The following story details what may have been the first instance of a Jewish man blatantly disregarding the Sabbath. Some might look at this account and be shocked by the apparent harshness of God’s dealings with him. On the surface, it may seem that the punishment did not fit the crime. But such a response shows an ignorance of both the holiness of God and the nature of the man’s sin—both of which come into clearer focus through studying the context of this passage.
Now while the children 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 under guard, because it had not been explained what should be done to him. Then the LORD said to Moses, “The man must surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” So, as the LORD commanded Moses, all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him with stones, and he died. (Numbers 15:32-36)
The apparent severity of the man’s punishment can be explained in part by what God says in the few verses that precede this passage: “You shall have one law for him who sins unintentionally, for him who is native-born among the children of Israel and for the stranger who dwells among them. But the person who does anything presumptuously, whether he is native-born or a stranger, that one brings reproach on the LORD, and he shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the LORD, and has broken His commandment, that person shall be completely cut off; his guilt shall be upon him” (Numbers 15:29-31). This passage gives us three separate phrases that help us see what exactly the stick-gatherer was guilty of.
First, he sinned presumptuously. His stick-gathering was not unintentional or accidental. The Hebrew phrase translated as “presumptuously” literally means, “with a high hand.” In his sin, he defied God. He purposefully and willfully broke God’s law, showing what little regard he had both for the law and the giver of it. Such is the state not only of this man, but also of anyone who sins defiantly. “For he stretches out his hand against God, and acts defiantly against the Almighty” (Job 15:25).
Second, he brought a reproach on the Lord. That is, he blasphemed (which is the literal definition of the Hebrew word used for “reproach”). His irreverence showed a complete and total lack of respect for God.
Third, he despised the word of the Lord. That is, he heard God’s word and held it in contempt. Such is the case with any of us when we hear God’s word and disobey it.
With these three descriptions of willful sin, we can more readily see how serious any man’s defiance is, and how deserving of punishment it is—whether in the life of this stick-gatherer or in our own.
“The language of presumptuous sin is, ‘Eternal truth is not fit to be believed, the Lord of all not fit to be obeyed, and almighty power not fit to be either feared or trusted’” (Matthew Henry).
Commentaries Cited from
Hall, Kay. Online Bible. Beersheba Springs: Ken Hamel, 2000. CD-ROM.
An Exposition of the Old and New Testament, by Matthew Henry