Orson Scott Card and the parable of the woman caught in adultery

the Speaker for the dead

the Speaker for the dead

Here is Orson Scott Card’s (from the Speaker for the Dead) brilliant take on the parable of the woman caught in adultery:

A great rabbi stands teaching in the marketplace. It so happens that a husband finds proof that morning of his wife’s adultery, and a mob carries her to the marketplace to stone her to death. (There is a familiar version of this story, but a friend of mine, a Speaker for the Dead, has told me of two other rabbis that faced the same situation. Those are the ones I’m going to tell you.)

The rabbi walks forward and stands beside the woman. Out of respect for him the mob forbears, and waits with the stones heavy in their hands. “Is there anyone here,” he says to them, ” who has not desired another man’s wife, or another woman’s husband?”
They murmur and say, ” We all know the desire. But, Rabbi, none of us has acted on it.”

The rabbi says, “Then kneel down and give thanks that God made you strong.” He takes the woman by the hand and leads her out of the market. Just before he lets her go, he whispers to her, “Tell the lord magistrate who saved his mistress. Then he’ll know that I am his loyal servant.”

So the woman lives, because the community is too corrupt to protect itself from disorder.

Another rabbi, another city. He goes to her, and stops the mob, as in the other story and says, “Which of you is without sin? Let him cast the first stone.”

The people are abashed, and forget their unity of purpose in the memory of their own individual sins. Someday, they think, I may be like this woman, and I’ll hope for forgiveness and another chance. I should treat her the way I wish to be treated.

As they open their hands and let the stones fall to the ground, the rabbi picks up one of the stones, lifts it high over the woman’s head, and throws it straight down with all his might. It crushes her skull, and dashes her brains onto the cobblestones.

“Nor am I without sin,” he says to the people. “But if we allow only perfect people to enforce the law, the law will soon be dead, and our city with it.”

So the woman died because her community was too rigid to endure her deviance.

The famous version of this story is noteworthy because it is so startlingly rare in our experience. Most communities lurch between decay and rigor mortis, and when they veer too far, they die. Only one rabbi dared to expect of us such a perfect balance that we could preserve the law and still forgive the deviation.

So of course, we killed him.


About Author

Shane is an ethicist and theologian, Honorary Associate for the Centre of Disability Research and Policy, the University of Sydney, and Assistant Director, Policy, at the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation against People with Disability. Shane is proudly disabled, and an occasional blogger on


  • Rob Nicholls
    April 25, 2013 at 2:34 pm

    They seem such logical alternatives! In fact, quite easy to deal with Shane. The ‘other’ story is far more confronting and difficult to adopt into everyday life. We hear the story so often that it’s only when I read these alternatives that the extent of Jesus’ revolutionary way becomes obvious. Thanks Shane.

  • Labalienne
    April 27, 2013 at 12:53 pm

    You know what shits me….? That women’s supposed sexual deviance and how it is observed is the measure of community death and decay. Even within the ‘revolutionary’ Jesus narrative, SHE is the broken sexual object that reveals his insight, compassion, justice. What of the deeper societal implications here, such as: scapegoating; slut-shaming; violence against women; enforced sex and gender roles; entrenched religious misogyny and middle-class morality? It seems to me women don’t need a ‘speaker for the dead’ as their own haunting voices speak loudly enough.

    • Shane Clifton
      April 28, 2013 at 9:45 am

      Just to clarify, the Speaker for the dead is a novel by Orson Scott card that doesn’t actually have anything to do with speaking for dead women – well, there is a speaker for dead people, who are sometimes women, sometimes men, and sometimes aliens.

      I confess that I am unsure exactly how to respond to your criticism. On the one hand, I have to admit to not having noticed the sexism in the narrative – whether the original or the latter version. I certainly appreciate the importance of suspicious and deconstructive readings of texts, but it seems unfortunate to turn a parable of grace into a sexist narrative. Isn’t the point of the original the fact that Jesus does not treat the woman like everyone else? Isn’t the power of the story the way in which Jesus confronts cultural assumptions about slut shaming, scapegoating and violence against women?

      • labalienne
        April 29, 2013 at 11:09 pm

        This story has a double edge. That nameless woman was a living, desiring subject not just an object to be acted upon, even by a well meaning messiah!

        Rather than establishing ‘ethical relations,’ the narrative, as interpreted by caring Christians, pictures her through the lens of wholeness overcoming the broken. In the collective religious imagination, the (sexual) woman is a moral object lesson who inhabits a ‘zone of degeneracy.’ She is not real, she is not whole, she is one-dimensional – a sexual deviant. And despite his action, or maybe because of it, a binary model is set up here: chastity or death ladies – you choose.

        What about pushing the story further and fleshing out some of her life’s circumstances. Was she poor? Probably. Was this ‘affair’ a way for her to improve her status, or access a measure of social and personal power? Maybe. Was she in debt, did she only have her body to pledge to a rich man? It’s likely. Or maybe this was a passionate, queer indulgence, a love that was better than wine. Had they been together for many years or was she young and learning the ropes? Did she marry an abusive man and this ‘affair’ was a means of joyful escape? Were they two lonely people who had found a special type of love and support? Did they have children together? Or did they simply enjoy great sex? Ultimately, it’s the complexity of her life that is missing from this parable of grace, as we focus on her non-normative sexual behaviour and its’ cure.

        And yes, you are right, in a way Jesus does confront cultural assumptions about slut-shaming, scapegoating and violence against women. If only we could do likewise.

  • labalienne
    April 30, 2013 at 3:27 pm

    You say that it’s unfortunate to turn a parable of grace into a sexist narrative but I say it’s unfortunate to keep holding onto a myth which sets the stage for women being represented as either sexual deviant or saved. Frankly, it’s tired and inappropriate in a contemporary setting with vastly different understandings of sex and gender. There’s got to be another way in Shane, one that pictures the startling aspects of grace without the need to objectify or demonize women and men’s sexuality.

  • […] Clifton links to Orson Scott Card’s discussion of this biblical story. By thinking about alternate ways the story could have gone, we may be able […]


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