When examining the creation-evolution debate, there are two issues which are often erroneously conflated — the age of the Earth and the length of the creation period. Within the Christian community, we generally agree that this creative act took place, but disagree on two subsequent questions: How long ago did this creative act occur, and how long did it take? In my last blog, I discussed in some detail the age of the Earth, coming down on the side of the “progressive” or “old-Earth” view. In this blog, we’ll tackle the other half of the issue — how long did it take? Again, I remind readers that this is a completely secondary issue, a good topic for internal discussion and debate, but not a topic that should divide Christians.
So, how do we view the week of creation? Reading Genesis 1:1 – 2:3, we immediately see a clear pattern of “On the first day…on the second day…on the third day…”. The traditional/historic Christian view has been that these are literal, 24-hour solar days. Unfortunately, few who believe that have actually read closely the account in Genesis 1. Open to it. If you read the whole first chapter, carefully and critically, you should notice some problems. First and foremost, the sun wasn’t created until the fourth day, so it is unlikely that the first three days are solar days. Even worse, if the sun and the lights in the sky weren’t created until day four, where did the light come from on the first day? Furthermore, the plants and vegetation were all created on day three…how could photosynthesis occur without the sun? Sure, plants could probably survive for a day without the sun…but why would God create plants that require sunlight to survive, but not create the sun yet? These are just a few problems, you could probably ferret out a few more if you read closely. Young-Earth creationists have worked hard to develop coherent answers to these questions, and some do address the concerns intelligently.
But if the days in Genesis 1 and 2 don’t refer to literal 24-hour days, what do they mean? Well, taking into account both a critical reading and the old-Earth/progressive view discussed in my prior blog, they certainly don’t mean 24-hour days. It turns out that in this case the Hebrew language is not a whole lot different from how we use language. At times, we use “day” to refer to the period of daylight (“during the day” versus “during the night,” a period of about 8 – 10 hours). Other times we use it to refer to an entire 24-hour period (as in “the day before yesterday”), or an entire indefinite period (“back in my grandfather’s day”). In English, that one word can refer to 8 – 10 hours, 24 hours, or an entire epoch/age/generation. Not surprisingly, it’s the same in Hebrew. The Hebrew word “yom” is the word translated “day” in Genesis 1 and 2. Does it have to mean 24 hours, as most if not all young-Earth creationists would support? The answer is no. Even in the first few cases of Genesis 1, it specifically states, “…and there was morning, and there was evening, the first day.” From morning to evening may actually be closer to our use of the word to refer to dayLIGHT — the 8 – 10 hour period — not a 24-hour day. To make matters worse, look ahead to Chapter 2 of Genesis, specifically 2:4. Depending on the version of your Bible, it might say, “This is the account of the heavens and the Earth in the day they were created.” Other translations say, “in the time” or “when” they were created. Point is the same, and you may have guessed it — the Hebrew word used in Genesis 2:4 is the same word “yom,” used here to mean the entire creative period. Advance to Genesis 4:3, and it says (again depending on the version of the Bible you use), “In that day, Cain brought forth…” or perhaps “In the course of time, Cain brought…” At this point, you can probably guess. Genesis 4:3 is also the same Hebrew word, “yom,” here used to mean an entire indefinite period.
While there are other factors (such as the use of the ordinals “first,” “second,” “third,” and so forth before the word yom), the point is that there is nothing in context, in language, or in interpretation that requires the days in Genesis 1 to be literal, 24-hour days. That doesn’t mean they aren’t, it just means the text doesn’t require it. In fact, the context and the chapters that follow seem to indicate precisely the opposite, that these are NOT 24-hour days. As we’ve seen, “day” in Genesis is variously used to mean the period of daylight (Genesis 1:5, 8, elsewhere), the entire creative “week” (Genesis 2:4), or an indefinite period of time (Genesis 4:3). Add to this the previously-discussed fact that the first four days are likely not solar days (since the sun didn’t exist yet), and the seventh day — God’s creative or Sabbath rest — is still ongoing (Hebrews 4), and the argument that Genesis 1 refers to seven literal, 24-hour days starts to quickly break down. I know that’s a lot to wrap your arms around — so let’s put it all together.
1. The text in Genesis does not mandate a literal, 24-hour day or a 7-day creation. In fact, such an interpretation causes significant problems with the Genesis 1 text, and makes other areas of Genesis (chapters 2 and 4) problematic.
2. The genealogies in Genesis and Leviticus contain significant gaps and overlaps (see my previous blog).
3. The ages of the individuals in the Old Testament may be symbolic, not literal.
4. Nearly all of the evidence we see today, in nearly every field of natural study (science), indicates that the Earth is far older than the 6000+ years presented by many young-Earth creationists.
I could go on, but you get the point. In my view, the earth is many millions, perhaps billions, of years old, the creative “days” refer to vast periods of time, animals and other living creatures (Genesis 1:20 – 24) were created well before mankind, and many had become extinct (including the dinosaurs) before mankind was created. We did not live simultaneously with the dinosaurs. Please understand, this view is entirely consistent with both scripture and our current understanding of science. Though some will object, there is nothing wrong with using science or natural observation to inform our reading of scripture. Twice before the church has made this error, at one time believing the Earth to be the center of the solar system (some said the universe), and later concluding based on scripture that the Earth is flat. Both of these views — like young-Earth creationism, the traditional and historic Christian perspective — were eventually abandoned in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. Perhaps young-Earth creationism is next or perhaps it will endure, I don’t know. One last note — please don’t make the mistake of thinking that believing in an old Earth equates to supporting Darwinian evolution. That’s a completely separate matter.
I’ve been promising a post on creation and evolution ever since I touched on the topic in a previous blog. So, here we go — the first of a two-part blog on the issue. No doubt many of you may disagree with what you’re about to read, and that’s perfectly fine. I can’t stress strongly enough that this is a secondary issue — one about which Christians can disagree and discuss, but should not divide.
First, I believe in creation. I believe in the Bible, and I believe it to be the inerrant word of God. I am also a scientist, with four graduate degrees — three of them in engineering. For some, this may pose a problem — but not me, and I’ll tell you why.
Second, I am what some call an “old Earth” or “progressive” creationist. Some of you are ready to stop reading, but I’d ask that you stick with me for a few more paragraphs, and try to think clearly about this issue. Nearly every discipline of science — astronomy, cosmology, geology, anthropology, paleontology, archaeology, even chemistry and physics — provides considerable evidence that the Earth is billions of years old. I could cite thousands of examples, including distant starlight (known as anisotropic synchrony), sedimentation, the fossil record, ice cores, red shift in space, star ages, cosmological and gravitational constants, radiometric dating, the list goes on. Point is, science is nearly unanimous in this regard. Are there exceptions? Sure. There are a few places where the sedimentary layers are reversed. There are gaps in the fossil record. Radiometric dating is notoriously unreliable. There are inconsistencies in other places — but what we can’t do is use the exception to prove the rule.
Third, I find there to be very scarce credible scientific evidence that the Earth is 6,000 – 10,000 years old. However, there appears to be abundant Scriptural evidence that this is so. Answers in Genesis, one of the leading defenders of the Young Earth view, publishes a Biblically-based timeline that puts the Earth right at 6,000 years old. The Institute for Creation Research also has some great resources advocating the young-Earth view. Hopefully, my clear-thinking readers are sensing the coming train wreck — if science gives us an old Earth and Scripture a young Earth, there is an apparent “conflict” between science and Scripture. This is a false dilemma — here’s why.
I call the concept “Dual Authorship.” God is the author of nature (Romans 1), and God is the author of Scripture (1 Tim 3, elsewhere). Understood accurately, the two will not — cannot — contradict each other. So, when you see a conflict between what you observe in nature and what you read in Scripture, you are doing one of the two inaccurately. Either you are observing nature incorrectly, or you are interpreting Scripture incorrectly. In my view, many Christians are far too quick to assume it is the former, and discount the possibility that they’re not reading the Bible accurately. When it comes to Genesis 1, this is precisely what we have — nature and Scripture apparently in conflict.
(NOTE: There are two separate issues at play here that are often conflated, but shouldn’t be. First, how long did it take God to create the universe, the Earth, and all its inhabitants? Second, how long ago did this creative act take place? They’re normally conflated since those who believe in a literal 7-day creation almost always also believe in a very young Earth, and those that believe in an old earth usually reject a literal 7-day creation in favor of other models. Let’s deal with the age of the Earth first.)
So, which is it? Are our scientific observations wrong, or is Scripture wrong? I’m sure you know by now that the answer is NEITHER. They’re in synch. How? Well, to get this answer, young-Earth creationists have to do some pretty fancy dancing. Normally they’ll rely heavily on a global flood (which is another issue altogether), and suggest that things like the Grand Canyon can happen in a matter of days if you have enough water and soft enough soil. Multiple layers of sediment may appear thousands or even millions of years apart, but only be days or months apart, due to flood geology. All of these are grand attempts, but they fall short in most serious investigations. But, we don’t have to try to force the observable, natural evidence into a preconceived notion of Scripture.
In fact, there is no discussion in the Bible about the age of the Earth. To get the age, scholars have to use the genealogies from Genesis and Leviticus and the ages of the key figures (Adam, Seth, Enoh, Lamech, the Kings, etc). I believe this is very shaky ground. These genealogies are NOT consecutive (they contain gaps), are NOT complete (many are missing multiple generations), and the ages of the individuals in question are not precise (it’s not like we have birth and death certificates for these folks). From a Jewish perspective, these genealogies are designed to show a general line of descent, not to be all-inclusive. The genealogies are not unlike those referenced in the New Testament, where we hear of Christ referred to as the “son of David,” although we know there were many generations between David and Christ (Matthew 12:23, Luke 1:32 & 18:39, elsewhere). Or when the Israelites as a whole are referred to as “sons of Abraham,” though we know that most are not directly his sons, just in his lineage.
In addition, many believe that the ages are not actual ages, but numerical representations of their lives. Both Hebrew and Greek authors and theologians were frequent practitioners of what is known as Gematria, or establishing theological and linguistic significance to numbers. We see this throughout the Bible, where certain numbers (often 40, 12, or 7) contain significance. You probably already know about these cases…for example, the number “7″ in Scripture usually signifies perfection or completeness. How many times do I forgive my brother? “Not 7 times, but 70 times 7 (or 77 times).” Matthew 18:21-22. It’s not telling us to that we should keep count, and when we get to 77, it’s over…it’s telling us that we should ALWAYS forgive. There is no limit. Same with 40. How many years did the Hebrews wander? How many days did the rain last during the flood? How many days was Jesus tempted in the desert? We’re not sure what exactly “40″ signifies, but it appears time and time again in Scripture, and carries great significance. How does this apply? Well, when we read that Lamech lived 777 years, this could be much like saying we forgive our brother 77 times. It’s not meant to be a precise count, it’s meant to tell us something of theological significance…perhaps Lamech lived a complete or nearly perfect life. That’s just one example of many…bottom line, using ages and genealogies to establish the age of the Earth, rather than scientific exploration and observation, is bad business.
So, in summary, we cannot create a false conflict between science and religion, and we cannot drive a wedge between how God has revealed Himself in nature and how He has revealed Himself in Scripture. The two are not incompatible or contradictory. The Bible is silent on the age of the Earth, and the use of genealogies to establish the age is unreliable and most probably inaccurate. On the other hand, God has also given us nature in abundance, as well as the tools and mental faculties to observe, test, measure, and draw conclusions from that general revelation. With notable exceptions, those observations, tests, and measurements clearly point to an Earth considerably older than the 6,000 – 10,000 years supposedly determined by the genealogies.
Following up from my prior blog on the Chick Fil-A issue, I received a question from Bill in Alexandria the other day. I’ve also received several emails, and had a number of posts on my Facebook site. It’s not directly related to Dan Cathy’s comments or the same-sex marriage debate, but I’ll answer it as best I can.
The question revolves around Facebook posts and a YouTube video that has been making the rounds lately (you can watch it here, but I don’t recommend it…it’s a waste of your time). It’s very, very difficult to respond to a video like this, simply because she’s all over the map and has absolutely no idea how to read the Bible or interpret Scripture.
All of these things — the YouTube video, the emails, the Facebook posts — revolve around the same basic contention. That is, that “Biblical or traditional marriage” is not defined as a man and woman, includes the requirement to marry my brother’s wife if he gets killed, requires me to stone my wife if I can’t prove she’s a virgin at marriage, permits multiple wives and concubines like Solomon and others, you’ve probably seen the list. Let’s try some clear thinking.
1. The Biblical definition of marriage. This starts at the very beginning — Genesis. In the story from Genesis 2, shortly after God creates man, he realizes that “it is not good for man to be alone,” and he creates a companion for him. That companion established the first “marriage,” from a Biblical perspective — one man, one woman, with a relationship described in Genesis 2:24, which outlines a very special spiritual, emotional, and physical union. This is reinforced throughout Scripture, especially in the New Testament. This includes instructions for men to love their wives in Ephesians 5:22-33, and the definition of a godly man being the husband of one wife in 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus 1, and elsewhere. Most Biblically-literate Christians are also very well aware of the New Testament’s constant comparisons between marriage and Christ’s relationship with the church, which further defines what marriage is and how it behaves.
All combined, we understand that marriage, Biblically defined, is a lifelong relationship between a man and a woman, characterized by love, sacrifice, Christ-centeredness, and meeting each other’s physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. Divorce, adultery, and fornication are all violations of this Biblical ideal. Are there other examples of marriage in the Bible? Sure, especially in the Old Testament. But to equate these examples with the Biblical “definition” is to make a critical error is hermeneutics (the science of the study of Scripture) — that is, to equate the descriptive with the prescriptive. This simply means that there are many things in the Bible that are describe various situations, but do not require us to emulate the behavior. In fact, many times the Bible describes behaviors that we are NOT to emulate. Paul supervising the stoning of Stephen, for example (Acts 7:54 – 8:1), is obviously descriptive — the Bible does not condone or endorse this behavior. Examples abound, from David’s adultery with Bathsheba (2 Sam 12:24) to a hundred other examples — including Solomon and David taking multiple wives.
Throughout Scripture, we see many cases of Godly men taking multiple wives — and then see the consequences of that sinful behavior. Nowhere in Scripture is this behavior prescribed. In fact, every prescriptive passage with regard to marriage always identifies it as a wife and husband. Jesus quotes Genesis 2 when talking about a man leaving his father and mother and being joined to a wife (Matthew 19). This passage is directly followed by one that makes it clear that once joined, the union is permanent (except for unfaithfulness). Fast forward to 1 Corinthians 7, and the story is the same. And note the language in these passages — the language of “should,” “do not,” and similar phrases make it clear that these are prescriptive passages. Every prescriptive passage, from Matthew 19 to 1 Cor 7 and elsewhere, detail a long-term, monogamous, heterosexual union.
2. Old Testament Mosaic and Levitical laws. Now, on to this issue or stoning those who aren’t virgins, marrying my brothers wife if he dies, and other concerns. I have already blogged about the fact that we are no longer under the confines of the Mosaic/Levitical law, and that definitely applies here. The New Testament is perfectly clear that we are no longer under the law, and that Christ has fulfilled the law. It is still useful to us as a historical and teaching tool (1 Tim 3:16-17), but we are no longer subject to the law or justified by it. We have a new law now, the law of Christ. You can read more in 1 Corinthians 9, Galatians 3 & 6, Romans 8, or Hebrews 8. Joel C. Rosenberg also has a great blog on the topic — no need to restate his great exposé here. Biblical marriage, under the law of Christ, is loving, caring, and uplifting, much like Christ Himself.
Wow! In the short time I’ve been doing this blog, I don’t think an issue has cried out for some clear thinking more loudly than this one. In case you’ve been living in a bubble or doing postgraduate research in Siberia (hey, it could happen), I’ll give you the basics…
Just about anyone who has tried to eat at Chick Fil-A on Sunday knows they’re closed that day — and most know why. Since it was founded in 1946 by S. Truett Cathy, their company has sought to promote and live out Biblical values, including being closed on Sundays to allow employees a day of rest and worship. Now led by Truett Cathy’s son Dan, the company maintains that credo, and for the most part this has been uncontroversial. However, recently Dan Cathy has been in the media — and squarely in the sights of some very harsh critics — for stating in an interview with Baptist Press that he supports “traditional marriage.” When asked about the company’s support to various marriage ministries and donations (through its charitable giving arm, WinShape) to Christian organizations, Cathy said,
“Well, guilty as charged…we are very much supportive of the family — the Biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that. We operate as a family business … our restaurants are typically led by families; some are single. We want to do anything we possibly can to strengthen families. We are very much committed to that.”
Uncontroversial? Hardly. The result of these donations and comments has been a backlash of personal attacks, boycotts, and worse. Why? Because, according to CNN, “the comments of company President Dan Cathy about gay marriage to Baptist Press on Monday have ignited a social media wildfire.” Not just social media, but now we have entire cities taking the unprecendented (and unConstitutional, by the way) step of trying to ban Chick Fil-A, along with universities and other supporters.
Okay, with that background and context, put on your clear-thinking brains. I see at least two major problems here.
1. First I hope you see the biggest problem quite obviously — Cathy actually never mentioned gay marriage. At all. He voiced his support for the traditional family, and that’s all. Does that mean he is against same-sex marriage? Possibly, but he never stated an opinion on the issue. To be fair, I think we can reasonably assume that Mr. Cathy believes homosexual behavior is sinful — thus his affirmation of traditional marriage. But “traditional marriage” also covers other unrelated topics, such as fornication, adultery, and unjustified divorce. “Traditional marriage,” then, generally means a long-term, monogamous, heterosexual relationship. It does not mean — or even imply — hatred or bigotry toward any person or group. Affirming traditional marriage is no more “anti-gay” than it is “anti-divorce” or “anti-adultery”.
2. While Mr. Cathy was talking about his company at the time, it was clear to me from both the article and his prior interviews with Ken Coleman that he was expressing a personal opinion, not corporate policy. News flash — I feel like I should be whispering — sinners work at Chick Fil-A. In fact, I have zero doubt that Chick Fil-A employs adulterers and fornicators. And yes, I have little doubt that Chick Fil-A employs homosexuals. Their hiring practices are not based on Dan Cathy’s personal opinions on traditional marriage, as he clarified in a recent statement. Worst case, we have a private citizen (who is also a CEO) expressing a personal opinion about a social issue. Sure, his opinion is not “en vogue” right now — but that doesn’t make him a bigot, intolerant, or a “hater”. Others who disagree may choose not to patronize his business, which is fine. I still don’t see a crisis or a scandal.
As if this weren’t enough, I have great concern about Cathy’s freedom of speech and freedom to hold and express his religious beliefs — but I’ll leave that out of this blog. I also won’t go into the details of the Biblical position on marriage or homosexuality on this blog (perhaps later), that’s not the point. Please, friends, let’s think clearly about this — read the comments, then look at the response. Is this reasonable?
I did, however, try to eat at Chick Fil-A tonight — the drive-through line was backed up just over a mile, and a line was coming out the door. I settled for Five Guys, but man…Chick Fil-A sounds good right now.
Today’s question is another good one from Aaron in Alexandria. The question is simple — should a Christian join the Masons? Most folks have seen the signs all around us…not just in the movies, but on buildings, bumper stickers, and everywhere else. If you happen to live in the Washington, DC area — as I did for several years — then the signs of them are even more prevalent. Who could miss the massive monolith that dominates the Old Town Alexandria skyline and the King Street Station metro stop? But how should a clear-thinking Christian approach the Masons? Is it just another civic club, like Kiwanis or Rotary — or is it a secret Satanic cult? I’ve actually heard both opinions on more than one occasion, so let’s get to ground truth.
The origins of Freemasonry are debated within Freemasonry itself. Some say it is traced back to the medieval craftsmen in the seventh century, others claim the Freemasons are a continuation of the fourteenth-century Knights Templar. There is no documentation dating Freemasonry back prior to 1717, but that hasn’t stopped Freemasons from embellishing their history a bit. Freemasonry has also developed somewhat differently in Europe and in America — there are traditions and rituals in European Freemasonry that are not found in American Freemasonry, and vice versa. In general, Freemasonry is a brotherhood — a Fraternity of members — who get together to participate in various rituals. They also partner with each other in service projects and other community improvement efforts. Their Lodges are places where the brothers gather together to aid each other in spiritual development and pass on ancient (usually “secret”) wisdom. Also, Masonry is to be commended for expecting high moral standards and a life of virtue from its members — there are many positive things that could be said about the Lodge.
But, history aside, the question to a Christians is clear — what do the Freemasons believe, and is it consistent with the core beliefs of Christianity? On the plus side, Freemasons at every level must affirm the existence of a supreme being, normally called the “Great Architect of the Universe.” Unfortunately, this “Supreme Architect” is intentionally inclusivist, denying the exclusive claims of Christianity. That said, they will not expressly deny the deity of Christ, but they affirm the deity of all. Sure, Christ is god — but so is Allah, Krishna, Jehovah, Mohammed, or whomever else is your favorite “flavor” of god.
Second — similar to the “Great Architect” being synonymous with god — the “Celestial Lodge” up above is their version of Heaven, and getting there is no easy feat. Though the specific procedures and rituals for advancing through the Masonry levels is shrouded in secrecy, a bit of focused research will reveal most of the rite and ritual in readily-available books and accounts of former Masons. Regardless, it’s quite clear in all the ritual that the work of Christ on the cross has absolutely nothing to do with reaching the “Celestial Lodge.” Most prominently, access to the Celestial Lodge is offered to all Masons, including those who expressly reject Christ, so we can be sure that this Celestial Lodge is not consistent with the Biblical view of Heaven.
Third, some original Masonic teachings equate the Masonic patriarch Hiram with Christ. In fact, part of the ritual for a third-degree candidate involves the candidate playing the role of Hiram, through which the candidate identifies with Hiram through his death, burial, and raising (not resurrection). Most Masons are encouraged to imitate Hiram’s virtuous conduct, and to welcome Hiram as a messenger from the Great Architect. The more one reads about Masonry, the more one starts to see clear parallels between the Christ of Christianity and the Hiram of Masonry.
These are just a few examples of the teaching of Masonry…there are others, and there are portions of their rituals that are downright scary (at least, should be scary for Christians). I’m also aware of the occasional (even frequent) comparisons of Masonic ritual to Satanic ritual, but I think that’s a stretch — and it’s not necessary. Simply based on their rejection of the exclusive claims of Christ and Scripture, their rejection of the saving work of Christ on the cross, and the elevation of Hiram to Christ-like status, clear-thinking Christians can confidently reject Freemasonry as clearly inconsistent with a Biblically-based belief in Christianity.
I suppose it is theoretically possible for a mature, Biblically-grounded Christian with excellent discernment skills to participate in Masonic ritual without abandoning or compromising core Christian doctrine, but why? At best it will confuse and tempt, at worst it will mislead. Should a Christian join the Masons? Absolutely not.
“The Bible also ‘clearly’ says we should stone people to death who work on the Sabbath. It also ‘clearly’ tells us how to keep slaves, and how to make them permanent.”
I assume this comment was meant as a means to discredit the authority of the Bible — in other words, since the Bible allegedly tells us to do these things which are clearly ridiculous or immoral, then we can’t trust the other things it tells us to do. Ignoring the obvious non-sequitur, I simply asked NotA if or when he had studied the Bible…I find that these objections, and others like them, are often presented by those who have heard the objection from others or read it in another book. It is not an objection that is easily arrived at by a study of the Bible itself. Regardless, I’ll do what I can to clear up this common misconception…the capital punishment issue in this blog, slavery in another.
Let’s go to Scripture first. Does the Bible say that those who work on the Sabbath should be stoned? Yes, it does. First, there is a teaching in the Mosaic law, found in Exodus 31:14 – 17 and 35:2. While this law does not specifically direct stoning, it does say that anyone who does work on the Sabbath should be put to death. There is also a well-known story in Numbers 15:32 – 36. In this story, during the time the Israelites are in the desert, a man is found gathering wood on the Sabbath, so the people bring him to Moses and Aaron and ask what is to be done with him. After praying, God clearly commands them to stone him, which they promptly do. So, in this case, the Bible does clearly show that this man is to be stoned for working on the Sabbath, I have no dispute there.
Trying to think clearly about this issue, I can think of three reasons someone might disagree with this command. First, you may think capital punishment is just wrong. Whether found in the Bible or in the US Code or State laws, capital punishment is wrong — never justified. If this is your objection, we can have a great discussion, but it ceases to really be a theological or Biblical issue.
Second, you may disagree with the form of punishment. While capital punishment (electric chair or perhaps lethal injection) is not necessarily wrong, stoning is wrong. It’s cruel and unusual or barbaric. Again, this doesn’t really take up a Biblical issue. The Mosaic code is simply prescribing the death penalty for certain crimes, and stoning was the standard means of administering capital punishment in Jewish culture. Dead bodies (and in some cases, criminals even while they were still alive) were considered unclean, so no Jew could touch them. So, they needed some means of administering death “from a distance”. Obviously, there was no firing squad, and no electric chair or lethal injection in 4,000 BC or in the first century…the result? Stoning.
Finally, you may think the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. There’s nothing inherently wrong with capital punishment, but it’s far too harsh for something as minor as picking up wood (the Numbers example). I can certainly understand this objection, and I’m sympathetic to it. It does seem harsh to arrest someone and stone them to death for working on the wrong day of the week. However, this is completely out of context in two key ways. First, it sounds harsh or barbaric to our civilized Western society in the 21st century. However, compared to other ancient Near-Eastern codes of laws (Sumeria, Ur, Hittite, Hammurabi), the Mosaic law was actually a significant advancement in moral code. Compared to today’s standards, it seems harsh — but it is actually mild by ancient near-eastern standards. Second, the point of the Mosaic code was not to establish a fair and democratic system of equal justice, it was to establish — positionally — the role of the nation of Israel and their God. It set up a theocracy, with Yahweh (God) as the spiritual, moral, and political leader of the nation. Simply stated, the point was to teach obedience. If the Israelites couldn’t obey simple (comparatively) instructions about what to eat or wear, or what to do and when, then they wouldn’t obey far more important instructions about worshipping other gods, adopting pagan customs, and so forth. God was trying to establish a pattern of obedience to test the commitment and trustworthiness of the Israelites before granting them the greatest reward in Biblical (and arguably human) history — the Promised Land and the lineage of the Messiah.
So, going back to NotA’s objection, my disagreement is not with the charge that the Bible prescribes stoning for working on the Sabbath. It does. Perhaps surprisingly, my disagreement is with the use of the word “we”. Unless you are a Jew living by the Mosaic Code under the theocracy established for the nation of Israel, then the Bible does not, in fact, say that “we” should stone people for working on the Sabbath. In fact, every day is considered equal now, though we are still expected to obey God in all things. The “Sabbath rest,” under the new covenant, is not found on a particular day of the week, rather it is found in Christ (Hebrews 4:1 – 11). The Sabbath was simply the shadow of things to come, the reality of the Sabbath is found in Christ (Colossians 2:17).