Numbers 13 – 14.
After a forty-year hiatus around the Sinai, the people of Israel were at the borders of Canaan, on the cusp of possessing it (c.f., Ex 3:17), as promised by Yahweh when He spoke to Moses three months after they left Egypt, “Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel” (Ex 19:5-6). However, despite having tested the Lord ten times, they had not learnt their lessons, and at this critical juncture, the Israelites chose to commit the most brazenly serious rebellion against God which earned His wrath in response – they spent another 40 years’ in the wilderness before they were permitted to enter the Promised Land (Num 14:22; Num 14:34).
God’s original objective was for the spies to return from Canaan confirming that the land was truly one that was flowing with ‘milk and honey,’ as His people needed the assurance that it was worth fighting for. The twelve scouts returned with a sample of the abundance of the land that was in stark contrast to the manna that was their principal diet for the past four decades (Ex 16:35). From the Valley of Eshcol, they cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes that had to be carried on a pole between two men, apart from the pomegranates and the figs (Num 13:23). But it was not the fertility of the land that made its indelible impression but its inhabitants. Ten spies conflated the dangers the Canaanites posed for Israel despite Caleb and Joshua’s contrary report and the former’s confidence in overcoming their adversaries with God’s enabling (Num 13:25-33). In this case, the fear-mongering spin snowballed into a significant collective uprising against God.
Fear is one of humanity’s most emotionally pervasive traits, and when it is allowed to run its unhindered course, it turns in on itself in its destructiveness. In this instant, initial optimism was turned on its head by hearsay, with evil attributed to God, when His motive and proposal were challenged. Even Moses’ leadership did not escape the Israelite’s vilification, and as their distrust warped their perspective, a new leader was called for to lead them back to Egypt (Num 14:1-4). They had scorned God Himself, rejecting their divine vocation in conquering over the disparate tribes in the promised land in favour of deceptive security by returning to slavery. This is indicative of a mindset of cynical despair despite God’s recurrent promises to Abraham as He led Israel for several generations (Gen 12:1-3). When we are unversed with God’s promises to His people, and being men of little faith, turning our backs on Him is not altogether unfamiliar; the dynamics of the Israelite’s mutiny are not dissimilar to the results due to the uncertainties and fears that may wrap themselves around us and our faith in His ability to lead us. Serving God does entail some level of work that may be challenging, but when we are called to obey, inevitably His Spirit will always ensure us of His faithfulness to see us through (Ps 94:14; Isa 41:17; Heb 13:5-8).
After Moses’ intercession, God forgave the Israelites, but His justice demanded that sin is punished despite an extension of His grace, love and patience toward His people in His ongoing relationship with them (Num 14:11-20). The next forty years, the tribes of Israel were to wait beyond the borders of Canaan as the current generation’s sinful attitudes were chastised as they perished without entering the land (Num 14:28-34). The ten who connived to bring the bad report was also judged by a plague. The enormous gulf between a holy God and the gnawing sinfulness of man would have remained a barrier from time immemorial but for the arrival of Jesus Christ, who paid with His life on the cross for all our sins, thereby enabling us, in Him, to benefit from a flawless relationship with God (Rom 4:25; 1 Cor 15:1-3; Heb 10:10). So, “let us lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb 12:1-2). When we get our priorities right, uncertainties and fears are invariably surmounted by faith in Christ.