Today’s Passages: Numbers 15:27-41, 28:9-10
The Sabbath receives mention in only two passages in Numbers. The first is narrative in nature, while the second is a commandment. And yes, that first passage is going to thrust our faces in the issue of the death penalty for breaking the Sabbath again, so let’s buckle up and get this thing moving.
After God explains how to offer sacrifices to cover unintentional violations of the commandments, the Israelites find one of their own gathering wood on the Sabbath. The narrative tells us, “They put him in custody because it had not been declared distinctly what should be done to him” (15:34). Is this a dispute over whether gathering wood constitutes work? Or is it a question of whether the man accidentally violated the Sabbath? But whatever questions Moses and Aaron have that are deferring their judgment, God himself answers them when he lays down the verdict from the bench: “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'” (15:35). And if that’s the call that God makes, then gathering wood must be a form of work, and the man must have done it knowing full well that it was the Sabbath; otherwise, it certainly wouldn’t be fair to put the man to death. (And in a nation of mandatory Sabbath-keeping, how would you forget it was the Sabbath anyway?)
This stuff isn’t easy. But what I always come back to when God commands his people to wipe out a nation or burns up priests for offering the wrong kind of offering or swallows up Hebrew rebels in an earthquake is this: ever since Adam and Eve botched God’s one instruction in the garden, we’ve been living in a world where everyone dies. The only person who should be permitted to go without dying is the one who never does anything wrong, who always does the right thing–and even He died on a cross. So who am I to say that a later time rather than a sooner one is the just time for a person to die? How do I know that this wood-gathering man should have had a few more years on earth before his sentence was carried out? There’s a measure of thinking out loud going on here, but I know I have an incomplete grasp of justice. When my gut tells me that prompt execution is too harsh a punishment for breaking the Sabbath, I need to check my gut against what I know, and against what I know I don’t know.
Quibbling about the details of when and where people die misses the bigger question of why people die at all, why death is present in our world. And the Bible does offer an answer to that one–along with the hope of eternal life for those who accept Jesus Christ’s gift of forgiveness. Maybe after I die I’ll get to ask the wood-gathering man himself whether his death penalty was just.
The second and final mention of the Sabbath in Numbers prescribes a Sabbath offering of “two male lambs one year old without defect, and two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil as a grain offering, and its drink offering” (28:9). Especially compared to the former passage, I don’t have nearly so much to say about this one, except that that’s roughly one hundred four Sabbath lambs a year.
Tomorrow: Deuteronomy! And also new chocolate! I have exhausted the Endangered Species super-dark.