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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
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I'll upvote though because it deserves an answer. –  H3br3wHamm3r81 Jan 13 at 5:34
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You haven't attempted to substantiate the claim that stoning is a particularly brutal form of execution. In contrast to the way that other nations executed people, it certainly seems both quick and humane, and it doesn't require that a single person be responsible as the executioner, but places the burden on the whole community. –  mojo Jan 13 at 7:21
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@mojo I wouldn't be so sure that stoning is humane. Beheading is much faster. Stoning is a very horrifying scene. The people from community are not all expert stone throwers. They would miss the head many times and hit on some other parts of the body. Slower than other forms of execution, stoning is a form of execution by torture. –  Mawia Jan 13 at 7:56
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I think being battered to death is extremely painful. Hanging or beheading also would hurt but my guess is that it would less so: in those cases the spine is severed. In the case of stoning, your literally breaking the victim to death. HOW is that not painful? –  Sehnsucht Jan 13 at 19:02
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4 Answers

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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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
    
Am I misreading your answer, or does the first part of your answer have the thesis: "Stoning is execution by torture." ? What part of the question is this addressing? –  mojo Jan 13 at 14:03
    
@mojo Not getting? Read again :) –  Mawia Jan 13 at 14:11
    
You assert that the old covenant is without mercy. On what basis is it without mercy? Is this just poetic usage of "without?" God claims to be merciful (Ex 33:19, Ps 86:15) and does show mercy to some law breakers. –  mojo Jan 13 at 14:16
    
@mojo According to OT, the sinner must be stoned but the NT doesn't allow any sinner to execute such punishments. Which could also mean that only God can execute the dead penalty. This part is hard to explain. You just have to understand it, but I don't know how. I think I'm not eloquent enough for the task. –  Mawia Jan 13 at 14:25
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Under the LAW, the punishment was death for the trespasser of this offense. The law was from Moses until the appointed time Galatinas 4: 4-5 when Jesus came to buy us out from under the law. Understanding dispenstaions will help you a great deal. The Law says stone, Grace says the price is paid. Gal 4:4-5 But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, (5) To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. The working of the law and grace or rather law vs grace, can be illustrated by gravitation versus aerodynamics. An areoplane will fly as long as the mechanics of ‘thrust and lift’ is in place. The moment those cease to operate, you immediately revert back to gravity – you fall! The same appiles with grace and law. If you fall from grace, you revert to the law. Because the Israelities looked to Moses ‘with the vail’ on instead of Christ, they wre under the law. 2Cor 3:13 And not as Moses, which put a vail over his face, that the children of Israel could not stedfastly look to the end of that which is abolished: (KJV) 2Co 3:14 But their minds were blinded: for until this day remaineth the same vail untaken away in the reading of the old testament; which vail is done away in Christ. (KJV) God’s law is perfect and as generally : every action has a result. As said before the law requires that man be stoned for not keeping the Sabbath. The law makes no provision for grace!

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Welcome to the site! This answer would be a lot better if you could add references showing that this is a common understanding, and who teaches/believes it. On this site, we're not looking for personal interpretation, but rather focusing on what various Christian groups teach. This may very well be established teaching, but it needs references to back it up is all. See What makes a good supported answer? –  David Stratton Jan 15 at 12:52
    
Also, this next has nothing to do with the quality of your answer, at all... It's just standard to ask new visitors to read How we are different than other sites? to avoid any misconceptions about what this site is and isn't. –  David Stratton Jan 15 at 12:53
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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
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