If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.
Leviticus 20:10 (NRSV)
Over recent months I have been reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. It is not an easy read. Rather than a simple and continuous narrative, The Silmarillion is a collection of stories that, together, create the cosmology of Tolkien’s fictional universe from its creation. Having a lot of excellent on-line reference material has been extremely helpful.
Slogging my way through The Silmarillion I am constantly inspired as I make connections and gain a broader understanding of the backstory of The Lord of the Rings. Knowing the backstory makes the story I know so well even more colorful and thought provoking. I better understand why the elves are leaving Middle Earth and where they are going. I better understand exactly what the “Three rings of elven kings” really are and represent. I learn the skinny on Shelob the giant spider and the evil Sauron, the scary faces in the Dead Marshes, all the obscure references made by the hobbits and about hoard they find with the barrow wights in the Old Forest, and the song Aragorn sings as he and the hobbits camp on the road to Rivendell.
In many ways The Silmarillion parallels the loose collection of history, poetry, prophecy, and legal text that make up what is commonly known as the Old Testament. For many people these ancient writings are difficult to wade through and understand. Nevertheless, I’ve always found that without them I have an incomplete view of who Jesus is, what His message was about, and why things happened the way they did. The stories of Jesus suddenly gain more color and depth in context with the backstory.
One such example struck me this morning. According to Levitical law in today’s chapter, those who committed adultery were to be put to death – both the man and the woman who committed the deed. I then thought about the story in John’s biography in which the religious leaders, seeking to trap Jesus and discredit him, bring a woman to Him. She had been caught “in the act” of adultery and deserved the death penalty. They wanted Jesus to render the verdict. If He let them kill her then it would be unpopular with the crowds, but if He let her off then they could accuse Him of being a lawbreaker.
But Jesus knew today’s chapter as well as they did. If she was caught “in the act” then where was the man who was committing adultery with her? He was to be put to death as well. The story said that Jesus sat doodling in the dirt as the religious leaders were making their case. Perhaps Jesus was symbolically writing the name of the woman’s lover into “the record.” Knowing the law, I begin to understand how hypocritical, misogynistic, and crooked these religious leaders proved themselves to be with their accusations. Without even saying a word, Jesus’ brilliant response called the leaders to a legal point-of-order. His gracious forgiveness of the woman means even more to me in light of this context. [Note: you can read the brief story in John 8]
This morning I’m thinking about backstories. Beyond The Silmarillion and the Old Testament, there are also backstories to our lives, our families, our communities, our nation, and our world. I realize, once again, this morning why I love history. Knowing backstories helps me better perceive and understand things in the present. With that, I can made better decisions and judgements in the present just as Jesus did with the woman caught in adultery.