He forfeited his life for gathering a few sticks.
It’s a stumbling block buried in the book of Numbers. God has saved his people from slavery, and walked them into the wilderness for what will prove to be a forty-year journey to their promised land. And “while the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day” (Numbers 15:32). Doesn’t sound like a big deal, right? Enough of us have picked up sticks after a big storm, probably during the weekend (maybe even on a Sunday). So what happens next?
And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation. They put him in custody, because it had not been made clear what should be done to him. And the LORD said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as the LORD commanded Moses. (Numbers 15:33–36)
They put him to death over some yardwork?
Why? Because Moses said, “These are the things that the LORD has commanded you to do. Six days work shall be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire in all your dwelling places on the Sabbath day.” (Exodus 35:1–3, see also Exodus 20:8–9)
If Moses ended at verse two, it might have been unclear whether picking up sticks fell under “work,” but Moses didn’t stop there. It’s almost as if God had this nameless man in mind when he told them about the Sabbath. Yes, that means even gathering some wood to make a fire. And he was also crystal clear about the appropriate punishment: death.
Sticks and Stones
Someone might say this particular man wasn’t listening well or just didn’t understand exactly what Moses meant by “work.” It seems like a tragedy that he had to die over building a fire. But the previous ten verses bring this fatal incident into high definition for us.
“But if you sin unintentionally, and do not observe all these commandments that the LORD has spoken to Moses, . . . all the congregation shall offer one bull from the herd for a burnt offering, a pleasing aroma to the LORD. . . . And the priest shall make atonement for all the congregation of the people of Israel, and they shall be forgiven, because it was a mistake.” (Numbers 15:22, 24–25)
Nobody was meant to die over honest mistakes. But people would be executed over deliberate crimes against God. The men and women who were executed had heard from God, understood what he said, and decided they knew better. When that man grabbed his first stick, he had defiance coursing through his veins, not innocence. It wasn’t a mistake. The man played the part of Adam and Eve in that first mutiny against God.
When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. (Genesis 3:6)
So what happens to those who intentionally disregard God and his word?
“The person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him.” (Numbers 15:30–31)
And the very next verse reads, “While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day” (Numbers 15:32). The Man with the High Hand. Sinning “with a high hand” means you know what you’re doing. You know what God thinks, what he loves, what he says, and you decide you know better than him. The sin — large or small — is a middle finger to the Almighty.
The man wasn’t stoned to death because he misunderstood the commandment, or the punishment. He misjudged God, and put him to the test. He waved those sticks in God’s face, as it were, inviting God to prove him wrong — an ancient pride parade.
Hands Held High
Why does Moses tell this story here? Because he wanted to explain the difference between unintentionally dismissing God and intentionally opposing him. But why teach us about that here? Because at this point in their journey, Israel was a crowd of high hands — like sixty thousand at a U2 concert.
In Numbers 11, the people “complained in the hearing of the LORD about their misfortunes” (11:1), specifically about their diet (11:4–6). God brought “a very great plague” against them (11:33). In Numbers 12, Miriam and Aaron oppose God’s messenger Moses (12:1), and so God gave Miriam leprosy (12:10). In Numbers 13, God sends men to spy out the promised land — the promised land — and they came back afraid, insecure, and unwilling to go in (13:31–32). The congregation threatens to stone Moses and Aaron (14:10). In Numbers 14, God condemns this generation to wander in the wilderness for forty years (14:22), and wipes out the terrified spies (14:36–37). And then Israel decides, against God’s will, that they want to go into Canaan now (14:40), and so they are devastated in battle and driven back (14:45). After all of that rebellion, we come to Numbers 15, with Moses’s sermon about unintentional and intentional sins, and then there’s the man with the high hand. And what comes next? In Numbers 16, 250 leaders rise up against Moses (16:1–2), and are utterly destroyed by God (16:32–35).
Moses wanted to make a point about the Sabbath in Numbers 15:32–36, but more than that, he was preaching to future generations about the danger of pride — of disrespecting God, even in the smallest things, with a high hand, of thinking we know better than God. In case we were ever tempted to try and compare ourselves with the rebellious group of complainers responsible for the golden calf, and think better of ourselves for our relatively minor sins, we see the awful offense of pride in every form, even in a man alone with his sticks.
Pride Always Knows Best
The man didn’t grumble out loud to Moses and Aaron (Numbers 14:2), or bring his mistress to church with him (Numbers 25:6), or build a statue to worship (Exodus 32:4). He doesn’t seem to make a scene (“they found a man . . .”). But he quietly exchanged God for his house project. He chose his own work over God’s word. And the offense against God was as real as any golden calf.
That’s how pride works. It rejects God’s wisdom. It refuses to listen, or to wait. It insists on its own terms. It listens to God with one ear while looking around for something else to see or something else to do. It can appear polite, even charming (why we might immediately sympathize with a man like this), but beneath the surface it’s seething and plotting.
Pride may hide itself well, but it shows up in all kinds of places, whether with sticks, or emails, or chores at home. It might gather sticks when God says to rest, and it might leave them on the ground when God says to work. The evil is not in the doing or the not doing, but in the “high hand,” in raising an arrogant hand against God — in deciding we know better than him.
That kind of pride might seem safe in small things, but pride is never safe. Do you feel the need to do a little more on your terms, rather than God’s — to work more hours than he gives, to clean that room more times than needed, to always immediately move on to the next thing — not because you really need to, but because you want to? We love the warmth of being noticed and affirmed for our work. We love being in control. Some of us love getting things done just a little too much. We refuse to listen, to wait, to rest.
Faith works, but not on its own (Philippians 2:13). Not in its own strength (1 Peter 4:11). We work and rest in reliance on God — trusting his wisdom, obeying his word, battling our pride, and surrendering our way. Pride picks up sticks when God says to rest. Faith waits for the Lord, “more than watchmen for the morning” (Psalm 130:6). Faith puts on humility, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). Faith trusts in his good, wise, and loving plan, even when it isn’t the plan we would have chosen for ourselves.