A bedtime story from childhood:
Once upon a time, the Children of Israel were in the wilderness (of course) and they found a man picking up sticks on the Sabbath. So they brought him before Moses, Aaron, and all the people, but they had no idea what to do with him. Then God said to Moses, “take him outside and bludgeon him to death with big freaking rocks!” So they did. Night night.
But there is more to the story than a mindless mob bent on following the bloodthirsty whims of a capricious deity. As always, let’s look at the context. Let’s start with the offense itself.
Picking up sticks? (Really God. U mad Son?) In His divine defense, God made it very clear that He would not abide work on the Sabbath. On Sinai He put it in the Ten Commandments, then added the death penalty, and then repeated it one more time for the cheap seats at the base of the mountain.He might have been serious. Hence the confusion of those who caught their Israelite brother picking up sticks on the Sabbath, in terms of what to do with him:
“Would you look at this idiot? It’s the Sabbath”
“I know, right?”
“Do we kill him?
“He’s just picking up sticks!”
“Have you read anywhere in the Torah where it says ‘do no work on the Sabbath, except picking up sticks, ‘cause YHWH is completely cool with stick gathering despite His irrevocable law.’?”
“You know I can’t read.”
“Right. Me either. But we’ve heard what the Torah says.”
“You gonna cast the first stone?”
“Let’s just bring him to Moses.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
But let’s take a step backward.
The verses preceding the narrative are instructions for when an individual or the community has committed an unintentional sin. What you do when an “oops, I crapped my spiritual pants” moment arises, Numbers 15:22-29 clearly spells out what should be done to clean up the mess. (c.f. Leviticus chapter 4; 5:1-6:7; 6:24-30 & 7:1-10 ) Earlier in the book (chapter 5) instructions for intentional sins are given. (c.f. Leviticus chapter 1 & 6:8-13) In short, we aren’t perfect. We will screw up: intentionally and unintentionally. But we can make it right. The Torah has that all covered.
But this short narrative speaks of something different. This is not merely referring to intentional or unintentional sin. This deals with the person who has been confronted with their sin and raises a stiff middle finger to God and community.
The heart of the picker-upper of sticks is shown in two ways. First the narrative follows how sins can be forgiven (vs 22-29), as well as the death sentence for those who refuse to avail themselves of it, which is the legal preamble to the story:
But whoever acts high-handedly, whether a native or an alien, affronts the Lord, and shall be cut off from among the people. Because of having despised the word of the Lord and broken his commandment, such a person shall be utterly cut off and bear the guilt. (Numbers 15:30-31)
Second, it is confirmed by the Judge of his sentence: God orders the man’s death, not the people. God who knows the heart.This is a matter of repentance and remorse: whether or not the individual actually gives a good God’s damn or a damn about a good God.
No matter what you feel about the punishment itself, the sentiment is simple: there are things you do and do not do in community. You knew the rules. You knew the consequences. But you flagrantly broke them. And what’s worse, you don’t care that you did.
Actions have consequences. Sometimes dire ones.
Perhaps this is why after a Psalmist meditated on the effects of the Torah on his life— finding It more precious than gold and sweeter than honey from the honeycomb — he included the following request
Keep your servant also from willful sins;
may they not rule over me.
Then I will be blameless,
innocent of great transgression. (Psalm 19:13)
Perhaps we need to take stock of our actions and attitudes— providing less excuses and more accountability— because consequential reality can crush more completely than rocks.
But what do we know: we made this game and you probably think we’re going to Hell.