Guilty Of One, Guilty Of All

Shelach (Numbers 13:1-15:41)

Many Christian commentators are quick to point out the strict system of justice found within the “Mosaic Law.” Quoting from the book of James, they say, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it” (James 2:10). According to this understanding, if a person committed even a minor offense, his life was in jeopardy and he should be wary of execution by stoning, or maybe even a stray lightning bolt. If this is the case, then it would seem that the reason punishments under the Mosaic Law were so severe was because breaking a single commandment was the same as breaking all of the commandments at once, rejecting God’s Law in its entirety. Therefore, a modern evangelistic tactic has developed that uses the Torah to point out the fact that we are all sinners. Those who use it point out that if we have broken even one of the commandments, then we stand condemned by “God’s Law” and deserve death. From this position, they then tell the person why they need Yeshua—to forgive them for being a lawbreaker who deserves to die.

But is that really an accurate picture of what we find within the Torah? Is the God of the Hebrew Scriptures a cranky, irritable, vengeful god who is bent on the annihilation of humanity? When we read the incident of the Sabbath Breaker (Numbers 15:32–36) in this week’s Torah portion out of its context, this would seem to be the case: A man is caught gathering sticks on Shabbat and he is put to death. But nothing is mentioned in the Torah up to this point that gathering sticks on Shabbat was forbidden. It seems pretty excessive, right?

However, if we read the incident in context, we can quickly see that this man was clearly doing more than gathering sticks. Just a few verses before this event, the LORD instructs the Children of Israel that if a person sins unintentionally—in other words, he doesn’t know he is sinning—he is to bring a sacrifice and he will be both atoned for and forgiven (see Numbers 15:27). There is no harsh penalty for the one who sins unintentionally. He simply has to apologize and make things right between himself and God.

The person who sins with intention, however, is dealt with much more harshly:

But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him. (Numbers 15:30–31)

If we have a full understanding of what is required of us yet shake our fist at God and proceed to do things our way, then this is where things start to go south. There is a vast difference between intentional and unintentional sins. As we have seen in the passage above, unintentional sins have no real consequence. Once a person realizes his wrongdoing, he corrects it and then moves on. But if that’s the case, why was this man taken out and stoned to death? It seems that picking up sticks on Shabbat would be an innocent mistake. Under normal circumstances, this would be the situation. The person would be informed of their mistake by witnesses who saw him violating God’s instructions. But, in this instance, he must have been well aware of what he was doing and refused to be corrected. In order to warrant the death penalty, he had to have refused to listen to his brothers and sisters warning him of his violation.

If we go back to the passage in James and look at the context, we can see that he is speaking to those who are treating the poor with indignation. Rather than treating everyone with respect, they are showing more respect to those who are wealthy. James tells his audience:

If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. (James 2:8–9)

His rebuke is directed to the one who thinks that a specific commandment in the Torah does not apply to him and that he can therefore ignore that particular commandment. In some sense, he feels that he is “above the law,” so to speak. This is exactly the problem Paul is addressing to the congregation in Rome:

Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? (Romans 2:3)

Some think that the rules apply to everyone but themselves. This is the type of person both James and Paul are speaking of. They are not speaking of a person who makes honest mistakes or gets off track on occasion. There are times in our lives that we don’t measure up. It’s called sin. Sin means missing the mark. But unless we are pursuing sinful behavior, we don’t have to worry about being at the brunt of God’s wrath.

John reminds us of this principle when he says, “All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death” (1 John 5:17). Does all sin put us in danger of God’s wrath? No. If we break one commandment, then are we guilty of breaking all of them? No. Should we repent and make amends if we stumble? Absolutely. Is God merciful to those who love Him and walk in His ways? Unquestionably. Therefore, let us relay this merciful God to others rather than painting a picture of a blood-thirsty, pagan deity in order to point people to Yeshua. After all, it’s His kindness that leads us to repentance, not His wrath (Romans 2:4).