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.”
As we begin with an Old Testament reading this morning we need to keep firmly in mind that these are REAL PEOPLE and REAL EVENTS we are dealing with from which there are serious lessons to be learned. It’s not just story-book stuff.
But also as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 10:11:”These things happened to them AS EXAMPLES and were written down as WARNINGS for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.” And specifically, as he says in verse 6 of that same chapter: “. . . these things occurred as examples to keep US from setting OUR hearts on evil things as they did.”
Reading: Numbers 13:1-3, 17-21, 26-33, and Numbers 14: 1-11
Today, I want us to look at some of the things we can learn from this crucial event in the history of God’s people that was the focus of our reading this morning. It is an event that happened after they had been led by Moses out of captivity in Egypt and before they entered the Promised Land of Canaan.
Perhaps strangely, let’s begin at the end and ask ourselves the question: What was the ultimate result of these events?
And, the answer to that question is clear and simple, but it is also appalling. A journey of something like 250 miles that should have taken perhaps around a month at the very most, ended up taking an incredible 40 years. But also, virtually a whole generation was wiped out and around 2 million people were deprived of the blessings and provision that God had intended for them. So in short, what we are looking at here was a personal and a national disaster of quite monumental proportion.
So, if we are looking for a personal lesson to learn from this whole event; if we are looking to heed some warning or to avoid setting our hearts on some evil thing as we consider this portion of Israel’s history, then in line with Paul’s counsel, we surely need to look into and take heed of the REASONS for this enormous calamity.
But next I think we have to ask ourselves the rather ugly question: Who was really to blame for this appalling failure of God’s people?
Now sadly, there seems to be no escaping the fact this whole sorry event arose initially from a leadership failure – specifically, I’m embarrassed to say, from a middle-management failure! These guys picked for this espionage mission had a common characteristic. As Numbers 13:3 tells us: “All of them were leaders of the Israelites.” And, since Moses and Aaron weren’t numbered amongst them, and since their brief was given to them, rather than initiated by them, these guys were not senior management, they were trusted, experienced and responsible middle management.
Now for a church like ours, in the inter-regnum before the appointment of a new Pastor, that means that this could be a passage that might easily touch a raw nerve (or three!). But in defence of we three deacons, I hasten to say before I get too many, smug and knowing nods, from the congregation, that I think that given the age and Christian experience profile of our current membership, we should all remind ourselves that pointing a finger, even a knowing one, means that three others must also be pointing back at ourselves!
However, right from the start, of our look at this portion of Israel’s history, we can see here the vital need to be praying consistently for our leaders – all of them, not just the Pastor, because without wisdom, integrity, character and a determination to walk obediently with God, leaders have the potential to unleash disastrous consequences not only on themselves but on those they have a responsibility to lead.
But significantly too, it is clear that God actually holds each of us personally responsible for our own actions regardless of the quality of our leadership because, as we will see in a moment, it was not just the leaders who were punished for this disaster but all the adults who chose to follow them.
But then let’s look now at how this personal and national disaster unfolded?
It’s clear that there were a number of contributory factors at work in bringing about this cataclysmic failure for God’s people, but probably just one fundamental or underlying reason. But let’s first identify some of the more obvious contributory factors.
First there was a BASIC MISTAKE. The majority of the leaders misinterpreted their brief from Moses
The brief they were given by Moses, which is found in Numbers 13:17-20, was actually not very BRIEF at all, it was quite long and quite detailed. But, significantly, NOWHERE in their instructions were they asked to express THEIR OPINION about the wisdom or the advisability of Israel going into the land and taking it from the current inhabitants, because Moses took it as read, that this was what they were going to do.
Remember, that at this point the whole experience of the “burning bush” at Horeb, when God had commissioned Moses to go back to Egypt and rescue his people and take them to the Promised Land, must still have been powerfully fresh in his memory.
Moses remember, was so terrified by that whole event that the Bible records: “Moses hid his face, because he was afraid to look at God” (Exodus 3:6). So this wasn’t some minor blessing he might have testified to at a home group meeting and then forgotten about in a day or two. This was a stand-out, life changing event he could NEVER forget. And what did God say to him there? Well Exodus 3:7–8 tells us:”7 The LORD said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. 8 So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land INTO a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—the home of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites.”
At the centre then of that spectacular, unique and quite unforgettable experience, God had made absolutely clear to Moses that He intended to GIVE the Israelites a new land of their own and He was very precise about where it would be. So in passing on to the spies their commission to “recce” the land of Canaan, there is no way Moses was asking them for their OPINION on whether or not they should “give it a go”. For Moses, as for God, the “Promised Land”, was just that, the PROMISED land - the land that God Himself had determined and chosen to give to them.
But sadly, giving their own opinion, was exactly what the majority of the spies chose to do – they gave their own opinion without reference to what God had said. BASIC MISTAKE!
But not only did the majority of the leaders make a basic mistake, they also used the wrong evidence base.
I want to suggest to you that this bunch of middle management leaders fell at the very first hurdle. Their observation of what they saw in Canaan was an accurate one because they reported in Numbers 13:27: “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit.”
Their observation was spot on – absolutely accurate, but their interpretation was flawed because instead of allowing the truth of what they saw, to encourage their faith and increase their confidence in what God had promised Moses - that He was going to GIVE them this wonderful land as their inheritance, they were deflected and deceived by all the negatives they saw around them.
And just think this through for a minute. Notice that last phrase of verse 27 it says: “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit.”
Numbers 13:23 tells us: “23 When they reached the Valley of Eshcol, they cut off a branch bearing a single cluster of grapes. Two of them carried it on a pole between them,” These TWO guys had carried this humongous bunch of grapes bouncing along between them all the way all the way back to camp from the Eshcol valley.
But clearly these spies minds were evidently not on the grapes swinging between them, or indeed on the fertile lands lining the road as they marched back to Kadesh. They were filled instead with a whole bunch negatives.
The grapes were God confirming His Word - “This IS the land flowing with milk and honey I have PROMISED to bring you into.” But, with their minds filled with visions of giants and fortified cities, these spies completely missed the message that those grapes were shouting.
So what was it then that made the report of the majority of the spies so convincing to the people of Israel?
Well I think if we’re honest with ourselves when we look at a story like this from the Bible, we’re inclined, in a rather self-satisfied way, to think that in OUR case we would have sided with the heroes, with Caleb and with Joshua, and we would have easily seen through the weaknesses in the argument of those supporting the majority of the spies. But would we?
You know, a majority view is often very attractive and powerful isn’t it? There is confidence in being on the side with the greatest numbers. If “everybody” is saying or supporting something, there is an energy about it that makes it easy to accept and difficult to reject.
Whereas choosing to OPPOSE a majority requires courage and a good deal of self-confidence because it often provokes unwelcome criticism, and it ostracises us from a lot of people, who perhaps are our friends or our heroes, and that’s hard. So going against the majority can be socially costly and very difficult.
Then also, it looks as though there may have been something of an “us and them” divide in the allegiances between the spies. And though we may not like to admit it, we too can be influenced in favour of those we see as most like us.
In Numbers 13 verses 4-15 where the leaders chosen for the spying mission are listed, Caleb is recorded as being of the tribe of Judah, and by allegiance he certainly was, but it turns out that he wasn’t in fact a Jew at all, a fact that probably wasn’t lost on his fellow spies.
In Numbers 32 it records God’s judgement on the spies who brought the bad report and caused the people to fear and reject God’s Word to them and in verse 11 & 12 it says this:11 ‘Because they have not followed me wholeheartedly, not one of the men twenty years old or more who came up out of Egypt will see the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob— 12 not one except Caleb son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite and Joshua son of Nun, for they followed the LORD wholeheartedly.’
So, Caleb was actually a Kenizzite, and the Kenizzites were a tribe that were living in the land of Canaan way back in Abraham’s day. So, Caleb was actually a foreigner, a Gentile, without any Jewish heritage and, he was a Canaanite to boot. He was a man who had turned to God as a convert, a proselyte, out of personal conviction rather than by birth.
It’s distinctly possible therefore that in choosing who to align themselves with, there may have been an element of prejudice in favour of those leaders with more substantive Hebrew credentials. Oh . . and, it’s just a thought, but Caleb, (kālēḇ) in Hebrew means “dog” – so perhaps that didn’t help his credibility profile a great deal either!
But however it came about there were clearly two distinctly different responses to the same data. There was universal agreement on the fact that the land of Canaan matched God’s profile for His “Promised Land”. God had said He would “bring them . . . INTO a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8) and Canaan WAS such a land.
But, when it came to gaining ownership of the land, the majority view went with the evidence of the negative thinking that must have held sway as this bunch of spies travelled back to Kadesh. Just listen in on them in Numbers 13:31-33:
“We CAN’T attack those people; they are STRONGER than we are.” “ALL the people we saw there are of great size. “We saw the Nephilim there” (a particularly large and scary race of giants). “We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”
In effect, the MAJORITY were saying that the land is just as God said it would be, BUT that REALISTICALLY there is no way we could overcome the people living there because the current tenants are powerful giants and we are as weak as grasshoppers by comparison.
On the other hand though, Caleb and Joshua’s MINORITY report held the same view that the land was just as God said it would be, BUT, they concluded that if God is in control, what are a few giants between friends!
So I want to suggest that what made the MAJORITY report so convincing was partly to do with the fact that the relationship between this group of spies was based on their rather partisan allegiances that meant they were more amenable to the negative opinions of their Hebrew compatriots and more ready to disdain and disparage the views of the outspoken ex-Canaanite, Caleb. And coupled with this, the sheer size of the support for the majority view meant it was easy to dismiss the minority view as derisory.
But what about that one fundamental or underlying reason for this national disaster for God’s people?
Well, all twelve spies started with the same point of view when they entered the Promised Land. They all agreed that this was a land “flowing with milk and honey”. But by the time they returned to Kadesh only two, Joshua and Caleb, retained the view that God intended them to have it.
So clearly something happened as they reflected on what they saw in the land. Their minds were changed when they saw the heavily fortified cities and when they glimpsed, from aa distance, the awesome size of those Nephilim giants.
And, no doubt, on the journey home as they swapped exaggerated stories about those giants, and about the military prowess of these terrifying inhabitants of the land, FEAR began to creep in and GROW. Until by the time they had returned to Moses they had a fully refined and well-rehearsed anti-Canaan argument designed to weaken the knees of even a seasoned soldier let alone the droves of family folk already tired from trudging the dusty and unforgiving road from Egypt.
So I want to suggest then that the key reason for this whole terrible disaster was a failure of TRUST, of FAITH, in God.
As soon as these spies allowed themselves to have their attention shifted away from the integrity, power, might and love of God by the sight and rumoured reputation of the Canaanites with their fortress cities and their fearsome giants, they were lost. The spies faith fled under a determined and relentless attack from that arch enemy, and pitiless fraudster, FEAR.
And that, at root, is what the successful majority report achieved signally. It succeeded because once we open the door to fear, we elevate and amplify our doubts and our “fight” then disappears, to be displaced with a desire for “flight”. Our courage dissipates and faith is overrun by a strong dose of collywobbles!
Now you can see just how effective the majority report was in destroying the people’s faith in Numbers 14:1-4. Just listen to the characteristics of those who forsake their faith and give way to fear:
Verse 1 records: “all the people of the community raised their voices and WEPT ALOUD.” Their faith, sliced through by fears, they succumbed to mindless emotion.
Verse 2 tells us: “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!” Their faith, undermined by fear, sense was replaced by foolishness.
Verse 3 records them saying: 3 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?” So, their faith gone, they wallowed in abject negativity.
Finally, verse 4 reports: 4 And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” With their faith absolutely routed they gave way to open rebellion against Moses and against God.
But finally, what was it about Caleb and young Joshua’s approach that won God’s approval and caused them to be spared His judgement?
Well, forty five years after this whole sorry episode, Caleb, now an 85 year old, summed up what happened in words recorded in Joshua 14:7–8 when he said: 7 I was forty years old when Moses the servant of the LORD sent me from Kadesh Barnea to explore the land. And I brought him back a report according to my convictions, 8 but my brothers who went up with me made the hearts of the people melt with fear. I, however, followed the LORD my God wholeheartedly.
For me, two phrases stand out from Caleb’s testimony: “I brought him back a report according to my convictions,” and “I, however, followed the LORD my God wholeheartedly.”
The challenges and difficulties presented by the prospect of invading Canaan were faced by Caleb and Joshua from the solid ground of personal conviction and total commitment. In short, they trusted God’s Word more than they were frightened by their circumstances.
It would have been easy to go with the flow and jump on the majority bandwagon and agree that invasion would be a disaster. But, instead of expecting to be defeated and to fail, they chose not to let doubts defeat them, not to give way to pessimism, not to magnify the difficulties and not to see themselves as grasshoppers but as giant-slaying servants of the Living God.
They refused to slip into a negative confession of doubt and doom, but rather preferred to loudly proclaim the bold confession, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.” (Numbers 13:30)
“We should go up” Why? – because God has authorised it. “we can certainly do it.” Why? – because as Paul puts it in Romans 8:31 “31 If God is for us, who can be against us?”
So from this passage what can we learn about the root cause of UNBELIEF in our lives?
It is, as in the example of the 10 spies, to forget who God really is, to lose sight of what He has promised, to let go the fact that as Peter reminds us in 1 Peter 1:25 “. . . the word of the Lord stands forever.” and to fail to be the people He calls and empowers us to be.
And what from this passage can we learn about the root of strong FAITH in our lives?
It is, as in the example of Caleb and Joshua, to boldly affirm God’s call, to totally refuse to forsake God’s Word and His promises to us, and to commit to becoming and being what God intends and empowers us to be. As the Psalmist puts it in Psalm 112:1 & 7-8 1 . . . Blessed is the man who fears the LORD, who finds great delight in his commands. . . . 7 He will have no fear of bad news; his heart is steadfast, trusting in the LORD. 8 His heart is secure, he will have no fear; in the end he will look in triumph on his foes.