God's no nonsense judgement against working on the Sabbath of being "Stoned to death" seems awfully harsh on the post Exodus, most likely long suffering, wilderness wanderer, who was merely gathering wood for the burning thereof. Surely he should have been allowed to at least atone for his seemingly forgivable sin/error and yet he wasn't so allowed.
Before answering this question, we should recall that the ultimate penalty for ALL sin (no matter how minor) is death according to Rom 6:23 -
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
We also have this in Heb 6:4-6
It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age— and then have fallen away—to be restored to repentance, because they themselves are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting Him to open shame.
Further, almost all the sin and guilt offerings as described in the Torah are for unintentional sins, Ex 21:13, Lev 4:2, 13, 22, 27, 5:2, 3, 15, 17, 18, 22:14, Num 15:24, 25, 27, 28, 29, 35:11, 15, etc, etc.
The punishment for intentional Sabbath-breaking was execution:
- Ex 31:14 - Keep the Sabbath, for it is holy to you. Anyone who profanes it must surely be put to death. Whoever does any work on that day must be cut off from among his people.
- Ex 35:2 - For six days work may be done, but the seventh day shall be your holy day, a Sabbath of complete rest to the LORD. Whoever does any work on that day must be put to death.
However, these laws were only VERY rarely enforced. Benson observes this:
Numbers 15:35. The man shall surely be put to death — One reason why the breach of the sabbath was punished with such severity by the Jewish law is, that it was an implicit denying of God to be the Creator of the world. For the sabbath being a sign, (Exodus 31:13,) whereby the worshippers of the one true God, who created the world, were distinguished from the idolatrous nations, who believed the world was eternal, and who worshipped the sun, moon, and stars, and a multitude of nominal gods, the violation of this institution implied or led to a defection from the true religion to polytheism and idolatry.
Now, the narrative in the story contained in Num 15 does not record all the details. For example, we do not know if the guilty man refused to repent, despite being given opportunity to confess before-hand. See appendix below for some other examples.
Lastly, at the establishment of the new nation of Israel, law and order was the primary concern and the seriousness of sin had to be emphasized.
APPENDIX - Death penalty for Sin
Here are a very few examples of people being executed for unconfessed and deliberate sin:
- Achan for the sin of embezzlement as per Josh 7:16-26
- Ananias and Sapphira for the sin of lying, Acts 5:1-11
- Stephen for (supposed) blasphemy, Acts 7:54-60
- Woman taken in Adultery, John 8:1-11, but Jesus prevented it.
- Korah Dathan and Abiram and many others for the sin of usurpation of priests, Num 16
There are several more plagues sent among the people.
The punishment does not fit the crime by human standards. The traditional justification for the punishment often involves the idea that the law was plain and there can be no excuse for violating it.
The law of the sabbath was plain and positive, and this transgression of it must therefore have been a known and wilful sin. And from the connection of this verse with the former it may be justly inferred that this man had sinned with a high hand, despising the word of the Lord, and the authority of his law. Benson
However, there is little if any evidence that this standard of justice was imposed generally in Israelite courts. In that sense, some observers consider the incident as an object lesson intended to emphasize the seriousness of keeping the sabbath holy, rather than as precedent to punish every minor violation of the sabbath law. Indeed, later prophets often had to remind Israel and Judah of the law because it was not enforced (Jeremiah 17:21,Isaiah 56:2, Ezekiel 44:24 etc.). Thus Keil and Delitzsch affirm that:
The History of the Sabbath-Breaker is no doubt inserted here as a practical illustration of sinning "with a high hand." It shows, too, at the same time, how the nation, as a whole, was impressed with the inviolable sanctity of the Lord's day.
By way of contrast, the prophet Isaiah's approach to Sabbath observance accentuated the positive:
Thus says the Lord: Observe what is right, do what is just, for my salvation is about to come, my justice, about to be revealed. Happy is the one who does this, whoever holds fast to it: Keeping the sabbath without profaning it, keeping one’s hand from doing any evil. (Is. 56:1-2)
Conclusion: the punishment here fits the crime only in the sense that a willful public disobedience of God's law cannot be tolerated. However, the purpose of the story is to impress the people of God that the Sabbath must be kept holy, not to impose a rigid system of justice in which anyone who prepares or lights a fire on the Sabbath must be put to death.
It is a good and difficult-to-answer question.
Approximately one and a half millennia after the Numbers stoning, the same immutable God was fully revealed in Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:3). The main NT narrative reveals a God willing to forgive, who loves enemies, and who is essentially non-violent.
Christ in John 8:1-11 handled analogous circumstances of an adultress due for death by stoning under the Law:
1 Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives, 2 but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them. 3 As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd. 4 “Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?” 6 They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. 7 They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” 8 Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust. 9 When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. 10 Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?” 11 “No, Lord,” she said. And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”
Events in the book of Numbers date c. 1450-1400 BCE toward the end of the bronze age in mid-east Asia. Patriarchal Israel had emerged from Bronze Age nomadic culture with a primitive perspective about the character of God. Despite Numbers being redacted and edited many centuries after its events, I posit that God left intact in inspired Scripture, at least in part, the primitive worldview of justice and punishment he used purposefully to engage with people of that time. Not as God is, but as people were then culturally able to understand. God is not limited, but the intellectual and cultural capacity of people would have been.
No doubt Scripture records what Israel’s leaders, scribes, and folklore always held true. But Christ corrected “an eye for an eye” to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:38), for example. To that point, Jesus clearly explained ‘You have heard it said ..(..).. but I say to you..’
In Numbers, as elsewhere in the OT, I posit that God used primitive culturally-bound humans to communicate timeless truths, and imparted it to us from their perspective.
And so the Numbers stoning rightly challenges us in the context of God's character as revealed in Christ, as similar circumstances did for Christ himself in John 8:1-11.