I don’t know about you, but when I read of the Israelites stoning someone to death, I imagine anger, contempt, pride and self-righteousness in their countenance. I suppose it’s because that’s the picture painted just about every time they’re out to stone someone in the New Testament. Take the woman caught in the act of adultery, for instance. Or poor Paul… Even their attempts on the life of Christ!
But a different picture came to mind as I read from Numbers 15 this morning.
He was someone’s father, another’s uncle, your neighbor. You had been through a lot together; witnessed many miracles, rebelled and survived many a chastening, shared hopes, endured disappointments. Then coming out of your personal time of reflection one Sabbath, there he is, engaged in prohibited labor on the Lord’s day.
I imagined those who first saw him in Numbers 15:32-36 doing a double-take. Wait a minute! Is that “so and so”? It can”t be! But it is. What is he doing? Did he forget that today is the Sabbath?
In incredulity, a second opinion is sought. Maybe it’s during the early hours of the morning before most people are up. He was hoping no-one would see him gathering sticks and kindling a fire to cook his manna. But some early riser saw him and now the question…what to do?
Nobody knew what to do with the malefactor who has broken the Sabbath. I wonder why no-one had transgressed on this wise before. Perhaps the miracle of the manna was enough of a deterrent (no manna on Sabbath and extra manna gathered on Friday not spoiling…). Perhaps fear of the unknown consequences of Sabbath-breaking was enough to stay disobedience.
Moreover, why did this solitary soul determine to so grossly transgress? It could be that he didn’t think there’d be any consequences for his actions since there was no stated punishment for being caught. Or he hoped to avoid any punishment if he could evade being caught. Regardless, it’s clear that he had no true regard for the command of the Lord.
Having reprimanded him, they bring him into the camp. And they wait, with bated breath, to hear the Lord’s decree. He gets the death sentence. And it’s you, his son, uncle, cousin, neighbor and friend, who has to administer the sentence.
For some reason, as I read the story this morning, I didn’t envision an angry mob intent on stoning this malefactor. I saw tears in the congregation’s eyes. I saw conviction of the areas in their own lives where they were falling short of God’s command, yet their lives had been spared. I even saw them hesitate to drag him, kicking and screaming, without the camp.
Who has to cast the first stone? Who dares to? Yet the Lord’s command to stone him is as clear it was not to work on the Sabbath. To disobey is death.
I don’t think it was a flippant scene, the first stoning of a Sabbath-breaker. I don’t think anyone there wanted to be the one who cast the stone that took that man’s life. At that moment, the gravity of sin must have seemed so weighty, its wages too costly. And if I’d rather not stone another man, then I am my brother’s keeper.
You know, when we sin, alone, in the privacy of our thoughts even, it would seem that we own our sin. In the pride of our hearts, we may dare to think that we alone are affected by our actions.
But the communal stoning sent a different message. The wrong you’re doing when you think you’re all alone, affects those around you. No man is an island.