Question: A friend of yours shows you Numbers 15:32-36 and asks why God could be so strict. Give a reasoned and caring response to this friend.
Here is the text:
“Now while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron, and to all the congregation. They put him under guard, because it had not been explained what should be done to him.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man must surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” So, as the Lord commanded Moses, all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him with stones, and he died.” – Numbers 15:32-36
Below is a brief answer I wrote to this question in my theology studies.
Understanding the bigger perspective
Hello my friend,
It makes me glad that you have a desire to understand the Bible. Numbers 15:32-36 is admittedly one of the most difficult passages of Scripture. I don’t claim to have a complete understanding of this passage, but let me share some thoughts that hopefully will help you make sense of this passage and help you see that it can indeed be in agreement with a God of love that we see throughout the Bible.
The last years I have been involved in a number of boards. One important lesson that has taught me is this: when you hear about a decision that has been taken on something, you might strongly disagree with it. BUT if you had been in the discussion, if you knew the whole matter and had the larger perspective, YOU would have taken the very same decision that you couldn’t make any sense out of, without that information. If that can be true with human beings, how much more should not that be true with God – the King and Creator of the universe, who knows so much more than we do of the universe and the human heart – of the past, the present and the future?
To correctly understand a passage in the Bible, it is important to consider the immediate and larger context. The context of this passage is that God has miraculously delivered the Israelites out of Egypt with great signs and wonders. Since then He has supernaturally provided for their necessities. He has given them laws on how they as a people and as individuals should live to be as happy and fulfilled as possible. He has told them the consequences of not following His law. Yet, again and again the people murmured and sinned. But time and again God forgave. Now, in chapter 14 the people have again disobeyed God, but after Moses intercession, God shows mercy. They are told though, that because of their sin and unbelief they need to stay longer in the wilderness than God had planned. In chapter 15 we find a discussion of rebellion and right living. God says that accidental sins, or sins done unawares, could find atonement in the Sanctuary system. And right before the passage you mention, it says that a sin committed with malice, with a high-hand, knowingly, willingly, rebelliously, could not find forgiveness. With that said, let me share some quick bullet points that sheds some light on this passage.
- This man knew without the shadow of a doubt that there was a God.
- Time and again God had helped and provided for the man’s needs and the needs of his people even though they had many times disobeyed and disappointed God.
- The man also knew that this act was strongly and explicitly forbidden by God. It was a violation of the fourth commandment, that God wrote in stone with His own finger. The fourth is the longest commandment and the only commandment that begins with “Remember.”
- He knew that the penalty for this act was death.
- Every week God’s provision of the manna (their wilderness food) for the Sabbath, was a miraculous reminder of the sacredness of this day.
- The act was unnecessary. They did not need a fire to keep themselves warm in the wilderness climate. When they later lived in colder Canaan they were allowed to make a fire on the Sabbath.
- Despite all this, the man, openly in the daylight, did this act willingly and rebelliously, despising the authority of God.
- The retribution visited upon the first offender of this law would be a warning to others. Had this man’s sin been permitted to pass unpunished, others would have been demoralized; and as the result many people would be eternally lost.
- God knew this man would not repent if he could live longer and get more chances.
- And who knows if it was not better for himself to die there and then than to live a life in rebellion of what he knew to be right? And who knows how many other lives he would hurt and make miserable if he would keep on living?
- The Bible says that God is slow to anger – the work of judgment is “a strange work” to Him. It is the last thing He wants to do, though He sometimes deems it necessary. Therefore we have very few examples like this in Scripture.
- On the other side God is quick to show mercy and He longs to forgive and restore.
- Sin separates us from God – our source of life. A life of sin – a life in rebellion towards Him, is ultimately not possible, but finally, reluctantly God will accept the sinner’s choice and leave them alone without their source of life. And thus they will experience their second death.
- God carefully guards His law because He knows that is the foundation to the best life, the perfect universe – a place of perfect peace, harmony, love and joy.
Ok, that was just some brief thoughts. I hope you find them helpful. I would be happy to discuss these things more with you. Please let me know if you have any questions. Finally, I would like to recommend a sermon from my friend and former teacher, David Asscherick, that sheds even more light on some of the most difficult passages of Scripture, “Ablazing Grace: Jehovah, Joshua and Genocide,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nq6HXqtaE-8.
Take care my friend,