Perhaps a more convincing picture than any of the other conjectures I’ve heard about the scene of Jesus writing in the sand comes from a book by Joe Amaral titled, “Understanding Jesus” (Cultural insights into the words and deeds of Christ).
In line with many of the more compelling teachings I’ve “sat under” of recent years, this comes from study of the Hebrew traditions and culture surrounding the events of Christ’s life. It takes into account the description in John 7 of the words of Jesus in the temple on the day immediately preceding the incident with the Pharisees and the adulturess woman. It is the last day of the Feast of Tabernacles during which it was common practice (in second temple era) to practice a “water libation ceremony” culminating in a glorious worship service on the last day. With this visible symbol of water before them and the collective scriptural consciousness of the references to the Lord as the spring of living water, Jesus stands up and says, “If anyone is thirsty let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the scripture said, streams of living water will flow from within him.”
that’s the backdrop. Now, the people argue afterwards about who this man is. They know he claims Messiahship. The next day they try to trap him…Amaral suggests this must take place in the outer temple courtyard. Jesus stoops two times to write in the sand. the first does not serve to staunch their challenge of questions and they persist. Jesus is dropping hints in the traditional “Remez” method that is pointing his audience to scriptures. In this case he seems to be pointing them to the issue of personal sin and pointing to the passage in Jeremiah 17:13 – “Oh Lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the Lord, the spring of living water.”
Wow, what a powerful image…that those who turn away from the Lord will have their names written in the dust because they have rejected God’s Living Water. They knew what he was referencing. He claimed to be Messiah and the source of living Water just the day before…they rejected him. He didn’t back down or try to soften his claim but points immediately to the passage pointing to their rejection of Living Water. With this background it is easy to imagine that what was written on the ground was their very names. Perhaps the first instance of writing was simply to write a list of personal sins that was common to man and shared by these men and the second instance got more personal with their very names. We don’t know for sure but understanding more about the context helps us see a more colorful and poignant picture.
Footnote (excerpted from here):
Remez (pronounced reh-mez’ – meaning “hint”)
This is where another (implied) meaning is alluded to in the text, usually revealling a deeper meaning. There may still be a p’shat meaning as well as another meaning as any verse can have multiple levels of meaning.
An example of implied “REMEZ” Proverbs 20:10 – Different weights, and different measures, both of them are alike an abomination to the Lord. The p’shat would be concerned with a merchant using the same scale to weigh goods for all of his customers. The remez implies that this goes beyond this into aspects of fairness and honesty in anyone’s life.
P’shat (pronounced peh-shaht’ – meaning “simple”)
The p’shat is the plain, simple meaning of the text. The understanding of scripture in its natural, normal sense using the customary meanings of the word’s being used, literary style, historical and cultural setting, and context. The p’shat is the keystone of Scripture understanding. If we discard the p’shat we lose any real chance of an accurate understanding and we are no longer objectively deriving meaning from the Scriptures (exegesis), but subjectively reading meaning into the scriptures (eisogesis). The Talmud states that no passage loses its p’shat:
Talmud Shabbat 63a – Rabbi Kahana objected to Mar son of Rabbi Huna: But this refers to the words of the Torah? A verse cannot depart from its plain meaning, he replied.
Note that within the p’shat you can find several types of language, including figurative, symbolic and allegorical. The following generic guidelines can be used to determine if a passage is figurative and therefore figurative even in its p’shat:
When an inanimate object is used to describe a living being, the statement is figurative. Example: Isaiah 5:7 – For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant; and he looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry.
When life and action are attributed to an inanimate object the statement is figurative. Example: Zechariah 5:1-3 – Then I turned, and lifted up my eyes, and looked, and behold a flying scroll. And he said to me, What do you see? And I answered, I see a flying scroll; its length is twenty cubits, and its width ten cubits. And he said to me, This is the curse that goes out over the face of the whole earth; for everyone who steals shall be cut off henceforth, according to it; and everyone who swears falsely shall be cut off henceforth, according to it.
When an expression is out of character with the thing described, the statement is figurative. Example: Psalm 17:8 – Keep me as the apple of the eye, hide me under the shadow of your wings …