Sabbath Sticks, OT Morality, and the Jesus Tea Strainer

There’s a very troublesome text smack dab in the middle of Numbers 15, which I suspect many of us wouldn’t know what to do with if asked about it:

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. (Num. 15:32-36)

well-that-escalated-quicklyOn first reading we’re left thinking, “Well, that escalated quickly.” It’s a bit harsh isn’t? I mean, really, picking up a few sticks on the Sabbath and he’s to be executed? Is that how God works? Is that a moral Bible? Indeed, some skeptical critics point to that story specifically in order to prove that it isn’t.

I was reminded of this as I watched my friend Andrew Wilson debate (or rather, get interrupted by) Steve Chalke about the authority of Scripture and how to read the OT.  During the debate, after a lot of prodding for clarification, Chalke finally came out and said that while he believed that the event happened, Moses or the author was simply confused as to God’s commands, having misheard him or something (I kid you not, that’s what he says, I’m not lying). Given who Jesus is, and the fact that God is unchanging, he simply couldn’t believe that God would wipe a guy out just for picking up some sticks on Sabbath, so the text is simply wrong on that point. And pretty much every other time it says God strikes something down (all throughout the OT and NT).

Now, I can’t be too harsh here. I really do get the hesitation. It’s an odd, initially terrifying story that I’m somewhat tempted to edit myself. That said, as I watched and considered, I thought of a few points (a couple contextual, one broadly theological) that ought to be considered as we approach troubling texts like these in order to do them justice without chopping them up. I’ll tackle them in no particular order:

1. Flagrant defiance – The first has to do with the act itself. Looking at it the stick-collecting in a sort of flat sense, it does seem fairly innocuous. A few sticks–what’s the big deal? But, see, I don’t think it is as simple as just a few sticks. Say for instance you have a child and you see him reach for a cookie, so you say to him, “Don’t lay a finger on those until after dinner–I don’t want you to spoil your supper.” Your child then looks up at you, looks at the cookie, looks back up at you, and then with a smug look, grabs the cookie and stuffs it in his mouth. Now, at that point, what do we have? We don’t have a simple cookie-eating incident do we? Instead we have an act of willful flagrant defiance that merits some more serious attention. Superficially innocuous actions can be laden with deeper meaning.

Was it worth it?

Was it worth it?

Now, a 5-year old doing some boundary-testing is still pretty mild, but consider the case in question. The Israelites have been saved out of grinding slavery and given a good law by the sovereign God of the Universe. Moses came down from the mountain of smoke, lightning, and fire, and delivered the Ten Commandments, the foundational charter laws of the Covenant, on tablets written by the finger of God himself. The fourth, the command to keep the Sabbath Holy, is actually the lengthiest of the ten. At this point you begin to see that this man, in going out to collect something as stupid as a bunch of sticks, isn’t just bending a little rule–he’s acting in flagrant defiance of the express will of the King of the nation. This is not a mild act, but an aggressive breach against authority demonstrating his total repudiation of the rule of the Lord.

Some might wonder if I’m importing or imposing this interpretation on the text, but I think I’m on solid contextual ground when we consider that this little episode is recorded right after the regulations forbidding sacrifices to atone for intentional sins or “sins with a high hand” in verses 32-33:

“‘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.’”

The fact that we don’t see this, I think, is indicative of how little importance we place on the idea of authority culturally, or the idea of defying God’s authority. We simply don’t take that category of sin seriously, because of our modern, Western mindset.

2. National Significance – The second factor to consider is that this is probably not just about this one guy.  I’ll be honest that it’s been a conviction of mine for as far back as I can remember that God doesn’t owe me my next breath–both by dint of authorial rights as well as because of my own sins and wickedness. That said, it’s hard to not see this as a national, and indeed, redemptive-historical issue.

God has purposes for his people. They are to live in relationship with him and serve as a light to the world in their worship and obedience. The laws serve as a hedge around them, protecting them from the pagan influences of their neighbors as well as training them in the proper life with God. These laws aren’t simply for the life of Israel, then, but for God’s cosmic redemptive purposes for Israel among the nations. In that light, the question becomes then: Is God serious about his law? Is he just blowing smoke when he commands these things, or do we need to take him seriously? Are these serious commands or mere suggestions?

I would suggest then, that while he was culpable and deserving in himself, this early case of Sabbath defiance also had ramifications beyond his own case that were at issue as well. The course of the life of the nation was stake such that tragic, but just, action had to be taken to ensure there was clarity and resolved on this point.

3. Appropriate For The Time – Third, I think there is also a level of progressive revelation at work here. Both Wilson and Chalke agreed that compared to most of the laws of the surrounding nations, the law of Israel was comparatively humane and just. In fact, one of the processes we can see in Scripture is the idea that God meets people in history, deals with them in a manner that’s appropriate to them at the time in order to move them along towards the divine ideal. He starts out with their pagan, distorted thinking and then employs laws that are suited to them (but are no longer suited to us) in order to bring them along slowly.

Think of it this way: were I to have children, some of the rules I might give to my 5-year old would be harsh and inappropriate for a 15-year old. For instance, I might tell a five-year old child, “Every time you go outside, you need to come ask permission. If you don’t, you’ll be grounded from play for a week.” Now, to a 15-year old, this would seem draconian–indeed, to apply it to the 15-year-old it would be–but it makes perfect sense for a 5-year old at a time when you’re trying ingrain the lessons of the importance of parental authority, safety, and so forth. A second point follows from this: simply because I change the house rules for my 15-year-old to something different than when he was 5, it doesn’t mean that I’ve overall changed my mind or something. It means that in my consistency of character I have spoken differently in different situations.

In a similar way, God implemented laws back then and there, which were appropriate in the process of moral and theological education (“because of the hardness of your heart”) that he wouldn’t apply now–especially in light of the new covenant in Christ and the move from a theocractic national kingdom to a spiritual Kingdom. But that’s not because he would have been unrighteous in applying them then, but because we’ve moved on from that part of the story. To try to go back is to miss the intended movement at work. Nor is he inconsistent when he shifts his demands, or changes the application of underlying principles in the New Covenant.

Of course, being a Brit, Wilson would make it a *tea* strainer.

Of course, being a Brit, Wilson would make it a *tea* strainer.

Returning to The Tea-Strainer – Where does all of this go? Well, for one I hope it sheds some light on Numbers 15. But further than that, I think this serves to highlight what Wilson has called the difference between a Christ-centered lens versus a Christ-centered “tea-strainer” hermeneutic. The one allows you to look at a text in a different light, while the other simply screens out the bits we don’t like. Returning to the debate I referenced above, we see that Chalke looks at this text and says, “Well, looking at Christ in the NT, I know God couldn’t have commanded that and therefore we see that Moses was probably confused.” And therefore, the text is actually wrong. (Again, go watch the video, I’m not exaggerating here).

I had a couple of friends complain about the article when I shared it last week to the effect that, “Well, that doesn’t reflect the Christocentric hermeneutic I’m talking about, or the best versions of it.” Well, if that’s the case, then that’s lovely. I’m ecstatic to hear it. But sadly it does reflect Chalke’s self-designated “Christ-centric” hermeneutic, and it’s even the sort of thing that I’ve seen Brian Zahnd, someone I have serious respect for, write before, to wild applause and cheers in some sectors.

So what do we say instead? I, and I think Wilson as well, would say something like, “Well, looking at Christ, his affirmation of the OT, as well as instruction to the effect that he has fulfilled and we’re moving on now, let’s look back and see how this command was functionally-appropriate for the time.” It’s a way of accepting all of what Jesus says when he affirms:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”

There’s both an affirmation that it’s all true, it was all valid, and yet, at the same time, now that Christ has come, we aren’t going back there. God spoke it all and did it all–every single law, judgment, story, and so forth–to somehow point forward towards a climax of grace and justice in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But of course, if you just cut bits out, or say the Israelites or Moses were confused at such & such point when the text says “the word of the Lord”, then you’re actually leaving out some of the testimony to the Glory of Christ.

So, which hermeneutic are you working with? A lens or a tea-strainer?

Soli Deo Gloria

I work through some related issues in “The Cure that Killed the Patient“, as well as this post on the importance of Context the Conquest of Canaan.

33 thoughts on “Sabbath Sticks, OT Morality, and the Jesus Tea Strainer

  1. Maybe “Christ centered” needs to be defined a bit more clearly. I’ll confess that I don’t really know what a lot of people mean when they use that exclusion – what does Christ-centered really *mean*?

    • Ya, it’s a bit different from person to person. For me it’s a number of things, but in the end it’s a way of reading the text that pushes us to see Christ as the end-goal of every story, etc. Typology is big at that point, but there’s more to it than that.

      • I agree, for the most part. I view scripture as more Christo-telic, as opposed to ‘centered’ – honestly, I don’t think trying to ‘see’ Christ in every dot and tittle of the Bible is going to be terribly fruitful – unless you just go nuts with allegory/typology, and at that point, once you go that far, it kind of ceases to be meaningful and (can) becomes fantasy. But to see Christ as more of the telos, and not direct subject, seems to be a bit more fruitful.

  2. The thing that interests me is that “it was not clear what should be done with him.” You’d think that if it was an act of defiance, and if this event immediately followed vv. 32-33, then there would be no question what should be done with him. He’s being defiant! He isn’t obeying God’s sabbath command! I guess their initial uncertainty surprises me, and while I am inclined to agree with your explanations and exegetical work here, their uncertainly leaves me troubled. What do you make of it?

    • My two cents: I do not believe their difficulty in determining what to do was a lack of uncertainty about what was commanded but rather an unwillingness to follow through with it. Had they been unclear on whether it was a transgression, they would not have placed him in custody in the first place. Unwillingness to do the right thing does bring with it a lack of clarity, so to speak.

  3. Picking up from Twitter, Derek: put another way, Chalke’s approach is little more than (so-called) higher criticism, but at least he gets to sidestep this burden of treating everything that’s written down in the canon as something that needs to be understood or justified beyond its historical and social location/situation (and thus mistaken, i.e., “unenlightened,” we might say).

    What I’m really getting at is that it comes down to one’s doctrine of Scripture (or hermeneutics, as you note). Thus your account will only be satisfactory to those who share in your presupposition of the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Scriptures.

    Can you account for this event without that commitment?

    • I will probably come back to this but briefly:

      To some degree the point the exercise to defend or explicate the the rationality, coherence, etc. of the text from within a generally conservative view of Scripture. In that sense, yes, only someone who shares my presupps will buy the arguments. Then again, why would I be trying to justify the text if I didn’t hold it? Do you see my point?

      In some sense, I would have to go about establishing a number of other doctrines first (Christ, resurrection, authority, etc.) before i could then move to explicate the text. It’s really what I’d want to do anyways. Deal with Christ first, then, in light of his own affirmation of the OT, let’s go back and see what sense we can make of it.

      Does that all make sense?

      • Makes sense, Derek. Thanks for the reply.

        I suppose if I held to a higher critical hermeneutic, I wouldn’t be at all comfortable with Chalke’s tea-straining sleight of hand, and, because I’d take the fact that God’s Word is contained within the scriptures seriously, then I might find myself justifying at least what in this text God might be intending to convey. Which is, in a sense, what you attempt to do above (while maintaining that the event itself is justifiable). I’m curious now how this text is explicated in the higher critical commentaries . . .

      • Ya, one thing that’s interesting is that a critical reading might deny the historicity of the text, but with a post-liberal sort of appropriation, you’re still forced to deal with the theological portrait of God and the Law given in Scripture. In a sense, Chalke reverses this by saying it happens, but the theological depiction of God and the Law is what is confused.

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  5. Thanks for this. A tea-strainer hermeneutic is a new descriptor to me, and is one that is pretty accurate.

    Of all your options, I find #3 resonates the most with my own understanding of the oftentimes “harshness” of God as demonstrated in the OT. Under the Law, in the most strict understanding of the term, there is no room for mercy, or compassion, or Grace. This does not make the Law evil, but it highlights in no uncertain terms the limits and shortcomings of the Law. Now some may disagree with me, but I’m not sure an understanding of Grace would be possible without a prior experience of the Law to support it, so the Law that God prescribed to the Israelites (and humanity) early in our development was appropriate for a time.

    Without a clear example of the implementation of the Law to its full effect, one could always try to make the case that if only people and societies were really more serious about living according to the Law, it could solve the problem of sin in the world. At least in my mind, Israel is God and man’s best and most serious attempt at creating a people on earth who live totally by the Law. God’s jealousy, the harsh penalties for violating the law, and Israel going so far as to use warfare to remain “set apart”, all touch on the seriousness of the steps taken. It was God working with humanity in our attempt to make the Law “work”, and was necessary to prepare us to understand Grace instead.

  6. Excellent article. Regarding grace and the harshness of God, option #1 resonates with me most, which is best summed up in the following quote:

    The fact that we don’t see [defiance of God’s law as a serious matter], I think, is indicative of how little importance we place on the idea of authority culturally, or the idea of defying God’s authority. We simply don’t take that category of sin seriously, because of our modern, Western mindset.

    I think this is indicative not only of our modern, Western mindset but also of a particular blindness to the far-reaching effects of the era of the new covenant, upon which our modern, Western mindset is largely based. Jesus Christ ushered in the age of grace, which has had far-reaching effects throughout Western culture and thought. At some point however, this privileged state of grace became viewed as an inalienable right, that not even God Himself has a right to transgress. It is from this perspective that we view God’s actions as cruel an inhumane instead of holy and just.

  7. “Christ-centered” is another way to say, “gospel centered”. Methinks.

    For us, it is Christ…alone. We do nothing to aid in or add to His completed work on the Cross for the ungodly.

    We are declared holy and righteous for His sake (not even for our own sakes).

    It leaves the ‘how-to’ preachers, without a job.

    Unless of course one happens to be in the ‘me-centered’ Christian camp.

  8. My sympathies are with Steve Chalke’s exegesis. The tea strainer is more a slur than a metaphor, and it is important that we recognise the huge theological importance of the issues involved. This is about the centrality and actuality of the incarnation. The Jesus hermeneutic argues from the gospel testimony to God. This is why it is also referred to as gospel primacy. I don’t say that I or anyone else following this approach will arrive at the same conclusion on a specific scripture, but Steve’s method certainly indicates the appropriate exegetical direction. I examine the basis of Western ideas of authority and the enlightenment reaction to them in my book Church, Gospel and Society: How the Politics of Sovereignty Impregnated the West (Wipf & Stock, 2011) the third section of which begins to configure the kind of post Christendom incarnational hermeneutic that Steve is doing a good job of applying.

    • Roger,

      Thanks for commenting!

      On the points, I have to say, I don’t think Steve’s approach does justice to Jesus’ own approach to the OT text, which he affirms as authoritative and the word of God (even the sticky bits we’re talking about here) in the Gospels. It’s an odd process to claim Jesus as the center of your hermeneutic and then ignore what he has to say about the issue in question. I think, exegetically, in any case, the issue goes in mine and Wilson’s favor. The hermeneutical one is up for grabs, and will be determined in many ways by our theology of Scripture, as well was by our commitments to certain construals of love, justice, etc. that both will claim are derived from the text.

      Thanks for the book recommend.


  9. The way you’ve framed this does make Steve Chalke look foolish (on the back foot at least) and the tea-strainer a plausible metaphor, but your defence only serves to justify God’s apparent cruelty, and He still comes out of the story as a vicious murderer – as any jury would have concluded. I have two problems with your whole argument. First, your tea-strainer analogy puts another image of God before the one the testimony of Jesus reveals to us. The ‘strainer’ represents the decisive fulcrum of your assessment of the nature of God which ‘trumps’ the character of Jesus in the Gospels where it seems to conflict with the God of the OT. My thesis would be that we don’t nearly go far enough in affirming that if we’ve seen Jesus we’ve ‘seen the Father’, which makes it absolutely appropriate to ask: would Jesus do what ‘God’ seems to have done? I would not hesitate to say,’no’. If we let the text, however difficult, dictate the nature of God as contrary to the revelation of Jesus, a Jesus hermeneutic is redundant. I know the implications are huge, but we need to learn to go ‘from Jesus to God’, not the other way round. That is the heart of the Gospel – the Good News about God as seen in Jesus. Secondly, the whole problem then is the traditional (ie. extremely deeply ingrained!) Christian configuration of God as working through ‘sovereign power’ rather than ‘serving love’ (what other kind of love can there be?). Unless you argue that God’s character changed for a season or forever with the Incarnation, there has to be a different way of understanding the Old Testament than your argument allows.

    • Phil,

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting. Just to be clear, I didn’t write this to make Steve look foolish. I wrote it to deal with the text and the problems I saw with his approach. So, sorry if this appeared malicious.

      Now, on the issues: The strainer analogy isn’t meant to be placed in front of Jesus, but rather is a description of an approach to the text. My point is that it is inappropriate to pit Jesus against the OT text in the ways that Chalke is doing, especially given Jesus’ affirmation of the authority of the OT, and in light of the many texts in the Gospels, Paul, the NT as a whole, which support the basic authority of God over life, death, and so forth. You have to mangle the narrative of Scripture to come out where Steve does. I don’t think that this is ignoring Jesus as center. I think it keeps him there without a Crypto-Marcionite denial of God’s self-revelation to Israel as the God of mercy and grace who judges sin and saves sinners righteously according to his goodness. This is the God depicted in the Exodus confrontation with the God’s of Egypt and Pharaoh, the Wilderness Wanderings, the Conquest, Judges, the Dynasty, the prophets, the Exile, and so forth. I think this is the God we see revealed in Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees, the parables, the Cross and Resurrection as Judgment and Mercy, the preaching of the Apostles in Acts, or Paul, John, Peter, Revelation, and so forth, all who point to a judgment in all these things, only to be avoided through faith in Christ.

      As for your second point, the whole sovereign power v. serving love dichotomy–I don’t have much to say except that I find it pretty unhelpful. Jesus acts in sovereign power and in serving love. He also acts in serving power and sovereign love. I’m just trying to have as big a picture of Jesus as I can here. No, it’s not always the most comfortable as a modern Westerner, but then again, I shouldn’t expect it to be.

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