Numbers 13:1-33

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We are not told until v. 26 that Israel had reached Kadesh-barnea, one of the most fertile oases in the Sinai peninsula, which we learn elsewhere (Numbers 34:4; Joshua 15:3) was on the southern border of Canaan. In other words, Israel had already reached her goal, only shortly after having left Mt. Sinai. The season of the “first ripe grapes” mentioned in v. 20 is late July, so approximately two months after the departure from Sinai. Deut. 1:2 says that it was an eleven day journey from Mt. Sinai to Kadesh, but, of course, as we have read, there were pauses on the way (11:20; 12:15). Israel was now poised to take possession of the land God had promised Abraham he would give to Abraham’s descendants. What is more, the scouts brought back a report that confirmed everything the people had hoped: it was indeed a land flowing with milk and honey. But instead of encouraging the people to rise up and take possession of their inheritance most of the scouts argued that the land would be too difficult to conquer.

Text Comment

We have in this one verse several excellent illustrations of the constant interweaving of divine sovereignty and human freedom in history. Yahweh was going to give Israel the land so, we might think, what are spies needed for? But the land still had to be taken. Yahweh was going to give Israel the Promised Land but Israel was still going to have to fight for it. Armies need intelligence; tactics are based on it. Poor intelligence, as we have learned recently in Iraq, can lead to bad tactics. When Israel finally enters the Promised Land we find at first Yahweh directing the army personally; but soon thereafter, Joshua disposes his troops in battle after battle as a wise commander, estimating enemy strength, surveying the terrain, and creating an order of battle.

But there is something more. In Deuteronomy 1:22-23 the origin of the idea of sending spies is said to have been with the people. Moses is rehearsing the history and writes, “Then all of you came to me and said, ‘Let us send men ahead to spy out the land for us and bring back a report about the route we are to take and the towns we will come to.’” Then Moses continues, “The idea seemed good to me; so I selected twelve of you…” and so on. There is nothing in the account in Deuteronomy 1 about the Lord telling Moses to send spies into Canaan. Perhaps the simplest way to understand the two accounts together is to conclude that the people proposed the idea, Moses thought it wise, and, when he consulted Yahweh to make sure, the Lord approved the plan. In any case, even here, with the Lord saying to Moses, “Send some men…” there is also a responsible plan on the people’s part, a judgment on Moses’ part before the approval by the Lord, God doing his work in and through the actions of human beings.

The twelve men are said in Deuteronomy to have been sent to spy out the land, but it is a question as to whether we should think of them as spies in the ordinary sense of the term. The group is too large to remain invisible to the inhabitants of the land and there is nothing to suggest that they even attempted concealment. Neither their instructions nor their report upon their return suggests that they collected any other information than that available to any traveler. They return with intelligence but it is quite general in its nature. Perhaps more than anything else they were sent to verify the truth about the land as the Lord had described it to them. Perhaps in Moses’ mind the great virtue of the expedition was to strengthen the people’s flagging determination to venture on the Lord’s promise. Israel’s behavior on the march from Mt. Sinai may well have raised doubts in his mind about the people’s willingness to undertake an invasion of a substantial and well-defended population.

However the idea originated, the group is sent off at the Lord’s command.

These are different men than those listed earlier as chiefs of the various tribes. The work of the scout required different abilities. No doubt these were younger men. Still they were probably all distinguished men of their tribe whose opinion would count.

Hoshea was Joshua’s birth name and probably wasn’t changed until the time of his association with Moses and, perhaps, years into that period of his life. This point is made in an aside in v. 16. He has already been referred to by the name Joshua (e.g. Ex. 24:13) but that is probably the work of an editor. It would be in such a list as this that the original name would survive. That his name remains Hoshea in this list is evidence of the antiquity of the list; it represented a time previous to Joshua’s fame as the leader of Israel. You remember that the name Joshua is the Hebrew form of the Greek name Jesus; in fact the LXX translated Joshua as Jesus two-hundred years before Christ. Both mean “the Lord saves.” In Exodus 6:23 we are told that the Tetragrammaton, the name Yahweh, was not revealed to Israel until the exodus. So Joshua, which is a name built on the divine name Yahweh, could not have been his birth-name, as Hoshea here testifies.

The boundaries of the land of Canaan are more fully described in 34:1-12, but the land comprised the present territory of Israel, Lebanon, and much of Southern Syria.

So the report would encourage the people with accounts of the fertility of the land and provide the military intelligence needed for a plan of battle.

A detail more important to early readers of this text than to us. Hebron, as you may remember, was the place where Abraham bought the only piece of Canaanite land that ever belonged to him, land he bought for his burial ground and where he and Sarah were buried together with the other patriarchs after him excepting Rachel. It was also near where the Lord first promised Canaan to Abraham (Gen. 13:14-18). [Wenham, 118] Hebron was a place as deeply fixed in the national identity of Israel as Plymouth Rock or Fort McHenry is to the national identity of the United States. [Duguid, 168]

A prolepsis; that is, it would later be called the Valley of Eschol, or Valley of the Cluster when Israel possessed the land. That place was called the Valley of Eschol because of the cluster of grapes the Israelites cut off there.

In other words, the spies do precisely what they were ordered to do. They traversed the country from south to north, the Desert of Zin lying on the southern frontier, Lebo Hamath on the northern, a distance of some 250 miles, so 500 miles there and back.

They report truthfully on the fruitfulness of the land. The rabbis commented on this by saying, “Slander which does not have some truth in the beginning will not be accepted at the end.” [Milgrom, 104]

The walls of ancient Canaanite cities were 30-50 feet high and sometimes as much as fifteen feet thick. [Milgrom, 105]

The four geographical areas of Canaan: the Negev (the southern desert), the central mountains (the spine of hills running south to north), and the lowlands on both sides of that ridge, the coastal plain on the west and the Jordan valley on the east.

That the report of the ten scouts was “bad” or “evil” means not simply that it was discouraging, but that it was untrue. Note the exaggerations: “the land devours its inhabitants” and “we looked like grasshoppers in our own eyes.” [Wenham, 120] Note well that very often in the OT we are told that the deceit people practice rebounds upon themselves. They thought the land would devour its inhabitants and that is what happened to them: they were devoured: the ten spies immediately by plague (14:37) and the rest by the desert over the next forty years.

Notice that the ten scouts were not content to make their report to Moses. They immediately began to spread their pessimism among the people generally. Panic is contagious in an army. It spreads like wildfire.

Chapter thirteen is only half of the story; it is continued in the following chapter. We have yet to read of the people’s rebellion, the fuller account of Joshua and Caleb’s report, the Lord’s anger at the people, Moses’ intercession, the Lord’s judgment of the ten scouts and the people for listening to them, and the people’s abortive attempt to undo their error and turn back the clock. We’ll consider all of that next time. What we have here in chapter thirteen is the first few scenes of this drama. But they are sufficient to make some important points about the great biblical lesson drawn from this history on a number of occasions in the rest of the Bible. Indeed, it is not too much to say that this history we are reading this evening and next Lord’s Day evening is the principal biblical illustration of the sad fact, fundamental to so much of the Bible’s teaching, that there are many unbelievers in the church.

The reason for Israel’s failure of nerve at Kadesh-barnea, the reason why that generation was condemned to die in the wilderness we read in the prophets, in Paul, and in Hebrews was that she didn’t have faith. She had the gospel preached to her, as we read in Hebrews 4, but she didn’t combine it with faith. And over and over again against the background of this history we are exhorted not to be like her in that unbelief.

Now, to get the full force of this message it is essential that we reckon with the phenomenon of unbelief in the church as it is illustrated here in Israel’s history. Unbelief appears in two very different forms in the world. The largest number of unbelievers is, of course, non-Christians: the practitioners of other faiths and secularists. They do not believe in the sense that they don’t embrace the Christian faith at all. They do not want any association with the kingdom of God, they are not interested in being a practitioner of the Christian faith. But the most significant class of unbelievers in the Bible is the great company of faithless men and women, who call themselves Christians, are considered to be Christians by others, recognized to be members of the Christian church and whose lives, in some ways, resemble the lives of real believers. It is this community of people whose story takes up so much of the biblical narrative, it is the backdrop for almost all of biblical prophesy, it is the backdrop of the ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ in the gospels, it is to these people that so much of the preaching of the biblical prophets was addressed, and it is about the spiritual situation of such people that we are so often warned in both the OT and the NT.

It is precisely because outward appearances can be deceiving both to people themselves and to others around them that we are forced over and over again in the Bible to reckon with the fact that the church contains in her membership people who are not really believers in God or Jesus Christ. This confusion is understandable. Unbelievers in the church often look like real believers and, to make matters worse, real believers often speak and act like unbelievers. How are we to know? A great deal of what the Bible says in answer to that question it says against the backdrop of this phenomenon of Israel’s unbelief which is concentrated in a historical moment here at Kadesh-barnea.

Israel complained about her circumstances, as we have seen, but real Christians complain all too often. Israel played the coward from time to time, but then, what real believer has not when faced with daunting prospects. But consider the other side. The Israelites obeyed the Lord’s instructions regarding the Passover – certainly an act of some sort of faith – and was mightily delivered from her bondage in Egypt. She sinned with the golden calf at Mt. Sinai but thereafter the covenant was renewed and she participated in the services of worship that celebrated that renewal. She gave generously for the construction of the sanctuary and its furniture and participated in the regular round of services that were conducted there. She ate the manna that the Lord supplied for her, as we read in the NT, something akin to participating in the Lord’s Supper in the new epoch. Even here she does what she was told and sends scouts throughout the land. There is very definitely an appearance of submission to Yahweh – however grudging some of the time – and of a recognition that she belongs to the Lord and is his people. What is more, when caught in one of her sins, she does what we expect believers to do: she cries out for forgiveness and tries to do better, as she will at the end of chapter 14. “We have sinned,” the Israelites said in 14:40: “We will go up to the place the Lord promised.” Is that not a good thing to say? Is that not what we expect of believers when they sin, for what believer does not sin? So there is the appearance of faith in cases where faith is actually lacking. It is more than this, however. Israel is actually said to have believed, to have had faith. In Exodus 14:31 we read:

“And when the Israelites saw the great power the Lord displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the Lord and put their trust in him and in Moses his servant.”

There is a sense in which they were both believers and unbelievers at the same time. That is what makes this spiritual phenomenon so complicated and so spiritually dangerous. False faith and true faith are not as easily distinguished as we might think.

And lest we somehow come to think that this is a problem unique to the Old Testament, let me remind you how often and how dramatically this same phenomenon is both illustrated and warned against in the teaching of the New Testament. So real is the appearance of faith, either momentarily or over a period of time, that the Bible does not scruple to call it faith, even when it is not real faith at all, just as the Bible calls Amnon’s ardor for Tamar love when it was not love at all. It felt like love to Amnon, at least at first, but it too easily and suddenly turned to hatred to have been real love, true love.

In the Gospel of John especially this phenomenon of faith that is not faith, of what is called faith but proves not to be the genuine article, is a regular theme. We read of the Jews who saw the miraculous signs he was doing that they “believed in his name (2:23),” elsewhere in the NT that is what it means to become a Christian “to believe in the Lord’s name,” and that “they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken (2:22).” But immediately thereafter we read that “Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men…. [and] knew what was in a man.” [2:24]

In a striking passage in John 8, we read of the Jews who had believed in him [v. 31] getting into an argument with him, calling Jesus demon-possessed, and attempting to stone him! Some faith! All through the Gospel of John we read of people, even many people “believing in Jesus” [10:42; 12:11] but it becomes clear as the narrative proceeds that this faith did not stand up to the pressure. When Jesus failed to meet their expectations of him, failed to satisfy their desire for a political Messiah, the believers joined with the unbelievers in rejecting him. For all the people who were supposed to have believed in Jesus through the course of his three-year ministry, precious few stuck with him to the end.

So what is the difference? What is the detectable difference? What are we to find in ourselves that is the mark of true, genuine faith and not the imitation faith that is all that great multitudes of church members have ever had? Well, we have seen it already in the previous two chapters and we see it again here. It is a God-ward direction of the soul. It is a perspective on life that makes God, his Word, his presence, and his promise controlling principles of thought and action.

There is a subtle but powerful illustration of this fundamental difference between imitation faith and the genuine article in this narrative, just the sort of subtle clue to spiritual reality that we have come to expect in biblical narrative. All through this material, when the land of Canaan is referred to, it is, as here in v. 2, “the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites.” In 14:16 we read of the “land [the Lord] promised them on oath.” Again the same way of speaking appears in 14:23: “the land I promised on oath to their forefathers.” In v. 40 of chapter 14, when the people had recovered a better mind, they themselves spoke of “the place the Lord promised.” In 15:2 we read of “the land I am giving you.” We could go on. It is the way Canaan is referred to virtually every time it is mentioned. It is the land of the Lord’s promise.

But see how the ten scouts refer to it. In 13:27 we read them say “We went into the land to which you sent us….” In v. 32 it is “the land we explored.” What has happened here? The Lord and his promise have been forgotten. Not that they no longer remembered that the promise had been made, but they were no longer reckoning with it. At the key moment it was as if the Lord had never made a promise to give Canaan to Abraham’s descendents. Canaan was just the land they had explored, not the land that hundreds of years before Yahweh had pledged to Abraham, the land they had left Egypt on eagles’ wings to take possession of, the land the Lord himself, by the fiery cloud, had been steering the nation toward for the last two months.

One commentator helpfully notices that the difference between the majority report and the minority report was where to put the “but.” [Duguid, 169] They were in substantial agreement about the facts. No one disputed that the land was wonderfully fruitful, flowing with milk and honey. No one disputed that there were fortified cities and impressive people inhabiting the land. No one disputed that the population of Canaan represented a formidable force to be overcome. For the ten scouts the “but” came after the account of the prosperity of Canaan. Sure the land is fruitful, just look at these grapes! But… But the people are powerful, the cities are fortified, there are individual Canaanite men that make the twelve Israelite men look like schoolboys. How was Israel to contend with such opposition?

For the two scouts in the minority, Joshua and Caleb, the “but” came later. The land is wonderfully fruitful. Can’t wait to move in and begin enjoying the wealth of the country. And, to be sure, the cities are fortified and the Canaanite armies impressive. But the Lord has promised us this land and, as Caleb puts it in v. 30, “let’s go; we can do this. If we can cross the Yam Suph on dry ground, if we could leave the vaunted Egyptian army buried in the sea, if we could walk out of Egypt no one molesting us and in fact loading us down with gold and silver jewelry, if we can survive in the wilderness without the wherewithal to grow any food, we can certainly take possession of this land. Besides, Hebron is there, the tombs of our ancestors, the very ones to whom the Lord made the promise of this land.” The ten had only the appearance of faith because their faith, such as it was, did not render the presence, power, and promise of God real to them. The two had genuine faith because they were quite ready to act on the strength of God’s presence, power, and promise. Robert Murray McCheyne used to say, in explaining what it means to believe, how one does it, “for every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.” Well the ten scouts were navel gazing the entire time, they did not look to the Lord once; only Joshua and Caleb were living looking up. Only for those two men were Yahweh’s presence and promise real things that changed their prospects in the world, real things that they could count on and real things that changed their understanding of the situation.

It was very different with the ten men and, as it turned out, with Israel as a whole. So bereft were they of a Godward frame of reference that they could not be brought to it even when, later in chapter 14, Joshua lays out the argument of faith in greater detail (vv. 6-9) and even, at last, when the Lord judges the people for their failure of faith.

The history of the covenant between God and his people turns on the question whether they will believe his Word. But it turns out that the mark of real believing in the Lord’s word is precisely whether a person is willing to act on the strength of that Word.
The Lord will, in effect, say to the ten scouts, “You saw the size of the Canaanite giants, but you completely forgot about my glory and my power before which not individual men but entire nations are but grasshoppers!

It is this sight of God and this divinely controlled perspective on life that is the mark of true and genuine faith. Here and in the Gospel of John it is the same. Those who “believed” but didn’t believe were those whose faith did not lay hold of the presence, the power, and the promise of the Lord and did not act in keeping with those realities. That is the difference here; that is always the difference between genuine faith and its imitation.

But now a word for a number of you who struggle at this very point. You would say to me, you have said to me, that you wonder if you really do have this genuine faith precisely because you feel that so often you do not act on a sure conviction of the presence, power, and promise of the Lord. You so often act, so you say, as if the Lord were not present, as if his power would not be made perfect in your weakness, and as if he had not made his exceeding great and precious promises to you. You say with C.S. Lewis,

“The trouble with me is lack of faith. I have no rational ground for going back on the arguments that convinced me of God’s existence: but the irrational deadweight of my own skeptical habits, and the spirit of this age, and the care of the day, steal away all my lively feeling of the truth, and often when I pray I wonder if I am not posting letters to a non-existent address. Mind you I don’t think so – the whole of my reasonable mind is convinced: but I often feel so.” [Letters to Arthur Greeves, Dec. 24, 1930, 398-399]

Well, the difference between true and genuine faith, on the one hand, and spurious faith on the other is not that true faith is always present in power and effect in a believer’s life. As the Bible teaches us and shows us again and again, even the very best, the truest faith is a lifelong struggle. If the Christian life is going to be a struggle, it is going to be a struggle at the point of faith because faith is everything in the Christian life. Every act of obedience is first an act of faith. As the bible teaches us and shows us again and again in individual lives and flesh and blood it is a struggle to believe. “Lord I believe! Help my unbelief!” Real faith knows what it ought to be and do. It is dismayed by its failures. It seeks its own growth. True faith hungers and thirsts for its expression and demonstration in life precisely because it does not always express itself and does not always demonstrate itself in life.

In the medieval chronicler Joinville’s Life of St. Louis [173-174], he tells of a conversation that the saintly King Louis of France once repeated to him. The great Christian king was as interested in this great question – how do I know if I have true faith? – as we are today! Well, said the great French king, a theologian of considerable reputation had come to the Bishop of Paris to speak of his doubts, the weakness of his faith. He was wondering just what multitudes of Christians have wondered: might my faith be the kind of spurious faith that God rejected in the Israelites? Is my too frequent failure to overcome my fears and my doubts, my failure in life to stand on my faith and to live by my faith in the Lord, evidence that I don’t possess the real thing? He feared that he was an apostate because he could not compel his heart to practice his faith. The wise bishop put a series of questions to this man.

First, he asked, “Do you feel any pleasure when the Enemy exposes you to this temptation?” “No,” said the churchman, “it worries and depresses me.” And that is invariably true of people who have a real faith. They want their faith to soar; they want it to control their lives and to dictate their behavior. They hate it when their faith is weak and when they fail to lay hold of God’s presence, power, and promise. They do not want to be that way and this man did not.

Second, the bishop asked the churchman – a theologian, a churchman is a good illustration, because these twelve scouts were also all substantial men in Israel – “If you were offered any amount of gold or silver on the condition that you deny your faith in Christ, would you deny him?” “My Lord,” the man responded, “I would not. I would rather have one of my limbs torn from my body than consent to deny him.”

Third, said the bishop, “You know that the King of France is at war with the King of England. You also know that the nearest castle to the boundary-line between those two kingdoms is the Castle of Rochelle. So I ask you: Suppose the king had appointed you to guard the Castle of Rochelle and had put me in charge of the Castle of Montlhéri, which is in the very center of France, where the land is at peace. To which of us do you think the king would feel most indebted at the end of the war: to you who had guarded La Rochelle against the advances of the enemy, or to me who had remained in safety at Montlhéri?” “I suppose he would feel the greatest debt to me,” the man replied, “who had preserved his fortress against attack.” “Precisely,” said the Bishop of Paris, “You must fight for your faith and that makes your faith more precious to God!” There is a fight, always a fight for faith. The Devil is against you; your flesh is against you.

You see, genuine faith is not marked by a lack of any struggle or failure. The life of faith is often marked by intense struggle and frequent failure. But there is struggle precisely because faith knows and cares what it is and ought to be. Faith never forgets that God has made a promise of Canaan. Faith reckons with all that the Lord has already done in redemption and fatherly care and love so far through the wilderness of this world. Faith wants a Godward perspective always and only. Faith desires always to speak and to act in the full realization of God’s presence, power, and promise. That was not true of these ten scouts; it was true of the two. It is the one conspicuous and obvious difference between these two groups of men.

I doubt very much that Joshua and Caleb didn’t have moments of doubt when looking at the thick and high walls of the cities of Canaan and when looking up to men much taller and more imposing than themselves. But they dealt with themselves, and when push came to shove they knew what faith should think and say and should do and they thought it and they said it and they did it. They wouldn’t invariably do that; they will stumble like everyone else, but they did it when it mattered most when the issue was being joined and they did it regularly enough to demonstrate that their faith was the real thing, the genuine article. They had a God-ward perspective and they acted on God’s presence, power and promise. True faith always does.