On Sticks and Stones

From this week’s Torah portion, Shelach Lecha:

Once, when the Israelites were in the wilderness, they came upon a man gathering wood on the sabbath day. Those who found him, as he was gathering wood brought him before Moses, Aaron and the whole community. He was placed in custody, for it had not been speculated what should be done to him. Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death: the whole community shall pelt him with stones outside the camp.” So the whole community took him outside the camp and stoned him to death – as the Eternal had commanded Moses. (Numbers 15:32-36)

Yeah, this is a tough one.

So here’s my take: it isn’t God who hands down the death sentence upon this poor guy at all.

How can I say this? I say this because I believe the Torah to be a document written wholly by human authors – many different authors over a very long period of time. And as a composite document primarily concerned with God’s role in history and human society, it reflects many different voices that run a spectrum from our loftiest spiritual/ethical yearnings to our darkest and basest human impulses.

For those who are aghast that God could command such a heinous punishment for such a mild offense, here is the only answer I know to offer: this ain’t God. This is a description of an act of collective religious zealotry attributed to God by the Biblical author. A classic example of mob mentality in action.

Having said that, it’s not as if we don’t learn important lessons from this episode.  I’m struck by a few things in particular:

I’m struck that the community isn’t all that sure what to do with the wood-gatherer after they capture him. It is notable that God had not previously specified gathering sticks as a Shabbat prohibition. Perhaps they were concerned that his actions fell into a grey area – that he was gathering sticks with the intention of kindling a fire (which is explicitly prohibited by Torah.)  In any case, this is certainly a moment of collective legal confusion for the Israelite community.

I’m also struck that this episode follows upon God’s pronouncement that as punishment for its faithlessness, this generation of Israelites will not be allowed to enter the land of Israel (“your carcasses will drop in this wilderness, while your children roam in the wilderness for forty years…” 14:32-33.) In other words, the stick-gathering incident occurs during a desperate and terrifying moment for the Israelite people.

And I’m also struck that while the question is brought before “Moses, Aaron and the whole community,” it is God who renders the final verdict.  In my reading of this passage, however it is not God handing down the heinous sentence – God is merely a literary “stand-in” for a fearful and confused people who have resorted to mob behavior for unacceptable (if perhaps understandable) reasons.

While this episode has nothing to teach us about Shabbat observance, it still teaches us plenty about the dynamics of collective fear – and the cruelty with which we too often inflict our fear upon others…

…and maybe, just maybe, it is also a lesson about the ways we too often project our fear and cruelty onto God.

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