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Now while the sons 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. 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.” So all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, just as the Lord had commanded Moses. - Numbers 15: 32-36 (NASB)

Why did God order the execution (and a brutal execution, at that) of a person for picking up sticks on the Sabbath? Surely what this man did was nothing worse than what Jesus' disciples did when they picked heads of grain on the Sabbath:

And it happened that He was passing through the grainfields on the Sabbath, and His disciples began to make their way along while picking the heads of grain. The Pharisees were saying to Him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?”

...

Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath. - Mark 2:23-27

Such a harsh punishment doesn't seem necessary if the Sabbath truly was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.

Also, how does this align with the justice of God? God forbids the punishment of those who beat their slaves:

If a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod and he dies at his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, he survives a day or two, no vengeance shall be taken; for he is his property. - Exodus 21:20-21

... yet He requires those who pick up sticks on a certain day of the week to be executed in the most unimaginably painful and cruel way. In our 21st century minds, it seems that justice would demand that the punishments for these two crimes be switched. What was God's reason for having such an inverted justice system?

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Better question is, why would a man pick up sticks on the Sabbath knowing that the penalty for doing so was death? :) P.S. You can't say He didn't have evidence of God's existence, which is the excuse of many today. The Israelites then had ample evidence of His very existence. :) –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Jan 13 at 5:24
    
FYI, the whole community of Israel didn't stone a person. Not only did the rabbis never understand it that way, but it would have been impossible. Moshe, Aharon, and the established college of elders (later known as Sanhedrin) were responsible for performing the punishment. –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Jan 13 at 7:58
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If anyone is interested in a recent scholarly treatment of this problem (which gives pointers to earlier literature, of course), see Jonathan Burnside, "‘What Shall We Do with the Sabbath-Gatherer?’ A Narrative Approach to a ‘Hard Case’ in Biblical Law (Numbers 15:32-36)", Vetus Testamentum 60 (2010), 45-62. –  Davïd Jan 18 at 20:13
    

7 Answers 7

Sometimes, God's Punishment for Disobedience is Death.

This is a simple fact. The severity of the punishment often corresponds to the severity of the offense, so why was this offense so severe? The text doesn't say this explicitly, but if we assume that God could have sufficient justification for execution, then it's likely that he was knowingly and defiantly disobeying a command he knew.

God places a high value on community and example. He seems to want to protect the community by insisting that everyone be a good example and that individuals who would do things that would lead their neighbors astray should be removed from the community (typically, executed). Is disobedience a severe enough offense to warrant execution? To God, the answer is sometimes yes. The majority of these instances are examples to the community so that the people would take God seriously when he gives them commands.

God insisted that Israel be different from the nations around them and wanted them to do things the way he had prescribed. We are not told precisely why these details about his prescribed methods are important, only that obeying them is. Two of Aaron's sons are put to death for "offering strange fire" (Le 10:1). The priest Uzzah was killed (by God) for touching the Ark of the Covenant (2 Sa 6), even though he had good intentions of saving the ark from accident, he knew full well that touching the ark was something he was not permitted to do. Ananaias and Saphira were killed (by God) for lying. Is lying that bad or was it important to demonstrate to the early church that God is both powerful and serious?

Though God is willing to forgive people, and punitive death is not synonymous with eternal damnation, he insists that we understand that he is not to be trifled with. His patience with us might be great, but in the end, his wrath is just as great.

Example

You compare the situations in Numbers 15 and Mark 2.

One obvious difference I see between these two is that of the motivation of the people who are doing the work. The disciples are doing this because they have been about God's work and are hungry. The man in Numbers 15 is not described as such. Though the text doesn't say one way or the other, it might be reasonable to assume that because the punishment is severe, so was the offense. He surely knew that he was supposed to do all that work the day before. It would be reasonable to conclude that he must have had selfish motivations for doing what he was doing. Work was certainly permitted on the Sabbath if the motivation were correct. (Mt 12:11)

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Why did God kill a man for picking up sticks on the Sabbath?

Perhaps we can start by asking a few questions to get a broader understanding of what might be going on here.

What is the Sabbath?

The Sabbath is a day of rest. God established the pattern of the week at creation, blessing the seventh day and making it holy "because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation." (Gen 2:3) This is picked up again in the giving of the Ten Words (or commandments) in Exodus 20, "Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day." It is a day not just of rest for yourself, but also for all those over whom you have charge. It is a day of rest and of giving rest. Doing work on the Sabbath is clearly forbidden and is punishable by death (Exodus 31:14-15, 35:2). However, as Jesus makes clear later, this prohibition does not prohibit doing good or helping someone. If your ox falls in a ditch, you can get it out (Luke 14:5).

The Sabbath is a feast day. Leviticus 23 outlines the major feasts of the year, beginning with the weekly Sabbath. "These are the appointed feasts of the LORD that you shall proclaim as holy convocations; they are my appointed feasts. Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work. It is a Sabbath to the LORD in all your dwelling places."

The Sabbath is a day of gathering to worship. As noted above, the Sabbath day is a day of "holy con-vocation," a calling-together of the people of God. The people could bring an offering any day of the week, but the Sabbath was set aside for the particular purpose of coming together as a body to worship God.

What about gathering sticks?

It is clear from even a cursory reading of the passage that this guy has violated the first principle of the Sabbath: he is doing work. This is forbidden and deserving of death. But, it can be argued, other seemingly similar examples can be put forward that didn't end up with the death penalty. God told the people not to gather manna on the Sabbath, but they tried anyway. Now, they weren't actually able to, because it wasn't available, but they set out to do work that was forbidden and all that was said was that they should go back to their tents (Exodus 16:29). It seems there must be more going on here. Why is the man gathering sticks? To fuel his fire back at his tent.

Exodus 35 sheds a little more light on this. "Moses assembled all the congregation of the people of Israel and said to them, 'These are the things that the LORD has commanded you to do. Six days work shall be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire in all your dwelling places on the Sabbath day.'" This ties kindling a fire on the Sabbath directly to the general prohibition against work on the Sabbath and with the entirety of the commands that God had given His people. What is it about kindling a fire on the Sabbath that would be so bad?

Numbers 28 goes over the regular offerings that would be offered daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly. The daily offerings were two male lambs a year old, one in the morning and one in the evening, with the attendant flour, oil, and drink offering. God calls this "my offering, my food for my food offerings, my pleasing aroma." This echoes the same language used for the description of the offerings in Leviticus (cf. 1:9, 13, 17). Every Sabbath, this same offering was given as a Sabbath offering in addition to the regular daily offering. These are the ascension (or 'burnt') offerings which were completely burned up on the altar as a food offering. The fire on the altar was lit by God (Leviticus 9:24) and represented His presence with His people (cf. Numbers 9:15) On the Sabbath, it was built up twice as much as normal for the doubled offering.

Putting it together

Seeing the Sabbath as a day of rest and of giving rest, a day of feasting, and a day of con-vocation helps make some sense of what is going on. God as host calls His people together to the feast. The shared meal makes them one body (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:17) as they gather to the fire of His presence, His hearth fire, which is doubled for the day. This man's sin is not merely gathering sticks. If he kindles his own fire, he is not participating in the community, the body. But you don't stoke up a fire on a feast day just for yourself. This, in addition to dividing the community, places him over and against God. For him to kindle his own fire on the Sabbath is to kindle a rival fire. He is setting himself up as a rival host calling a rival gathering on the Lord's feast day. Now the seriousness of the crime and the proclamation of the death penalty becomes more clear.

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Thanks for the response but it seems like you just made up an entire story that is not in the text. It is a huge leap of logic to assume that he was gathering sticks to "call a rival gathering on the Lord's feast day". That is not indicated anywhere in the text. Fabricated stories are not valid explanations. –  kaques Jan 18 at 19:48

Because God judges our hearts

The man was not punished just for picking up sticks. He was punished for putting a higher value on work and self-sufficiency than on honoring the Holy Sabbath. It just so happened that his indifference towards God was played out by picking up sticks.

Exodus 31:13 ESV You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you.

It's important to note that the Israelites were as confused as we are about this. They saw the man picking up sticks and couldn't decide if he was truly breaking the Sabbath or not. They had to inquire about it from the Lord:

Number 15:34,35a ESV They put him in custody, because it had not been made clear what should be done to him. And the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death...

It's easy to let our imagination run wild when a story has little detail. One can think the innocent man was just picking up some twigs and was executed. Or we can believe that God is good and just and that this man was a rebel and that he was indifferent towards God leading him out of Egypt, supplying him with water and manna and quail, giving him a day to rest, and supplying all his needs and he therefore chose to work on the Sabbath when it was so clear that he should not.

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I saw the movie The Stoning of Soraya M. where Soraya was stoned to death by accusing falsely of adultery. The stoning scene was so bloody and horrifying. It was a slow death and a form of torture.The stones were not big enough to kill immediately and they missed the head many times and the stones fell all over her body.

This remind me of a woman caught in adultery and brought to Jesus for judgement.

John 8:3-11 (NJKV)

Then the scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman caught in adultery. And when they had set her in the midst, they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in adultery, in the very act. Now Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?” This they said, testing Him, that they might have something of which to accuse Him. But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear. So when they continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.”

And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”

As we see here, Jesus was not acting against the Law but introduced a new perspective to the Law. Jesus allowed the stoning of the adulteress woman but He put a condition where only those without sin can stone her to death. In realizing that they were also sinners, they withdrew from their attempt to stone her.

Christ took our punishment

The Old Covenant was without mercy. The sinner must be put to death. The New Covenant offers mercy and salvation through repentance. Jesus did not come to condemn the sinners but to bring the sinners to repentance and save them. Christ took our punishments on the cross and through his death and resurrection, we are saved, because Jesus paid it all!

From Matthew Henry's Concise Commentary

In this matter Christ attended to the great work about which he came into the world, that was, to bring sinners to repentance; not to destroy, but to save. He aimed to bring, not only the accused to repentance, by showing her his mercy, but the prosecutors also, by showing them their sins; they thought to insnare him, he sought to convince and convert them.

Jesus paid it all!

Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.

(Elvina M. Hall, 1865)

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For those who are interested to listen this song "Jesus paid it all", here is the link from YouTube. Enjoy and be blessed. youtube.com/watch?v=38EVco7eba0 –  Mawia Jan 13 at 13:48
    
The muslim way of stoning in that movie is not at all similar to what jews did. –  user13720 Jun 25 at 12:50
    
@user13720 How did the Jews differentiate? –  Steve Jul 29 at 13:31

All,

Keeping this story in context, the preceeding verses (22-29) outline the ability to provide an offering for atonement from having committed sin without realizing it or "out of ignorance". So Elohim provides a way for those who are acting incorrectly by virtue of not knowing Him as they should. Next we have the admonition for those who "act presumptuously" (30 & 31). The penalty for this is that individual is to be cut off from the congregation. Why? Verse 31 tells us it is because that individual has despised the Word of Yahweh and broken His commandment, or in other terms that individual has committed rebellion against Yah. It isn't about the action of the hands (whatever that may be) but it is the intent of the heart. Just like Y'shua spoke of as recorded in Matthew 5 and on (Sermon on the Mount).

We can speculate as to what that intent was directed to (starting a fire so as to be seperated, maybe an incorrect form of worship, etc.) but the basic issue as I see it is one of rebellion against Yah. How can you allow that to continue in the congregation and also be of one mind, one heart, consecrated to Elohim and a partner in the covenant?

Just my two cents...

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Hi Stephen! Keep in mind - you're presenting this answer as on your own authority (when you say "the basic issue as I see it"); Christianity.SE is looking preferably for answers which can be referred to some specific denomination or set of doctrines. Is there a particular denomination, or group of people holding to some specific doctrines, that agree with you? If so, what do they say, and where? –  Matt Gutting Jul 29 at 18:16

The intent of the Sabbath is to spend time with God remembering Him as Creator and Redeemer (cp Exod 20:8-11 & Deut 5:12-15). It is also a time to worship Him (Is 66:23) and to spend time with our families which are the image of God (Gen 1:27). God is love (1 Jn 4:8) and the two greatest commandments (Matt 22:36-40) are to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. These two great commandments are further explained in the Ten Commandments which Moses calls the covenant (Deut 4:13) and Paul sums up as the embodiment of love where love fulfills the law (Rom 13:8-10). The Fourth Commandment tells us to remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. Therefore remembering the Sabbath is intended to be a deliberate act of love to God.

Reading through Numbers 15 it is clear that the story of the man gathering sticks on the Sabbath is a chosen illustration of deliberate sin since much of the chapter is about unintentional vs deliberate sin.

The story begins by saying,"now while the children of Israel were in the wilderness..." (Num 15:32). This story is clearly after the Israelites have been instructed repetitively about keeping the Sabbath. The instruction occurred first with gathering double manna on Friday and the miraculous lack of spoilage when saved till Sabbath. (Exod 16:5). Then God included it in the 10 Commandments (Exod 20:8-11) which was taken from sapphire stone from His very throne (cp Exod 24:10 & 12 in Hebrew). Moses also read the Book of the Covenant to the people which contains several admonitions to keep the Sabbath which the people publicly and very solemnly promised obedience to where blood and offerings were used to ratify it (Exod 24:1-8). It was during these early days right after Moses came down from Sinai with his bright shining face when Exod 35:2-3 occurred where "Moses gathered all the congregation of the children of Israel together, and said to them..." That The Lord commanded them that they may work on six days, resting on the seventh, and disobedience would mean death. On top of that as if to give further clarification he injected "you shall kindle no fire throughout your dwellings on the Sabbath day." Obviously, this was a point of question and it was publicly announced that this was forbidden. Conjecture as we wish as to why it was forbidden. Jesus, by example, permits works of mercy, relief of pain and suffering, and filling basic needs on the Sabbath (Matt 12:1-8). And the intent of the Sabbath is for spiritual and physical restoration. Therefore, kindling a fire in their dwellings somehow violated the Sabbath's intention. It was clearly known to all and the man who gathered sticks in Numbers 15 certainly was not an exception.

The command to cease or rest on the Sabbath was very serious and was meant to be a blessing and was a core issue of showing respect to God as well as acknowledging His authority. The man gathering the sticks on the Sabbath showed His disrespect and because the issue was brought before all the people the consequence of the action had to be performed as it had been promised in Exod 35. It may sound harsh but do we not perform similar actions with our children when they deliberately disobey our stated rules and consequences of disobedience. We do and God did the same in order to teach and to maintain order. The actions were hard because the people were very hard-hearted and listened very poorly to what God had said. They would not have learned with any lesser action.

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`I don't think the Sticmann's comment seems like a fabricated story. He knows his information about the Bible, so long as we can trust his is telling us facts about these sacrifices (which we could look up ourselves), and this gives the story of the man gathering sticks greater depth.

I too, Kaques, shared the same questions you posted. If it weren't for Yahshua (Jesus) stating that the Sabbath is made for man, I wouldn't question why, then, the penalty for breaking the Sabbath is death?

I have come to no real conclusion, but I have circled around some concepts that I think have a lot to do with this:

(1) Sabbath keeping - How many Christians today keep the Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday as they should? Even my own husband doesn't! Christians are grafted into the vine of Israel (we are spiritual Israel), and so we partake of the same covenant as they (one God, one law). The Israelites were not told that breaking the Sabbath would lead to death until AFTER they had broken the Sabbath. They were not supposed to try to collect manna on the Sabbath day, but they did. Did God have them stoned? No, they were told to stay in their homes the next time. After that, they were told that breaking the Sabbath would result in a stoning, and sure enough, someone was caught breaking the Sabbath. This serves as an example that God is as serious about the Sabbath as He is about the other commandments. You can be stoned for committing adultery and you can be stoned for breaking the Sabbath.

(2) The man gathering sticks on the Sabbath stands out to me like the woman caught in the act of adultery brought before Yahshua. You see, Moses and Aaron weren't the ones who went out and found the man who was guilty of sin, and neither did Yahshua go out to find the woman committing adultery. John 3:17 says that Yahshua did not come to condemn the world but to save it. Who then, are the accusers of this world? Each other and Satan. Yahshua tells us that if we forgive each other, we will be forgiven. The man gathering sticks was in the wrong time and place - he was not brought before Yahshua, he was presented to the judges in Israel's early life as God's chosen people who were about to receive all of God's laws and commands and needed to prove themselves to Him.

(3) Spiritual vs. physical death and punishment - Sin separates us from God spiritually. God uses physical punishments and penalties for sin because they symbolize the spiritual death that we partake in when we sin. People live by sin and they die by sin. We sometimes think it's "so unfair" for someone to suffer a physical death without realizing how trivial the physical life and death are. The real life is the spiritual life. If physical death is a tragedy, then spiritual death is more so, and yet no one who actively engages in sin realizes that they are choosing true death over true life.

(4) Justice - Even though it seems like God in the OT is angry and mean, He is being just. The wages of sin are death. He is always good and always just, even in the OT. How would He demonstrate the penalty of sin if no one ever died for it? When God could have shown that man mercy, He did not, and now WE understand that the penalty for breaking the Sabbath is death and so did all the Israelites who had been told by Moses what the penalty was. It is wonderful for us that we are redeemed by Yahshua's sacrifice of life, but some have not been so lucky, and in fact, it was still merciful to those who realized through another person's punishment that the wages of sin is death and that YHWH takes the Sabbath seriously.

Anyone else have any other thoughts on this subject? I am sort of where the poster is in just wondering, when and where did Sabbath keeping become something "for man"? Is this a bad Biblical translation, or is Yahshua saying that after the first 6 days of creation, God designated the Sabbath to be a day of rest for man as a sign between them and to serve them? (Again, sin is what separates us from God, nothing more, nothing less, so choosing not to keep the Sabbath after being told that you should as a sign between you and God is something that separates you from Him and is rightfully considered sin even if it was created "for man.")

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