Isn’t this a stiff penalty? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
Many readers can be puzzled by this story in Numbers 15 and internet atheists love to share it:
32 While the Israelites were in the wilderness, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. 33 Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, 34 and they kept him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him. 35 Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.” 36 So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the Lord commanded Moses.
Wow. All this guy was doing was gathering wood and he gets put to death?
The context of this is right before this, the text speaks of the sin of the high hand. This is someone who acts defiantly in the face of God. They know that something is wrong and they go and do it anyway. It is an act of treason in such a covenant.
And that is what this man did.
Also, keep in mind that there is just one man who does this. Just one. What does that tell us? It tells us that this man knew he was doing something in isolation as the rest of the community was resting and if by some strange reason he didn’t know why, it would have been easy enough to find out.
Note also that if we say he was gathering wood for cooking, then we have a bigger problem. On the Sabbath, fires were not to be set (Exodus 35:3), no cooking was to be done, (Exodus 16:23), and of course, this was one of the Big Ten Commandments. Everything about this act is wrong.
Even if for some reason he had not had enough food somehow, hospitality was greatly valued in the Middle East. It would have been easy to go to a rich person who had an abundance and get something to eat. Also, in a worst-case scenario, no one is going to starve to death before the sun goes down.
When we get to the New Testament, we see Jesus allowing exceptions on the Sabbath for something like necessarily daily care for animals or for someone who is sick or in a place of injury. Does that cancel this out? Not at all. None of those situations shows what is going on here. It was still defiance and individual defiance would put the whole community at risk.
Also, if this man is willing to do such a thing for something so small, what is to stop him from doing it for something greater? Proverbs says a thief can be understood if he is trying to get food to eat. Again, this is not the same scenario.
Ultimately, what we can learn is that in the Old Testament at least, God does take keeping the Sabbath seriously. To mess up in this area leads to the death penalty. This is something we should keep in mind with out future study of this.
(And I affirm the virgin birth)