There is a scene in the Gospels where a sinful woman, caught in the act of adultery, is brought before Jesus. And to most of us, this seems like a powerful scene centered on the nature of sexual sin, a real Sermon-on-the-Mount moment where Jesus has the chance to practice what He's preached (namely, that even lust is adultery and that sexual sin is intolerable).
But what if the scene that unfolds here is not about sex at all?
One of the fundamental rules regarding biblical interpretation is that it's at least worth considering how images and ideas are used throughout the rest of the Scriptures when we come across them in one place or another. And throughout the Scriptures, the "unfaithful woman" we see is Israel herself, the people of God who have broken the covenant of relationship with Him. Over and over again, the image of the sinful woman is used to convict Israel of her sin, which is not sexual, but relational. Just think of Hosea and Gomer, where God ordered His prophet to marry one of these unfaithful women as an image of His love for His people. Or the way that Rahab the prostitute stood in contrast to the unfaithful spies (and later becomes part of Jesus's genealogy). Or even how Judah fails to keep his covenant duty and is convicted by Tamar herself as she poses as a prostitute. It's not about sex; it's never about sex.
It's always about covenant.
And really, even here in this Gospel scene, that's not that far of a stretch. It's the Pharisees who bring this woman before Jesus. And even though we know the Pharisees had a thing for trying to trap Jesus, particularly as regarded definition of sin and law, it would be quite an aberration to see them concerned with sexual sin here. It's uncharacteristic of them. These are the guys, remember, who cornered Jesus on the way His disciples washed their hands (or not). These are the ones who couldn't believe He would touch an unclean man. The emphasis of the Pharisees has always been on ritual purity, relational purity with the covenant of God. They never bring forth a thief. Or a murderer. Or a liar. Why would they bring an adulteress if not for the covenantal nature of her crime?
While we're on it, notice here that they bring a woman. Women were of lesser status in those times, even under the covenantal law of God. We are told of sinful women a few times in the Gospels, but by and large, the Scriptural witness is that if you're bringing a sinner before the community, you're bringing a man. Women were men's property, not agents of their own free will, so whatever you might consider a woman guilty of, it would actually have been the man's responsibility.
And if this particular woman is caught in adultery, then the question we've all been asking since we first read this story is a poignant one: where is the man? The law would have centered on him if this were a story about sexual sin. The Pharisees would have dragged him to Jesus, and for many reasons. The law was more pertinent to him than to her. Whatever Jesus would have to say to him would be more easily understood as speaking to the nature of the law itself than whatever He would say to the woman. Everything about this screams that if it were a matter of sexual sin, it would have been the man who features front and center.
But here stands the woman.
It changes the way that we see this story if it's not, after all, about sex. If we re-interpret this passage through the lens of covenantal infidelity the way that all other stories of unfaithful women in Scripture are interpreted, then it says something different about...well, about everything.