‘What Shall We Do with the Sabbath-Gatherer?’ A Narrative Approach to a ‘Hard Case’ in Biblical Law (Numbers 15:32-36)

In: Vetus Testamentum
Jonathan Burnside University of Bristol

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This article puts forward an alternative reading of Num 15:32-36 which takes seriously the fact that the cognitive structures that go into reading the biblical Sabbath laws are narrative and visual, rather than semantic and literal. This ‘narrative’ reading sees ‘food production’ as the typical case of ‘work’ and sees ‘food production on the Sabbath’ as the ‘paradigm case’ of Sabbath-breaking. Against this background, Num 15:32-36 is a hard case because the Sabbath-gatherer’s behaviour is sufficiently far removed from the paradigm of food production to raise the question of whether the Sabbath laws could be used to resolve the problem. The uncertainty ensures that the case must be resolved by the parties concerned and since, unusually, God is the only offended party, only God can determine whether capital punishment applies and, if so, the form it should take. Ultimately, the offender’s behaviour is judged to be sufficiently close to the paradigm to deserve death because it evokes Israel’s experience of total servitude in Egypt. ‘Sabbath-gathering’ reflects a desire to return to the economic conditions associated with Pharaoh’s rule and thus signifies the rejection of YHWH’s lordship.

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