In a recent post (Sticks and Stones) I asked what would you say to someone who asked about the man who gathered sticks on the Sabbath. In case you’re not familiar with the story in Numbers 15:32-36, when the Israelites asked what should happen to the Sabbath stick-gathering man, God told them to stone him as a community.
What kind of God commands death for such a minor offense? New Atheist Richard Dawkins likes to focus on this story in his book The God Delusion (p. 281) so, while those of us who are Christians might want to ignore this story, the atheists aren’t.
There were some great comments to this post. Here is a summary of the comments (in italics), with my responses (not in italics):
Cindy asks if we can compare Num. 15 to Mark 2 and Luke 6, where Jesus’ disciples pluck grain on the Sabbath, and while the Pharisees seem to want to punish (stone?) them, Jesus thinks its OK. A great connection. Jesus’ apparently cavalier attitude toward the Sabbath makes Num. 15 so troubling. I think part of the solution to this conundrum is context. In Jesus context legalism was a huge problem. In Num 15, disobedience and rebellion were the problem. There were rebellions on either side of this story, in Num 14 (refusal to enter the land) and in Num 16 (the rebellion of Korah).
Elizabeth points out how difficult it would be to participate as part of the “firing squad”. Yes. I don’t even like to think about what it would be like. When I spoke on this at church 2 weeks ago, a woman came up and said almost exactly the same thing as Elizabeth. I hadn’t thought of that before. It would be brutal, but memorable.
Colin is honest about his desire to cast stones (yet he resists temptation). It is good to be honest. And to be totally honest, we don’t always resist these types of temptations. Jesus said when we call our brother a fool it’s like killing him (Matt. 5:21-22). And the troubling part here is God is mandating the killing.
Dave (not me) thinks God must place a high value on Sabbath rest and points out what a blessing rest is in general. Dave makes many good points here, particularly the one about Sabbath breaking being a capital offense (Exo. 31:15; 35:2-3). This guy would have known about the penalty and he was blatantly ignoring it.
In the two versions of this command in the 10 Commandments (or as I like to call them The 14 Commandments), both go into more far depth about the Sabbath than any other command, which should tell us something about its importance. The Exodus version (Exo. 20:8-11) explains that the Sabbath is important because it reminds the people of God creating the world in 7 days (I don’t think this was literally 24 hours). The Deuteronomy version (Deut. 5:12-15) explains that the Sabbath is important because it reminds the people of God’s deliverance from enslavement and oppression in Egypt.
So, ignoring the Sabbath is like forgetting about God’s two most dramatic acts in the Old Testament, Creation and Exodus. I’m still troubled by this story, but it helps to remember what the Sabbath was supposed to remind people of. God creates. God delivers. God wants us to rest. I need rest.
So, would these “answers” satisfy you? I’d love to hear more comments about the stick-gathering man and why God wanted him dead.
Image of the Stoning of Stephen from http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/annibale-carracci/the-stoning-of-st-stephen-1604.