In which our sense of justice is affronted by a most extreme punishment for a seemingly trivial crime. Why would someone be executed for picking up sticks on a Saturday?
The story of this man is an abrupt interruption in an ongoing record of God's laws. It's only short, so I'll quote it verbatim:
While the Israelites were in the wilderness, 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. 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. (Numbers 15v32-26, ESV)
It's not immediately obvious what law this man had broken, nor why such a severe punishment might have been meted out. The Law contains no specific prohibition regarding picking up sticks on the Sabbath day.
There is, however, a related law in Exodus:
For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day shall be your holy day, a day of sabbath rest to the Lord. Whoever does any work on it is to be put to death. (Exodus 35v2, ESV)
Picking up sticks could be considered a form of work, but this doesn't explain the hesitation and apparent confusion regarding the punishment due. But the next verse does:
Do not light a fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day. (Exodus 35v3, ESV)
Here is the predicament that caused Moses to "put him in ward". The man had been found preparing to start a fire, but had been prevented from doing so by his arrest. Technically, he had broken no law. Instead he was detained while the guidance of God was sought.
God's direction was clear: the intention to sin was as serious as the act of sinning, even if circumstance prevented any actual sin taking place.
The record of this event is not arbitarily included here in the narrative. It is inserted as a practical application of the law presumptuous sin. Note the two verses prior to the record of Stick Man:
But anyone who sins defiantly, whether native-born or foreigner, blasphemes the Lord and must be cut off from the people of Israel. Because they have despised the Lord’s word and broken his commands, they must surely be cut off; their guilt remains on them. (Numbers 15v30-31, NIV)
The sad story of this man is a powerful lesson in the seriousness of presumptuous sin.
Jesus reiterates the same point during his ministry: "anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5v27-28, ESV). Far from being an anomaly in scripture, it is a consistent theme found througout God's word (e.g. Hebrews 10v26).
Wilful disobedience of God ultimately results in death. Thankfully the reverse is also true, and our willing (if faltering) attempts at obedience are graciously counted as righteousness.