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 Death Penalty
God gave the Law of Moses to the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai. Moses instructed the people concerning the laws that were established by the will of the Lord demanding complete obedience in keeping the statues, commandments and judgments. The Ten Commandments were the preamble to the whole law but the law itself was quite extensive. It covered every part of the Jewish life from government, war, education, health, family life and worship. The Law of Moses governed the kind of clothes worn, relationships within families and neighbors, how to determine various diseases and bodily functions, festivals, marriage laws, music, sacrifices, financial laws, foreign policy and crimes against one another. God authored the Law by His own will and the foundation of the Law of Moses was answerable to the Lord. It was a strict law. Man’s wisdom did not craft the tenets of right and wrong; this came from the mind of God.
Picking up sticks is not considered immoral. What made the act so horrible was the man who gathered sticks on the day of Sabbath disobeyed a clear command of the Lord that no man was to work on the Sabbath. There was probably a good reason he was gathering wood. It did not matter. What the people learned the day a man was found gathering sticks on the Sabbath day was that God’s law was a demonstration of the goodness and severity of the Lord. Disobedience is not tolerated by God. Keeping the law will bring joy but disregarding the law will bring judgment. When the people found the man on the Sabbath gathering sticks, they were uncertain what to do. It is possible they knew what the penalty would be but it had not been explained how serious the charge of profaning the Sabbath was. How could a man be put to death for picking up sticks? It seemed implausible. When Moses inquired to the Lord what should be done with the man, he was told to stone him with stones outside the camp. The people led him outside the camp and began to throw stones at him until he was dead.
It is not hard to imagine what the accused thought when he was first arrested and then told the punishment. He may have thought in his mind why this would happen to someone who was just gathering sticks together. Was he needing firewood to warm his family or cook his food? The act itself was not wicked. As the crowd led him outside the camp, he must have begged with them to not do what they were planning. He was terrified he was going to die for picking up sticks. The lesson learned that day for the man and the people was the seriousness of God’s law and His righteousness. Man cannot trifle with God. When the Lord struck down Nadab and Abihu for offering profane fire, Moses told their father Aaron God must be regarded as holy and the Lord must be glorified. Gathering sticks on the Sabbath disregarded the holiness of God.
The death penalty under the Law of Moses was a tool exhibiting the righteousness of a jealous God. Many laws carried the death penalty: murder, striking mother or father, cursing mother or father, bestiality, adultery, rape, homosexuality, profaning the Sabbath, human sacrifice, mediums or familiar spirits, blaspheming the name of God, and the outsider who comes near the tabernacle; to name a few. The Law of Moses came from God and its perfection was found in its design to show man the need to glorify a jealous and wrathful God. When Christ came to earth, He abolished the Law of Moses. While the Law of Moses is no longer binding as authority, the penalty of sin remains the same. Judgment will not be meted out in this life for the wicked practices of men but eternal death will await those who disregard the holy character of the Lord God. The last and final death penalty is eternal fire. It is real. It is sure. It is certain. The man who gathered sticks on the seventh day learned a very hard lesson. His story should bring pause to our lives to know the jealous nature of our God.
The discipline of the Old Testament may be summed up as a discipline teaching us to abhor and flee from sin. (Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, 1869)