These chapters detail Israel’s ultimate rejection of their redemption. They were saved out of Egypt so God could fulfill His covenant with Abraham that his descendants would inherit Canaan. Now that Israel reaches the border of that land and prepares to enter it, the people – in a stunning act of faithlessness and fear – refuse to proceed. They balk at the strength of the inhabitants and completely forget the power of their God. As a result, God gives them over to their fear, and an entire generation is sentenced to die in the wilderness while another generation is sentenced to watch and wait until they do. A moment of triumph turns to forty years of futility and death because of disobedience and distrust.
In this passage it reads as if it’s God’s idea to send spies into the land. In Moses’ retelling in Deuteronomy, however, he makes it sound as if it’s the people who want to do it (Deut 1:21). It could be that the people ask Moses about it, and God says it’s OK. Regardless, even though sending spies into the land could be considered faithless – if you know God’s going to give you the land why do you need to have inside information on its inhabitants – God approves the plan.
Moses selects one man from every tribe – twelve men in all. Notice that the men selected are leaders in their tribes. They carry a lot of weight with the people and their opinions will sway many among their countrymen. This is something to remember later in the story.
Moses gives them their orders. He wants to know what the cities are like (fortified or open), what the people are like (strong or weak), what the country is like (fat or lean). What kind of place are they about to enter? He also tells them to bring back some fruit of the land so they can get a sense of its produce (they’ve been told it’s a land flowing with milk and honey). The text mentions that it’s the time of the first ripe grapes, which probably means it’s late summer.
The men enter the land and gather information. They explore from the south to the north. They traverse the entire land. They specifically go to Hebron where their ancestors – Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, and Leah – are buried. Nothing is said about this in the text so it may not mean much to the spies. It apparently doesn’t remind them of God’s faithfulness to His covenant or give them a sense of belonging to the land.
In a valley they call Eshcol (cluster), they cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes that’s so large they carry it on a pole between two men. What’s interesting about this is that it means God abundantly blesses the land even as it’s inhabited by people so sinful He’s going to utterly destroy every single one of them. It’s an illustration of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount that God causes the rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matt 5:45). It also illustrates the Psalmist’s observation that the wicked often prosper in this world, but it’s not a sign of God’s favor and judgment eventually comes on all men (Ps 73).
The grapes also show that God treats Israel differently than the rest of the world. He’s specifically told His people that they won’t prosper if they don’t obey. For the inhabitants of Canaan, however, fruitfulness and prosperity are clearly not tied to obedience. What’s likely is that God blesses the land because of who it’s promised to rather than who inhabits it. He wants the land to be fruitful in readiness for His people to take possession of it.
[Fun fact – two men carrying a cluster of grapes between them is the logo for Israel’s Ministry of Tourism.]
The men spend forty days traveling throughout the land before they come back and give their report. They tell the people that the land is in fact fruitful just as they’ve been told (see the grapes we brought back), but the people in the land are strong and scary. Also, the cities are all fortified and very large, and fierce people are all throughout the land.
The text doesn’t exactly explain how the people react (yet), but it says in verse 30 that Caleb has to quiet them. They’re obviously spooked by the negative report. Caleb, however, takes an entirely different approach from the men who gave the initial report. He says nothing about the land and the people. He simply says, “We should by all means go up and take possession of it, for we shall utterly overcome it.” He doesn’t see the obstacles or the danger. He simply has faith in God and trust in the words of the One who’s promised the land to them.
It’s interesting to consider how the spies report on the land and how the people respond. In both cases the overriding emotion is fear. The exact same report, however, could be given and received with a sense of encouragement over what it says about God’s power. The spies could have said, “The people in the land are fierce and the cities are fortified, so it’s incredible that God’s going to destroy them and give their land to us!” And the people could have responded in faith and awe. Instead, all they see is a land that’s too scary to overcome. To the faithful, obstacles are a reason to praise God for His strength and provision. To the faithless, they’re sources of fear and hopelessness.
As soon as Caleb’s done giving his encouragement to proceed, the other spies in the group answer him and say, “No way – we can’t do it. We are not able to go up against the people, for they are too strong for us.” Caleb’s words are lost in the wave of negativity. He’s drowned out by the men and the people who are all about the impossible odds against them.
Once the faithless spies get going they really lay it on thick. They don’t want there to be any doubt that the people stand no chance against the inhabitants of Canaan. They say the land devours its inhabitants, presumably meaning that anyone foolish enough to enter the land will be destroyed. They also add to their earlier description of the people by saying, “…all the people whom we saw in it are men of great size.” Notice that it’s gone from “the people are strong” to “ALL the people are men of great size.” Even with that comment they’re not done. They also claim they saw the Nephilim. This is a reference to the great warriors who were the progeny of some kind of super race before the flood (Gen 6:4). There is nothing in the Bible about them since that time. For the spies to reference them here likely shows how desperate they are to discourage the people. They’re essentially inventing monsters to scare them. They end by saying they (the spies) were like grasshoppers in comparison to the Canaanites.
Notice in verse 32 that it says the spies give a bad report. That doesn’t mean they give a negative report – it means they give an inaccurate report. The go from focusing on the negative to exaggerating and making things up. It’s a competition now, and they want to make sure that no one goes along with Caleb’s naïve perspective. They want to win the hearts of the people.
The people respond as you’d expect. The whole congregation weeps. They spend the night crying over the hopelessness of their situation.
As readers we know some things about the people and their circumstances, but it’s important to note them nonetheless. These people in the last year-plus witnessed the ten plagues in Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, drank water flowing out of a rock (enough water to satisfy the entire nation), saw God’s awesome presence at Sinai, defeated Amalek, and have gathered manna that miraculously falls every morning and feeds them. On top of all that, they see a visible manifestation of God’s presence – cloud and fire – every time they travel and every time Moses goes into the tabernacle. These are the people who are completely hopeless and staying up all night weeping.
Paul tells us that when we’re weak we’re actually strong because of God’s grace in our lives and Christ’s power (II Cor 12:10). However, if, when we’re faced with difficulties, we focus only on the difficulties and our inability to overcome them, then we’re just weak. That’s where the Israelites are now. They aren’t strong in the midst of weakness. They’re just weak. They see nothing but their adversaries and have no thought of or dependence on God’s power. So they wallow in their weakness.
Because they don’t see God, their adversaries loom large. When God is small, man is huge and problems are huge. The Israelites have a small God so the Canaanites are all giants and the Nephilim actually live among them. The obstacles Israel faces actually grow as the people focus more and more on them. That’s what happens in any life with a small God. Our perspective becomes skewed when we forget the strength and sovereignty of God and look only at the difficulties in front of us. We become like the disciples in the midst of the storm. They didn’t look at who was in the boat with them; they just looked at the waves and the wind and lost hope. When we forget who’s in the boat with us or we forget whose cloud goes before us, we lose hope in the face of trials. The Israelites look ridiculous here because they act as if God doesn’t exist or has no power. They don’t, however, look any more ridiculous than we do when we respond the same way to the obstacles we face.
The people go beyond just weeping over the situation. They now turn on Moses and Aaron and say that it would be better for them if they’d died in Egypt or in the wilderness. They also can’t believe God brought them here to die by the sword and to watch their wives and children become plunder. [Think about this for a second – they’re willing to say God delivered them from Egypt and brought them here, but they’re unwilling to consider that He could successfully take them into the land and conquer the Canaanites.] They finally go to the most extreme yet – they plan among themselves to appoint a new leader to take them back to Egypt because it would be better to go back there rather than die in Canaan.
This is the biggest rebellion of the people to date. They’ve many times made the claim that it would’ve been better to have been left in Egypt (it’s about their favorite complaint whenever times get tough). They’ve never, however, actually said they want to appoint a leader and go back, and they’ve never accused God of bringing them to the Promised Land simply to kill them. That crosses a line. By saying this they effectively reject their redemption. The whole reason God brought them out of Egypt was to fulfill His covenant to give Canaan to Abraham’s descendants. When God told Moses that He would make Israel His people it was for the sake of the covenant. There is no redemption from Egypt without the promise of Canaan (Ex 6:1-8). By rejecting the land, the people reject their salvation and reject the God who provided it. Let’s say it again – they reject their redemption with their words and actions.
Moses and Aaron realize the gravity of the situation. They fall on their faces in front of the people. Joshua and Caleb – the two spies who faithfully want to go into the land – also realize what’s going on and tear their clothes. All four plead with the people to go into the land and conquer it. All four say that God will be with Israel and will overcome the inhabitants of the land. They also beg the people not to fear Canaan and not to rebel against God.
It’s all for naught. The people not only ignore the four men, they actually start talking about stoning them. They’re completely given over to fear and rebellion. Nothing else matters and nothing else makes sense to them. Invading Canaan is hopeless and anyone suggesting otherwise doesn’t deserve to lead or even live.
It’s interesting to consider the situation facing Moses, Aaron, Joshua and Caleb. The text makes it sound as if they’re the only ones among the hundreds of thousands of Israelites who remain faithful to God. It could be there are others too, but it’s certainly a very small minority (and apparently none of the righteous is over 20 years old). It’s a vivid illustration – again – of Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount that only a few will find the straight and narrow road or enter through the narrow gate (Matt 7:13-14). The way of righteousness is often lonely, but the right way is right even if few believe it. That’s why it’s so important that we know what we believe and why. If we aren’t sure of our beliefs and aren’t sure of the right way we won’t be able to stand when the crowd forsakes God. Moses and the boys stand firm in the midst of a multitude that claims they’re wrong and wants to kill them. For us to do the same requires a firm understanding of what’s right.
The end of verse 10 changes everything. In the midst of the chaos of the people complaining and weeping and threatening to kill the faithful four, and Moses and Aaron and Caleb and Joshua pleading with them to change their minds, something dramatic happens. Then the glory of the Lord appeared in the tent of meeting to all the sons of Israel. If you were scoring this scene, the music just changed to something ominous. The kids are all wrestling on the floor and the TV is blaring and the house is wrecked, and dad just walked in. Everything just changed. We can imagine that the people threatening Moses become suddenly quiet. Moses and Aaron perhaps look at the people with a look that says, “See? THIS is why we were warning you.”
What plays out between Moses and God in these verses is similar to what happened during the golden calf incident (Ex 32:9-14). In both cases, God decides He’s had enough and threatens to destroy the whole nation and start over with Moses. In both cases, Moses appeals to God’s glory and tells Him that the Egyptians and other pagan nations will dishonor God by saying that He destroyed Israel because He wasn’t powerful enough to conquer Canaan for them. In both cases, God relents and decides to spare the people.
Notice, however, what God says in verses 20-21. He says He’s pardoned the people – He won’t destroy them (it’s interesting that He says He’s pardoned them even though He’s about to announce a very severe judgment on them – He’s pardoned them to the extent that He’ll allow them to continue as a nation). But though they’ll live, the earth will be filled with the glory of the Lord. This is the opposite of what the people have done. They dishonored Him by their refusal to enter the land. He will now glorify Himself by making sure they don’t live to see the land.
It’s important to note that when God’s people complain about His provision or question His sovereignty (or act as if it doesn’t exist) they dishonor HIM. Creation exists for His glory. When we act as if He isn’t in control or can’t master what’s before us, we take glory away from Him and thus betray our created purpose. Nothing is more important than the glory of God. We shortchange that glory when we shortchange the ability of God to lead and guide and overcome.
God makes the punishment fit the crime. The people complained that they couldn’t go into the land, so God won’t let them go – ever. The people said it would be better if they’d died in the wilderness, so God will give them their wish. The people complained that their children would become plunder, so God will make sure that only their children will in fact inherit the land. Every man 20 years old and older will die before the nation enters Canaan. And the nation will spend the next forty years – one year for every day the spies were in the land – wandering in the wilderness waiting for the adults to die.
Only two men over the age of 20 will enter the land – Caleb and Joshua. The two spies who were faithful will see the Promised Land. EVERY other adult male – no word on if this includes the women – will die over the next four decades in the wilderness. So the punishment is obviously on the adults, but it’s also on the younger set who have to wait decades before going in (and can you imagine what Moses thinks as he hears that he has to lead them for another forty years?).
With this punishment, God gives them over to their sins. Just as Paul says God will do in Romans 1, God gives the rebellious people over to what they say they want. These verses are scary for what they tell us – there’s a place people can go from which there’s no return. The people are beyond turning back. They wanted to turn back from the land and die in the wilderness – and that’s exactly what they’re going to do.
The ten unfaithful spies are NOT pardoned. God causes a plague to fall on them and they die immediately. They won’t spend the next forty years wandering. They were the influential leaders of Israel who led the people astray and they’re punished for their bad report. Leaders are held to a higher standard and are accountable for their influence.
When Moses tells the people their punishment, they mourn greatly. They show their irrational humanity. They didn’t want to go into the land and wept at the thought of having to go up. Now, however, they’re told that they can’t go up and will die in the wilderness and they mourn as a result. They get what they want and they’re miserable (to be fair, it’s no fun to hear you’re going to wander in the wilderness until you die).
Unfortunately, the people don’t just mourn. The next day after hearing from Moses, they decide to march on Canaan as they originally were commanded. And even though Moses tells them not to go because God isn’t with them, they go anyway. They arm themselves and invade the land. Since God isn’t with them, however, they’re soundly defeated and many presumably die. Thus even in their regret they rebel. They don’t truly repent; they take matters into their own hands and try to earn back their salvation. And since disobedience in the pursuit of righteousness is still disobedience, they fail. Obedience meant entering the land before; now it means traveling the opposite way. Ultimately, the people still make it all about themselves. They dishonored God by their refusal to enter and they dishonor God by their refusal to retreat. They do what they want when they want. It’s not about God – it’s about them.
In these chapters, the Israelites do the following and are punished:
- They treat their redemption cheaply.
- They forget God’s presence in their lives (even though it’s visible all around them).
- They forget their dependence on Him.
- They forget all He’s done in their lives.
- They despair as if God isn’t sovereign and omnipotent.
- They focus exclusively on the difficulty ahead of them.
- They put themselves at the center of every decision.
The four faithful men do the following and are blessed:
- They hold fast to righteousness even in the midst of a mob screaming that they’re wrong.
- They see the seemingly insurmountable obstacles as opportunities to revel in God’s power and faithfulness rather than despair over their hopeless situation.
- They maintain a keen sense of God’s presence and their own accountability.
- They focus on God and His promises more than on the difficulties ahead of them.
- They put God at the center of the crisis.