The book of Numbers begins with the people preparing to enter the promised land. But, for the majority of those people, that would never come to pass. What begins with such promise quickly dissipates as the people grumble, rebel, and refuse to trust God’s promise. One such occasion occurs with the Israelites’ exploration and rejection of the promised land. Let’s learn more about this account in Numbers 13–14 with these notes from the New Bible Commentary.

Israel Rejects the Promised Land

The Desert of Paran lay south of Canaan and from here spies could survey the land. The journey had been a trail of complaining but, when the spies returned, Israel’s rebellion was a final catastrophe.

The Spies (13:1–16)

The text begins with God’s word. The command to spy out the land included a reminder that he was giving them the land and the time was near. Each tribe was represented by a leader. These were different from those who carried out the census and brought offerings when the tabernacle was dedicated. They were probably younger. Joshua, for instance, who was among them, was Moses’ servant and a young man (Ex. 33:11; Nu. 11:28). Moses changed his name from Hoshea to Joshua, a change of meaning from ‘he saves’ to ‘The LORD saves’ (16). This is probably the first Israelite name in which the Lord’s name was used. Its Greek form is Jesus.

Forty Days of Exploration (13:17–25)

The spies were sent to explore Canaan’s two regions, the Negev in the south and the hills to the north (17). They travelled as far as its northern boundary, covering the land spoken of in God’s promise (21). That it was the season for the first ripe grapes (i.e. the end of July) indicates it was about two months after leaving Sinai. The spies travelled about 250 miles (400 km) northwards and did not return until mid-September. They visited Hebron (22), where the patriarchs were buried (Gn. 23:17–20; 49:29–33; 50:13). Hebron was a powerful reminder of God’s promise. But here, at the heart of Israel’s goal, were the Anakim, renowned warriors (Dt. 9:2). They are even mentioned in Egyptian texts of 1800–1700 BC. Caleb eventually defeated them (Jos. 15:14; Jdg. 1:10).

An Evil Report (13:26–33)

The spies’ opening words give them away. The land to which you sent us has no mention that the Lord had sent them and no acknowledgement of his promise (cf. 10:29). They showed the rich fruit and confirmed that the land does flow with milk and honey. This confirmed the exact wording of God’s promise about the land (Ex. 3:8, 17). The spies, however, focused on the fortified cities and their powerful inhabitants, some of whom were like giants, and declared that conquest was impossible.

Caleb had to silence the people (30). We learn later that Joshua was on his side (14:6). The people had already begun to complain again. It is a tragic irony that the spies were speaking of the very nations already named in God’s promise to Abraham (Gn. 15:18). God had already indicated that the Amorites were ‘filling up’ their iniquity and were being reserved for his judgment, which Israel would execute (Gn. 15–16).

The People Rebel (14:1–10)

The Israelites grumbled (i.e. ‘complained’), and this was nothing less than rebellion (9). The nature of their sin is amplified through this chapter: complaining against the Lord (27, 29, 36); rejecting the land, which amounts to a rejection of the covenant (31); and turning away from the Lord (43). They questioned the purpose of God (3) and rejected Moses (4). Notice that their foolish wish that they should die in the desert (2) is granted (28). Joshua and Caleb were clear-sighted enough to understand the enormity of Israel’s sin; they tore their clothes as a sign of their grief and anger. It is as if they were mourning for the dead. They reaffirmed their conviction that God would do what he had promised and lead them into the land (8).

The Mercy and Judgment of the Lord (14:11–25)

The Lord’s word begins with an accurate analysis of Israel’s sin—it is unbelief. They refused to believe in God and treated him with contempt (11). ‘Anyone who does not believe God has made him out to be a liar’ (1 Jn. 5:10). Israel’s real fault was to think that God was not able to keep his word. Faith is in essence the certainty that God will fulfil what he has spoken. The unbelief of Israel in this moment is in contrast with the faith of their forefather Abraham (Gn. 15:6).

God’s response is twofold: the NIV says ‘I will strike them down with a plague and destroy them’. Destroy means ‘disinherit’, i.e. they would not receive the inheritance of the land. Moses interceded on the basis of covenant (16) and the mercy of God (18–19). He had stood on this very same ground when Israel made the golden calf at Horeb (Ex. 32:11–14). True prayer is of this character: it rests on the promises of God and asks that God will accomplish his word. This is what is meant by the prayer of faith; it is made according to his will (1 Jn. 5:14).

The Lord’s answer to Moses teaches us much about the heart of biblical theology. First, there is forgiveness, because of which God will continue with Israel as his people and work out his promise with the younger generation (24). Secondly, there is judgment. Forgiveness is never arbitrary nor at the expense of God’s glory. His oath (21–25) shows that his own glory is his chief concern. Therefore, those who have despised him would never see the land. The next day, they had to return on their route, back towards the Red Sea. This was an immediate reversal of the progress made.

Death in the Desert (14:26–38)

A second oath followed the first (28). Every one numbered at Sinai who had complained against the Lord would die in the desert, as they had wished. Their children must endure the desert for forty years. We see here an instance of the sins of parents being visited upon their children. Forty years would pass before they would enter the land. Throughout this chapter there is constant reference to the covenant purpose, which is confirmed to the children (31), for God would give them the land. Finally, the congregation that conspired against the Lord would now experience his opposition (34). Punishment came swiftly, and the plague killed the ten spies who had brought Israel a bad report.

Some Presume to Enter the Land (14:39–45)

There was another lesson yet to learn. The people realized their mistake too late. They then wished to recover the position and proceed to attack the land. First, this is a case where repentance came too late. It recalls Esau’s weeping after he had sold the birthright and lost the blessing. It was too late then (Heb. 12:17).

Secondly, they were despising God’s word again. He had commanded them to return to the desert (25). Therefore, when they went into Canaan, they went alone, and the Lord was not with them, the ark did not leave the camp (42, 44). Their very words ‘We will go up to the place the LORD said’ (40) show their lack of faith, making no reference to the oath sworn to the patriarchs. The text says that they were beaten back as far as Hormah in the Negev (its precise location is a matter of debate). Its name is connected with the Heb. word hērem (‘devoted to destruction’) a fitting conclusion to this appalling episode.

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