by Lois Tverberg
Now while the sons of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation; and they put him in custody because it had not been declared what should be done to him. Then the LORD said to Moses, “The man shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” Numbers 15:32-35
Some scenes in the Old Testament leave us scratching our heads about why God was so harsh and the regulations so arbitrary. The case of the man who was caught carrying wood on the Sabbath is one of them. It seems like an innocuous thing, but it seems to be especially serious. How can this be?
Several cultural things may be helpful in understanding this. The prohibition that the man was clearly intending to break was to light a fire on the Sabbath, as it says in Exodus 35:3. Lighting a fire was not a minor task – a person searched far outside the camp until he or she had a large load of wood, and then carried the heavy bundle back home, and then took some time to get a flame going. It would be likely that he was planning to cook or do other work that required a fire, and that gathering the wood was just the first step toward having a day full of activity that would willfully ignore the commandment to honor the Sabbath day.
The Sabbath itself was an especially important commandment to the Israelites when the covenant was given. It was the sign of the covenant that God had made with them:
The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “But as for you, speak to the sons of Israel, saying, `You shall surely observe My sabbaths; for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you. Therefore you are to observe the sabbath, for it is holy to you. Exodus 31:12-14
A sign of a covenant was a symbolic remembrance of the whole covenant. To break it was like breaking the whole thing. A modern analogy is the wedding ring, which is a kind of “sign,” a remembrance of the covenant of marriage. If a woman got rid of another piece of jewelry her husband gave her, it would not be very important. But if she threw away or sold her wedding ring, it would say something about her feelings about the marriage as a whole. Similarly, the man who was willfully ignoring the Sabbath was spurning the entire covenant, which he and all of Israel were accountable to keep as a people. If one person broke it, it affected all of them.
Even though our situation is much different than this, we can see that in its time, this sin was very serious, and indicated an attitude of rebellion that impacted all of Israel. Having its cultural setting helps us have the right lenses to grasp it the way was understood in its time, and why it resulted in such a strong reaction from Moses and from God.