I once wrote that the only instance we have in the torah — the teaching — of someone being put to death for violating any commandments was in Numbers 15.
Well, I was wrong.
There are two instances of people being put to death for violating commandments. And both are instructive.
The first is in Leviticus 24, and it includes the extended version of the teaching on injuries and recompense, “fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.” (Leviticus 24:19–20, also Exodus 21:22–25 and Deuteronomy 19:21) But the story this teaching is wrapped up in — and it’s odd in Leviticus being part of an actual story — has nothing to do with murder, manslaughter, or the killing of animals.
10 Now an Israelite woman’s son, whose father was an Egyptian, went out among the people of Israel. And the Israelite woman’s son and a man of Israel fought in the camp, 11 and the Israelite woman’s son blasphemed the Name, and cursed. Then they brought him to Moses. His mother’s name was Shelomith, the daughter of Dibri, of the tribe of Dan. 12 And they put him in custody, till the will of the Lord should be clear to them.
13 Then the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 14 “Bring out of the camp the one who cursed, and let all who heard him lay their hands on his head, and let all the congregation stone him. 15 And speak to the people of Israel, saying, Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. 16 Whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him. The sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death. …
23 So Moses spoke to the people of Israel, and they brought out of the camp the one who had cursed and stoned him with stones. Thus the people of Israel did as the Lord commanded Moses. (Leviticus 24:10–16, 23 ESV)
Note the detail here. We know who this is, we know his lineage, even as we do not know his name. But he is a person here, a real person. We do not know exactly how he has done what he has done — blaspheming, cursing “the Name” — but clearly he has done it.
And he is held, because it is not entirely clear what is to be done, until the the “will of the Lord” should be made known.
The second example comes from Numbers 15, and is shorter.
32 While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. 33 And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation. 34 They put him in custody, because it had not been made clear what should be done to him. 35 And the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” 36 And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as the Lord commanded Moses. (Numbers 15:32–36 ESV)
Again, a sabbath breaker is found in the wilderness, and he is detained because no one is entirely sure what to do with the collector of sticks. (It is also unclear whether or not he is an Israelite, though I usually assume he isn’t, though that’s just an assumption and we all need to remember that. It would be an equal assumption to say he was an Israelite.)
In both instances, there is uncertainty. Even though the teaching has been given about cursing the name of the Lord and seeing the Sabbath holy, there is uncertainty. The Lord has to speak in these matters.
And he does. In Leviticus, God teaches about the value of human life and the proper response to those who take life. About what is owed to God and to whoever is wronged by an act of violence which injures or kills. Which, it has to be admitted, has squat to do with blaspheming the name.
This is an interesting place for that teaching.
There is no teaching in the Numbers passage. This is a one-off, like the Bush v. Gore Supreme Court decision, an important ruling that does not seem intended to set precedent.
But there is something interesting in common with these two passages.
“All the congregation shall stone him” Leviticus reads. “All the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him with stones” reads Numbers.
This stoning, this putting to death, is a communal activity. This isn’t merely delegated to paid agents to do, a bureaucratic or even mechanical process left up to law and administration. There can be no self-righteous accusers of sabbath breaking or blasphemy (or murder, for that matter) who do not share in the righteous shedding of blood here. This is a communal, collective act in which all must participate.
All must gather a stone. And hurl it.
Jesus understood this when, in John’s gospel, he saves the woman caught in the act of adultery by telling the Pharisees, “Let him who is without sin among be the first to throw a stone at her.” He understood the communal and participatory nature of this punishment. The Lord is speaking again here, in John 8. Jesus does judge — he knows she is a sinner, what she has done, and what the teaching demands. But he does not condemn her. He send her on her way, and commands her to “sin no more.”
The stones stay where they belong — on the ground.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus works on the Sabbath. He gathers food, heals, casts out demons. And he blasphemes fairly regularly, at least in the eyes of the Pharisees who administered the law.
This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. (John 5:18 ESV)
Blasphemy is the primary charge leveled by the Pharisees against Jesus in Mark and Matthew. Jesus pays for the price for that blasphemy, like the son of Shelomith did (though claiming to be the Son of God was probably not his sin).
The point here is that Jesus specifically breaks commandments for which we have very specific death penalties in scripture. He works on the sabbath. He is accused of blaspheming. As a man, he is subject to the law. He is killed. We kill him.
But he is also God speaking in our midst. He is the giver of the law. His “go and sin no more” follows “I do not condemn you.” He judges, but he forgives. His work on the Sabbath involves not just gathering food or healing, but proclaiming himself Lord of the Sabbath (blasphemy!) and announcing that good deeds are an acceptable Sabbath practice.
Certainty and confidence with mercy. A bold sinning that reminds those around him that to pronounce condemnation also requires taking up a stone and throwing it.