It’s easy to look at the Bible and see God’s judgment in certain circumstances as harsh or unfair or simply over-reactive. One part of the Bible where this often happens is in Numbers 15:32-36.
32 Now while the children 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 under guard, because it had not been explained what should be done to him.
35 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.” 36 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
In this verse, God actually commands the Israelites to kill somebody with stones because he was picking up sticks. From our temporal perspective, this not only looks irrational but cruel. How can a loving God command such a thing? Couldn’t he just let the guy off with a warning or given him a much lighter punishment like community service?
If we only look at the surface without looking at the bigger picture, we will walk away shaking our heads at a God that appears cruel and vindictive. But what do we see if we look deeper? Might there be more to the story? Was he really just some innocent guy mistakenly doing landscaping on the wrong day of the week? Was God’s punishment truly vengeful, irrational, or unfair? Before we make any assumptions here, we have to consider two facts.
The first fact is that the punishment for profaning the Sabbath was well-known. All of Israel knew that if they broke the Sabbath, the penalty was death. You don’t forget the consequence of death when it’s a punishment. It’s a consequence that tends to be pretty well-known.
Second, Numbers 15:27-28 (the same passage that the guy is stoned to death in) talks about how the punishment for breaking the law out of ignorance is offering a sacrifice to the Lord. If this man had simply acted ignorantly and didn’t realize that it was the Sabbath day, the punishment would have been different. His penalty would’ve been offering a goat to the Lord. If that had been the case, then this situation wouldn’t have probably even been documented in history. There is no record of what his motivation may have been, but it was found that it wasn’t ignorance. He was in defiance of what God had commanded him. He was in defiance of the Sabbath. He was willfully defying God. Maybe he was even daring them to deliver death for such a seemingly trivial action.
But is God’s Judgment Fair?
We could say that even if that’s true, that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. Death for being insubordinate or defiant or whatever you want to call it is not justified. We can assume that, but we have to consider two more points before making that assumption. First, if God exists, then he sees the truth in our hearts. He saw the defiance and rebellion that was in this man’s heart, and what that indicated. When we defy God it signals our lack of faith. Absent of faith, we walk away from that life-giving everlasting relationship with God. When it all comes down to it, we are walking away from the only relationship that really matters.
Whether God commanded the Israelites to kill him or not, this man’s future was not promising. He was walking away from God. He was walking away from an eternal relationship with God. It wouldn’t have mattered if God commanded the Israelites to kill him or let him off. God knew this man wasn’t going to have a change of heart and reconcile that relationship. He knew his eternal destiny.
We might still believe God should have been merciful in this situation, whether this man was going to hell or not. Yet, before we consider mercy, we need also to consider something else. What would’ve happened if he wasn’t punished? If God didn’t punish him, then might it have jeopardized the walk of a whole nation? Unfortunately, we have the habit of doing what we can get away with. We have the habit of moving towards the lowest common denominator. Though Israel made mistake after mistake in their exodus from Egypt, they still always turned their hearts back to God in the end. One man disobediently picking up sticks in the desert seems like a small matter, but accepting it would have said that total disregard for God’s will was acceptable. If Israel had done that so early in their history, they would’ve separated themselves from God. They would have lost not only the spiritual blessings that resulted from that relationship but their physical blessings would also have been compromised. Acceptance of an act that might seem trivial could have put their whole future in jeopardy.
If this man went unpunished, then Israel would’ve followed in his ways, and there would’ve been a self-inflicted punishment of the new nation by following in his tracks. So left with that option, God’s choice was to allow this crime to go unpunished and let Israel go down a bad road very early in its history or end this man’s life. A man who was on a bad road anyway. A man who did not have a relationship with God, nor wanted to reconcile that relationship.
God’s judgment is always good
We have to realize that God’s judgment is always good, even if we might not understand it. God’s judgment is always good because he has more wisdom and a better understanding than we do. He has an eternal perspective, whereas we have a temporal one.
The sabbath law was necessary for Israel’s survival as a nation that seeks and obeys God. Punishment was also essential to ensure that Israel took the law and the covenant seriously. As I said, being such a new nation, any widespread acceptance of willfully defying God would’ve taken it down the wrong path. Like a butterfly flapping its wings that creates a hurricane, so would’ve been acceptance of this act. Not taking it seriously would have had far-reaching consequences. Therefore, it was more loving of God to punish this man than allow the whole nation to fall away and punish itself.
We also need to remember that the law was necessary to prepare the way for Christ (Galatians 3:22 – 25). This was ultimately the true purpose of the ceremonial law. It was about leading Israel toward the eventual reward, which was God’s grace by faith in Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Allowing Israel to crumble so quickly in its infancy would’ve jeopardized the coming of Christ (at least the timing) and the grace that we are blessed by. One man picking up sticks in the wilderness on the wrong day was actually a very big deal and needed to be dealt with.
Context is always important
All of this is only to say that when we read the Bible, we must realize that context is always important. Christians are no longer obligated to follow the ceremonial law because we received the whole goal and purpose of what it was leading toward (God’s grace and the eternal relationship with him). If we read Numbers 15:32-36 out of context (God killed someone for landscaping on the wrong day), then we will sadly misinterpret the very heart of God. This is one of the worst things that can happen to us. When we misunderstand the nature of God, we either end up concluding that God is cruel and selfish or that he doesn’t exist (because we don’t want that type of God to exist). When faced with these two choices, many simply choose not to believe that the Judeo-Christian God is real. They can’t submit to a God they interpret as unloving. Unfortunately, many believe in the concepts of love, grace, and mercy but fail to realize that without God at the center, these things can never dwell inside us. They are nothing more than a mantra or impossible creed. This is one of the greatest tragedies of misinterpreting God’s heart.
Finally, just as importantly, we need to have eternity in mind as we read the Bible. This helps us correctly interpret God’s actions as loving. It’s funny because often we may want it both ways. We might refuse to believe in eternity (Heaven and Hell) because we can’t understand the God of the Bible. Yet, we don’t understand the God in the Bible because we refuse to believe in eternity. When one is willing to believe in the possibility of eternity, it transforms how one understands God. When we see with the eternal mindset instead of a temporal one, we see that God’s judgment and love are not in opposition and don’t contradict each other. On the contrary, they are two sides of the same coin and perfectly complement each other.