The Sabbath Violation

Why was a Sabbath-Breaker put to death? 



Numbers 15:32-36


     While the Israelites were in the desert, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day.  Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, and they kept him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him.


     Then the LORD said to Moses, "The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp."  So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the LORD commanded Moses.


     This brings us to another Bible difficulty.  Does picking up sticks deserve the death penalty?  Skeptics of the Bible often point to this incident accusing God of being immoral and unfair.


     Is it true that God was wrong in ordering this man to be stoned?


     One’s first reaction may be to ask “Why?”


     Let’s review the background to this story more closely. 



The principle behind this execution is this:  


     When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and to whom much was entrusted, of him more will be asked (Luke 12:48b). 

     This man in the story had been given great favor along with the rest of Israel. 

     Ten times this man saw the Lord’s glory and the miraculous signs performed in Egypt and in the desert (Numbers 14:22).  These ten displays of supernatural muscle (designed to persuade the leader of Egypt to free the Israelites) included turning water to blood, the death of every firstborn…and the list goes on.

     This ten-event accumulation of divine demonstration revealed the LORD as the God of gods as well as the King of Israel. 


     After the Israelites were released from slavery in Egypt, the LORD went ahead of them in a unique pillar of cloud to guide them on their way (See Numbers 9:15-23). 


     An amazing pillar of fire gave them light for night travel (Exodus 13:21).  This pillar may have been as tall as a skyscraper building or as big as a mountain and functioned as a navigation system.  The Israelites would remain in camp or set out for travel based on the movement of this supernatural pillar (also called the angel of God – Exodus 14:19).  In this manner, Israel’s invisible King (God) made his power visible not just in a moment but also in every moment, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.


     God’s presence in their midst was plain to see.  With all this in mind, breaking God’s law would be a bold, daring act of transgression against the fullest evidence of Divine authority. 


Was a warning previously given in respect to the Sabbath?


    Yes.  Moses assembled the entire Israelite community and said to them, "These are the things the LORD has commanded you to do: For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day shall be your holy day, a Sabbath of rest to the LORD. Whoever does any work on it must be put to death…. (Exodus 35:1-2)   


     Sabbath meals were cooked the day before thus collecting firewood for boiling or baking was prohibited (Exodus 16:23).


     So Divine authority had been established & the whole Israelite community had been fairly instructed.  Nevertheless, why such a high standard? 


The safety of Israel was taken into account

     Here is a helpful example.  Every branch of our military in the United States has a law stating that desertion is punishable by death during times of war.  It is the prerogative of those in authority to enforce the maximum penalty or grant a lesser sentence.  This Uniform Code of Military Justice is in place so our military performs at their best.  If our fighting men became lax in loyalty to their superiors or fellow comrades, many could die unnecessarily.


     God redeemed a nation for himself.  He considered the Israelites his sons & daughters.  However, Israel was to encounter future enemies.  Times of war & danger were ahead of them.  God was forming an army. Tens of thousands of lives were at stake.

     If disobedience were left unchecked, insubordination & compromise might spread.  This would weaken Israel as an army.  The results could be death or the slavery of many families.  Adherence to God’s order was necessary for victory.  Obviously, God cares for the individual but also lovingly considers the destiny of all. 




Sabbath Regulations


     Today Christians (under the New Covenant) do not observe the Sabbath rules in the same way as Israel did under the Mosaic law (Colossians 2:14-17).  Ritual practice of a weekly Sabbath is now an option for believers (Romans 14:5-6).   The meaning of the Sabbath has expanded.  Christians observe that which the Sabbath symbolized….the message of Jesus (Hebrews 4).  In other words, we can rest from trying to ‘earn’ our forgiveness through good works.  Instead, we are commanded to trust the perfect salvation accomplished for us through the work of Jesus on the cross.

     Even though we are not bound to the Sabbath like in Old-Testament-Jewish times, the Sabbath-rest principle is still alive today.  Taking time to remember God is important.  Whether it is 5 minutes in the morning or quiet time at night or worshiping on our way to work…waiting on him & honoring him is part of our everyday walk with Jesus.  It’s time set aside for rest, relaxation, giving thanks, joy & worship. 

Justice & Mercy 

     It is an error to perceive God only as a strict Judge. 


     During the life & times of Jesus, a certain religious group (the Pharisees) abused the Sabbath-law turning it in to something so legalistic that it kept them from listening to the voice of the Holy Spirit in certain matters; specifically regarding compassion. 

     In the event there was a higher law like mercy (for example: moving somebody away from a flood or helping somebody out of a burning building)…the Pharisaic mind-set would have been to punish the ‘Sabbath-breaker’.  The Lord Jesus combated this rigid thinking by picking ears of corn on a Sabbath day (Mark 2:23-27) and performing healing on the Sabbath (Luke 6:7-9).  In contrast, he demonstrated that man was not made for the Sabbath but rather the Sabbath was made for humankind.   





How are we supposed to know when our perceptions of God are too strict or too lenient?


The answer is by daily relationship.


     The Scripture says, “Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly”. 


     What should happen to the Sabbath-breaker?  A full pardon, grant a lesser sentence or carry out the maximum penalty?  Even though the law was clear, Moses asked God regarding his mind on a case-by-case basis.  He had a relationship.  Therefore, it is doubtful the law was applied in this exact fashion (maximum penalty) on a regular basis.  Whenever possible the LORD prefers forgiveness, repentance & mercy above judgment (Ezekiel 18:23).


Here are two closing thoughts:


-  Our relationship with God is strengthened when we set aside time to worship him, hear his voice and enjoy his presence.


-  His justice & mercy are in perfect balance.