Stoned for gathering sticks

dry broken sticks

 And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man that gathered sticks upon the sabbath day.

Numbers 15:32 (KJV)

The man who gathered sticks on the Sabbath day was never explicitly identified in the Torah. He has no name here, but is used as an example for what it means to break the Sabbath. He is stoned to death.

But he was just gathering sticks.

The very practice of gathering items for life in the wilderness was ingrained in the Hebrew people by their ruler, Pharaoh. While Pharaoh had provided straw to the people to make bricks, after his conversation with Moses, he now demanded that they find their own straw and still meet the quota.

And Pharaoh commanded the same day the taskmasters of the people, and their officers, saying,
Ye shall no more give the people straw to make brick, as heretofore: let them go and gather straw for themselves.

Exodus 5:6-7

In order to live, the people had to gather straw themselves. This was the mindset of slavery under the authority of Pharaoh. God wanted to break them free of the servitude to Pharaoh and bring them in servitude unto Himself. In order to accomplish this, God had to break them from their habits of slavery. Gathering daily to survive was one of those habits.

On the other hand, God’s servitude requires a day of rest. To break the Hebrew people from their ingrained learnings of slavery, God commanded at Mt. Sinai that the people rest on the Sabbath. Do you see a similar breaking of old habits when the Apostles provided 4 laws to the gentiles (Acts 15:20)? There need to be righteous laws to help guide the people away from their worldly habits and corrupted practices.

So back to gathering sticks. Who was this man?

Because they intended to state בחטתו מת, that HE DIED IN HIS OWN SIN they felt compelled to say he had taken no part in the sin of those who murmured, nor had he been in the congregation of Korah who incited the people against the Holy One, blessed be He (cf. Sifrei Bamidbar 133:3, Bava Batra 118b), but he had died through his own sin only, and had not made others to sin with him (Sifrei Bamidbar 133:3). — As regards what this sin was, R. Akiba said that he was the man who gathered sticks on the Sabbath day (Numbers 15:32); R. Simeon said that he was one of those who presumed to disobey God’s command (Numbers 14:44) (Shabbat 96b).

Rashi’s commentary

Rashi claims that the man who gathered sticks was the father of the 5 sisters who approached Moses about inheriting land in Numbers 27:1-7. They were the daughters of Zelophehad. The correlation is uncanny between the two events and helps drive this relationship further. Review the similarities below.

Man who gathered sticks
Numbers 15:32-36
5 sisters seek father’s inheritance
Numbers 27:1-7
Man in the wilderness
Num 15:32
Father died in the wilderness
Num 27:3
Man gathered sticks on the Sabbath
Num 15:32
Died of his own sin
Num 27:3
Man was brought before Moses, Aaron, and congregation
Num 15:33
Sisters came before Moses, Eleazar (Aaron’s son), and elders of congregation
Num 27:2
Moses and people not sure what to do
Num 15:34
Moses and people not sure what to do
Num 27:5
God directs Moses
Num 15:35
God directs Moses
Num 27:6-7

It is an interesting nugget nonetheless. There’s a likely change that the man who gathered sticks and was stoned to death was Zelophehad. And Moses, seeing that Zelophehad paid for his own sin, sought out God’s council when reconciling with Zelophehad’s daughters. Ultimately, his sin was not a group sin of complaint, or the group sin of Korah, but rather his own sin. This enabled his daughters to inherit their portion of the promised land.

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