Does Picking Up Sticks Deserve the Death Penalty?

In his book, Losing Faith in Faith, denominational-preacher-turned-atheist, Dan Barker, wrote a chapter titled “Is the Bible a Good Moral Guide?” In that chapter, he argued that the Bible is not an acceptable guide for human behavior. In fact, he claimed that the God of the Bible is “an immoral person.” As proof of God’s “immorality,” Barker referred to a brief incident found in Numbers 15. In that chapter, a man was found gathering sticks on the Sabbath. Those who found the man took him to Moses and Aaron, who put him under guard until they could ascertain from God how this man should be punished. According to Numbers 15:35, the “Lord said to Moses, ‘The man must surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.’ ” Writing about this episode, Barker quipped:

If there were something dangerous about picking up sticks on Saturday or Sunday, then humanity should know it by now. Since we all agree that such an act in itself is harmless, then whoever executes a person for committing such a “crime” is an immoral person. Even if there were something wrong about picking up sticks, it is not so terribly wrong that it deserves capital punishment (1992, p. 329).

Is it true that God was wrong in ordering this man to be stoned?

Barker claims that “we all agree” that picking up sticks on Saturday or Sunday is harmless. However, Barker does not take into account that the man was in direct violation of a specific command issued by God to the Israelites. One of the Ten Commandments specifically stated: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work” (Exodus 20:8-10). We do not all agree that disobedience to a direct command from God is harmless. Implied in Barker’s assessment of God’s punishment in this incident is the idea that Barker (and many skeptics like him) seems to think that he knows disobeying a “petty” command from God could not cause harm. In truth, there is no way that Barker could know what would have happened if this man’s disobedience was not punished as it was.

Often, disobedience to the commands of one who is in a position to know more about a particular situation could result in harm or death for multiplied thousands. For instance, why does the United States military insist on obedience to officers even in the minutest details? After all, “we all agree” that wearing a pair of boots that is not shined properly is a “harmless” activity, and folding a shirt incorrectly is no great crime. Why, then, does the military insist upon obedience even in the most minuscule ordinances? The simple truth is that laxity in obedience to small regulations breeds laxity in obedience to other ordinances. And if that laxity is not punished quickly and decisively, it has the potential to be contagious, and spread throughout the entire group or organization. And while inadvertent missteps in dress might not receive extremely harsh punishment, openly rebellious behavior to those of higher rank certainly would carry a significant punishment.

Let us examine how that might work. Suppose that the Commander in Chief of the U.S. military declared that only black boots are to be worn by the troops. Then suppose that one of the troops rebelliously decides he does not want to wear black boots, and thus dons a pair of bright-red boots. He marches with his fellow troops, and his commanding officers do nothing to punish him. His fellow troops see that his blatant indiscretion goes unpunished, so they decide to rebel and wear red boots. Soon, half the army is wearing red boots, a scenario that does not seem that “harmful.” When they are called to battle, however, the importance of the Commander’s regulations becomes evident. The enemy is dressed exactly like the U.S. military, except the enemy army wears red boots. The only way to distinguish between friend and foe happened to be the boot color, and due to the rebellious disobedience of the one man who was doing something “harmless,” thousands of U.S. troops are killed by friendly fire. A direct command from the Commander in Chief almost always houses an important purpose, about which many of those who are supposed to follow the command know little or nothing. Many times, only the Commander in Chief knows how harmful disobedience to the command can be.

In the same way, God issued a direct command. That command was blatantly disobeyed. How harmful could that one man’s disobedience have been? What if Joshua had seen this man’s disobedience go unpunished, and when God told him to march around Jericho thirteen times, Joshua decided that one time would be enough? Or what if the Israelites saw this man go unpunished, and thus decided that eating uncooked pork was not that big of a deal either? Or suppose that the Israelites had seen this man’s disobedience, decided they would break the other nine commandments, and therefore began to murder and commit adultery. The truth is, God is in a position to know much more about the situation than humans. He knew exactly what would have happened if this man’s disobedience was not punished.

Foreseeing the validity of this reasoning, Dan Barker conceded that punishment might be necessary, but claimed that the death penalty was too harsh. Says who? Suppose this man’s disobedience, if not punished with death, would have resulted in the moral collapse of the entire Israelite nation? Is there anyway Dan Barker could know that such would not be the case? Or suppose that this man’s disobedience to a direct command from God, if not punished by the death penalty, would have caused the Israelites to neglect sanitation laws instituted by God, bringing in a plague that killed thousands. What penalty would be appropriate for a man who was responsible for the death of thousands? In truth, only God could know what would have happened if this man’s disobedience had gone unpunished, and only God could have known what would have happened if that punishment was not the death penalty. When Dan Barker and other skeptics demand that God’s punishment in this (or other) cases is too harsh, they do so without reference to any objective, moral standard. Their sole defense is a wave of the hand and a “we all feel” statement that is designed to draw in their readers emotionally.

The Bible says that God knows “all things” (1 John 3:20). Since that is the case, only God can truly determine what is harmful and what is not harmful, and only God has the prerogative of determining the proper punishment for disobedience. Today, we no longer are under Old Testament laws concerning the Sabbath, but we are under the New Testament laws established by Jesus. In comparing disobedience to the two laws, the writer of Hebrews concluded:

Anyone who has rejected Moses’ law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace (10:28-29)?

Disobedience to God is a serious offense. It often is the case that those who are the most disobedient to His commandments are the ones who attempt to minimize the importance of obedience.


Barker, Dan (1992), Losing Faith In Faith—From Preacher to Atheist (Madison, WI: Freedom from Religion Foundation).


A copied sheet of paper

REPRODUCTION & DISCLAIMERS: We are happy to grant permission for this article to be reproduced in part or in its entirety, as long as our stipulations are observed.

Reproduction Stipulations→