Numbers 13:17ff. “When Moses sent them to explore Canaan, he said, “Go up and see what the land is like” . . . Then Caleb. . . said, ‘We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.’”
Exegesis and Application
This chapter in Numbers “forms a grand turning point in the history of Israel, in which the whole of the future history of the covenant nation is typically reflected. The constantly repeated unfaithfulness of the nation could not destroy the faithfulness of God, or alter His purposes of salvation” (Keil/Delitzsch). Moses gives the Israelite spies their instructions to scout out “the land” which means determine its character, and the people that dwelt in it, whether they were strong, courageous and brave or weak and spiritless and timid, and whether they were numerous and what the dirt was like, whether good or bad, what the climate and cultivation was like and whether the towns were camps and open villages and hamlets or fortified cities. Also, whether the land was fat and fruitful or lean and infertile and whether or not there were trees and vines and lush bushes. Finally, the spies were to provide physical proof by bringing back samples of vegetation. In short, it was to be a comprehensive report of what awaited the exiled Jewish nation. The spies were to start in the south and move north (vs. 17). The comprehensive mission was to take 40 days during the summer months (vs. 25, 20). Dennis Cole estimates that the spies would have covered a minimum of 350 miles and perhaps as much as 500 miles in their movements.
The spy’s report starts at vs. 26. They start badly: “the land which you (Moses) sent us.” Not “the land which the Lord has given us” (vs. 2). It is Moses’ idea, not Yahweh’s! The report continues: “it does flow with milk and honey!” as they hold forth the fruit they brought back. However, the spies move quickly to the negative: “However,” “Yet,” “But” all designed to present the obstacles to conquering this fruitful foreign land. The obstacles are initially three-fold: the people are “powerful,” the cities are “large,” the cities are “fortified.” The spies noted that the great Hittites and Amorites were in the land. The Hittites were once a nation comparable in power to Egypt at its strongest, and the Amorites gave the world Hammurabi. Between these two nations they ruled the area for decades. After this factual report, the people were convinced that conquest was impossible.
Caleb’s rejoinder is verse 30, “Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, ‘We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.’”
The spies respond to Caleb (vss.31-33) first by twisting his words (like Satan did in the Garden), “We are not able to go up against the people for they are stronger than we are.” And then by repeating and adding to the obstacles: the foreigners are stronger and bigger than we are. Besides the size of the people, the land we saw will “devour” us. What they are asserting is the opposite of “the land of milk and honey.” Now the land is infertile, unstable, pestiferous, unforgiving and barren. To live there is to die! These spies are getting worked-up about going north.
This response was so outrageous that Moses called it “evil.” It was beyond being erroneous or false or spare, it was calculated to cause strife and rebellion against Yahweh. The Hebrew word dibba is used to mean a true report of evil deeds (Gen. 37:2) or lying lips (Prov. 12:22) or slander (Prov. 20:19). Timothy Ashley comments on this response, “The entire argument is woven together to interpret the data in the report in a way that would lead the people to the conclusion that the conquest of the land was not feasible.” The response was beyond a brief against going north; it was a faithless, manipulative attempt to thwart God’s will for His people. Thus, it had moral connotations and was “evil,” and not just wrong or mistaken.
The end of this sorry episode in the life of the Church is that under Mosaic law (Deut. 19) those who made false accusations were punished by receiving the sentence those they accused would have received if convicted of alleged crime. The spies had wrongfully accused God’s promised land of homicide so they and all the faithless Israelites were killed in chapter 14. Only Caleb and Joshua survived.
Christian journalist, you have the choice to be like Caleb or to be like the others. The faithless ones focused their attention on the apparent feasibility of confronting the great world powers controlling the environment that God had promised to them. They lost perspective in God’s omnipotence and could only think of everyone being bigger, stronger and more numerous than they. In fact, they were nothing but insects (“grasshoppers”) in comparison to the cultural and political leaders they were about to face. We serve the King who claims all for Him and His Kingdom. You should move forth in humility and love, but with confidence that the Lord’s arm is not shortened by the size of the Nephilim (Is. 59:1).