The Punishment of the Wood-gatherer



The gracious gift of the Sabbath commandment has a decisive meaning for the covenant relationship, as it is the sign of the everlasting covenant.

Daniel Kwame Bediako

Numbers 15:32 to 36 describes the stoning of a man who was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. This passage recalls the fourth commandment, which requires rest on the Sabbath from routine work (Ex. 20:8–11) including the gathering of manna (16:22, 26, 27), cooking (vss. 23–25, 29, 30), and the kindling of fire (35:2, 3). A violation of the Sabbath regulation even drew the death penalty (31:14, 15).

The incident of the wood-gatherer is one of several instances in the Book of Numbers in which the penalty is visited on persons who disregarded the covenant relationship between Yahweh and Israel. The death-penalty law and its implementation in the Old Testament have received several interpretations. For many, the regulation seems harsh or even unjust, but to seek to understand the law solely from the viewpoint of ethics means to lose sight of its covenantal significance.

Numbers 15 has long been considered one of the difficult passages in the book. Scholarly discussion centers on three main questions: How does chapter 15 relate to chapters 13 and 14 to 16 and 17? What connection is there between the discernable units within chapter 15? And how should the statement translated as “because it had not been explained what should be done to him” (15:34)1 be understood? The first two questions require some analysis of structure as well as the thematic connections within chapters 13 through 17. The third question requires grammatical analysis of Numbers 15:32 to 36 within its immediate context as well as the larger context of the fourth commandment. A fourth question that this study raises borders on theodicy: Why would a Sabbath breaker be stoned to death, and what continuity/discontinuity is there between the Christian Church and the Old Testament regarding the death penalty?


Numbers 15 and Its Context

The Book of Numbers covers a period of about 39 years and records select events and interventions of Yahweh that colored the Exodus from Egypt, particularly the journey through the desert from the foot of Mt. Sinai to the Israelites’ encampment in the plains of Moab (Num. 1:1; 10:11; Deut. 1:3). These narratives depict both the history of the Exodus and the centrality of the covenant. Overall, the book underscores the necessity of obedience as well as the tragedy of disobedience to Yahweh and His word.

D. T. Olson has proposed that the two censuses in Numbers 1 and 26 provide the major indicators of outline and theme in the book,2 with respect to its immediate audience: chapters 1 to 25 (first generation) and chapters 26 to 35 (second generation). Within chapters 1 to 25, chapters 11 to 25 constitute a cycle of rebellion and death, with the events of chapters 13 to 17 occupying a central place.

Source-critical scholars generally hold that chapter 15 has little connection with what precedes (chaps. 13 and 14) and what follows (chaps. 16 and 17), a conclusion that is influenced by the assumption that chapter 15 is a late accretion from the postexilic period based either on Leviticus 4 and 5, 17 to 26, or Ezekiel 46. But a closer look at the narratives reveals strong thematic connections within chapters 13 to 17. In these chapters, 10 out of 12 spies incite Israel to rebel against Yahweh and His appointed leadership (chap. 13). Consequently, Yahweh destined the first generation to death in the wilderness (chap. 14) while reiterating His promise of the land of Canaan, with whose produce the second generation will worship Him (chap. 15). Although the first generation “‘shall not see the land’” (Num. 14:23), they are still required to be faithful to the covenant relationship and to instruct their children in the law (14:20, 40–43; 15:37–41). As such, any open rebellion was punishable, be it a direct infringement of the covenant stipulations as exemplified by the Sabbath (15:32–36) or insurrection against the appointed leadership (chaps. 16–17).

Further elements underscore the thematic unity of the material in chapters 13 to 17.

First, the statement in Numbers 15:2—“‘“when you have come into the land you are to inhabit”’”—provides a link with the events of chapters 13 and 14 in which, after the rebellion following the scouting of the land (13:2), Yahweh still promises the land to their “‘little ones’” (14:31). Notwithstanding Israel’s rejection of the land and the consequent condemnation of the first generation (chap. 14), chapter 15 emphasizes Yahweh’s grace in giving the second generation the hope of inheriting the land (vss. 2, 3, 18, 19).

Second, the delineation of the various sacrifices in Numbers 15:21 picks up and builds on the theme of the land as one “flowing with milk and honey” (13:27; 14:8, NLT). In this land, Israel will be blessed so abundantly that they will accompany the animal sacrifices with bounteous produce from the land (15:1–21).

Third, Numbers 15:22 to 31 implies that while Yahweh graciously offers forgiveness of sins through animal sacrifices, these sacrifices do not expiate deliberate and defiant sin such as that of the spies in chapters 13 and 14.

Fourth, the tassel regulation in Numbers 15:37 to 41 evokes the narrative of the spies through the use of certain words. In verse 39, Israel is called to look at the tassels and remember God’s law so that they do not explore and promiscuously pursue “after their own eyes.” This recalls Numbers 13:32 and 33 and 14:33, where the spies are said to have explored the land, seen the giants, felt as grasshoppers in their own eyes, and led Israel astray. Thus, the instruction on the use of tassels (vss. 37–41), while following directly from the wood-gatherer’s incident, concludes both chapter 15 and chapters 13 to 15.

Fifth, it has been suggested that by gathering wood on the Sabbath, the man openly rejected the freedom from slavery and showed his preference for a life of servitude in Egypt, a choice that Israel had already made in 14:2 to 4. The decision to gather wood on the Sabbath may have served to express the man’s displeasure with the condemnation of the first generation and his choice to reject the covenant relationship (14:22–29).

Sixth, the two acts of rebellion in chapters 15 to 17 seem to illustrate further the twofold theme of chapters 13 and 14: breaking of the covenant (13:31; 14:9–11) and rejection of the leadership (14:4). As the wood-gatherer’s incident (chap. 15) is a demonstration of dissatisfaction with Yahweh’s judgment in response to the breaking of the covenant, so the rebellion of Korah and company (chaps. 16 and 17) expresses dissatisfaction with Yahweh’s chosen leaders. Roy Gane has noted that chapter 15, “with its thematic balance between God’s justice and mercy and its strong warning against disloyalty, simultaneously makes Korah’s revolt (chap. 16) appear more shocking and unreasonable to the listener/reader and places the Lord in a better light than if the narrative moved directly from one rebellion and divine judgment (chap. 14) to the next (chap. 16).”3 Together, the three acts of rebellion in chapters 13 to 17 serve as examples of defiant sins (15:29–31), all of which occurred during the sojourn in the wilderness of Paran (13:3, 26; 15:32; 20:1).

Scholars have also questioned the unity within chapter 15. Some consider the chapter as a strange collection of cultic laws, part of which is “the displaced conclusion of another legal section.”4 However, there is thematic unity within the chapter.

The introductory clause of Numbers 15:32 (“while the children of Israel were in the wilderness”) should not lead to the conclusion that the Sabbath narrative (vss. 32–36) is a late accretion and, therefore, out of place in time. Although the phrase “in the wilderness” can be used in the generic sense, it often refers to a specific situation or condition. In Numbers 15:32, the reference is probably to the “wilderness of Paran” (13:3, 26). Moreover, the transitional statement of verse 32a seems necessary because of the switch in genre from legal instructions in verses 3 through 31 to a narrative/story in verses 32 to 36. The transitional statement implies that the instructions of verses 1 to 31 were given in the wilderness of Paran, where the incident of the spies occurred, and that while still in that wilderness the wood-gatherer rebelled despite earlier warnings (vss. 22–31).

Numbers 15:1 to 21 records various sacrifices and offerings. Verses 22 to 31 contain legal prescriptions for inadvertent sins (vss. 22–29) and defiant sins (vss. 30 and 31) applicable to both native and alien (vss. 29, 30). Inadvertent sins, committed either by the congregation (vss. 22–26) or by an individual (vss. 27–29), can be atoned for (vss. 25–28). However, defiant sins are not expiable through animal sacrifices (vss. 30, 31). Verse 30 defines such sins as high-handed and blasphemous. Defiance and blasphemy constitute an affront against Yahweh—a rebellion against His authority and His covenant. Since atonement is not available for such sin, perpetrators are to be “cut off,” bearing their own guilt (vs. 31). Within the context of cultic legislation of offerings for the expiation of inadvertent sins versus death for defiant sins (vss. 22–31), the incident of the wood-gatherer (vss. 32–36) provides an example of defiant rebellion and the application of the death penalty (vss. 30 and 31). As an example of the terminal punishment resulting from defiant violation of the covenant (vss. 22–31), this incident provides an immediate basis within chapter 15 for the prescription of the use of tassels (vss. 37–41). Although verses 37 to 41 evoke the narrative of the spies (chaps. 13 and 14), the wearing of the tassels would serve as a constant reminder for Yahweh’s covenant and His law, including the Sabbath (vss. 32–36), and thereby deter Israelites from rebellion either as individuals (vss. 30–36) or as a nation (chaps. 13 and 14).

The foregoing description of the thematic unity within Numbers 13 to 17 in general, and within chapter 15 in particular, argues against conceiving chapter 15 as an anthology of scarcely related legal material. The issues involved in the Israelites’ rebellion are multi-faceted, so Numbers 15 provides an effective multi-faceted response.


Dealing With the Wood-gatherer

As Jonathan Burnside has noted, “Numbers 15:32–36 has long been regarded as problematic. The decision seems, at face value, to be grossly unjust and there are questions as to why it was seen as a hard case in the first place and why an oracular procedure was needed to resolve it.”5 The discussion in the previous section has shown that verses 32 to 36 constitute a case of deliberate rejection of Yahweh and His commands. The stoning of the wood-gatherer cannot be deemed unjust, given that he presumptuously disregards Yahweh’s authority, despite the stern warning against defiance (vss. 30, 31).

As to why the incident is treated as a “hard case,” scholars have answered in diverse ways. Jacob Milgrom suggests this incident provides the precedent for the principle that all work on the Sabbath is punishable by death, implying that the prescription in Exodus 31 is based on Numbers 15:32 to 36.6 Earlier, J. Weingreen similarly thought that Numbers 15:32 to 36 “presented a new situation for which no legal precedent or principle could be invoked.”7 This passage then constitutes an elementary form of a later Rabbinic principle known as “fence around the law,” which sought to prohibit acts that though not harmful in themselves, could lead to breaking the law. However, the internal historical claims of the biblical text disallow the conclusion that Numbers 15 predates Sabbath laws in the Book of Exodus.

Anthony Phillips finds Weingreen’s view to be anachronistic and, instead, suggests the question in Numbers 15:34 was whether the gathering of wood constituted labor, which was prohibited on the Sabbath.8 Several versions of this view have been espoused. Timothy R. Ashley, for example, thinks the issue was “whether a man who was gathering sticks . . . on the Sabbath, presumably to make a fire in contravention of the law, was as guilty as if he had actually built the fire.”9 Still, some suggest that though the congregation understood that wood-gathering profaned the Sabbath, they could not tell whether it was punishable by death or by some lesser penalty. In other words, “the deliberation would have been to determine whether this sin might be covered by an offering so they did not have to execute the man or if it was a brazen sin for which no offering was possible.”10 Quite apart from the incongruity of such interpretation with Exodus 31, which enjoins the death penalty for the profanation of the Sabbath, a close reading reveals that the issue in Numbers 15:32 to 36 was neither whether wood-gathering constituted work nor whether some penalty lesser than death could apply.

Numbers 15:32 reports that some people found the man “gathering wood/sticks” on the Sabbath. The verb translated as “gather” may be related to the noun stubble. In Exodus 5:7 and 12 it is used for the gathering of stubble, and in 1 Kings 17:10 to 12, it is used in connection with the gathering of firewood. Zephaniah 2:1 uses the verb with reference to the coming together of people. The arrest of the wood-gatherer and placing him under guard are indications that the congregation understood his activity to have constituted a direct infraction of the Sabbath regulation regarding work, even if it was near-domestic work. Whereas, of his own will, the man refused to rest on the Sabbath from labor, he was now caused, against his will, to “rest” in “custody” (vs. 34).

While the gathering of sticks would generally be intended for fire in biblical times, the reason for the gathering of sticks in Numbers 15 is not stated. If the intent was to build a fire, then the wood-gatherer was arrested and detained on two counts—“working” and intending to “kindle fire”—neither of which would be allowed on the Sabbath day. Gane has noted that the man did not need to build a fire, whether for cooking or for warmth: “This happened sometime during the period when the Israelites were in the desert (15:32), where the climate was warm and the people had manna to eat (Exod. 16:35). So a fire for warmth or cooking would not have been urgent even if it were not Sabbath. It looks as though this man was going out of his way to violate the Sabbath command of the Decalogue (Ex. 20:8–11), of which the people were reminded every weekend when they received a double portion of manna on Friday and none on the Sabbath (16:22–30).”11

It would appear that the wood-gatherer had no good reason to engage in the activity. The larger context of rebellion against Yahweh and His covenant (Numbers 13–17), and the immediate context of warning against defiant sins (15:29–31) suggest that the incident of verses 32 to 36 is a case of rebellion by which the man expressed dissatisfaction against Yahweh’s judgment in chapter 14. Matilde Frey has observed a connection between the gathering of wood on the Sabbath (Numbers 15) and the gathering of stubble in Egypt (Exodus 5), especially on the basis of the use of the same word in both passages and Israel’s preference for a life of slavery in Egypt in Numbers 13 and 14: “The telling link that Numbers 15 draws between the Israelite slaves who were forced to gather straw to make bricks and the man gathering wood on Sabbath reveals the intention of the text to show that the Israelite man, even though freed from slavery, consciously chose to act against the law of freedom and thereby placed himself back into the position of a slave.”12 The bold defiance of the wood-gatherer constituted an affront against the authority of Yahweh for which no animal sacrifice was possible (Num. 15:30, 31).

If the gathering of wood constituted a violation of the Fourth Commandment, and if such a violation—including the gathering of manna, cooking, and the building of fire on the Sabbath—was punishable by death, would the wood-gatherer’s fate still be unclear to Moses and the congregation, so as to require the intervention of Yahweh? The meaning of the clause “because it had not been explained what should be done to him” (vs. 34) needs to be understood within the specific context of verses 32 to 36. In itself, Numbers 15:34 could imply an uncertainty on the part of the congregation either regarding the fate of the man or the kind of punishment to be meted out, or it could express the congregation’s anticipation for Yahweh’s verdict.

One example of Rabbinic interpretation is that while Moses and the elders knew that the death sanction had to apply, they were not certain about the mode of execution. Tzvi Novick seems to read too much into the text when he suggests that the congregation’s uncertainty resulted from their own doubt whether the covenant law that prohibited work on the Sabbath was still valid and applicable to the first generation, who had already been condemned to death (Num. 14:20–23). Thus, “although the wood-gatherer acts alone, he gives expression, through his action, to the doubt of the entire people.”13 The judgment in Numbers 14 could have roused a spirit of rebellion among the people as exemplified by the wood-gatherer in chapter 15, yet there is no textual basis to interpret verse 34 to mean that the entire congregation doubted the relevance and applicability of the covenant law to the first generation.

One could argue that placing the wood-gatherer under guard was unavoidable because the elders of the congregation would not be in the position to judge the case immediately, since the incident occurred on the Sabbath. While this is reasonable, it must be pointed out that there is no indication in the text that the leadership of the congregation intended to judge the case after the Sabbath hours. It is thus instructive that the congregation does not make any attempt to judge the case formally.

Perhaps rather than ask why the leaders could not decide on the case despite the apparent clarity of the already known Sabbath-profanation penalty, we may ask whether they intended to take a decision other than Yahweh’s specific pronouncement on the case. Not in a single instance in the Book of Numbers did the congregation apply the death penalty as a result of their own judgment. The profanation of the Sabbath and defiant sin in Exodus 31:14 and Numbers 15:30 and 31, respectively, required the application of the “cut off” punishment, which was a divinely exacted terminal punishment for certain sins against Yahweh (Num. 9:13; 19:13, 20).

The congregation may thus have known that the wood-gatherer deserved the death penalty but decided to wait for the pronouncement of Yahweh as in the case of the blasphemer in Leviticus 24. Since there is no indication of the congregation’s trial of the man, it may be that he was put in custody because it had not been declared by Yahweh what should be done to him, not necessarily because the elders/judges could not reach a consensus on his fate or the mode of punishment. Pragmatically, even if the congregation was supposed to decide on the case and the mode of punishment based on earlier legal prescriptions, certain factors may possibly have discouraged the attempt. First, given that it was a case of defiant affront against Yahweh, the congregation may have so wondered at the wood-gatherer’s blatant profanation of the Sabbath that they would only think of referring the case to Yahweh. Second, given the context—in which the authority of Moses and Aaron is specifically questioned (Num. 14:4; 16:2, 3)—their reliance upon Yahweh’s judgment in a case of defiance against Himself was only appropriate.

That in Numbers 15:34 the congregation anticipates Yahweh’s verdict, is confirmed by verse 35, where He directs that “‘the man must surely be put to death.’” The mode of punishment then follows: “‘the whole congregation’” must “‘stone’” the man outside the camp. The fact that Yahweh’s verdict in verse 35 spelled out both the penalty and the mode of execution could be further indication that the congregation had not decided on the case. Verse 36 reports the execution of the sentence. The verb in verse 35 always involves the use of stones and probably depicts the vivid casting of stones.

The Old Testament prescribes stoning as the mode of executing the death penalty in many instances. It usually took place outside the camp or the city—probably to avoid contamination or to signify the horribleness of taking human life. It could also signify rejection from the community. Although it is commonly understood that stoning was prescribed “because it supposedly does not shed blood, and thus does not bring blood-guilt on the community,”14 it appears such was the most appropriate mode of inflicting the death penalty as a communal activity. The entire congregation participated in the execution of the wood-gatherer, signifying thereby their corporate identity and responsibility as a covenant community, poised to obey Yahweh and to fulfill His demands (Ex. 24:7).

Burnside has lamented the inadequacy of earlier studies on Numbers 15:32 to 36, as these attempted to understand the text from the viewpoint of the modern legal system, and have yielded only “anachronistic results.”15 He discards the “semantic and literal” approach to biblical Sabbath-profanation laws in favor of a “narrative and visual” approach, and then reads Numbers 15:32 to 36 against Exodus 5:7 to 19. As to why “gathering materials on the Sabbath [was] regarded so seriously,” he answers that “‘gathering’ on the seventh day of the week evoked the Israelites’ regular activity under the lordship of Pharaoh.”16

Suffice it to say that this alternative approach to reading biblical Sabbath laws disregards Genesis 2:1 to 3 as the backdrop of subsequent Sabbath laws (Exodus 20; 31; 35). With the earlier Sabbath texts in the books of Genesis and Exodus in view, the incident of the wood-gatherer evokes a literal rather than an imagistic regulation. For that matter, Numbers 15:32 to 36 deserves a semantic and literal reading as is done in this study.


Death Penalty, the Sabbath, and the Christian Church

The Old Testament prescribes the death penalty by stoning in several cases, including (1) profaning the Sabbath by working, (2) idolatry, (3) sorcery, (4) blasphemy, (5) rebellion against parents, (6) sex with a woman betrothed to another man, (7) failure to confine a dangerous ox that consequently gores a human, and (8) taking things that are dedicated to God. A cursory reading of references to the death penalty indicates that stoning was a major form of capital punishment required by the law. However, death by stoning may not have been a special form of punishment, aside from the fact that it could involve as many people as possible—sometimes “all the congregation”—in inflicting the punishment (Lev. 24:16; Num. 15:36). The New Testament also contains references to stoning. Jesus saved an adulteress from being stoned to death (John 8:3–11). While the Old Testament does not specifically state that the adulterer/adulteress must be stoned, the incident in John 8:3 to 11 suggests that stoning was understood as the mode of punishment in some other cases in which capital punishment was instructed. Several attempts were made to stone Jesus for blasphemy (John 8:59; 10:32, 33), and Stephen was stoned to death on grounds of blasphemy (Acts 6:11–14; 7:59, 60).

In general, the death-penalty instruction is connected to infringements on the commandments of God, especially the Ten Commandments. The worship of other gods, disregard for the name of Yahweh, profaning His Sabbath by working; and disregard for human dignity (including murder, attacking parents, and wrongful sexual acts)—these are the areas covered by the death-penalty law. The Pentateuch appears to be harsh in its institution and application of the death penalty.

This is to be understood, however, in at least two ways. First, as God creates a new people for Himself and for a unique mission, there is the need to tighten the boundaries in the covenant relationship (Gen. 9:6; Lev. 24:16; Num. 15:36). In this covenant relationship, the Ten Commandments stand at the center, and this would explain why the death-penalty regulation centers on these commandments. Although, after Israel’s possession of the land of Canaan, there are examples of infringements that should have attracted the penalty of death but were not effected (Judges 17:4, 5; 20:12, 13), there are instances in which the sentence was meted out as required (1 Sam. 28:9; 1 Kings 2:29–32). Second, and in light of the theocratic leadership in Israel, the death- penalty instruction had crucial theodical significance: By requiring the congregation to stone the culprit, God both intended to curb defiant sins among His covenant people and to grant the desire of the perpetrator, per his or her act, to be removed from the covenant community. From the viewpoint of the covenant and God’s mission, the death penalty also demonstrated God’s grace in preserving His covenant and working through humans to save humanity.

Within the context of Numbers 13 to 17, the narrative of the wood-gatherer needs to be understood in connection with the significance of the Sabbath in the covenant relationship and Yahweh’s dealing with the problem of sin. This has implications for the Christian Church.

Significance of the Sabbath. The significance of the Sabbath is marked by its being the universal symbol of Yahweh’s creatorship, ownership, and redemption/blessing (Gen. 2:1–3; Ex. 20:8–11; Isa. 58:13, 14). Israel is thus required to remember the Sabbath to keep it holy (Ex. 20:8–11). Numbers 15:32 to 36 demonstrates that Sabbath-keeping is the litmus test for Israel’s loyalty toward Yahweh’s covenant.

Frey has observed that “The focus of the text [Num. 15:32–36] is placed upon the specific role of the whole congregation, with one law for both the native and the alien. . . . The Sabbath narrative involves the whole congregation, despite the fact that the rebellious act of wood-gathering on Sabbath was the sin of one individual person and not that of the community. This shows that the Sabbath contains a decisive meaning for the covenantal relationship between the whole congregation and YHWH. The sin of one individual performed on the Sabbath affected and disturbed the life of the whole community.”17

As the sign of the covenant, the Sabbath constituted the essence of the relationship between Yahweh and Israel (Ex. 31:12–17; Jer. 17:21–27). The abuse of the Sabbath was decried throughout the history of Israel by prophets such as Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah. Jeremiah 17 indicates that the Sabbath played such a central role in the covenant relationship that the national fate of Israel depended on the observance of the Sabbath (Leviticus 26). Not only was the Sabbath the day to remember the covenant relationship, it was also the ultimate example of Yahweh’s faithfulness in delivering Israel from Egypt (Deut. 5:15). Indeed, “Israel as a community is in part defined by its adherence to the Sabbath.”18

The introductory clause of Numbers 15:32 (“while the children of Israel were in the wilderness”) impresses upon the reader that only one example of defiant sin is here being cited, and, in light of the breach of the covenant in the immediate context, the choice of a Sabbath incident testifies to the central position it occupied in the covenant relationship. S. Chavel is correct in his observation that the placement of the Sabbath narrative between the laws regarding sins in verses 17 to 31 and that of tassels in verses 37 through 41 is determined by the “ultimate significance of the Sabbath.”19

The reason for the tassel regulation that follows the Sabbath narrative is for Israel to “remember” the commandments (vs. 39), as they would “remember” the Sabbath day (Ex. 20:8). Considering the significant role of the Sabbath, one can conclude that the wood-gatherer’s decision to profane it signified his determination to despise the authority of Yahweh as the covenant Lord in the most presumptuous way. Thus, in the words of Robert Alter, “the vehemence” of the death penalty relating to the Sabbath “is predicated on the notion that the Sabbath is the ultimate sign of the covenant between God and Israel, so that one who violates the Sabbath violates the covenant and renounces solidarity with the covenanted people.”20

Yahweh’s dealing with the problem of sin. The Pentateuch, as seen also in Numbers 13 to 17, shows that Yahweh deals with the problem of evil by making Himself accessible among humans, which means entering into a covenant relationship with them (Exodus 19–24) and dwelling among them (Exodus 25). Explicit commands and warnings were intended to discourage the perpetration of evil and thereby maintain the purity of the divine-human relationship (Ex. 19–24; Num. 15:30, 31, 37–41). Sacrificial offerings in the sanctuary served as means both of worship and expiation for non-defiant sins and cultic impurities (Num. 15:3–29). Defiant sins, however, were too serious to be expiated through animal sacrifices (vss. 30, 31). In such cases, the covenant community of Israel was to be purged of the evil through the infliction of the death penalty on the perpetrator (Deuteronomy 17). The death penalty is thus to be understood in the context of the covenant relationship.

As enshrined in the covenant provisions in biblical times, willful deviations on the part of Israel were punishable. This explains, for example, the judgment of Yahweh against the first generation, which rejected the covenant by refusing to go into the land of Canaan (Numbers 13 and 14). Similarly, the incidents of the wood-gatherer and Achan are typical examples illustrating that, as a covenant community, the sin of the individual affected the congregation as a whole, and thus needed to be dealt with (Num. 15:32–36; Joshua 7:1, 10–26). In both cases, the involvement of the entire congregation in inflicting the penalty underscored the detrimental effect these incidents had on the well-being of the covenant community.

In the case of Numbers 15:32 to 36, the divine intervention through retributive punishment served to curb the contagion of defiance among God’s people, thereby saving generations of Israelites from following the destructive path of the wood-gatherer, as the covenant community learns firsthand the harsh consequence of intentional straying from the authority of God. In fact, the wood-gatherer knew that union with God in a covenant relationship that was marked with the Sabbath observance meant life and freedom—and disunion with the covenant God meant death. Again, he was aware that in the covenant relationship, rebellion meant utter rejection of divine sovereign rule over the perpetrators and the covenantal communal life. Consequently, the act of gathering wood on the Sabbath was an outward expression of his desire to remove himself from the covenant relationship. A high-handed sin, such as the wood-gatherer’s, could be dealt with only through the death sentence, cutting off the perpetrator from the presence of God and the covenant community.

Israel and the Christian Church. The Israelite nation was a theocracy, a system of state organization and government in which God was the supreme power who exercised His authority through His agents, priests, prophets, or kings. In a theocracy, there is no distinction between religion and state, so that in ancient Israel all legal, political, and social provisions were essentially religious, with the Torah serving as the basic law of the nation. A key aspect of the theocracy in Israel included the physical presence of God through His sanctuary (Ex. 25:8) and, with it, the physical holiness of the covenant land (Lev. 18:24–30; 25:23; Isa. 24:5; Jer. 2:7; Eze. 36:17; Zech. 2:16). In a sense, the death penalties for defiant sins were effected to cleanse the land and its people (Num. 35:33, 34; Deut. 21:1–9).

The Old Testament death penalty was a legal requirement applicable within the Israelite theocratic kingdom. For this reason, a move away from the theocratic structure would imply discontinuation of the application of this penalty. And this is the picture found from the beginning of the New Testament Church. Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God/heaven pointed toward a break away from the physical, Israelite kingdom to a spiritual Israel without political boundaries, the Christian Church (Matt 5–7; 18). Consequent to Jesus’s first advent, there is a separation of church and state, even though believers have obligations toward the state (Matt. 22:21; John 18:36; Rom. 13:1).

In His reaction against the Pharisees, Jesus seemed to imply that although capital punishment could be inflicted by the state, it would not prevail within the community of His believers, given His impending sacrifice and the effects it would cause (John 8:3–12). Jesus’ comments regarding the “eye-for-eye” and “tooth-for-tooth” regulation (Ex. 21:22–27) may also be understood in a similar light (Matt. 5:38–48). Finally, Jesus’ death and the influx of Gentile believers that followed marked the transition from theocracy in the experience of the new community of faith. Indeed, the death of Jesus ended the requirement not only for blood sacrifice (i.e., animals) but also blood recompense (i.e., capital punishment) in the community of faith (Heb. 9:14), though those who reject the gift of salvation in Jesus or willfully disobey Him will face God’s “fiery indignation” (10:26–31). Thus, the picture of God’s dealing with evil in the Old Testament reached its climax in the New Testament in Christ’s substitutionary death that atones for human sins (Mark 10:45; Heb. 9:28) and requires the ultimate destruction of those who reject the offer of forgiveness through Him (John 3:16–18; Rev. 14:9–12).

In the new covenant community that Jesus inaugurated, the application of the death penalty was discontinued, following both the atoning sacrifice of Jesus and the church’s discontinuity with the theocratic structure of Israel. Thus, while the church treats sins—including defiant sins—with revulsion, in the New Testament the legislation of the death penalty which was instituted in the Old Testament is not applicable within the church. Outside the church, however, Paul implies that secular governments inflict death penalty against persons who have committed crimes deserving death (Acts 25:10, 11; Rom. 13:1–4).

The discontinuance of corporal punishment relating to an Old Testament commandment is not to be interpreted to mean that the church, as the new community of faith, does not have to keep that commandment. As noted earlier, the death-penalty regulation was related to infringements on the law, especially the Ten Commandments. Yet the New Testament is clear that these commandments are still in force, even beyond Christ’s death (Matt. 5:17–20; Rom. 3:31). Jesus commanded, “‘If you love Me, keep My commandments’” (John 14:15)! He also warned, “‘Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven’” (Matt. 5:19). The worship of other gods, blasphemy, adultery, and homosexuality are still considered sinful acts in the church (1 Cor. 6:9–11; 1 Tim. 1:8–11). And as Christ Himself observed the Sabbath, so did the disciples after His ascension, even as He expected all His followers to keep observing the Sabbath (Matt. 24:20). What this means is that while there is continuity between the New Testament Church and the Old Testament congregation with regard to seventh-day Sabbath-keeping (Luke 4:16, 17; Acts 13:14, 15, 42–45; 16:11–15; 17:2; 18:4; Heb. 4:4–9), there is discontinuance in the application of the death penalty that resulted from Sabbath-breaking.

Believers in Christ constitute a covenant community, though this community is not a religio-political entity as was the nation of Israel (2 Cor. 3:4–6). As a covenant community, the church disciplines its erring members (1 Corinthians 5; Matt 18:17; 1 Tim. 1:20). The basis for church discipline recalls the basis for the death penalty in the Old Testament, namely the curbing of sin to cleanse the community and to deter others from evil (Deut. 17:7–12; 22:21–24; Joshua 7:13). The metaphors of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:12–27) and the body temple (3:16, 17; 6:19) illustrate that, as was the case in ancient Israel, the impurity of one member affects the well-being of the whole. The church’s way of dealing with such impurity is to expel the individual from membership. Thus, sins from which Israel was purged by means of the death sanction are by the church dealt with through expulsion from membership.

Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 5 set forth the church’s practice of disfellowshipping. Although verse 5 has received differing scholarly interpretations, Paul clearly stated in this chapter that it was the responsibility of the Corinthian church to expel the member who had slept with his father’s wife (vss. 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, 13). This emphasized the fact that the execution of discipline in the community of faith is a corporate responsibility. The exhortations in 1 Corinthians 5 seem to be based on the concept of the church as the temple of God in 3:16 and 17, and to prepare the believer to understand that church discipline is redemptive (2 Cor. 2:5–11). Here, it is hoped that through disfellowshipping, with its accompanying disgrace and grief, the incestuous man may come back to his senses, turn away from evil, and ultimately be saved. In this regard, church discipline is punitive-redemptive.

Beyond church disfellowshipping, however, the New Testament is replete with warnings against sins that will lead to eternal destruction by fire (Matt. 13:41, 42, 49, 50; 2 Thess. 1:9, 10; Rev. 19:19–21). The list includes idolatry, blasphemy, adultery, homosexual activity, murder, etc., similar sins that drew the death penalty (1 Cor. 6:9–11; Gal. 5:19–21). The Old Testament death penalty was both punitive-destructive and redemptive—punitive-destructive because the perpetrator was sentenced to death and redemptive because this served to deter others from defiance in the community of faith as they participated in God’s mission—“and all Israel shall hear and fear” (Deut. 21:21). The eternal destruction of the wicked thus fulfilled the punitive-destructive aspect of the death penalty associated with certain sins, including the profanation of the Sabbath. Thus, the wood-gatherer’s experience, like those others who suffered similar destruction, foreshadowed the eschatological punishment of individuals who, despite all warnings, reject or renounce the covenant relationship with God and are consequently eternally cut off from the presence of God and the community of believers. It may be inferred further that the predication of the death penalty upon disobedience regarding the Ten Commandments is an indication also that the final, destructive judgment will involve those who deliberately infringe upon God’s law, including the Sabbath commandment.

The narrative of the wood-gatherer in Numbers 15:32 to 36 appears in a context of warning against defiant sins (vss. 30, 31, 37–41). Sandwiched between two incidents of corporate rebellion against the authority of Yahweh (chaps. 13 and 14) and His chosen leaders (chaps. 16 and 17), the narrative emphasizes that individual cases of defiance against Yahweh have adverse implications for the entire congregation. The death penalty was a covenant-related provision within ancient Israel through which to handle such cases. The narrative also demonstrates that defiant sins perpetrated within the covenant community should be dealt with openly and require the participation of the congregation as a whole. This same principle underlines Paul’s instruction to expel the evildoer from church membership in 1 Corinthians 5, though repentance was still possible. The punitive-destructive aspect of the death penalty foreshadows the final judgment where “‘those who practice lawlessness’” (Matt. 13:41) will be destroyed by the “‘everlasting fire’” (18:8; 25:41). All said, Numbers 15:32 to 36 presents the gracious gift of the Sabbath commandment as having a decisive meaning for the covenant relationship, as it is the sign of the everlasting covenant. The breaking of the Sabbath may be dealt with through church discipline, but disregard for the Sabbath, together with the other commandments, constitutes willful disobedience to God that, if the perpetrator does not repent, is ultimately punishable by destruction in the everlasting fire at the eschaton.


Daniel Kwame Bediako, PhD, is Associate Professor of Old Testament Language and Exegesis and Vice-Chancellor/President of Valley View University, Accra, Ghana.



1. Unless indicated otherwise, quotations from Scripture this article are quoted from The New King James Version of the Bible.

2. D. T. Olson, The Death of the Old and the Birth of the New: The Framework of the Book of Numbers and the Pentateuch (Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1985).

3. Roy Gane, Leviticus, Numbers (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2004), 620.

4. Jacob Milgrom, Numbers (New York: The Jewish Publication Society, 1990), 405.

5. Jonathan Burnside, “‘What Shall We Do With the Sabbath-Gatherer?’ A Narrative Approach to a ‘Hard Case’ in Biblical Law (Numbers 15:32–36),” Vetus Testamentum 60 (2010): 60. Italics supplied.

6. Milgrom, Numbers, 126, 408, 409.

7. J. Weingreen, “The Case of the Woodgatherer (Numbers 15:32–26),” Vetus Testamentum 16 (1966): 362.

8. Anthony Phillips, “The Case of the Woodgatherer Reconsidered,” ibid. 19 (1969): 125–128.

9. Timothy R. Ashley, The Book of Numbers (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1993), 291. Italics in the original.

10. Dale A. Brueggemann, “Numbers,” Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, Philip W. Comfort, ed. (Carol Stream, Ill.: Tyndale, 2008), 320.

11. Gane, Leviticus, Numbers, 622.

12. Mathilde Frey, The Sabbath in the Pentateuch: An Exegetical and Theological Study (PhD Dissertation, Andrews University, 2011), 125.

13. Tzvi Novick, “Law and Loss: Responses to Catastrophe in Numbers 15,” Harvard Theological Review 101 (2008): 5.

14. Ashley, The Book of Numbers, 292.

15. Burnside, “‘What Shall We Do With the Sabbath-Gatherer?’” Vetus Testamentum, 60.

16. Ibid., 55.

17. Frey, The Sabbath in the Pentateuch, 123.

18. Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation With Commentary (New York: Norton, 2004), 759.

19. S. Chavel, “Numbers 15:32–36—A Microcosm of the Living Priesthood and Its Literary Production,” in S. Shectman and J. S. Baden, eds., The Strata of the Priestly Writings: Contemporary Debate and Future Directions (Zurich: Theologischer Verlag, 2009), 51.

20. Alter, The Five Books of Moses, 491.