Numbers 15:32-36 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 (Exod 20:8-11) including the gathering of manna (16:22, 26-27), cooking (vv. 23-25, 29-30), and the kindling of fire (35:2-3). A violation of the Sabbath regulation attracted the death penalty (31:14-15). The incident of the wood-gatherer is one of several instances in the book of Numbers where the penalty is inflicted on persons who disregard the covenant relationship of Yahweh with Israel.1 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 the present study argues that to seek to understand the law solely from the viewpoint of ethics means to lose sight of its covenantal significance (cf. Exod 19-24). Numbers 15 has long been considered one of the difficult passages in the book of Numbers.2 The scholarly discussion centers around three main questions: How does chapter 15 relate to chapters 13-14 and 16-17? What connection is there between the discernable units within chapter 15? And how should the statement פרשׁ לא כּי לו מה־יעשׂה”) because it had not been explained what should be done to him,” 15:34)3 be understood? The first two questions require some analysis of structure as well as the thematic connections within chapters 13-17. The third question requires grammatical analysis of 15:32-36 within its immediate context as well as the larger context of the Fourth Commandment. A fourth question that this study raises borders on theodicy:4 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? In what follows, an attempt is made to answer these questions.



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