High drama in Numbers, chapters 13 and 14. After an arduous journey through the Sinai desert, the Israelites, having been slaves in Egypt just weeks earlier, arrive at the brink of the Promised Land. Moses sends a dozen spies – which sounds a little bit sneaky and exotic. The word latur means something like explorers, surveyors, scouts. A little reconnaissance.
They return with a unanimous, enthusiastic report. “It is indeed a land flowing with milk and honey” (reminding me of Muhammad Ali’s funny remark, that in heaven he didn’t want milk and honey, but steaks). And they had hacked off a massive cluster of grapes as a sample of the bounty of the land. But – but! – then they added what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls “one of the most famous buts in Jewish history.” “But the people who live there are powerful, and their cities are fortified.” The next day they begin organizing to go back to Egypt (14:4).
God had delivered them from bondage to the mightiest pharaoh in history. Now they are about to walk into the middling land of Canaan, without a mighty emperor or regiments to defend the place. But they are scared. We might fault them. But you have to recall the way identities get crushed over the years. Sacks alludes to The Shawshank Redemption, in which Brooks Hatlen finally gets out of jail after 49 years. Out in the free world, everything frightens him, and he commits suicide.
Fascinating to ponder the way the scouts described the problem: “We were in our eyes like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes” (13:33). The second half of that is totally made up. They have no way of knowing how the Canaanites they happened to bump into viewed them. They project their inadequacies onto others! Te first half of that: it’s not “We were like grasshoppers,” which might indicate our average height is only 4’10”, while those guys average 5’7”. No, it’s “We were in our eyes like grasshoppers.” How do we view ourselves? How small are you?
The citizens of Jericho were not giants. They probably were as fearful of the Israelites as the Israelites were of them. After all, they had build big walls – which is what you do when you are afraid. Why were the spies afraid – beyond having been demeaned slaves all their lives? Crushed people: it takes generations, not minutes to change.
Sacks notes that Moses chose the “heads of the people” to go, reminding us how leaders often are risk-averse, they have the reputations to guard, they can’t be seen to fail. He also suggests that “the spies were not afraid of failure, they were afraid of success.” They had lived so close to God in the wilderness, picking up manna from heaven every day, led by the fire at night, no neighbors or enemies to deal with. Once they entered the land, they would have to set up a government, cope with different people, and farm their own food. Interesting.
Of course, there was a minority report – demonstrating yet again that a church that uses Robert’s Rules of Order and decides by majority vote isn’t likely to hear God well. Joshua and Caleb say “We are well able to take the land, for the Lord is with us.” But no one can hear them. How do we listen to minority voices who have faith in God, who trust that the radical change God has in store is doable and must happen? The challenges were real. But as Sacks summarizes things, “Faith is the courage to see the world precisely as it is while refusing to be intimidated by it.”
I suspect this story speaks into our world in powerful ways this day.← See All