Notes (NET Translation)
32 When the Israelites were in the wilderness they found a man gathering wood on the Sabbath day.
Many commentators think this passage provides an example of a man sinning defiantly (vv 30-31). In my opinion, the plausibility of this suggestion depends on the meaning of the phrase “there was no clear instruction about what should be done to him” in v 34. The interpretation of said phrase must be compatible with the man sinning defiantly.
33 Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and to the whole community.
34 They put him in custody, because there was no clear instruction about what should be done to him.
Breaking the Sabbath warranted the death penalty (Ex 31:12-17; 35:2-3; Deut 5:13-15). Kindling a fire on the Sabbath also merited the death penalty (Ex 35:2-3) but Exodus does not cover the case of gathering firewood. What was unclear was either whether the man gathering wood had violated the Sabbath or the mode of execution. Ashley and Friedman believe the Israelites were unclear on whether gathering wood was a violation of the Sabbath.
Wenham suggests the following possibility (among others):
By collecting sticks the man was demonstrating his clear intention of lighting a fire on the sabbath. His action prompted the query: Did premeditated preparation to break the law count as a high-handed sin and deserve the same penalty as actually breaking the law, or could it be overlooked? In favour of this view it may be noted that premeditation demonstrated in the preparations for committing a crime distinguishes murder from manslaughter, killing inadvertently, bišgāgâ, in Numbers 35:15ff. Intention to harm was also punishable when it issued in false testimony (Deut. 19:16-19).1
Milgrom provides the following argument for why the Israelites would know the man had broke the Sabbath:
The narrative about the gathering of the manna (Exod. 16:22–30) provides a clear analogy. Although there is no explicit formulation of this prohibition, Israel is implicitly warned not to gather manna on the Sabbath: “How long will you men refuse to obey My commandments and My teachings? . . . Let no man leave his place on the seventh day” (vv. 28, 29). Moreover, this prohibition can be logically deduced: If the priestly law forbids the gathering of food on the Sabbath even though its consumption is, of course, permitted, how much more so would it forbid the gathering of wood, whose purpose would be for kindling–an explicit sin (Exod. 35:3)? Hence, the law concerning the gathering of wood would have been amply clear to Moses on the analogy of the gathering of manna: It was a willful desecration of the Sabbath. Indeed, there is no doubt that in Jeremiah’s time, carrying a burden was a Sabbath violation (Jer. 17:21, 27; cf. Neh. 13:15–22), but clearly the origin of this prohibition is older, and it is so intimated by the Torah narratives.2
Milgrom goes on to note that the penalty for violating the Sabbath is only given in Ex 31:14-15 and 35:2. In Ex 31:14 he thinks a double penalty is stipulated: death by man and karet (cutting off) by God. He suggests that Moses was unsure on whether the wood gatherer should be executed by man or left to God’s punishment (karet). If Milgrom is correct, we must assume the wood gatherer acted defiantly and not inadvertently (for then he could have made sacrificial expiation, vv 27-29). Interestingly, the sect at Qumran declared than anyone who mistakenly profanes the Sabbath should not be put to death.
35 Then the LORD said to Moses, “The man must surely be put to death; the whole community must stone him with stones outside the camp.”
36 So the whole community took him outside the camp and stoned him to death, just as the LORD commanded Moses.
Stoning is conducted outside the camp (miḥûṣ lammaḥăneh) to avoid the uncleanness of a corpse in Yahweh’s camp (cf. Num. 5:2). Stoning is carried out by the whole congregation (kol-hā‘ēḏâ, vv. 35–36), to show community solidarity in rejecting the sin in its midst.3
Ashley, Timothy R. The Book of Numbers. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993.
Brown, Raymond E., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.
Cole, R. Dennis. Numbers. Kindle Edition. The New American Commentary. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000.
Friedman, Richard Elliott. Commentary on the Torah. First Edition. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperOne, 2001.
Levine, Baruch A. Numbers 1-20. The Anchor Yale Bible. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.
Mays, James L., ed. The HarperCollins Bible Commentary. Revised Edition. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000.
Milgrom, Jacob. Numbers. The JPS Torah Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.
Wenham, Gordon J. Numbers. Kindle Edition. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP Academic, 2015.