Monday, April 30, 2007

Numbers 14

Numbers 14: The people are afraid to go into the Promised Land


In the last chapter, the Israelites sent spies into the Promised Land, to check it out. They came back and reported that it was a good land—flowing with milk and honey—but that they didn’t think the Israelites could defeat the people living there. Caleb disagreed, but he was a minority of one; nobody else who had gone believed that the Israelites could do it. In this chapter, the people believe the bad report, and decide that they’d be better off as slaves in Egypt than getting slaughtered trying to conquer the Promised Land.

Upon hearing the spies’ report, the people begin to wail, and weep aloud. And they go back to their usual refrain: If only we had been left in Egypt!
All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this desert! Why is the LORD bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” (verses 2–4)
Moses doesn’t like this, and falls facedown in front of the community. In this case, Aaron does the right thing, and falls down beside Moses. Caleb—the one spy who had urged the Israelites to go into the Promised Land as the LORD had instructed—and Joshua, tear their clothes, and try to convince the people to follow God’s will:
[Joshua and Caleb] said to the entire Israelite assembly, “The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. If the LORD is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us. Only do not rebel against the LORD. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will swallow them up. Their protection is gone, but the LORD is with us. Do not be afraid of them.” (verses 7–9)
And how do the people respond to this? They start to talk about stoning Joshua and Caleb! At this point, the LORD steps in: It’s time to give these people what they deserve.
The LORD said to Moses, “How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the miraculous signs I have performed among them? I will strike them down with a plague and destroy them, but I will make you into a nation greater and stronger than they.” (verses 11–12)
Unfortunately for the Israelites, this is a pretty reasonable plan. The LORD has done so much for His people, and they’ve done little but complain. He has no reason to remain faithful to these people, except for His own nature. Luckily for them, however, His nature is such that He is forgiving and patient with His people. And His nature is exactly what Moses appeals to, when he begs for forgiveness for the people:

Moses said to the LORD, “Then the Egyptians will hear about it! By your power you brought these people up from among them. And they will tell the inhabitants of this land about it. They have already heard that you, O LORD, are with these people and that you, O LORD, have been seen face to face, that your cloud stays over them, and that you go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. If you put these people to death all at one time, the nations who have heard this report about you will say, ‘The LORD was not able to bring these people into the land he promised them on oath; so he slaughtered them in the desert.

“Now may the Lord’s strength be displayed, just as you have declared: ‘The LORD is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.’ In accordance with your great love, forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now.”

(verses 13–19)

(When it says “Now may the Lord’s strength be displayed,” I don’t know if it’s a typo in the NIV that the lowercase “Lord” is used, or if a different word is used in the Hebrew, instead of the word normally designated “LORD.”)

Because of this, the LORD backs down from His anger, and relents, so that He doesn’t execute the entire Israelite community. However, there will still be consequences for their sin:
The LORD replied, “I have forgiven them, as you asked. Nevertheless, as surely as I live and as surely as the glory of the LORD fills the whole earth, not one of the men who saw my glory and the miraculous signs I performed in Egypt and in the desert but who disobeyed me and tested me ten times—not one of them will ever see the land I promised on oath to their forefathers. No one who has treated me with contempt will ever see it. But because my servant Caleb has a different spirit and follows me wholeheartedly, I will bring him into the land he went to, and his descendants will inherit it.” (verses 20–24)
He then instructs them to move on from their current location, and to take a particular route, to avoid the Amalekites and Canaanites. And then… He reiterates what He just said:
The LORD said to Moses and Aaron: “How long will this wicked community grumble against me? I have heard the complaints of these grumbling Israelites. So tell them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the LORD, I will do to you the very things I heard you say: In this desert your bodies will fall—every one of you twenty years old or more who was counted in the census and who has grumbled against me. Not one of you will enter the land I swore with uplifted hand to make your home, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. As for your children that you said would be taken as plunder, I will bring them in to enjoy the land you have rejected. But you—your bodies will fall in this desert. Your children will be shepherds here for forty years, suffering for your unfaithfulness, until the last of your bodies lies in the desert. For forty years—one year for each of the forty days you explored the land—you will suffer for your sins and know what it is like to have me against you.’ I, the LORD, have spoken, and I will surely do these things to this whole wicked community, which has banded together against me. They will meet their end in this desert; here they will die.” (verses 26–35)
After this, all of the spies—except for Caleb—are struck down with a plague, and die. Verse 38 says “Of the men who went to explore the land, only Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh survived,” although Chapter 13 didn’t mention Joshua as being one of the spies.

So Moses goes back to the people, and reports all of this to them. They “mourn bitterly” for their sin (verse 39), and foolishly decide to go into the land after all, and try to conquer it. Moses hears about it, and warns them not to; after all, if the LORD is not with them—and, at this point, He is not—then how can they possibly expect to succeed? But they ignore him, and go anyway. And, as expected, it doesn’t work; the people of the land attack them, and “beat them down all the way to Hormah” (verse 45). If I had a better knowledge of the geography of the area, it would be interesting to know exactly what that means, but it sounds, just based on the tone, like they were beaten pretty soundly.


This chapter contains a couple of customs that we’re probably not too familiar with, in North America, in which the Jews displayed anguish. Near the beginning of the chapter, Caleb and Joshua tear their clothes, as a show of distress, and, even more extreme, Moses and Aaron fall face down on the ground. I don’t know the precise meaning of these two actions, but the general intent is clear: To display that the person’s soul is very bothered. People tear their clothes all the time, in the Old Testament, to show that they are grieving for a particular situation, or in extreme cases, fall face down—usually “before the LORD,” although in this case Moses and Aaron fall face down before the community—which, to me, indicates that the person is so grieving/sorrowful/anguished that s/he can’t even stand up.

In terms of the action, when Moses is trying to convince the LORD not to wipe out the people, in verses 13–19, it kind of sounds like he’s appealing to God’s vanity; “if you wipe out these people, then all of the surrounding nations will hear about it, and think that You weren’t able to save Your own people.” However, you have to remember that vanity is a human thing; it doesn’t make any sense to talk about God being vain, because He is the only being in the universe that actually deserves all of the praise we could give Him (and more). As humans—especially Christian humans—we are taught that humility is a trait we should all have, but it’s one that God doesn’t have, because He has nothing to be humble about. So, although it might be strange to our ears, it actually makes sense for Moses to remind the LORD that one of the reasons He saved His people, the Israelites, was to display His strength to the surrounding nations.

Finally, when Joshua and Caleb speak to the Israelite community, in verses 7–9 (quoted above), they include an important clause, which is what this chapter is all about: “If the LORD is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land…” This chapter is about the Israelites’ faith in God. It doesn’t matter how many Amelekites or Anekites they have to face—every battle is up to the LORD. Can the Israelites do it on their own? No. Can the LORD do anything He wishes? Absolutely—so what’s the problem? So I find it ironic that the people talk about stoning Joshua and Caleb—a punishment normally reserved for crimes like blasphemy—when the only crime they have committed is following the LORD.

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