13 But Moses said to the Lord, “Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for you brought up this people in your might from among them, 14 and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, O Lord, are in the midst of this people. For you, O Lord, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go before them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. 15 Now if you kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard your fame will say, 16 ‘It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land that he swore to give to them that he has killed them in the wilderness.’ 17 And now, please let the power of the Lord be great as you have promised, saying, 18 ‘The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’ 19 Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now.”
20 Then the Lord said, “I have pardoned, according to your word. 21 But truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord, 22 none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, 23 shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it. 24 But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me fully, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it. 25 Now, since the Amalekites and the Canaanites dwell in the valleys, turn tomorrow and set out for the wilderness by the way to the Red Sea.” – Numbers 14:13-25 ESV
God was angry. He had deemed the ungrateful and disobedient response of the people to His leadership as unacceptable and worthy of judgment.
“How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.” – Numbers 14:11-12 ESV
But this was not the first time that God had grown impatient with His chosen people. When they had been camped at the base of Mount Sinai, He had reached a similar conclusion because of their blatant display of rebellion. While Moses had been on the mountaintop receiving the Ten Commandments from God, the people had decided to fashion and worship a golden calf. To make matters worse, the Israelites were crediting their new idol with their recent deliverance from Egypt. So, God told Moses:
“I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you.” – Exodus 32:9-10 ESV
In both cases, God declared His intent to destroy the people of Israel and start from scratch. But notice that in neither scenario would His destruction have included Moses and his family. God was willing to spare His chosen leader and start the process of building a great nation all over again. He had started the original plan with Abraham, and there was nothing to prevent Him from doing so with Moses. Except for Moses.
On both occasions, one person stood in the way of God carrying out His plan to completely destroy His rebellious people. Moses intervened. He interceded on behalf of his fellow Israelites. Despite the fact that these very same people had repeatedly questioned his leadership and had even attempted to replace him, he boldly defended them. In Exodus, we read that “Moses implored the Lord his God…” (Exodus 32:11 ESV). And in Numbers, it states that “Moses said to the Lord…” (Numbers 14:13 ESV).
This beleaguered and often discredited man stood by his fellow Israelites and begged God to consider the impact His destruction would have on His reputation. At Sinai, Moses had raised the prospect of the Egyptians gloating over the annihilation of the Jewish people by their own God.
“Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them out, to kill them in the mountains and to consume them from the face of the earth’?” – Exodus 32:12 ESV
Moses appealed to God’s sense of honor and reminded Him of the covenant commitment He had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
“Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your offspring, and they shall inherit it forever.’” – Exodus 32:13 ESV
As a result, “the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people” (Exodus 32:14 ESV).
In the wilderness of Paran, Moses employed a similar tactic with God, arguing that news of His destruction of the people would get back to the Egyptians and they would spread rumors among the Canaanites about His unfaithfulness.
“Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for you brought up this people in your might from among them, and they will tell the inhabitants of this land…” – Numbers 14:13-14 ESV
Moses reminded God that the nations that occupied Canaan had already heard of His presence among the people of Israel.
“They have heard that you, O Lord, are in the midst of this people. For you, O Lord, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go before them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night.” – Numbers 14:14 ESV
News of Israel’s deliverance from Egypt had already reached Canaan. They had heard about God’s power and the devastating plagues He had poured out on the Egyptians. Rumors concerning this massive host of people traveling through the wilderness had made their way to the Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites. Reports of Israel’s God going before them in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night had reached their ears and left them shaking in terror.
But Moses warns God that if He follows through with His plan to wipe out the Israelites, it could do irreparable damage to His reputation among the Canaanites. They will go from fearing Him to feeling sorry for Him.
“Now if you kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard your fame will say, ‘It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land that he swore to give to them that he has killed them in the wilderness.’” – Numbers 14:15-16 ESV
So, Moses appeals to God’s love, patience, and faithfulness.
“The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.” – Numbers 14:18 ESV
Moses was not denying the guilt of the people; he was simply calling on God to only punish those who were responsible for the rebellion. He pleaded with God to “pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love” (Numbers 14:19 ESV). From Moses’ perspective, the people had been misled and negatively influenced by the report of the ten spies. These men had coerced the people into rejecting God’s command to enter the land of Canaan. Moses believed the spies were deserving of God’s judgment but the people deserved God’s forgiveness. And God agreed. He pardoned the people but declared His intent to punish the ten spies.
“…none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it.” – Numbers 14:22-23 ESV
But what Moses failed to understand was the deep-rooted rebellion among that generation of Israelites. The problem was greater than Moses realized. And while God was willing to pardon the nation as a whole, He would not forgive those who had questioned His integrity and rejected His command to enter the land. The ten spies would suffer immediate death as a result of a God-ordained plague (Numbers 14:36-38). But the rest of that generation would be spared. Yet, as the following verses reveal, they would ultimately die of natural causes in the wilderness (Numbers 14:32-33).
They had listened to the report of the spies and refused to obey God’s command to enter the land of promise. In doing so, they were denying God’s power to give them victory over their enemies. They were discrediting God’s promises, inferring that He was incapable of doing what He had said He would do. And they were displaying their ingratitude for all that He had done on their behalf. God would remain faithful. He would continue to display His steadfast love and extend His grace and mercy. But that generation would pay dearly for their refusal to do His will. He had wanted to bless them but they had forfeited that right through their stubborn disobedience.
God would not destroy them, but they would never set foot in Canaan. They had been delivered by God but would never experience the joy of entering into His rest.
“…when your fathers put me to the test
and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
For forty years I loathed that generation
and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart,
and they have not known my ways.”
Therefore I swore in my wrath,
“They shall not enter my rest.” – Psalm 90:9-11 ESV
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.