Death Penalty for Picking up Sticks?!

by Glenn M. Miller

I got this question from a tender-hearted believer:

Hi, Glenn, I have a troubling question weighing on my mind about the OT. In the New Testament Jesus says the Sabbath was made for man and not the other way around. Yet when one reads the Old Testament God tells Moses to execute a man for picking up “sticks” on the Sabbath. This has always troubled me throughout my life, all the other tuff questions are relatively small potatoes compared to this (at least in my opinion). I know many people who have read the Ot and didn’t become believers because of this passage, they could get “over” the Caananites and Midianites tuff qs, but not this one. To them this proved that this was made up to tell the Early Jews how the Sabbath came about, rather than historical and supernatural fact. To me why would God, Who is Infinite, Just, Merciful, Who allowed the Amelakites to harass the Israelites for hundreds of years hoping they would repent ask Moses to kill a man for getting (firewood? or was he making weapons to rebel?)”sticks”. Please help me, is the translation wrong or is the explanation been lost in the history of time? I need guidance on this ASAP! Thanks!

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The passage he was referring to is in Numbers 15:32-36:

While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. 33 And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation. 34 They put him in custody, because it had not been made clear what should be done to him. 35 And the LORD said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” 36 And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as the LORD commanded Moses.

Let’s make some quick historical observations about this event:

One. This occurs during the 40 years in which Israel was living and moving around in the wilderness. All of the regulations about the importance of the Sabbath had been given. There was no lack of clarity on the part of anyone about this…


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