A Harvest Mooning

Numbers 15:32-36 (NIV)
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.

This passage from the ancient world has an important connection with a prominent object in our present world, to wit: the moon. Now a family blog such as this one should be careful about what it exposes. Therefore, at least one of the current uses of the term “moon” will remain decently covered by being uncovered here — uncovered in the sense of being roundly undescribed. Nor will we express an opinion on whether Presbyterian women named Cynthia and Diana pay a direct or indirect tribute to the goddess of the moon. We focus rather on the moon, known to poets as “Luna, heaven’s pallid nun,” and traditionally associated with lunacy and romance. These states of mind are themselves closely related, as everyone knows who has been touched by either. Romeo and Juliet were touched by both. He says, “Lady, by yonder blessed moon I swear.” To which she answers, “O swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon” (II.2.107,109).

Only a few Christians know that the moon is also associated with a dreadful punishment. According to medieval legend, the stick-gathering man of Numbers 15 was exiled to the moon for the sin of Sabbath-breaking. In order to warn us to keep the Sabbath holy, this man was doomed to reside on the moon till the end of time. Since he did not observe Sun-day, he was given an everlasting Moon-day.

The notion of the moon man bearing a bundle of sticks is found in English manuscripts of the 12th century, and by Shakespeare’s time the man in the moon had acquired a dog and a bush. The mechanic who acts as Moonshine in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” enters with the announcement, “All I have to say is to tell you that the lantern is the moon; I the man in the moon; this thorn-bush my thorn-bush; and this dog my dog” (V.1.261-263). Stephano tells Caliban that he is the man in the moon and has dropped from Heaven. Caliban exclaims, “I have seen you . . . and your dog and your bush” (“The Tempest,” II.2.143-144).

Perhaps Shelley is right that there is some world far from ours where music and moonlight and feeling are one. At least every woman knows how fascinating she becomes by moonlight. However, night-strolling Presbyterians in this world might let the moon man remind us of the importance of keeping the Sabbath holy.

In addition Christians should notice that the man in the moon was stoned outside the camp. Being outside the camp is usually neither safe nor desirable. According to the priestly ordination (Exodus 29:14), bull dung (frequently cited today but with slightly different terminology) is a sin offering to be burned outside the camp.

However, the Scripture presents another view of being outside the camp. After the people’s sin with the golden calf, Moses took the tent of meeting and pitched it outside the camp. “And every one who sought the Lord would go to the tent of meeting which was outside the camp” (Exodus 33:7). Surely it is with this passage in mind the writer of Hebrews (ch. 13) informs us that Jesus suffered outside the gate and challenges us, bearing abuse for him to go forth to him outside the camp. The man in the moon (with his dog and bush) might remind us that when our Lord chooses to meet us outside the camp, wherever it is, and whatever that means and whatever it costs, we must go forth to him.

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