Isn't stoning a man for gathering wood on the Sabbath a disproportionate punishment?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

(Click here to read Monday Musings ... the place where I discuss the thinking that went into this article.)

Question: In Numbers 15:35, God told the Israelites to kill a man who was gathering wood on the Sabbath. To me, the punishment is disproportionate. What's going on here?

Answer: Greetings, friend. Thank you for touching down with us at Mainsail Ministries. Let’s begin by looking at that Bible passage.

“While the Israelites were in the wilderness, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, and they kept him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him. Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.” So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the Lord commanded Moses.” (Numbers 15:32–36, NIV)

I am amazed at the number of people who get offended by this passage! I have read it many times, but until your question, I never thought about it critically. But now that I look at it, I think I see why people have chosen this one to complain about: the offense looks petty... so God looks petty. But God is morally perfect, so the thing he can’t be is petty. Let’s expand that idea.

We have a parallel teaching in the New Testament which is not prejudiced by mundanity. In this story, God killed two Christian disciples for lying. Let’s look at that passage.

“Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet. Then Peter said, “Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? Didn’t it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied just to human beings but to God.” When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. Then some young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him. About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, “Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?” “Yes,” she said, “that is the price.” Peter said to her, “How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord? Listen! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also.” At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband. Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.” (Acts 5:1–11, NIV)

The Church — that is, the Body of Christ — was a brand-new entity in this story. The last line hints at God’s motivation. “Great fear seized the whole church and all who heard about these events.” Sometimes God does a big thing once to teach a new thing and/or emphasize an old thing. Lying is bad... but lying in an official capacity to the Holy Spirit is real bad. After this story is told around the campfire a few times, those who heard it will learn the lesson without dying... and everyone will be “afraid” to lie to God or his agents.

But did God go around killing everyone for lying thereafter? No... and believe me... people continue to lie to God and everyone else! But God taught his values through the death of Ananias and Sapphira. This was a call to be honest with God, with others — and with ourselves... and by the way... don’t focus on appearances… because doing that is the beginning of troubles.

With this methodology in mind, let’s go back to our wood-gatherer and ask, is there anything “new” going on? Anything God might want to emphasize?

Sure. The law was new... and God couldn’t let people insult him. You see, “gathering wood” is a decidedly mundane activity. I think this is what offends people the most. But challenging God publicly is not a mundane activity... no matter what activities are attached to it. The people noticed that this man was breaking the law by gathering wood on the Sabbath, and they were the ones who brought it to God’s attention. They were the ones who presented this as a slap on the face to God. In a way, that decided God’s action for him.

If this man had not violated the Sabbath rest ordinance in public, it would still be a capital offense. But since there would’ve been no observers and no accusers, he would have lived. God could certainly send down a lightning bolt and kill the man on the spot. But unless somebody saw that action and understood the circumstances, nothing would be taught — and note this well: God is in the teaching business. God is always in the teaching business.

Two more of these teachable moments come to mind. I will share these with you because these too are parallel cases. But with these, I will keep it to a quick synopsis with a citation... and you can read the accounts for yourself.

In Numbers chapter 16 we see a priest named Korah, who along with three Reubenites (Dathan, Abiram and On) led 250 Israelites in challenging Moses’s position as the one who spoke for God. The Bible says, “they became insolent and rose up against Moses.” God would not let that stand. He caused the ground to open and swallow up those men... their families... and their possessions! Talk about making a statement!

But that’s the kind of thing God only does once... despite people continually griping and challenging Christian leadership. Gathering sticks in public — in the context of “thou shalt not gather sticks” — is this kind of sin. It is challenging God to his face. The “gathering of sticks” is sort of a red herring for today’s readers. Most sin is extraordinarily mundane. But on this one day, the simple gathering of sticks became so much more. It was a slap in the face to God.

In Joshua chapter 7 we meet one of the members of Joshua’s Promised Land invading force, a man named Achan. Achan took some of the “spoils of war” after being told not to. Again, this seems like such a small crime... to die for taking the goods of a defeated enemy — which was the custom of armies and allowed by God!

But not this time. God said to destroy the spoils... and the congregation stoned Achan to death for — what God’s critics would affirm — was “merely” taking the spoils of war. The implications here are that God is, therefore, a tyrant, a bully, a disproportionate punisher, nonloving, etc.

But can you see why God had to do this? He had to teach obedience, respect for sacred things, etc. He did not do this again. He did it once... and it lived in Scripture as a lesson and a memorial to this day.

My prayer is that sharing a few more of these stories and establishing the context of these seemingly disproportionate killings on God’s part will help you see into his mind a little bit. God help us if we ever become comfortable with killing! — even when God does it or commands us to do it! But he is a holy God, and he is justified in whatever he does.

This is a “tough sell” to his critics. Hey... it’s even the tough sell to those of us who know him! We just have to trust that the Righteous One is right in everything he does... and that actions that seem horrific to us served to advance his kingdom.

God bless you.

 

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article — consider doing so at the following link: 20220117 Does God ever punish disproportionately? ).

(For comments, or to join the Monday Musings mailing list, contact us at mainsailep@gmail.com. To submit a question about God, the Bible or the Christian culture, click here.)