A capital crime of picking up sticks. This certainly seems harsh to us today. Seems harsh to me. But then again, I’ve had the advantage of being on this side of Gods progressive revelation. I have the advantage of knowing that we serve a God who desires mercy, not sacrifice. I’ve also had the disadvantage of living in an age when we’ve all been trained to compare out our sin. I may know I’m a sinner, but my sin is just little sin, look at that guy over there – that’s REAL sin. But one thing this shows is that sin is sin. As the apostle Paul told us, if you’re going to try to live by the law, be made righteous through obeying the law as opposed to accepting the free grace of Christ, you have to follow ALL of the law. Well, this is the law.
While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. Wow, right??!! What to do with this guy, this rule breaker who dares to pick up sticks on the sabbath?? Under the law of God, handed down through Moses, this was a big deal. “You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death.” Exodus 31:14-15 ESV. The sabbath was a big deal. It’s #4 of the Ten Commandments, right up the there with theft, adultery, and murder. You know, those Real Sins. This guy was blatantly breaking the law of God in broad daylight. Not only that, but if he’s picking up sticks, the presumption is he plans on committing another infraction – “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 35:2-3 ESV. So, if this guy is picking up sticks, he must be planning to build a fire too. Sin upon sin, a double infraction! So, what to do with him?
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. It was not clear to those who found him what should be done to him. Why not? It was clearly written in the law. “”Bring out of the camp the one who cursed, and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head, and let all the congregation stone him.” Leviticus 24:14 ESV. Maybe this guy was the test case. Maybe he was the first to so violate the law of the sabbath, his fellow Israelites had not been tested yet in this way in the enforcement of the law. Maybe they wanted to show mercy on him. After all, they were sinners too. But God through Moses, dealing with his people through the strict laws he had given Moses, had no such reservations. “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” The King, the Lord and God of Israel, has spoken. It’s written in the law, it must be carried out. If we let this lawbreaker go unpunished, what happens with the rest? This is part of what Paul is talking about when he says “For the wages of sin is death…” Romans 6:23a ESV. We take this now as spiritual death, which is true. But from the beginning of God calling His people, the penalty for many sins was…death. We see this as a “minor” infraction. Today we would call it a “respectable” sin. In this time, it was a BIG DEAL. Sabbath breaking specifically called for punishment by death.
And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as the Lord commanded Moses. This was no sanitary lethal injection. This was no Ol’ Sparky electrocution, where society at large gets to remain detached from the penalty. No…ALL the congregation was brought outside to stone this man. They all participated in picking up the rocks and throwing the stones. This was all inclusive and interactive. They had to throw the stones, hear the thuds, see the suffering. How many Christians would still be in favor of the death penalty if this was still the way? I, for one, am more than happy to claim the contrast in the second half of that verse from Paul – “but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:23b Thank God for His free gifts of forgiveness and salvation!!
“While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. 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 15:32-36 ESV