There are several events in the Bible that critics love to focus on, one of which is the stoning of a Sabbath breaker (Numbers 15:32-36). The event occurred about a year and half after the Exodus and within a few months of leaving Mt. Sinai. Unfortunately, it is one story that is easily construed to impugn God’s benevolence. Following are the facts:
A man was found picking up “sticks” on the Sabbath and immediately taken to Moses. This was a no-no. Work on the Sabbath was not allowed. It was declared a day of rest in perpetuity and the penalty for breaking this law was death (Exodus 31:13-17). Sounds a bit severe. Even the Israelites hesitated. Before acting on what the law clearly stated they put the man in hold while Moses consulted with God.
And the answer?
Execute the man publicly. All Israel was to stone him to death which means everyone, young and old alike, were aware of this stoning, and the reason for it, in real time. They not only witnessed it they participated. Seems gruesome! Glad I wasn’t there.
Most people assume the man was only picking up a few small sticks – usually thought of as twigs – and if a penalty needed to be rendered surely something a little less brutal could have been stipulated: house arrest for a couple of years – actually 30 days would seem sufficient, a monetary fine of so many gold pieces or any one of a number of other things. The death penalty seems a little over the top.
But, this was not a mild infraction of an inconsequential law. In fact, it’s a little short sighted to think of the Sabbath as just an arbitrary ruling. This command was founded on a biological fact of life, like breathing or good nutrition. If you don’t breath and eat properly you die. The same is true with the Sabbath. The need for timely rest was woven into human nature at creation and nothing has changed since. A good study shows that breaking this natural law had some serious consequences.
- Disobeying the Sabbath repeatedly is a form of suicide in several ways.
The human system is not capable of working endlessly without taking time to restore, recycle and reflect and, in addition to God saying as much, there is endless testimony to the harmful effects of doing so.
Medical News reported a nationwide study co-authored by Grand Valley State University which revealed that nurses who worked more than the standard eight hour shift were more inclined to make mistakes putting patience at risk.
CUPE (Canadian Union of Public Employees) identifies stress, burnout, musculoskeletal injuries, depression and anxiety, family conflict, gastrointestinal disorders, increased exposure to health and safety hazards – such as noise, temperature extremes and hazardous substances – and Karoshi (death from overwork) as the results of overworking.
Take Back Your Time (TBYT) is a major U.S./Canadian initiative that challenges “the epidemic of overwork, over-scheduling and time famine that now threatens our health, our families and relationships, our communities and our environment.”
It is also the title of the book by John De Graaf – national coordinator of TBYT – in which he bemoans the extent to which we overwork and the ills it causes. You will find the preview here. Even a short read is enlightening.
It is interesting that he cites overspending as a major cause of overworking which means we can no longer blame the “epidemic of overworking” on the industrial revolution. It is now driven by the spending revolution.
In many cases, burnout stems from the job.
The Drug Treatment Center and Medic8 are two sites that indicate stress – one cause of which is overworking – can also lead to addictions of all kinds. CNN archives, going all the way back to 2000, says being overworked leads to all kinds of rage: road, air or whatever. That is to say, these highly stressed, substance addicted overworked individuals also make life miserable for everyone around them. Fellow workers are bullied and family members are abused. The family sometimes walks away.
Of course, the worst outcome of all is death, not too mention the painful physical maladies that may immediately precede it. HealthyMe quotes Diane Fassel, PhD, as saying, “A workaholic will die faster than an alcoholic any day.” Diane is an organizational consultant in Boulder, Colorado, and author of “Working Ourselves to Death.”
The same site points to the Japanese culture, notorious for the high value it places on overworking, which estimates 10,000 Japanese men die each year due to overwork. A Google hosted AFP article says more than 2,200 others commit suicide due to work conditions. The Japanese even have a word for it, “karoshi.”
A recent high profile victim was the leading development engineer for the hybrid version of Toyotas Camry line. The New York Times reported that in the two months leading up to his death he averaged more than 80 hours overtime a month. His work required him to regularly work nights and weekends and he was frequently sent abroad.
What is terrible about the stoning of the Sabbath breaker is not that God took the life of a man most people consider innocent but rather, that after three millenniums of time and experience, we have learned very little from it. We still miss the point.
This man served God more by his death than most people do during a full life and instead of gleaning all we can from this sobering event we allow ourselves to be emotionally distracted from the real issue, human nature needs rest. His death symbolized all the misery experienced throughout humanity, even today, all because we work too much.
- This man was conducting business not preparing the family meal
This is another point we don’t often make. We are so busy “feeling” our way through this passage we don’t see what was really happening.
Cooking and all its associated duties, such as collecting firewood, were what women did – not being sexist, just stating the facts. Men did collect wood but for a very different purpose, commerce, and there were many types of wood-fired businesses: pottery, brick making, smelting iron ore, refining or shaping metals, glass making, etc. All of these skills were known to the Israelites and had already been demonstrated in the construction of the Tabernacle.
Archeologists have also uncovered an avalanche of evidence proving that all of these sciences were well in place a couple millenniums before Moses. There is nothing strange about someone collecting wood to fire his business.
You mustn’t assume this man was being nice to his wife and collecting the wood for a change. He was taking advantage of a low traffic situation in order to stay ahead of the markets.
- Even if cooking was the intent, the stoning was still justified
Being overworked is no less common for women than men. While men choose to work beyond a healthy limit women aren’t given much of a choice. The family goes on vacation, the wife still cooks. If she has daughters they help. If a national holiday is being enjoyed she still maintains the menu. Christmas and Thanksgiving are known for elaborate feasts prepared mostly by women.
All of that is to say that even if the man was executed for preparing the family dinner a very important point was being made. Let the ladies have their day also.
- Breaking the Sabbath law was a transgression against life itself but keeping the law was no remedy for sin.
For all the religious folks who slavishly observe the Sabbath and turn it into a life choking experience, chill out. Observing the Sabbath to any degree, in any way, won’t make you a Christian. If you happen to be one, observing the Sabbath alone won’t make you any better. The more you regulate the day with do’s and don’ts, things you can or must do over against things you can’t, the less relieving it is. Back-off a bit and learn to relax. God will be just as honored if you do.
The whole idea is rest and recuperation. The Sabbath was ordained for the enhancement of life and Jesus said as much.
The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. (Mark 2:27)
Allow for rest weekly and enjoy it when it comes around.
- Anyone who observes the principle honors God.
In one way or another many of today’s cultures observe the principle of rest. In many cases it is regulated by law. These people may or may not believe in God but it is very difficult for them to deny the facts.
For those who complain about the stoning of this Sabbath breaker, remember this. If you spent more time exploring God’s purposes and less time finding fault you might live longer and enjoy it more. And, BTW, like it or not, agree or not, believe or not, if you observe a reasonable amount of rest on a regular basis you are honoring God. It was His idea first!