The Lord said to Moses, “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites.” (Num 13:1–2)
The people of Israel are on the edge of the promised land, ready to finally enter into the blessings God has in store for them and to live into their calling to be a nation whose ways will be a light to other nations—to be “a priestly people and a holy nation” (Exod 19:5–6). But instead of being the prelude to a story of celebration, the glimpse of the promised land given to the spies leads to Israel’s central rebellion against God and their rejection of their calling.
This story is the crux of the book of Numbers. Israel’s journey to the promised land is punctuated by a series of seven rebellions, and the episode in Numbers 13–14 is the central one.1 It is the longest account and the most important from a literary perspective. It’s also the most serious case of rebellion, both in terms of the offense against God and the punishment it draws. Because of this, Israel must stay in the wilderness a full 40 years before being allowed to enter the promised land. It is Israel’s darkest hour.
The passage contains many details about the interaction between God, the leaders of Israel, and the people. But at the center of it are Israel’s sin and God’s response of judgment and grace.
An evil report
In the first scene (13:1–24) God directs Moses to send representatives of Israel to look over the land. In part a route-finding and military reconnaissance mission, the larger purpose seems to be sending witnesses who can come back and bear testimony that God’s promises about the land are true. A good report from these scouts would reassure the people and give them hope for this final and potentially dangerous part of their journey.
The scouts do fulfill part of their mission. They explore the land and bring back pomegra-nates, figs, and grapes from Wadi Eshcol (Hebrew: “valley of grapes”). The image of the scouts bringing back a cluster of grapes so large that it is hung on a pole supported by two men is a wonderful symbol of the fruitfulness of the promised land (13:23). Compared with the food the Israelites missed from Egypt—onions and garlic and other things (11:5)—this fruit shows that the promised land exceeds their desires. It is a good place where they will eat more than manna and water; it is a place that will be filled with grapes, wine, celebration, and feasting.
But while the scouts are impressed with the land, they are afraid of the inhabitants. Their concern and anxiety quickly overshadow their initial positive report. While Caleb attempts to give hope to the people (13:30), an optimism based on his trust in the leadership of YHWH (14:8), they will have nothing of it. Instead they embellish their original story, making both the land and the people in it much worse than they really are. The scouts lie in order to frighten the Israelites, and it works.
Upon hearing the evil report of the majority of the scouts, the Israelites weep, complain, impugn God’s motives, and call for replacing Moses with a new leader who will take them back to Egypt (14:1–4). They reject God’s plan for them. This sin of the people is multifaceted. They gullibly believe the exaggerated claims of the 10 scouts. They begin to suspect God of evil intentions: “Why is the Lord bringing us into this land to fall by the sword?” (14:3). Their skepticism distorts their vision—so much so that the slavery they experienced in Egypt looks even better than following God. So they formulate a plan to return: “Let us choose a captain, and go back to Egypt” (14:4). In their hearts they have rejected God’s plan, and ultimately God himself.
An easier way
It is interesting to compare this important story to another story of sin—that of Adam and Eve. The sin in the garden of Eden is often interpreted as a form of pride. Adam and Eve believe the serpent’s lies—“you will not die” and “you will be like God”—and accept the serpent’s implication that God does not have their best interests in mind (Gen 3:4–5). Their lack of trust combined with pride leads to their sin in the garden.
The sin of God’s people in Numbers shares many features with that primal sin, but it also has important differences. God is leading his people to a place like the garden. The promised land is a fruitful place where God and Israel will dwell together again in harmony. And, as in the garden, a lie poisons that harmony. But this time the lie is not “you will not die,” but rather “you will die.”
It is not pride but fear, combined with skepticism about God’s care and purposes, that makes the people unwilling to possess the land and take hold of its fruit. They despair of God’s plan for them, reject the promised land, and make their plans to return to Egypt. They reject their vocation in favor of the easy but limited comforts and false security of slavery in Egypt.
The Israelites reject God and God’s plan not because they want more, but because they are willing to settle for less. Israel’s sin is sloth. The theologian Thomas Aquinas writes that sloth is “the negli-gence of a man who declines to acquire spiritual goods on account of the attendant labor.”2 The people of Israel are unwilling to go up against the inhabitants of the land to achieve the goals of the covenant. But their negligence was combined with fear and skepticism about the future; their sloth was combined with despair.
And so, because of sloth and despair, the people of God reject the whole promised land project. They give up on the goal that God has been leading Israel toward ever since Abram’s calling in Genesis 12:1–3.
Thinking about the church today, it’s not hard to see similar dynamics. Skeptical that anything good can really happen from wholeheartedly following God—skeptical of God’s leading of the church—we Christians often find it easy to settle for the limited comforts and false security of the worldly empires we are part of. The difficult but ultimately rewarding journey toward God’s good future seems like too much work. Besides, are we sure God is truly leading us? Do we really believe he has our best interests in mind? Given our despairing skepticism and the hard work required to pursue our vocation as God’s people, a few Egyptian onions and pieces of garlic in the hand can seem more certain, easy, and comforting than the Eucharistic feast around the bend.
A costly grace
God’s reaction to Israel’s sin is a combination of judgment and grace. While God does offer grace (“I do forgive”; 14:20) and “steadfast love” (14:19), in this story those are manifested in God’s gritty patience and willingness to continue in relationship with Israel. That ongoing relationship includes discipline and sanctification. It is a costly grace. The punishment of lengthening Israel’s journey by 40 years (14:33) serves as a refining fire. The attitudes and sins of the old generation will be shed from the body of Israel.
Ultimately, God’s costly grace involves the gift of Jesus Christ. In him God is at work to cleanse, purify, and create a new humanity. As Christians, we are called to freely partake of the fruit of Christ’s work. And yet our individual and corporate journeys toward our vocation to be the body of Christ in the world are not easy ones. We often are tempted toward skepticism, despair, and a slothful retreat into the easy but ultimately unfulfilling pleasures of our culture.
Encouraging us to cast off our sloth and take hope, the writer of Hebrews reminds us of the many faithful pioneers who have scouted the way to the promised land, above all Jesus Christ: “Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart” (Heb 12:3). As we look to Christ, may God fill us with the power of the Spirit and with hope.
Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.
1 See David L. Stubbs, Numbers (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2009), 112–14, for a description of this sevenfold pattern, and 126–42 for a full account of this central rebellion.
2 Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica I–II Q84.4