NO ONE WANTS TO TALK ABOUT STONING IN THE BIBLE
When the Israelites were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the sabbath day. Those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses, Aaron, and to the whole congregation. They put him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him. Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him outside the camp.” The whole congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death, just as the Lord had commanded Moses.
This doesn't make any sense to me.
Rabbi Sacks says nothing about the stoning, in a whole book on Numbers. What he does say about this chapter relates to this word of the Lord to Moses that I'll comment on after you read it.
"The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner. You have the fringe so that, when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes. So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and you shall be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God" (Num 15:37-40).
OK, so many Christians like me might notice Numbers 15 and think how very strange and weird and uncool of God to command or Israel to follow through with stoning someone for such a seemingly small infraction of picking up sticks on the sabbath. It's interesting that what follows this bare account of stoning is a word about the law's importance and a command to make fringes on the corners, "so that when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and not follow the lust of your own heart and your own eyes . . . and you shall be holy to your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the Lord your God."
Rabbi Sacks points out that the command to put fringes on garments is so important that a phrase from this command continued in the Shema: "You shall see it and remember all the commands of the Lord, and keep them."
This chapter is not about someone getting stoned for picking up sticks. It's about the importance of seeing the commands, being reminded of the importance of listening to God, and doing what God says.
Sacks says this command of the "tzitzit," wearing a fringed garment, took on two major forms in Judaism. The first form is to wear an outer garment, a prayer shawl called a "tallit," and over it is said, "who has sanctified us with His commands, and commanded us to wrap ourselves in a fringed garment." The second form the tzitzit has taken is wearing an undergarment with fringes, and for this it is said, "who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us concerning the precept of the fringed garment."
Why is this important? Sacks says, "The tallit hides the person we are and represents the person we would like to be, because in prayer we ask God to judge us, not for what we are, but for what we wish to be." He says it's as if we are saying, "I may be a beggar, but I am wearing the robe of royalty, the robe of your people who have prayed to you through the ages, Your people Lord who you showed great love and took as your own." The tallit is the public persona of Judaism and when we see Jews reading the Torah, we see this prayer shawl that may have 613 threads or tassels representing the commands of the Torah.
The undergarment is another thing altogether. It represents not the public face of Judaism but the very personal way that we can approach God in prayer. Sacks concludes with this:
"But there is also our inner life as people of faith. There are things we can say to God that we can say to no one else. He knows our thoughts, hopes, fears, better than we know them ourselves. We speak to Him in the privacy of the soul, and He listens."
What kind of internal and external garments do you wear? Do you have a public life that is pious and righteous and for show but have little or no internal, private life of prayer? If so, you are violating a vital principle of prayer. The fringed undergarment is not visible but it is no less part of the principle of prayer in Judaism, and without it, the outer form is more like the "tefillin" (phylacteries) Jesus referred to in Matthew 24, for show and not for relationship.
LORD, help us in our weakness to see your face quietly, in private, as well as publicly, where others may see us. Give us a way to be at peace in a quiet room.
Greg Taylor preaches for The Journey: A New Generation Church of Christ. Greg's wife, Jill, teaches math at Broken Arrow High School and Tulsa Community College. Greg and Jill have three adult children, Ashley, Anna, and Jacob. Greg is the author of many books, including his latest co-authored with Randy Harris, Daring Faith: Meeting Jesus in the Book of John.