Meditations in Exodus: 84. Accidental or Purposeful Sin
Num 15:32-34 While the Israelites were in the desert, a man was found gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and the whole assembly, and they kept him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him.
Something I have rarely heard preached about, and yet is one of the most important key features, especially of the early life of Israel, is the battle that went on for the minds of the people for them to remain a pure people who were to remain a light to the rest of the world, a nation who revealed the Lord and all His love and goodness to the earth. That was what was supposed to happen. God had made mankind to work in a particular way and any deviation from that produces human breakdown, e.g. over eating produces obesity which produces other health problems. Of course at the Fall, Adam and Eve had opened the door for sin to enter the world and every person was thus born with a propensity to self-centred godlessness. To help Israel counter that propensity, the Lord gave them to Law.
We now come to an incident that needs considering in context. Israel have just failed to enter the land and then we find at the beginning of this chapter, “The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: `After you enter the land I am giving you as a home and you present to the LORD offerings made by fire….” (15:1-3) and we then see the Lord giving further instructions on how to present offerings (v.3-16) This is followed by, “The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: `When you enter the land to which I am taking you and you eat the food of the land, present a portion as an offering to the LORD.” (v.17-19) which is the start of a new section of law about how to deal with failure (v.19-26). Now I have underlined the key reasoning behind these laws, apart from what they say, which is to emphasise the Lord’s intent to eventually bring these people into the land. That is still top of His agenda and their initial failure has not detracted from that.
Now it is in the context of this ‘law of failure’ that the Lord then speaks about unintentional and defiant failure. There IS a difference. “But if just one person sins unintentionally, he must bring a year-old female goat for a sin offering. The priest is to make atonement before the LORD for the one who erred by sinning unintentionally, and when atonement has been made for him, he will be forgiven. One and the same law applies to everyone who sins unintentionally, whether he is a native-born Israelite or an alien. BUT anyone who sins defiantly, whether native-born or alien, blasphemes the LORD, and that person must be cut off from his people. Because he has despised the LORD’s word and broken his commands, that person must surely be cut off; his guilt remains on him.’ ” (v.28-31) Notice the threefold emphasis on the word ‘unintentionally’. When such a person brings their offering in repentance they will be forgiven. This is contrasted with the person who sins ‘defiantly’, i.e. intentionally or blatantly or purposefully. This person cannot repent for they are just rebellious.
Now it is at this point that we are given an illustration of what this means because a man is caught ignoring the rule to rest and do no work on the Sabbath (v.32,33) Now this is the first time such a thing has happened and so they hold him in custody wondering what to do with him (v.34). So then we read, “Then the LORD said to Moses, “The man must die. The whole assembly must stone him outside the camp.” So the assembly took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, as the LORD commanded Moses.” (v.35,36)
The severity of this terminal judgment indicates the importance laid on holding the people together and maintaining a law-abiding people. Elsewhere I have called terminal judgments, ‘judgments of the last resort’. Nothing else would do at this point to make the point: this is a nation called to stand out in the world and reveal the goodness of the Lord’s design for the earth. God’s plan, which He has just shown is still in place, is to take this holy people into the Promised Land and there be with them to bless them as they keep to the Law and reveal an alternative way to live to the rest of the people on the earth.
This people have three times at least affirmed the covenant with God – all of them – and so now when one man turns round and blatantly shows that he doesn’t care about the laws, he has forfeited the right to be part of Israel, but for the sake of the nation, he cannot just be expelled and banished for that would be the same as any lesser punishment that would say it really didn’t matter. No, death is the judgment of last resort. In no other way will the message be conveyed.
Almost as an aside – and it is a thought I’ve never had before – if you were an Israelite and you didn’t like the idea of being part of this law-keeping society, you could always sneak out of the camp and go and live in some other country. Staying in the nation required you to abide by the covenant. Because this appears very negative it is worth pondering briefly on how this worked out in the high points of Israel’s life when they were truly seeking the Lord and obeying Him in all things. I always cite the incident of the Queen of Sheba coming to Solomon in 1 Kings 10 and how she was overcome by the extent of God’s goodness to them, the wealth and the quality of life they had. There are other such incidents in the life of Israel but tragically even Solomon fell off the rails and ended up in a bad place, as did so many of the other kings. The Old Testament is a testimony to the goodness of God and the folly of mankind – even with Him in their midst. Oh yes, we need our salvation!