Difficult Text, Good Question, Quick Answer: Sticks, Stoning and the Sabbath

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Q: I can’t make much sense of this story; it seems as if God is acting in an unfair, unjust manner.

Numbers 15 v 32 One day while the people of Israel were in the wilderness, one of them was caught gathering wood on the Sabbath day.33 He was arrested and taken before Moses and Aaron and the other judges.34 They jailed him until they could find out the Lord’s mind concerning him.

35 Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must die—all the people shall stone him to death outside the camp.”

36 So they took him outside the camp and killed him as the Lord had commanded.

A:It’s important to read this story in its historical and literary context. If it’s not put into context it might seem that this man was innocently going about a trivial task, oblivious to the fact there was any problem. The story, however, follows legislation relating to unintentional sins and defiant sins. There were means of reconciliation if someone broke the law unintentionally; even if the man had sinned deliberately, he could have made amends by making the correct sacrifice.

The people were aware of the sacrificial system. Clearly, the man’s actions were understood to be a defiant sin: this was not an isolated, accidental breach of the law.  This man rejected clear commands given as part of a covenant that the people had agreed to. The question to God, then, is what should we do with this individual who refuses to acknowledge your law? This was a question of some importance, and  not merely for theological or ethical reasons.

God’s commandments identified the Israelites as a community. Obedience to the commands marked Israel out from other peoples, much as our flags and constitutions do today. At the time, Israel was in a state of continual war with cultures who followed other rules. This man placed himself outside the covenant. By breaking with the Sabbath customs of his people, this man was identifying with the practices of enemy peoples in a time of ongoing war. It was rather like a Frenchman repeatedly flying a Swastika as the Germans invaded in World War Two. It was a dangerous act of treason.

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