Did God kill a man for gathering sticks on the Sabbath?
Isn’t it obvious that the answer is yes?
Numbers 15.32-36 tells us that while Israel was wandering in the wilderness, the people found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath. So, they brought this man to Moses and Aaron and the entire congregation. Because it wasn’t clear if the man had violated the Sabbath, they kept him in custody. Verse 35 says, “And the Lord said to Moses, ‘The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.'”
So, there you have it. Right there in black and white it says that God told Moses to have the man killed for gathering sticks on the Sabbath. Typically then, Christians go on to assume that the fact that God would kill a man for merely picking up sticks on the Sabbath shows how seriously God takes the Sabbath. Therefore, God killed this man to show everyone that they must keep the Sabbath or else.
Because the Sabbath was supposedly so important to God that he would kill a man for gathering sticks on it, Christians are still arguing about Sabbath keeping today. Some denominations shun and look down upon those that work on the Sabbath. Other denominations believe that you will go to hell forever for not keeping the Sabbath. And, Christians regularly argue whether they should keep Saturday or Sunday as the Sabbath. While Christians may not see God literally killing people for breaking the Sabbath today, the belief that God has and will do so is still going strong today.
But, are we really to believe that God is so petty that he would kill a man for gathering sticks on the Sabbath?
You can only answer yes to the question “Did God kill a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath?” because the Holy Spirit has not brought light and life to this passage of scripture for you. In fact, when the Holy Spirit breathes life into this particular passage of scripture and others – that is, when the Holy Spirit inspires Numbers 15.32-36 – we come to see that God has not, does not, and never will kill anyone for gathering sticks on the Sabbath.
In fact, this story is not about just any man being killed for gathering stick son the Sabbath. The man gathering sticks in this story is a picture of Jesus. Jesus was the one killed for gathering sticks on the Sabbath. And, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself when Jesus was crucified. (2 Corinthians 5.19)
Therefore, in an ironic twist, it wasn’t God that killed a man for gathering sticks on the Sabbath. It was man that killed God for gathering sticks on the Sabbath.
How did I get there?
Well, let’s allow the Holy Spirit to inspire or bring to life Numbers 15.32-36.
How might the Holy Spirit do that?
The Hebrew word for sticks is es. This word is used quite a bit in the Old Testament, but there is one particularly interesting portion of scripture regarding the word es.
“The word of the Lord came to me: ‘Son of man, take a stick [es] and write on it, “For Judah, and the people of Israel associated with him”; then take another stick [es] and write on it, “For Joseph (the stick [es] of Ephraim) and all the house of Israel associated with him.” And join them one to another into one stick [es], that they may become one in your hand. And when your people say to you, “Will you not tell us what you mean by these?” say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I am about to take the stick [es] of Joseph (that is in the hand of Ephraim) and the tribes of Israel associated with him. And I will join with it the stick [es] of Judah, and make them one stick [es], that they may be one in my hand. When the sticks [es] on which you write are in your hand before their eyes, then say to them, Thus says the Lord God: Behold, I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all around, and bring them to their own land. And I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. And one king shall be over them all, and they shall be no longer two nations, and no longer two divided kingdoms.'” (Ezekiel 37.15-22)
So, here we have the Hebrew word for stick, es, used as a picture or symbol of the tribes and people of Israel. These sticks, or tribes of Israel, would be gathered together and made into one nation and would have one king over them.
Clearly, Ezekiel is prophesying about Jesus as the son of man that would gather the tribes of Israel, or sticks, and make them one nation with himself as their one king.
Going back to Numbers 15.32-36 and with the inspiration of the Spirit, we can see that the man found gathering sticks while Israel was in the wilderness is a picture of none other than Jesus. Scripture does indeed picture Israel as in the wilderness, in exile, when Jesus comes. Jesus indeed was gathering sticks, gathering the tribes, to make one nation with himself as the king.
When Jesus was found to be gathering people, or sticks, particularly on the Sabbath by healing and forgiving sins, this enraged the leaders of Israel. In Mark 3.1-6, Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. Verse 6 says, “The Pharisees went out and immediately held counsel with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.”
Eventually, Jesus was brought to the chief priests and elders and put into custody until it could be decided what to do with him. While they couldn’t stone Jesus, they decided to have him crucified, which indeed took place outside of the city, or outside of the camp.
John 11.49-53 ties all of Jesus’ story right back to Numbers 15.32-36 and Ezekiel 37.15-22.
“But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.’ He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God scattered abroad. So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.”
Jesus is the man gathering sticks on the Sabbath that was stoned outside the camp. Caiaphas played the part of Moses and Aaron, who was the chief of Israel. While Caiaphas did not know what he was saying, neither did Moses. God did not tell Moses, Aaron, and the congregation to kill a man for gathering sticks. Nor did God kill his own. The New Testament is very clear on this. Man killed Jesus, not God. Moses, Aaron, and the congregation killed the man gathering sticks on the Sabbath, not God.
Therefore, when we read the scripture through the inspiration of the Spirit, letting Jesus interpret it for us (Luke 24), then we see Moses and Aaron and the congregation decided themselves to kill the man gathering sticks on the Sabbath. Their view of God was veiled. They did not see God clearly. They were blinded by the God of this world. (2 Corinthians 3.12-16, 4.3-4)
Thankfully, Jesus and the Holy Spirit help us to see clearly today.