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Of Sabbath Sticks & Stones

Like traveling down a highway on a vacation trip only to come upon a grisly accident, reading through the Scriptures can have a jarring impact upon you at times.  A short passage in Numbers 15 is one such spot, where a man is stoned for gathering sticks on the Sabbath Day.

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. (15:32-36).

In some ways, like passing the car wreckage, you want to keep traveling on and forget it, but the human curiosity we call “rubbernecking” gets the best of you.  Why is such a story in the Bible?

Here are a few thoughts to keep in mind with passages such as these.

Do not judge God.  Before you start questioning the appropriateness of the Bible containing stories such as these, remember that the Scriptures are the very Word of God.  Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?

All sin is worthy of death.  Stories like these shock us because the extreme penalty of death is enacted.  Yet consider for a moment that the wages of any sin is death (Genesis 2:15-17; Romans 6:23), as all sin is seen as rebellion against the One who made us.  That capital punishment is prescribed for some twenty crimes in the Old Testament may seem extreme to our modern sensibilities, yet the Lord would be just in taking life for any offense.

The sin was intentional.  Interestingly, this story takes place in a passage detailing what the people were to do with sin that was not intentional (Numbers 15:22-31).  Clearly Moses is here showing the contrast of intentional sin, as it was directly stated in the law that no fire was to be kindled on the Sabbath Day (Exodus 35:3).  That others in the congregation of Israel brought him to Moses and Aaron show they definitely knew he was doing something wrong.  This man was not just gathering sticks for a 4-H project.  He was being defiant.

The punishment was carefully deliberated and decided.  Notice the man is placed in custody and the leaders consult as to what to do.  Indeed, the Lord Himself commanded that the man be stoned.   Again, who are we to argue with the Almighty?

A great danger was being quenched.  Israel had already been chastised numerous times for their rebellion against the Lord in the wilderness.  An act such as this had the potential of leading many more into sin and rebellion.  In the British Navy Code during the time of sailing vessels, men could be severely flogged or executed for bringing a flame in or near the powder room as it endangered the lives of all on board.  Just as in the deaths of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11), the Lord is halting a further outbreak of sin.

God’s fear was being cultivated.  Stories like this one, such as the one of Ananias & Sapphira above, or Nadab & Abihu’s death at the altar (Leviticus 10), or Uzzah’s death when he touched the ark, or the plague over David’s census (I Kings 24), or…( I could keep going with a dozen more) are not God being splenetic.  Rather, having borne patiently for some time with His people disregarding His law openly before others, the Lord finally acts in a definitive, powerful manner divinely calculated to achieve the mind-clearing fear of Him we so desperately need.

Ultimate warnings are being given.  Directly following this account, note that Moses warns the people to wear tassels on the corners of their garments (Numbers 15:37-41).  The purpose?  “It shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the Lord, to do them, to not follow after your own heart and your own eyes” (verse 39).  Just as tassels worn at commencement remind those in attendance of the ones graduating, so these tassels were to remind God’s people they had “graduated” from sin and death into a life of holy obedience to the Lord.  This story and others like it are examples of warning to us (I Corinthians 10:11).

The gospel’s need is being upheld.  Who can save us from our sin, the condemnation of the law, and the wrath of God?  The One nailed to a wooden cross, in a tomb through the old Sabbath Day, raised to life on the new Sabbath of God, and declared now as the only Rock of our salvation.

Seeing the aftermath of a car accident can wake you up, in a sad though healthy way, from a sense of escapism and forgetfulness about life’s brevity that vacation trips can produce. They remind you there is much greater journey we are all on.  Seeing a burned up truck and the ground where the accident occurred after a short getaway did that for me this week.  Reading passages such as the one above are to have a similar yet much deeper spiritual impact upon us, examining us to see if we are truly ready to meet the holy God one day.

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. About the Gospel’s need being upheld: Us moderns are prone to forget the seriousness of sin. This story is but one example of that. However, the ultimate example regarding the gravity of sin is that it took the substitutionary crucifixion of God’s own perfect Son to make atonement for it. The truth of that is staggering!

    Thank you for the reminder of what our salvation from sin and death, freely given to us, cost God.

    July 5, 2012
  2. Joel #

    I somewhat recently heard a Lutheran argue that the reason for the severity was because the sin depicted a works righteousness. If the Sabbath depicts faith or rest in Christ’s work, then to pick up sticks was refusing to rest in God’s provision for salvation. Do you think this is on the right track or is it an overly spiritualized reading?

    July 6, 2012
    • Joel,

      That’s a great question. Let me try to answer it briefly.

      The interpretation you cite is consistent with a Lutheran law-gospel distinction, which ultimately boils down every sin to unbelief.

      Though there are points of commonality a Reformed understanding would have with our Lutheran brothers, such as every sin results from unbelief or the need we do have to rest in Christ, I fail to see how this story is an example of this condemned man performing “works righteousness.” The works righteousness condemned by Christ was for an over zealous upholding of Sabbath principles, not a blatant disregard for the day as this man displayed. The most immediate reason for God’s severity was, as stated in the post, the defiant disobedience to God’s law.

      Also, in my opinion, to equivocate every sin with unbelief takes away much application of the law to all of life, the deep and widespread power of conviction the law should have, and the utter helplessness we as sinners should feel. In seeking to point to the need for Christ, which we both share, this manner of approach actually leaves them falling somewhat short of their goal, does it not? Though they admirably aim for the heart, they are not going through the clear door the particular sins of the sinner are leaving open for tHe gospel.

      Finally, on the other side, this mannner of interpretation leaves you being called to believe, which is good and essential, but left unclear as how then to walk in obedience. We always need to ask, “How specifically can this passage be applied to the new covenant believer?”

      July 7, 2012

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