Killed for Gathering Sticks

Numbers 15:17-16:40

It was going to be a test.  A showdown. The children of Israel, we are told, in Numbers 15:32, found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath. They brought him to Moses, because they knew this activity was forbidden in God’s law.

Moses and Aaron secured the man, not yet sure what was to be done. Then the Lord spoke to Moses and told him the man should be stoned to death, by the congregation, outside the camp.

I thought of the possible reasons this man was gathering sticks. Maybe he was bored, or restless. Maybe his wife sent him out to gather sticks for a fire. Maybe he wanted some warmth later in the day.

I was looking at the human element. I imagined the stoning. I visualized people picking up stones and the man turning to his friends and family, imploring them to intervene, to have mercy, to plead his case. The stones thudded against his flesh, again, and again, until he slumped over, and died.

This was the reality. We sometimes don’t let ourselves into what it was like to be there. I, personally, would rather not think about the details of that day. However, it is in the Bible, and I need to grapple with this story.

At first I was angry. It seemed so unjust to me, such an excessive and extreme punishment for a little thing like picking up sticks. I considered rejecting a God who was, to my sensitivities, so harsh, and, seemingly unfair. But, for me, this was not an option. Long ago I decided that indeed His thoughts are above my thoughts, and his ways are above my ways. So I asked for an explanation.

I was reading out of my One Year Bible which has daily portions selected from the Old Testament, New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs.

In the past I might have succumbed to a black or white, fundamentalist perspective, believing that I must simply accept what God does and says as good and right and disregard my fears and feelings. However, I now understand that my reaction is significant. It reveals things about me and my relationship with God and his word.

It only took a moment before other thoughts came to me. The first was, this man, undeniably knew that picking up sticks on the Sabbath was forbidden by God. The law had been very clearly presented to the Israelite congregation. Therefore his actions were clearly willful disobedience.

I began to see that if there was no consequence, then either the commandment meant nothing, or God could be defied.

I also saw that this incident was public knowledge and was going to set a precedent.

People were watching. The effectiveness of the law was on trial. How the case was handled would be extremely significant, given that the commandment originated with God.

Essentially, God was on trial, and I’m sure two questions were burning in the hearts of the Israelites, from the beginning, just as they burn in our hearts today. Who is this God? How does he respond to his people, particularly when they rebel?

I noted that if there had not been a command, then a man picking up sticks on the Sabbath would be of no consequence to anyone. But this was the crux of the matter. There was a command. And the command came from God.

One more thing, Moses was the guardian of the law. As the leader of the nation of Israel, he was responsible to enforce the law and mete out consequences for disobedience. It was not an enviable position. In the next chapter we read of a coup attempt.

Levite priests, Korah, Dathan and Abiram, along with two hundred and fifty supporters, “princes of the assembly, famous in the congregation, men of renown” (Numbers 16:3 King James Version), protested against Moses and Aaron. They claimed that “all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them; (why do you lift yourselves) above the congregation of the Lord?” (v. 3). It was an all-out revolt against authority.

Gathering sticks on the Sabbath set in motion a whole series of events. It revealed the hearts of the leaders of Israel. The accusation was not new to Moses. “Who made you a ruler and a judge?” was hurled at him when he tried to break up a fight between two Israelites (Exodus 2:14).

Moses was no different, as a man. But he was anointed by God and this set him apart. God warns,Touch not the Lord’s anointed, and do his prophets no harm” (1 Chronicles 16:22, Psalm 105:15).

It is common to resist any type of authority or restraint. In fact, we might produce the argument that all Christians are anointed and we are all equal.

Who are you to tell me what to do? We don’t like your virtue signaling. You are no different from the rest of us.

I believe this passage bears out that not every anointing is on the same level. Some carry greater responsibility. Some are subject to others. Some can even be abused.

I just want to clarify that Jesus came to fulfill the law and to exchange the heavy burden of the Old Testament law for a lighter, easy yoke. When his disciples were criticized by religious leaders for “threshing” on the Sabbath, as they plucked and ate grain in the field, Jesus declared that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. He abolished the tradition of stoning, when a woman was caught in adultery and brought to him. He demanded that those without sin cast the first stone.

The law serves the purpose of revealing the nature of man. We tend to resist authority. Ultimately we need a new nature. Jesus came to give this newness of life to us through faith in him. But Jesus never gave us license to disobey or defy God.

The question, Who made you a judge would be better replaced by, Who gave humans a standard of righteousness? We have a tendency to shoot the messenger when we are really rebelling against the message which originates with God.

By this time there should not have been any doubt in the minds of the people concerning the authority of Moses. Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt. God gave the law to Moses and revealed to him the pattern for the tabernacle and the rituals of worship. Moses’ face shone with the glory of God when he came from his presence. But the Levites, who served in the tabernacle, and the princes of Israel seemed to have forgotten all of this.

Moses told the people to separate themselves “from the tents of these wicked men” (v. 26). The ground opened and swallowed them and their families and closed again. A fire ignited and consumed the two hundred and fifty men who held censors with incense. God spare the rest of the congregation because of the intercession of Moses and Aaron.

The next portion for the day in my One Year Bible reading, is the story of the crucifixion of Christ. I see a clear parallel in the attitude of the religious leaders who could not accept the authority of Christ and demanded his death. Jesus Christ was crucified. However, he rose from the dead, victorious over the demons of hell. Have no doubt, Satan, the deceiver and destroyer, is behind this rebellion.

I read somewhere, recently, (I apologize for forgetting the source) that Jesus was not crucified because he was good, but because he presented something new. I don’t concur. In fact, I strongly resist this message. It was precisely because he was good, and because he upheld a high standard, and because he claimed to be God, that he was crucified. This message, today, is no longer “new” and it is still being resisted just as strongly.

So, yes, God was just in putting to death those who defied his Godhead. And he forever will be.

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