“And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Send thou men, that they may search the land of Canaan, which I give unto the children of Israel.” Numbers 13:1.
According to this notice, Moses acted in response to an express command of God, when he sent forth the spies, while according to a statement found in his first farewell address to the people, this action was taken by him because the people had so requested. “And when we departed from Horeb, we went through all that great and terrible wilderness, which ye saw by the way of the mountain of the Amorites, as the Lord our God commanded us; and we came to Kadesh-barnea. And I said unto you, Ye are come unto the mountain of the Amorites, which the Lord our God doth give unto us. Behold the Lord thy God hath set the land before thee: go up and posses it, as the Lord God of thy fathers has said unto thee; fear not, neither be discouraged. And ye came near unto me every one of you, and said, We will send men before us, and they shall search us out the land, and bring us word again by what way we must go up, and unto what cities we shall come. And the saying pleased me well: and I took twelve men of you, one of a tribe. . . .” (Deut. 19:23).
There is no discrepancy here. Both the Lord commanded and the people requested that the war with the Canaanites be preceded by an exploration of the land to be possessed. The two accounts are then not contrary. Together they form a complete narrative of what took place.
The place whence the spies were sent was the wilderness of Paran. As the people had encamped but twice, this place could be at no great distance from Sinai. Let us observe in this connection that the notice at Numbers 10:12 is to the effect that “the children of Israel took their journeys out of the wilderness of Sinai;” and that, “the cloud rested in the wilderness of Paean,” the next resting place; but that at Numbers 12:16 the narrative reads, “And afterward the people removed from Hazeroth, and pitched in the wilderness of Paran.” So, according to the former notice, this wilderness was the first station beyond Sinai on the journey northward from Sinai to Kadesh, while according to the scripture last quoted this station was not reached until after the people had removed from Plazeroth, the fourth resting-place. The only solution is that when the people again came to rest after the departure from Sinai, they found themselves in the wilderness of Paran, and that when they again pitched after removing from Hazeroth, they still found themselves in this same wilderness, so that this wilderness must be imagined to have included all the stations at which the people rested on that stretch of the journey that lied between Sinai and the first encampment beyond Hazeroth northward, and that thus the expression wilderness of Paran,” as occurring at Numbers 10:12, signifies the wilderness as a whole, while the same expression, as found at Numbers 12:16, is to be taken as the name of a specific spot in it.
There were in all twelve spies selected from all the tribes, so that each tribe was to be informed by evidence submitted by one of its own tribesmen. If the choice were restricted to some of the tribes only, those passed over might question the reliability of the spies and, as moved by jealousy and spite, refuse to give credence to their report. The persons selected were men of high rank, “heads of the children of Israel,” whose word on this account had weight with the people. The names of the appointees and the tribe to which each belonged are revealed, and this to the enduring shame of the ten.
Before sending the spies away, Moses instructs them as follows, “Get you up this way by the southland and go up into the mountain: and see the land, what it is; and the people that dwelleth therein, whether they be strong or weak, few or many; and what the land is that they dwell in, whether it be good or bad; and what cities they be that they dwell in, whether in tents or in strongholds; and what the land is, whether it be fat or lean, whether there be wood therein or not. And be ye of good courage, and bring of the fruit of the land” (Num. 13:17-20).
It is to be observed that the Lord had commanded Moses in this language, “Send thou men that they may search the land of Canaan” (Num. 13:1-2a). It strikes us that the instruction of Moses to the spies is remarkably detailed as compared with the Lord’s command to Moses. Now the stand that these details originated not with the Lord but with the people, so that in charging the spies, Moses was simply employing the language in which the people had couched their request, will not at all do. The only permissable stand is that now, too, Moses spake by divine inspiration as well as when he communicated to them the law and admonished them in his parting addresses, and that thus the Lord approved of his speech. These details then, though as to their substance at least they had also been voiced by the people, must be taken to have been put in Moses’ mouth by the Lord. The point is that Moses did well in telling them to ascertain whether the land was good or bad, fat or lean; whether the people that dwelt there were strong or weak, few or many; and whether they dwelt in tents or in strongholds. But we naturally ask: how could Moses be doing well? What need was there of this information as far as the outcome of the war was concerned? The battle was not Israel’s but the Lord’s. Military skill and human prowess, such as they might have possessed, would tell, but only because the Lord was to fight for them. Moses understood this. Therefore his initial command to the people had been that they go up to possess the land. What need was there for their knowing beforehand whether the Canaanites dwelt in strongholds, if He who was to lead them in battle was the Lord? What need was there of their being given opportunity to ascertain for themselves what the virtue of Canaan’s soil was? They had long ago been told by the Lord that it was a land flowing with milk and honey. Should this witness not have sufficed? Should they not have been ready to go forward solely by their faith in this word? Was Moses not suggesting, through his instructing the spies as he did, that the people place in the room of God’s witness the testimony of sense? Assuredly not. That he charged, the spies as he did was of the Lord. Moses did well. This must be maintained. For two centuries or more the people had been living quietly and sumptuously in the land of Goshen. Now such living is all but conducive to the well-being of a people, to the strengthening and development of its manly vigor. Then, the spirit of this people had been cowed by many decades of hard oppression. It was as a crowd of slaves that the children of Israel had left Egypt. Yet they were now being called upon to extirpate, through a sustained military effort, the cursed tribes that infested Canaan. And the people in this land were many indeed. And they dwelt in strongholds impregnable, so that, from the point of view of nature, the undertaking was doomed to failure. Yet it had to succeed, as the battle was to be the Lord’s. So, the venture had to be one of faith, of trust in the power and willingness of the Lord to give victory. Did they possess this faith? Were they capable of being willing to go foreward as relying on His promise? The Lord was resolved to try them. So He ordered the spies to be sent. Let them explore the land and report their findings to the people. Having learned all the facts, let them say what they will do. This was the Lord’s reason for sending the spies. Also in telling them to see whether the land was good or bad, Moses did well. Appearing to Moses in the burning bush some forty years previous, the Lord, speaking of this land, had said to him, “I am come down to deliver them out of the land of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey.” The people were now standing on the edge of this land. Let them then, as believing what the Lord had said, now see for themselves just how wonderfully good that land was.
As was said, the people themselves, too, wanted the land explored before the commencement of the conflict. Did they because they had learned that the Lord wanted it too? The way they talked to Moses is against this view. Coming to Moses, they say, “We will send men before us that they may search out the land. . . .” They do not ask or request but reveal what they by themselves have resolves to do. In response to Moses’ exhortation that they now go up and posses the land, they say, “Nay, not so, but we will first send men to search that land.” Why should they have insisted on this? What need was there for them to know whether the inhabitants of Canaan dwelt in tents or in strongholds, if the battle was the Lord’s? Not that the request that the land be searched was as such sinful. It could spring from believing prudence. But in their case, it sprang from fear and therefore anticipated their revolt. But even apart from their fear, they had no desire to war God’s warfare because they loved not God. Their wish was that the spies would have to report that the land was bad and that its inhabitants were many. Such were their fears, which they hoped would not turn out to be groundless. Then there would be to them some plausible excuses for their refusal to go up and possess the land that had been promised them. Not that they despised that land. Why should they? It was a good land indeed. However, if they had to choose between returning to Egypt or living out their lives in the wilderness on the one hand and possessing that good land in the way of a conflict from the point of nature doomed to failure but bound to be successful if waged by faith in God, on the other hand, they would choose the former. Herewith has been disclosed the reason that the people had for sending the spies. They were looking for excuses.
Moses, himself believing and therefore unafraid, little suspected that, in clamoring for men to search them out the land, the people were being driven by fear. So, when they came to him to tell him what they would have him do, he heard them out in good faith. Their saying even pleased him well and he concluded that it would be the part of wisdom to do as they suggested. They were careful to hide from him their real intention. They said nothing that as much as suggested even that they dreaded a conflict with the Canaanites. To the contrary, they took pains to couch their request in a language, designed to leave the impression that they were quite ready and that all that held them back was their lack of information respecting the lay of the cities of the land to be possessed. Of this information they had need, they said, in order that they might know what way they had to go up and in which cities they should come. As armed with this information, they would go up and possess the land without delay. It can be understood therefore that their saying pleased Moses and that, in compliance with their request, he sent the spies. However, as it is inconceivable that Moses would take this step on his own initiative or simply because the people so requested, it must be conjectured that the Lord made known His will respecting the matter prior to the people’s voicing their request in Moses’ audience, so that the principal reason why the people’s saying pleased him is that what the Lord willed they also willed. The order of events we must therefore imagine to have been thus: 1. Moses commands the people to go up and possess the land; 2. The Lord reveals to Moses that it is His will that the land be first explored; 3. The request of the people that the land be first explored; 4. Moses, in compliance with God’s command and the people’s request, sends the spies.
The spies set out. They searched the land from the wilderness of Zin to Rehob. Ascending by the south, they came unto Hebron, where Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai, the children of Anak were. They next came to the brook of Eshcol, where they cut down a branch with one cluster of grapes, which two of them bare between them upon a staff. Also of the pomegranates and the figs they brought with them and returned from their search. They had been gone forty days, during which time they must have traveled as much as six hundred miles. Rehob lay in the extreme north of Palestine, so that they had gone up and down the entire length of Canaan, a distance of approximately 175 miles. So, they had really marched hard and done their work well.
Coming to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation, the men brought in their report. There were two reports, one submitted by the ten and the other submitted by Caleb and Joshua. The ten address the audience thus, “We came unto the land whither thou sentest us, and surely it floweth with milk and honey; and this is the fruit of it. Nevertheless the people be strong that dwell in the land, and the cities are walled, and very great; and moreover we saw the children of Anak there. The Amalekites dwell in the land of the south; and the Hittites, and the Jebusites, and the Amorites, dwell in the mountains; and the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and by the coast of the Jordan.’’
Having said this, the spokesman of the ten keeps silence. Whether he would speak again depended upon whether the other two had anything to say in addition and if they had what it would be.
The people have now heard. And what they heard greatly agitated them, as is evident from the notice immediately following, “And Caleb stilled the people.” But was the reporter to be blamed for the way his words had affected the people? The men had been instructed to find out all about the land and its people, so that the report that they have just brought in is precisely the kind of report that they were asked to prepare. And what they said about the cities and the inhabitants was undoubtedly true. And the tribes that they said dwelt in that land actually did dwell there. Yet in reporting as they just did these men commit a grievous sin. They went further than to set forth the untarnished facts. Attend to what they said, “surely it (the land) floweth with milk and honey. . . .Nevertheless. . . .Moreover. . . .” If they had completed their reasoning, they would have ended up with saying, “So, what difference does it make, as far as we are concerned, whether the land be good or bad. It can at no time become ours. For the people in it be strong and their cities walled and great, so that any attempt on our part to possess it, would be nothing short of suicidal for our people.’’ Such assuredly was their finished argument which they purposely had refrained from finishing, as they in all likelihood wanted it said that they had remained strictly objective in their reporting. So all they did was to set forth the premise of their reasoning and trusted that the people would know how to complete the argument. Even if they had only told what they had seen, and allowed the people to judge for themselves, they would have done wrong. For as rulers their duty was to encourage the people. Rut instead, they discourage them, through their conveying very decided opinions without really expressing any.
As to the people, they were quick to sense the import of that nevertheless and moreover and eager to follow the argument to the end. For the men had spoken according to their hearts. There was complete understanding between them and these heads. All were agreed that the tribes inhabiting the promised land could never be dispossessed. Yet this man Moses and a few others insisted that they could. They ought to know better. So, it is certain, the people had now begun to reason among themselves. The ten men had thus accomplished their purpose. Their words had taken effect. For they were heads among the people and their words had weight.
Two of the few in the camp who believed that God would give victory, were Caleb and Joshua, also of the number who had searched the land. The people had crowded around Moses and were letting him know how they felt and what they thought. The undertaking could never succeed. They were certain of it. And the longer Moses held out against them, maintaining the contrary, the more excited they became. Caleb now spoke up in the attempt to still “the people before Moses”. The substance of what he said is recorded, “Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.” The notice, “And Caleb stilled the people before Moses,” may mean that the people were attending to what he was saying and that thus his words were taking effect. At least, so it must have seemed to the other spies. For interrupting Caleb, they say with considerable vehemence, it must be imagined, “We be not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.” Had they, the first time they spoke, minced words, expressed themselves guardedly, in a kind of veiled speech, on account of their reluctance to being held responsible for the reactions of the people, they now cast off all restraint, and say just what they think. So determined are they to have their way with the people, that they now bring up “a slander upon the land,” that is, say things about Canaan that are not true, “And they brought an evil report upon the land which they had searched unto the children of Israel, saying, The land, through which we have gone to search it, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof.” This is a strange expression. It is doubtful whether it had definite meaning for the people. But it is an evil-sounding statement and therefore suited the purpose of these men, which was to stir up resentment against the land of promise. What they declare must be equivalent to saying that the inhabitants wore themselves out wrestling a living from the soil of their land. The ten men went on to say, “And all the people we saw in it are men of great stature. And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.” They allow the people to imagine just how great the stature of these sons were. The question is asked whether the sons of Anak, of which, according to the sacred narrator, there were three (verse 22 of chapter 13), are to be thought of as persons or as clans. “The most natural understanding of the Bible statements is to the effect that they were personal leaders among the Anakin at Hebron.” The statement about the grasshoppers was not, of course, meant to be taken literally. The comparison served to create the impression that the inhabitants of Canaan and in particular the giants were men of enormous stature and strength so that the Israelites were no match for them.
Having had their say, the ten spies are silent. The people may now publicly voice their opposition to making war on the Canaanites, without anyone in the camp being able to justly accuse them of cowardice. So they must have reasoned. For the venture has been exposed as foolhardy in the extreme. This will now have to be admitted by all. So, as emboldened by the report of the ten spies, the people burst out into loud crying. They weep all night and intersperse their sobs with the saying, “Would God that we had died in the land of Egypt! or, would God that we had died in this wilderness. And wherefore hath the Lord brought us into this land, to fall by the sword, that our wives and our children should be a prey? Were it not better for us to return unto Egypt?” So do they demonstrate their feelings in the hearing of Moses and Aaron. To one another they say, “Let us make a captain and return unto Egypt.” What then would they do with Moses? In all likelihood there was born in their soul the resolve to kill him. That there is murder in their hearts is evident from this that presently they goad on those standing nearest to the faithful four to stone them with stones.
Why do the people react as they do? Because they are so afraid of the Canaanites? This is not the only reason. It need not be denied that the people are afraid. However, it is to be observed that when they are told that for punishment they will have to live out their lives in the wilderness, they say, “Lo, we be here, and will go up unto the place which the Lord hath promised.” Moses warns them that the undertaking will not prosper. But they will not listen. So, rising up early in the morning they get them up to the top of the mountain with a view to joining battle with the Amalekites and the Canaanites, who dwell in the valley, with the result that they are discomfited “even unto Horrnah.” These are now the people who were so afraid! What are we to make of their fright? It may have been great. But it was not great enough to deter them in their determination to render void, through warfare, mark you, the resolution of God to the effect that their carcasses fall in the desert. Such masters are they of their fright that they can break its hold on them at will and seemingly with little effort. Amazing! It shows that the vile fountain of their tears was not a natural dread of a proposed conflict. There is such a natural dread, fright, terror. Christ knew it, when His hour had come. But in His dread of His approaching suffering, He blasphemed not, as did those Jews, but glorified God through His prayer that God’s will be done. Such natural dread, fright, by itself sinless, causes the man who has faith to press ever closer to the side of God. What caused those Jews to carry on as they did was carnal fear. Now the ingredients of this fear are: unbelief, hatred of God, malice, carnal anger, willing ignorance. Those Jews had no faith. They were devoid of love of God. To express this positively is to say that they hated Him. Hence their speech was hard. Through His continuing to drop His goodnesses before their feet on the way, God had lured them on and on until He finally had them in His trap, on the edge of Canaan, where the grand slaughter was to take place. This is their accusation. Such a speech can have but one fountain—carnal hatred, malice. They make God out for a lying deity. The Lord had said to them by the mouth of Moses, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt. . . . and I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey. . . .” So had the Lord spoken. But according to those weeping Israelites, God had not meant a word of it. In His giving them this promise, He was simply baiting them,—He, Jehovah. He had delivered them by His outstretched arm, and taken them to His bosom at Mount Sinai. He was daily appeasing their hunger with manna from heaven and quenching their thirst with water from the rock. But they now saw His real motive behind all these doings. Did the people actually believe what they said about God? Assuredly not. What brought this hard speech upon their tongue was their carnal wrath. They were angry with God because He willed that they possess Canaan through conflict. What they had wanted the Lord to do is to extirpate by Himself the tribes dwelling in Canaan, and thus allow them to take possession of the land without any struggle on their part. And now they set their mouth against heaven and taunted God, because He wouldn’t do as they wanted.
The people also deplored the fact that they had not died a natural death in Egypt or a like death in the wilderness in that such a death, so they said, was preferable to their falling—they and their wives and their children—by the sword of the Canaanites. But how could they have been sincere in deploring this fact? They could not. For their lives in Egypt had been a living death, and, what is more, they did not actually believe in their hearts that the Lord was intending to slay them by the sword of the Canaanites. The proof of this is that, in defiance of the Lord’s command and in spite of Moses’ warning, they go forth to make war on the Canaanites that dwelt in the valley. All that they really wanted is to be freed from the necessity of this strife, not because they actually believed in their hearts that they were to perish in it, but because, being devoid of true faith and thus of love of God, they were unwilling to cooperate with God in cleansing the land of the depraved races of men by whom this land was being corrupted. These races had now to be dispossessed. The people preferred to have the Lord attend to that alone. Because the Lord willed otherwise, they were furious. All their unholy commotion was, in the final instance, representative of an attempt on their part to induce the Lord to give them their way. But they went too far. In their carnal rage they said, in the Lord’s ears, what they really did not mean namely, that they preferred to die in the wilderness. The Lord took them at their word. Said he, “As truly as I live, as ye have spoken in mine ears, so will I do to you, your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness.” By this word, they were brought to their senses. They now said, “We have sinned. If God insists that we fight our way into Canaan, well and good. Here we be.” But they learn to their great sorrow that their finally resolving to do as God willed, was unavailing. Their carcasses shall and do fall in the wilderness.
Such then was the hard speech of the people. Such their ungratefulness, their hypocracy, their unbelief, their anger and wrath.