community will follow their lead.

You must not give in to him, and you shall not listen to him, and your eye shall not take pity on him, and you shall not have compassion, and you shall not cover up for him. But you shall certainly smite him; your hand shall be first against him to make him dead to the community and the hand of all of the people shall follow. And you shall pelt him with stones so he becomes dead to the community, for he tried to seduce you from Yahweh your God (Deut 13:8-10).

The false prophet cannot remain in the community. His friends must not make excuses or cover up for him, but should be the first to force him to leave.

The false prophet must be excluded from the community. Pelting with stones communicates the message that the person is no longer welcome in the community. It will encourage a false prophet who is reluctant to leave that they should go.

Worshipping other Gods

Worshipping other gods opens the community up to spiritual attack. The person who invites the spiritual powers of evil in to their community has done something despicable and must be excluded from the community. They are dead to the community, because they have betrayed it.

If there is found in one of your towns a man or a woman that does evil in the eyes of Yahweh your God to transgress his covenant and by going and serving other gods and so he bows down to them and to the sun or to the moon or to any of the host of heaven... then you shall bring out that man or that woman who has done this evil thing to your gates; that is, the man or the woman, and you shall pelt them with stones, so they are dead to you (Deut 17:2-5).

Pelting with stones was a way of forcing the person who had brought evil into the community to leave. This was the only way to maintain the spiritual protection of the community.

Breaking the Sabbath

Another incident where the word stone is used is in Numbers 15. The Lord confirmed to Moses that the person cursing the Lord should be cut off from his people.

Anyone who sins defiantly, whether native-born or foreigner, blasphemes the Lord and must be cut off from the people of Israel. Because they have despised the Lord's word and broken his commands, they must surely be cut off (Num 15:30-31).

A person who blatantly rejects God and his commands must be excluded from the community. They are a threat to it, because they give the powers of evil access.

The book then deals with a man breaking the Sabbath.

Now while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation; and they put him in custody because it had not been declared what should be done to him(Num 15:33-35).

I am not sure why they did not know what to do, because God had told them at Sinai how to deal with Sabbath breaking.

You shall keep the Sabbath, therefore, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall die death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people (Ex 31:14).

This was just for the Israelites. It is not a universal command. The person breaking the Sabbath must be excluded from the Israelite community, because they are a threat to its spiritual security. God explained why.

The children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations as a lasting covenant. It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever (Ex 31:12-17).

The Israelites were to secure their spiritual protection by remaining separate from neighbouring nations, who had made a home for a range of demonic powers. The Sabbath was the main cultural marker that would distinguish the Israelites from the other nations, so breaking the Sabbath was undermining their spiritual defence.

Going back to Numbers 15, God confirmed that the Sabbath breaker should be excluded from the community (die death).

Then the Lord said to Moses, "The man shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp" (Num 15:35).

The man should be pelted with stones outside the camp to give him the message that he no longer belonged to Israelite community. The children of Israel obeyed the instructions God gave to Moses.

So all the congregation brought him outside the camp and pelted him with stones, and he died as the Lord had commanded Moses (Num 15;36).

The man died as the Lord commanded. This was not physical death, as the Lord had not commanded that. Rather, the Lord had commanded spiritual death by exclusion from the community, just as Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:17).

From the perspective of the Israelites the man was dead. At the beginning of Numbers, the Israelites had counted the number of men who were available to fight for the Lord.

Take a census of the whole Israelite community by their clans and families, listing every man by name, one by one (Num 1:3).

Anyone who died would be removed from the list. The man who was banished for deliberately breaking the Sabbath was removed from the list in the same way. He was no longer part of the Israelite community, so it was just as if he were dead. The Sabbath-breaker would be treated as if he had died.

Joshua

When Israelites were entering the Promised Land, God brought down the walls of Jericho. A man named Achan took some forbidden things and hid them in his tent. As consequence the Israelites lost their blessing, so the spiritual powers of evil were able to attack them. The Israelites were defeated by the people of Ai. This incident shows how the theft of a religious object can have a massive spiritual affect on a nation. The spiritual is everything.

When they lost the battle, they asked the Lord why. God explained to Joshua.

There are forbidden things among you, Israel. You cannot stand against your enemies until you remove them (Jos 7:13).

God said the forbidden things must be removed. Achan was selected by lot. He admitted that he had buried some forbidden religious objects under his tent. He had a Babylonian robe and some gold and silver objects. The people brought Achan, his family, his possessions and the forbidden things to Joshua.

God had told Joshua that the forbidden things should be destroyed by fire.

The guilty one shall be taken by lot. The forbidden things must be burned with fire, and all that belongs to him, because he transgressed the covenant of Yahweh, and because he did a disgraceful thing in Israel (Jos 7:15).

God said that the forbidden things must be burned, along with the owner's other possessions. He did not say that he or his family should be burned. Burning and stoning people was not authorised by the law. The penalty for holding false gods was exclusion from the community. Joshua had a tendency towards violence, so he did more than the law required. He caused Achan and his family to be killed with stones and burned, along with all their stuff.

All Israel stoned him with stones; and they burned them with fire after they had stoned them with stones (Jos 7:25).

Joshua was wrong. He misunderstood God's instructions, so his actions were wrong. He went beyond what God required. There is no law specifying that people be killed and burnt in the Torah.

The violent actions satisfied the spiritual powers of evil, so peace and blessing returned to the Israelites.

Worldly Nations

The surrounding nations used stoning as a punishment. They would take hold of people and hit them with stones and cut them up with a sword.

They will bring a mob against you, who will stone you and hack you to pieces with their swords (Ex 16:40).
The mob will stone them and cut them down with their swords; they will kill their sons and daughters and burn down their houses. (Ez 23:47).

In some nations they would bury a person up to their waste in sand and then strike them with stones. This practice was not condoned in the scriptures.

In the time of the Kings, the people of Israel followed the example of Joshua and the surrounding nations and killed people with stones when they were doing evil.

Rehoboam was a harsh king, who used violence to control the people. His overseer was killed with stones.

Then King Rehoboam sent Adoram, who was in charge of the revenue; but all Israel stoned him with stones, and he died. Therefore King Rehoboam mounted his chariot in haste to flee to Jerusalem (1 Kings 12:18).

Another time, the people of Judah killed a prophet with stones. Jehoiada was a good priest, who had kept Joash safe while he was a young boy. His son Zechariah prophesied to the people when the Holy Spirit came upon (2 Chron 24:20).

So they conspired against him, and at the command of the king they stoned him with stones in the court of the house of the Lord. Thus Joash the king did not remember the kindness which Jehoiada his father had done to him, but killed his son; (2 Chron 24:21-22).

Joash killed the prophet with the sword, after the people had thrown stones at him.

Naboth

King Ahab wanted Naboth's vineyard and sulked when he could not get it. His wife Jezebel was ruthless, so she organised for some scoundrels to kill him.

Then two scoundrels came and sat opposite him and brought charges against Naboth before the people, saying, "Naboth has cursed both God and the king." So they took him outside the city and threw stones to kill him. Then they sent word to Jezebel: "Naboth has been stoned to death" (1 Kings 21:13-14).

The law did not specify killing with stones for blasphemy, but Jezebel was an outsider, who introduced foreign practices to Israel. She organised some dodgy people to kill Naboth by throwing stones at him. This action was unlawful and wrong.

Stephen

The Jews considered that Stephen had committed blasphemy. They were wrong about the charge and wrong about the penalty. The law specified exclusion for the community for blasphemy, not a death penalty. The Sanhedrin grabbed him and forced him out of the city.

When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him... At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him (Acts 7:54,57,58).

I presume that Stephen could have fled, but he knelt down and called out to the Lord. The stones struck him and he died. The action of the Sanhedrin was contrary to the law.

Adulterous Woman

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery to Jesus. They wanted to kill her by throwing stones at her.

They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say" (John 8:4-5)?

They were testing Jesus, so his response is really important. Many commentators assume that Jesus rejected the requirements of the law of Moses and replaced them with forgiveness and mercy. That would be surprising, because Jesus had already said that had not come to abolish the law, and that not one jot or tittle would pass away while heaven and earth continued to exist (Matt 5:17-20).

The truth is that Jesus applied the law correctly in this situation. He had explained several times that the Pharisees did not understand the law. He showed how it should be applied correctly.

The law specified that a man and woman committing adultery should be excluded from the community. (Lev 20:10; Deut 22:21).

Jesus had already explained to the people that Moses did not apply this law due to the hardness of heart of the people (Matthew 19:8), so he was not going to be tougher than Moses.

More important, the law has specific requirement for witnesses. Firstly, a person can only be convicted of a crime if there are three witnesses to it.

One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses (Deut 19:15).

The Pharisees and teachers of the law understood this, so they stood the woman in front of the crowd and claimed to be witnesses who had caught her in the act.

Jesus knew that the law had another requirement. The witnesses must not have committed the crime they are testifying against. Adulterers cannot testify against adulterers. A witness who has committed the same crime is a false witness (Deut 5:20). Jesus reminded the teachers and Pharisees of this requirement, when he said,

Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her (John 8:7).

This was not a new idea, it was a requirement of the law of Moses.

After saying these words, Jesus continued writing on the ground. Commentators have speculated about what words he wrote that caused the crowd to slowly disperse, but they have missed the point. Jesus did not write any words. If he had, such powerful words would have been recorded. He doodled in the dust on the ground, because he wanted the people gathered to realise where he was looking. Jesus was the only man in the crowd, who was not looking at the woman, and he wanted them to notice. No women were there, because the Pharisees would not have allowed a woman to be a witness.

This woman had been "caught in adultery, in the very act". Women in those times wore a single garment. They did not have fancy lingerie. So she would have removed her garment while she was engaged in the adulterous act. When they dragged her out of the house and placed her in front of Jesus she would have been standing naked. This was essential to their claim that she had been caught in adultery.

I presume she was an attractive woman, or she would not have been in this situation, so every man in the crowd would have been ogling her. Except Jesus, who was looking at the ground. When they noticed that Jesus was not looking at her, they would remember that Jesus had taught on the nature of adultery.

I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart (Matt 5:28).

As they looked at her, and noticed Jesus had not, they would realise that they had committed adultery where they were standing. They had disqualified themselves as witnesses, because they were guilty of the crime that they were accusing her of committing. There was nothing for them to do, but to leave before Jesus revealed their sin.

When they had all gone, Jesus looked at her. He was probably the only man on earth who could do that without sinning. However, he had not witnessed her sin, (although he had witnessed the sin of the men who accused her), so he could not condemn her. He told her to leave, and to stop sinning.

There was no witness, who was not guilty of the same sin, so the woman could not be convicted of a crime. Therefore, Jesus fulfilled the requirements of the law of Moses, he did not set them aside.

Jesus did more than that. He demonstrated that the adultery laws could not be applied. Given the nature of human hearts, it would be impossible for three men to observe a man and a woman completing an act of adultery without committing the same sin by lusting after the woman. If they did not do it at this time, they would have done so previously. Therefore, there could never be innocent independent witnesses to testify against the adulterers. Adultery is an unenforceable crime.

This was not new. Moses understood this. Jesus had already explained that Moses did not enforce the laws against adultery.

Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard (Matt 19:8).

Moses did not apply the penalty of exclusion for adultery, because he understood human hearts and knew that he could not get three independent, innocent witnesses. Instead he allowed divorce as a pragmatic solution to the problem. Jesus did not change Moses' standard.

I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery (Matt 19:9).

Jesus did not abolish the law that required exclusion for adultery. He left it on the books, to demonstrate God's abhorrence for this sin. It is a serious evil that undermines society from the inside out. Jesus also confirmed that this law should not be enforced, because human hearts are not up to it.

Jesus demonstrated how judgment and mercy meet. He did not undermine the law, but he ensured that the women received mercy.