He forfeited his life for gathering a few sticks.
It’s a stumbling block buried in the book of Numbers. God has saved his people from slavery, and walked them into the wilderness for what will prove to be a forty-year journey to their promised land. And “while the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day” (Numbers [15:32]). Doesn’t sound like a big deal, right? Enough of us have picked up sticks after a big storm, probably during the weekend (maybe even on a Sunday). So what happens next?
And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation. 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; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as the LORD commanded Moses. (Numbers [15:33]–36)
They put him to death over some yardwork?
Why? Because Moses said, “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.” (Exodus 35:1–3, see also Exodus 20:8–9)
If Moses ended at verse two, it might have been unclear whether picking up sticks fell under “work,” but Moses didn’t stop there. It’s almost as if God had this nameless man in mind when he told them about the Sabbath. Yes, that means even gathering some wood to make a fire. And he was also crystal clear about the appropriate punishment: death.
Sticks and Stones
Someone might say this particular man wasn’t listening well or just didn’t understand exactly what Moses meant by “work.” It seems like a tragedy that he had to die over building a fire. But the previous ten verses bring this fatal incident into high definition for us.
“But if you sin unintentionally, and do not observe all these commandments that the LORD has spoken to Moses, . . . all the congregation shall offer one bull from the herd for a burnt offering, a pleasing aroma to the LORD. . . . And the priest shall make atonement for all the congregation of the people of Israel, and they shall be forgiven, because it was a mistake.” (Numbers [15:22], 24–25)
Nobody was meant to die over honest mistakes. But people would be executed over deliberate crimes against God. The men and women who were executed had heard from God, understood what he said, and decided they knew better. When that man grabbed his first stick, he had defiance coursing through his veins, not innocence. It wasn’t a mistake. The man played the part of Adam and Eve in that first mutiny against God.
Written by Marshall Segal
Full story at Desiring God