As Jesus said in Mark 2:27, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath." I don't see why it was wrong for the man to gather sticks, but it was okay for David, who "...entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence" on the Sabbath Day," (as Jesus says in Luke 6:3). Also, Jesus explains in Luke 6:6-11 that it is not wrong to do good on Sabbath.
ESV - 35 And the Lord said to Moses, "The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.
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While the Torah (Law) does not say explicitly why he was stoned for seemingly just picking up sticks, we can make some inferences based on the context of the passage. The second half of Num. 15 details what to do in cases regarding unintentional sins, which are a category of sins called “shegagah” in Hebrew. The shegagah category refers to that which is a mistake, an oversight, or otherwise general accident based on negligence. God still counts the infraction as a sin, but his punishment is not as steep because the person probably meant to do well and simply missed the mark. Num. 15:27-28, “If one person sins unintentionally, he shall offer a female goat a year old for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement before the Lord for the person who makes a mistake, when he sins unintentionally, to make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven.” Immediately following the unintentional sins section is a short warning about the opposite end of the sin category spectrum: sins of a high hand (in Hebrew “b’yad ramah”). Unlike accidental sins, this category describes the wrong intensions and rebellious nature of the person caught sinning. The Hebrew “b’yad ramah” is literally “of the hand raised up.” The imagery is that of a defiant person sinning and shaking their fist in the air in a gesture of “I defy you God! I dare you to punish me!” Num. 15:30-31, “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.” Notice the Torah extends forgiveness for the person who sins unintentionally but it does NOT prescribe any remedy for sins done defiantly. If caught, he can only repent and enter a plea bargain to reduce his sentence to an “unintentional” category hoping to remain in community. Also, recall that high-hand sinning carries a penalty of being “cut off,” which is being put outside the camp (exile), but willful desecration of the Sabbath has already been assigned the death penalty earlier in the Torah. What does this have to do with a man being stoned to death for picking up sticks on Sabbath? Because it is the immediate set of verses following the warning about sins of a high hand, context would tell us this man was probably not simply gathering wood. Perhaps the backstory that is missing from the text is that he was caught and warned quite a few times already about working on Sabbath, yet he repeatedly decided to gather sticks, with no regard for the Law of God. Perhaps he was defiant in his manner of gathering. Either way, God is within his rights to set an example for the rest by removing this (likely defiant) Sabbath violator from the community either by death or by exile. After all, God did the same thing in Acts 5:1-11 when Ananias and Sapphira lied to God/Holy Spirit about the money received for their plot of land. God made them into a valuable object lesson for the early Believing Community by striking these two dead. And this is post resurrection! I believe he is doing that here as well. Also, since Sabbath violation by gathering of sticks had not as of yet been clearly defined, those who found him did not know how to punish him (Ex. 31:14, 15 command that work shall not take place on Sabbath, but what constitutes “work”?). And was he merely defiant and deserved being put outside the camp (exiled), or was it willful Sabbath violation? In the end, he effectively receives both punishments, since he is stoned “outside the camp.” Even Moses and Aaron didn't know what type of punishment should be attached to his crime (Num. 15:33, 34), otherwise wouldn't they have simply cited Ex. 31:14, 15 and sentenced him to die? And if “yes,” how should he die? In the end God himself intervened directly and rendered the death penalty and explained how to do it.
(Quoting from the Got Questions.org article "How is Jesus our Sabbath rest") "God’s reaction to those who choose to reject His plan is seen in Numbers 15. A man was found gathering sticks on the Sabbath day, in spite of God’s plain commandment to cease from all labor on the Sabbath. This transgression was a known and willful sin, done with unblushing boldness in broad daylight, in open defiance of the divine authority. "And Jehovah said to Moses, ‘The man shall surely be put to death’" (v. 35). So it will be to all who reject God’s provision for our Sabbath rest in Christ." The man was not "doing good"; he was intentionally disobeying God's command.
The Sabbath was never intended to be applied so absolutely that it would take precedence over the necessities of daily life Mark 2:27 1. the man gathering sticks flagrantly does this "with a high hand" with open disdain for the will and work of God. 2. God chose not to punish David and his men who violated the Law to satisfy their hunger which is a necessity of life. Luke 6:3
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