Numbers 15:32-34 Nasb

Now while the sons of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering wood on the sabbath day. 33 Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation; 34 and they put him in [p]custody because it had not been [q]declared what should be done to him.

Its a little puzzling that they did not know what to do to him when it had been clearly stated in Exodus

Exodus 31:14 NASB

14 Therefore you are to observe the sabbath, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people.

Did they not know the penalty or how to administer it?


Did they not know the penalty or how to administer it?

Exactly. Exodus 31:14 only states that the person who profanes Shabbat should be put to death. It does not describe the manner of the execution. There are four methods of capital punishment: stoning, burning, by the sword, and strangulation.

In the case of the person who profanes Shabbat, it was determined that he would be stoned.

  • 1
    I've been learning a lot from your posts - thanks! +1
    – Ruminator
    Dec 20 '18 at 22:49

The command in Exodus has two types of prohibitions each with its own consequence:

You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. (Exodus 31:14) [ESV]

  1. Prohibition: profane. Consequence: put to death
  2. Prohibition: work. Consequence: cut off from among his people

Later application might consider work to be punishable by death, yet the original instruction, which treats working on the Sabbath as an action distinct from profaning the Sabbath, did not require death. The penalty for working on the Sabbath was to be cut off from his people and while death would be one way of accomplishing this, it is clear from the context, the meaning is one of separation. In other words, a person who violates the Sabbath by working, is to be exiled or "cut off" from the rest of the community; which is how the word "cut off" is first used:

Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” (Genesis 17:14)

The penalty for breaking the covenant of circumcision was not death; it was to be cut off from the people.

The incident in question then raises three obvious issues:

  1. Is gathering sticks considered as profaning the Sabbath or working on the Sabbath?
  2. If profaning the Sabbath, who is to carry out the sentence of death?
  3. If the consequence is death and if the people are to carry out the sentence, how is that to be accomplished?

Similar to how the sentence is to be carried out (as noted in Der Übermensch's answer), is the question of who and even when the sentence is to be carried out. In her commentary on Numbers Nili S. Fox notes:

The case of the wood gatherer is distinct from the above. It illustrates a most severe violation of the ritual law, the desecration of the Sabbath, which is a capital offense, here punishable by stoning (cf. Exod. 31.14). It is possible that Moses here asks God what to do because earlier legislative texts note the punishment is death, but are unclear about whether it should be carried out by people or God (Exod. 31:14-15).1

Finally, the event is placed immediately after a passage (Numbers 15:22-31) which discusses unintentional and presumptuous sin. So another possibility is the question of whether this particular violation was presumptuous or unintentional. In other words, ordinarily gathering sticks is work, but this particular cases is one of deliberately acting to profane the Sabbath.2

Given these uncertainties, especially about the man's motivations, Moses asks the LORD how to handle the situation. The LORD's instructions, that the people are to carry out the death sentence by stoning, answers most of the questions.

Although there is nothing in the text which states whether the stoning was done on the Sabbath or the man's motivations, the implication of placing this event in this context may be to illustrate that any presumptuous act will profane the Sabbath. In other words, Moses would wait until after the Sabbath before having the man stoned to preserve the holiness of the day.

  1. Nili S. Fox, The Jewish Study Bible, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 314
  2. For example, the man had no immediate need for the sticks and could have waited until after the Sabbath to get what he desired..

What does it mean to 'profane' the Sabbath? Does the punishment of death fit the crime of picking up sticks when the original commandment simply says to honour the day of our Lord and keep it holy?

Jesus had a number of run-ins with the Jewish authorities for doing work on the Sabbath. His responses highlighted the authorities' ridiculous focus on the letter rather than the spirit of the law: a practice that seemed to have developed over time, since Moses first transcribe the Ten Commandments.

This OT incident in Numbers clearly points out that the law of the Sabbath was once not so precise.

The purpose of the original commandment would have been to set aside time in one's busy week to devote all thoughts and actions to God. The law would then have gradually developed, as Moses encountered incidents requiring him to define precisely what fails to honour the sabbath - from focus on one's physical rather than spiritual life, to doing any work on that day, to defining the parameters of what constitutes 'work' as well as what constitutes 'the Sabbath' (eg. sunrise to sunset).

The incident described in Numbers could have occurred at any point in the development of this law. There is no indication that the writing of Exodus was completed before the writing of Numbers began.

These days we understand that even the simplest of actions can be a prayer to God, if we are mindful of Him in all that we do.

  • There is a very practical concern with someone gathering sticks on the Sabbath. There aren't many trees in the middle east and at the time they were dependent on fire for food and warmth. If, while everyone else is being "good" and one person decides "the rules don't apply to me" then that person can gather up all the good wood leaving others without a basic necessity. Ditto for letting the land and water rest. The Sabbath is a brilliant way to protect the "commons" if everyone complies.
    – Ruminator
    Dec 21 '18 at 19:36
  • I see where you're come from, @Ruminator. But the incident still highlights an issue with the law as a guide for morality - they're made to be broken. If someone gathers sticks on the Sabbath to prevent his family from freezing to death, he risks his own life to save others - which is the greater 'good'? Dec 23 '18 at 6:07
  • This was Paul's concern in 1 Tim: [1Ti 1:8 KJV] 8 But we know that the law [is] good, if a man use it lawfully; To use the law "lawfully" is to not use the law to incriminate someone who is righteous!
    – Ruminator
    Dec 23 '18 at 13:30
  • @Ruminator The issue here had nothing to do with fair access to resources. The Sabbath-breaker was deliberately rebelling against God by breaking the Sabbath because he most certainly knew the law. It seems he was disgruntled about God's declaration (just the chapter previous) that they would have to spend 40 years in the wilderness, and die there; and thus it was a bold challenge of God's law in the sight of the people, and could have been punished on the grounds of rebellion just as easily as for having broken the Sabbath.
    – Polyhat
    Sep 9 at 9:01
  • So @Polyhat, would you say that Sabbath laws are arbitrary religious commands, divorced from morality? Because the commands were part of a land treaty. They had to let the land rest: [Leviticus 25:5 NASB20] (5) 'You shall not reap your harvest's aftergrowth, and you shall not gather your grapes of untrimmed vines; the land shall have a sabbatical year.
    – Ruminator
    Sep 9 at 21:06

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