“But if it’s just one person who sins by mistake, not realizing what he’s doing, he is to bring a yearling she-goat as an Absolution-Offering. The priest then is to atone for the person who accidentally sinned, to make atonement before God so that it won’t be held against him.
“The same standard holds for everyone who sins by mistake; the native-born Israelites and the foreigners go by the same rules.
“But the person, native or foreigner, who sins defiantly, deliberately blaspheming God, must be cut off from his people: He has despised God’s word, he has violated God’s command; that person must be kicked out of the community, ostracized, left alone in his wrongdoing.”
Once, during those wilderness years of the People of Israel, a man was caught gathering wood on the Sabbath. The ones who caught him hauled him before Moses and Aaron and the entire congregation. They put him in custody until it became clear what to do with him. Then God spoke to Moses: “Give the man the death penalty. Yes, kill him, the whole community hurling stones at him outside the camp.”
So the whole community took him outside the camp and threw stones at him, an execution commanded by God and given through Moses. (Numbers 15:27-36)
God’s judgment sometimes seems like an overreaction. But God is good, God is love, and God is just.
In the New Testament, Jesus points out that the reason the Sabbath was designed to benefit people: “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) But in the time of Moses someone worked on that day and was put to death for it. Nowhere else does there seem to be a death penalty associated with violations of the Sabbath. Why such a harsh judgment this time?
God made a distinction between those who sinned deliberately and those who didn’t. A deliberate choice to violate God’s command was harshly punished, while the inadvertent sinner could find mercy. The sin of this unnamed individual was a conscious, willful action, a kind of rebellion against God—not just someone who wasn’t thinking, or someone that decided his need for firewood justified his behavior.
The violation of the Sabbath by working in this case was merely a symptom of a far greater problem. Years later, when Saul disobeyed God, Samuel told him: “rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.” (1 Samuel 15:23)