Don’t Mess With Jehovah

1 Then the people of Israel set out and camped in the plains of Moab beyond the Jordan at Jericho. And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. And Moab was in great dread of the people, because they were many. Moab was overcome with fear of the people of Israel. And Moab said to the elders of Midian, “This horde will now lick up all that is around us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field.” So Balak the son of Zippor, who was king of Moab at that time, sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor at Pethor, which is near the River in the land of the people of Amaw, to call him, saying, “Behold, a people has come out of Egypt. They cover the face of the earth, and they are dwelling opposite me. Come now, curse this people for me, since they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.”

So the elders of Moab and the elders of Midian departed with the fees for divination in their hand. And they came to Balaam and gave him Balak’s message. And he said to them, “Lodge here tonight, and I will bring back word to you, as the Lord speaks to me.” So the princes of Moab stayed with Balaam. And God came to Balaam and said, “Who are these men with you?” 10 And Balaam said to God, “Balak the son of Zippor, king of Moab, has sent to me, saying, 11 ‘Behold, a people has come out of Egypt, and it covers the face of the earth. Now come, curse them for me. Perhaps I shall be able to fight against them and drive them out.’” 12 God said to Balaam, “You shall not go with them. You shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.” 13 So Balaam rose in the morning and said to the princes of Balak, “Go to your own land, for the Lord has refused to let me go with you.” 14 So the princes of Moab rose and went to Balak and said, “Balaam refuses to come with us.”

15 Once again Balak sent princes, more in number and more honorable than these. 16 And they came to Balaam and said to him, “Thus says Balak the son of Zippor: ‘Let nothing hinder you from coming to me, 17 for I will surely do you great honor, and whatever you say to me I will do. Come, curse this people for me.’” 18 But Balaam answered and said to the servants of Balak, “Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the Lord my God to do less or more. 19 So you, too, please stay here tonight, that I may know what more the Lord will say to me.” 20 And God came to Balaam at night and said to him, “If the men have come to call you, rise, go with them; but only do what I tell you.” 21 So Balaam rose in the morning and saddled his donkey and went with the princes of Moab. Numbers 22:1-21 ESV

God was leading the people of Israel ever closer to the borders of Canaan. The day was drawing nearer when they would be expected to cross over the Jordan River and begin their conquest of the land promised to them by God as their rightful inheritance. And all the battles in which they had recently been engaged had been meant to prepare them for the confrontations they would face in the conquest of their new homeland. While God had designated Canaan as their future home, it would not come without a fight or apart from faith in the power and providence of God.

News of the Israelites’ recent victory over the Amorites had begun to spread and the surrounding nations began to grow wary of this new kid on the block. The reputation of the Israelites had begun to change. They were no longer viewed as just a large but seemingly harmless group of former slaves and sheep herders. They had proved themselves to be a formidable fighting force that could easily overwhelm the small nation-states that occupied Canaan and the surrounding lands. With their conquest of the Amorites, the Israelites had become a real and present danger.

The Jordan River formed the eastern border of the land of Canaan, so when the Israelites set up camp on the plains of Moab, they were within “spitting distance” of the promised land. But news of their arrival soon reached the ears of Balak, the king of Moab, and he was not pleased.

Balak son of Zippor, the Moabite king, had seen everything the Israelites did to the Amorites. And when the people of Moab saw how many Israelites there were, they were terrified. The king of Moab said to the elders of Midian, “This mob will devour everything in sight, like an ox devours grass in the field!” – Numbers 22:2-4 NLT

The Israelites had descended upon Moab like a plague of locusts and Balak feared the worst. He realized that a group this large would need a source of food and envisioned them plundering the surrounding farms, orchards, and vineyards in order to fill their stomachs. Motivated by his growing sense of dread, Balak reached out to the elder of nearby Midian in an attempt to form an alliance against their newfound enemy.

When the Israelites had first appeared within the borders of Moab, the Moabites had extended a degree of tolerance, accepting payment in return for food and water. They probably assumed the Israelites would move on to greener pastures. But when Balak heard that the Israelites had set up camp on the plains, he became more than a bit concerned about the long-term implications of this latest report.

Unwilling to take on the Israelites in a head-to-head battle, he came up with a less risky plan. He sent for a diviner named Balaam. This man was some sort of pagan magician or soothsayer, and he had a reputation for being able to issue curses. This led Balak to send emissaries to Balaam with the following message:

“Please come and curse these people for me because they are too powerful for me. Then perhaps I will be able to conquer them and drive them from the land. I know that blessings fall on any people you bless, and curses fall on people you curse.” – Numbers 22:6 NLT

Nowhere in the text does it indicate that Balaam was a worshiper of Yahweh, the God of the Israelites. But he was believed to have supernatural abilities that allowed him to pronounce blessings and curses at will. And Balak wanted this powerful “wizard” to work his magic and call down a curse on the host of Israelites camping on his doorstep.

Balak is not specific regarding the nature of the curse he has in mind, but it seems that he was hoping for some kind of spell that might weaken the Israelite forces and make their defeat easier. In a sense, he was looking for a miracle. And he was willing to pay for it. No doubt, Balak believed that Balaam would invoke the assistance of some kind of deity or supernatural power. He seemed to understand that the defeat of the Israelites would require divine intervention.

When the envoys delivered the money and Balak’s message to Balaam, this so-called diviner agreed to consider the king’s proposition. But first, he asked for time to consult “the Lord” (Numbers 22:8 ESV). What’s interesting about this statement, is that Balaam used the proper name of Israel’s God – יְהֹוָה (Yᵊhōvâ). This doesn’t mean that Balaam was a worshiper of Jehovah, but may simply indicate that he knew the name of Israel’s God and was going to begin by seeking that deity’s permission to issue the curse. Rather than pit one god against another, Balaam was going to attempt to turn Israel’s God against them. But Balaam never got a chance to solicit an opinion from Jehovah because God came calling on him.

That night God came to Balaam and asked him, “Who are these men visiting you?” – Numbers 22:9 NLT

God was already aware of the situation but He went ahead and asked Balaam to summarize what was going on, beginning with the identity and mission of the visitors. This nocturnal encounter must have caught Balaam by surprise. There’s even a question of whether Balaam had ever intended to seek a word from Jehovah. It seems much more likely that Balaam would have returned to the messengers with some story he had concocted overnight. But instead, God showed up and provided this self-proclaimed prophet with a message meant solely for him.

“Do not go with them. You are not to curse these people, for they have been blessed!” – Numbers 22:12 NLT

Balaam was to show these men the door. And God made it crystal clear that the last thing Balaam should consider doing was to issue a curse on the people of Israel. It’s not that God feared Balaam’s curse, but that Balaam needed to know that Israel was under God’s blessing. It was Balaam who needed to be afraid because God had promised to curse anyone who treated Abraham’s descendants with contempt.

I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” – Genesis 12:3 NLT

Even a fake curse would be met with God’s vengeance. If Balaam had decided to make a quick buck by going with the men and pronouncing a curse on the Israelites, he would have come to regret it. And Balaam didn’t take this word from Jehovah lightly. He may have been a false prophet but he recognized a real prophecy when He heard one. So, the next morning, he delivered to Balak’s messengers some disappointing news.

“Go on home! The Lord will not let me go with you.” – Numbers 22:13 NLT

But when the envoys returned with the bad news, Balak refused to accept. Desperate for divine help, he sent an even larger contingent of dignitaries to persuade Balaam and they were armed with an even greater offer of reward. Yet, Balaam remained adamant and refused to accept their bribe.

“Even if Balak were to give me his palace filled with silver and gold, I would be powerless to do anything against the will of the Lord my God. But stay here one more night, and I will see if the Lord has anything else to say to me.” – Numbers 22:18-19 NLT

At this point, it appears as if Balaam has had a “come-to-Jesus-moment.” He now refers to Jehovah as “my God.” Something has happened. This pagan prognosticator has suddenly realized that Jehovah is the one true God. Unlike all the other times Balaam had sought divine help, this time he had gotten an actual answer. Jehovah, the God of Israel had spoken, and Balaam was not about to risk angering an actual, bonified deity.

As before, Balaam invites the men to spend the night and agrees to seek additional insight from Jehovah. And during the night, God spoke to Balaam again.

That night God came to Balaam and told him, “Since these men have come for you, get up and go with them. But do only what I tell you to do.” – Numbers 22:20 NLT

And having heard from the Lord, Balaam did just as he was told.

the next morning Balaam got up, saddled his donkey, and started off with the Moabite officials. – Numbers 22:21 NLT

Yet, as the next verse will point out, “God was angry that Balaam was going…” (Numbers 22:22 NLT). This pseudo-prophet was about to learn a painful lesson on the sovereignty and omniscience of Jehovah. The God of the Israelites was not some figment of man’s imagination but the all-powerful, all-knowing God of the universe. He had seen into Balaam’s heart and knew exactly what this pride-filled and profit-hungry man was thinking. Balaam was still hoping to cash in on this opportunity and was already formulating a plan to give Balak what he wanted while lining his own pockets.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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.

Boot Camp for the Coming Battle

21 Then Israel sent messengers to Sihon king of the Amorites, saying, 22 “Let me pass through your land. We will not turn aside into field or vineyard. We will not drink the water of a well. We will go by the King’s Highway until we have passed through your territory.” 23 But Sihon would not allow Israel to pass through his territory. He gathered all his people together and went out against Israel to the wilderness and came to Jahaz and fought against Israel. 24 And Israel defeated him with the edge of the sword and took possession of his land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, as far as to the Ammonites, for the border of the Ammonites was strong. 25 And Israel took all these cities, and Israel settled in all the cities of the Amorites, in Heshbon, and in all its villages. 26 For Heshbon was the city of Sihon the king of the Amorites, who had fought against the former king of Moab and taken all his land out of his hand, as far as the Arnon. 27 Therefore the ballad singers say,

“Come to Heshbon, let it be built;
    let the city of Sihon be established.
28 For fire came out from Heshbon,
    flame from the city of Sihon.
It devoured Ar of Moab,
    and swallowed[f] the heights of the Arnon.
29 Woe to you, O Moab!
    You are undone, O people of Chemosh!
He has made his sons fugitives,
    and his daughters captives,
    to an Amorite king, Sihon.
30 So we overthrew them;
    Heshbon, as far as Dibon, perished;
    and we laid waste as far as Nophah;
    fire spread as far as Medeba.”

31 Thus Israel lived in the land of the Amorites. 32 And Moses sent to spy out Jazer, and they captured its villages and dispossessed the Amorites who were there. 33 Then they turned and went up by the way to Bashan. And Og the king of Bashan came out against them, he and all his people, to battle at Edrei. 34 But the Lord said to Moses, “Do not fear him, for I have given him into your hand, and all his people, and his land. And you shall do to him as you did to Sihon king of the Amorites, who lived at Heshbon.” 35 So they defeated him and his sons and all his people, until he had no survivor left. And they possessed his land. Numbers 21:21-35 ESV

This is the Numbers’ version of the story of Israel’s unfortunate confrontation with the Sihon, the king of the Amorites. It’s also recorded in Deuteronomy 2, but in this rendition, Moses reveals that “Israel settled in all the cities of the Amorites, in Heshbon, and in all its villages” (Numbers 21:25 ESV). Not only did they conquer the Amorites, but they confiscated their cities and villages and moved into them. For the first time since leaving Egypt 39 years earlier, the Israelites found themselves living in real houses and enjoying all the amenities of a semi-settled existence.

On this occasion, they refused to walk away from a fight as they had in Edom because the territory of the Amorites provided the only access point to the land of promise. The Amorites were attempting to block the Israelites’ way to their inheritance. And while Moses tried to reason with Sihon, he soon discovered that brute force would be the only negotiating tool that got the king’s attention.

God provided the Israelites with a decisive victory over the Amorites, and Moses makes it clear that the land Israel conquered and confiscated had originally belonged to the Moabites. This is significant because, according to Deuteronomy 2, God had commanded the Israelites to avoid any conflict with the Moabites and had forbidden them from attempting to occupy any of their land. The territory of the Moabites was off-limits and under a divine ban.

“Do not bother the Moabites, the descendants of Lot, or start a war with them. I have given them Ar as their property, and I will not give you any of their land.” – Deuteronomy 2:9 NLT

But it appears that God provided Moses with a special dispensation regarding these cities and villages because Sihon had stolen them from the Moabites. These lands had transferred hands and, technically, no longer belonged to the Moabites.

Heshbon had been the capital of King Sihon of the Amorites. He had defeated a former Moabite king and seized all his land as far as the Arnon River. – Numbers 21:26 NLT

This transfer of ownership officially rendered the land open for conquest and occupation. But Moses points out that the Israelites went as far as the border of the Ammonites and no further. This is because the Israelites had been forbidden from taking any land belonging to the Ammonites or Moabites. These two people groups were the descendants of the two sons born to Lot through his incestuous relationship with his own daughters (Genesis 19:34-38).

But God had been explicit when issuing His prohibition about Moabite and Ammonite land.

“Do not bother the Moabites, the descendants of Lot, or start a war with them. I have given them Ar as their property, and I will not give you any of their land.” – Deuteronomy 2:9 NLT

“Today you will cross the border of Moab at Ar and enter the land of the Ammonites, the descendants of Lot. But do not bother them or start a war with them. I have given the land of Ammon to them as their property, and I will not give you any of their land.” – Deuteronomy 19:18-19 NLT

The land occupied by the Moabites and Ammonites was not part of the inheritance God had promised to Abraham. So, there was really no need for Israel to get comfortable on this side of the river. Their land lay to the west and would be theirs soon enough.

But for the time being, God allowed them to live in the cities and villages they had taken from the Amorites. And Moses relates the lyrics of a so-called “Song of Heshbon,” a ballad that had been composed by the Amorites commemorating Sihon’s defeat of the Moabites.

“Come to Heshbon and let it be rebuilt!
    Let the city of Sihon be restored.
A fire flamed forth from Heshbon,
    a blaze from the city of Sihon.
It burned the city of Ar in Moab;
    it destroyed the rulers of the Arnon heights.
What sorrow awaits you, O people of Moab!
    You are finished, O worshipers of Chemosh!
Chemosh has left his sons as refugees,
    his daughters as captives of Sihon, the Amorite king.
We have utterly destroyed them,
    from Heshbon to Dibon.
We have completely wiped them out
    as far away as Nophah and Medeba.” – Numbers 21:27-29 NLT

This little ditty provided justification for Israel’s occupation of the former Moabite cities because they had originally been stolen and occupied by the Amorites. So, technically, Israel had not violated God’s decree.

Notice that Moses is very specific with his wording.

Thus Israel lived in the land of the Amorites.” – Numbers 21:31 ESV

And God allowed Israel to continue their conquest of additional Amorite-occupied land. He also provided them with decisive victories over the kingdom of Bashan.

“So the Lord our God handed King Og and all his people over to us, and we killed them all. Not a single person survived. We conquered all sixty of his towns—the entire Argob region in his kingdom of Bashan. Not a single town escaped our conquest. These towns were all fortified with high walls and barred gates. We also took many unwalled villages at the same time. We completely destroyed the kingdom of Bashan, just as we had destroyed King Sihon of Heshbon. We destroyed all the people in every town we conquered—men, women, and children alike. But we kept all the livestock for ourselves and took plunder from all the towns. – Deuteronomy 3:3-7 NLT

Israel’s wandering days were over. And with these battles, God was giving them on-the-job training, preparing them for the day when they crossed over the Jordan River and began their conquest of the land of Canaan. These victories on the east side of the Jordan were less about land acquisition than they were about providing the Israelites with much-needed military experience. They were learning how to conduct urban warfare. They were developing tactical strategies and honing their skills as warriors. And their access to well-fortified cities provided them with protection from their growing list of enemies. Until God gave them their marching orders to cross the Jordan, they would live on the east side and fine-tune their fighting skills.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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.

Growing Confidence

10 And the people of Israel set out and camped in Oboth. 11 And they set out from Oboth and camped at Iye-abarim, in the wilderness that is opposite Moab, toward the sunrise. 12 From there they set out and camped in the Valley of Zered. 13 From there they set out and camped on the other side of the Arnon, which is in the wilderness that extends from the border of the Amorites, for the Arnon is the border of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites. 14 Therefore it is said in the Book of the Wars of the Lord,

“Waheb in Suphah, and the valleys of the Arnon,
15 and the slope of the valleys
that extends to the seat of Ar,
and leans to the border of Moab.”

16 And from there they continued to Beer; that is the well of which the Lord said to Moses, “Gather the people together, so that I may give them water.” 17 Then Israel sang this song:

“Spring up, O well!—Sing to it!—
18 the well that the princes made,
that the nobles of the people dug,
with the scepter and with their staffs.”

And from the wilderness they went on to Mattanah, 19 and from Mattanah to Nahaliel, and from Nahaliel to Bamoth, 20 and from Bamoth to the valley lying in the region of Moab by the top of Pisgah that looks down on the desert. Numbers 21:10-20 ESV

Having been denied safe passage through the land of Edom, the Israelites had attempted to make their way through the Negev. But their efforts were hampered by the Canaanites who occupied that territory. So, they reversed their steps and headed east around the borders of Edom and on to the western borders of Moab. This would have been a long and circuitous journey that left the Israelites frustrated by their slow progress. It was an unexpected and unwelcome detour that required the people of God to extend their time in the wilderness. But there was a reason for this delay. God was waiting for the last of the rebellious generous that had refused to enter Canaan the first time to die off. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses recalls the nearly 40-year death march the Israelites were forced to make because of their disobedience to God’s command.

“Thirty-eight years passed from the time we first left Kadesh-barnea until we finally crossed the Zered Brook! By then, all the men old enough to fight in battle had died in the wilderness, as the Lord had vowed would happen. The Lord struck them down until they had all been eliminated from the community.” – Deuteronomy 2:14-15 NLT

And as that earlier generation slowly died off, the time was growing closer when the next crop of Israelites would face the decision to obey God and enter the land of Canaan. But as they drew closer to Canaan’s border, God warned the people to give the people of Moab a wide berth.

“Do not bother the Moabites, the descendants of Lot, or start a war with them. I have given them Ar as their property, and I will not give you any of their land.” – Deuteronomy 2:9 NLT

When the very last member of the earlier generation died, the Israelites were given permission to cross the border of Moab and enter the land of Ammon,

“Today you will cross the border of Moab at Ar and enter the land of the Ammonites, the descendants of Lot. But do not bother them or start a war with them. I have given the land of Ammon to them as their property, and I will not give you any of their land.’” – Deuteronomy 2:18-19 NLT

As before, the Israelites were to refrain from taking any land from the Ammonites. These people were close relatives of the Israelites and God declared their property to be off limits. God had awarded Lot’s descendants this land and the Israelites had no claim to it.

But the day came when God ordered the Israelites to begin their conquest of the land of Canaan. The older generation was gone and, after a nearly 40-year delay, it was time for God’s people to obey His command and enter the land of promise.

“Then the Lord said, ‘Now get moving! Cross the Arnon Gorge. Look, I will hand over to you Sihon the Amorite, king of Heshbon, and I will give you his land. Attack him and begin to occupy the land. Beginning today I will make people throughout the earth terrified because of you. When they hear reports about you, they will tremble with dread and fear.’” – Deuteronomy 2:24-25 NLT

Moses attempted to negotiate a treaty with Sihon, the king of the Amorites, but he was not interested in peace talks. That’s when God informed Moses to drop the peace overtures and have the people pick up their weapons.

“Look, I have begun to hand King Sihon and his land over to you. Begin now to conquer and occupy his land.” – Deuteronomy 2:31 NLT

And the victory was overwhelming. Moses indicates that “the Lord our God handed him over to us, and we crushed him, his sons, and all his people.  We conquered all his towns and completely destroyed everyone—men, women, and children. Not a single person was spared” (Deuteronomy 2:33-34 NLT).

Moses refers to “the Book of the Wars of the Lord” (Numbers 21:14 ESV. This was a record of Israel’s victories in the form of songs. The people were just beginning to witness the overwhelming power of God on their behalf. This victory over the Amorites was to be the first of many and it was intended to promote a sense of hope and confidence among the people of God.

After their defeat of the Amorites, the Israelites continued on to Beer, where God quenched the thirst of the people with refreshing water. And the people responded in grateful song.

“Spring up, O well!
    Yes, sing its praises!
Sing of this well,
    which princes dug,
which great leaders hollowed out
    with their scepters and staffs.” – Numbers 21:17-18 NLT

Israel was experiencing a sense of renewed confidence as they witnessed firsthand the power and providence of God. He was graciously preparing them for the days ahead and helping them to understand that anything was possible when they placed their faith in Him.

But while they were getting closer to the land of Canaan, they were not quite ready to take on the challenged that lie across the border. So, God continue to prepare them for the difficult days ahead.

Their enthusiasm, while admirable, would not be enough to bring victory against the nations living in Canaan. What the Israelites really needed was increased confidence in the power of God. Ultimately, the conquest of the land would be up to Him. They were going to need to learn to trust Him implicitly. Cockiness was not an acceptable substitute for confidence in God.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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.

Faith Is the Victory

1 When the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who lived in the Negeb, heard that Israel was coming by the way of Atharim, he fought against Israel, and took some of them captive. And Israel vowed a vow to the Lord and said, “If you will indeed give this people into my hand, then I will devote their cities to destruction.” And the Lord heeded the voice of Israel and gave over the Canaanites, and they devoted them and their cities to destruction. So the name of the place was called Hormah.

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food.” Then the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many people of Israel died. And the people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against the Lord and against you. Pray to the Lord, that he take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. Numbers 21:1-9 ESV

One of the things the Israelites seemed to quickly forget was that their presence in the wilderness was their own fault. God had led them from Egypt to the edge of the land of promise 40 years earlier, but they had decided that entrance into the land was way too risky. The 12 spies they had in to reconnoiter the land had returned with a conflicting report concerning conditions in Canaan.

“We entered the land you sent us to explore, and it is indeed a bountiful country—a land flowing with milk and honey. Here is the kind of fruit it produces. But the people living there are powerful, and their towns are large and fortified. We even saw giants there, the descendants of Anak! – Numbers 13:27-28 ESV

The second half of their report left the Israelites dejected and demoralized. Despite the news that this land was fertile and filled with abundant fruit, the presence of “giants” was too much for the Israelites. And the spies fed their doubts and anxieties by confirming their worst fears.

“We can’t go up against them! They are stronger than we are!” So they spread this bad report about the land among the Israelites: “The land we traveled through and explored will devour anyone who goes to live there. All the people we saw were huge. We even saw giants there, the descendants of Anak. Next to them we felt like grasshoppers, and that’s what they thought, too!” – Numbers 13:31-33 ESV

These rumors succeeded in convincing the Israelites that God’s promise of victory over their enemies was impossible. Rather than enter the land and risk certain death, they decided it would make more sense to return to Egypt. This bit of twisted logic earned them the wrath of God. He made the fateful decision to allow that entire generation to spend the rest of their lives wandering aimlessly in the wilderness until none of them was left. They would not be allowed to enter Canaan or return to Egypt. Instead, they would spend the remaining days of their lives in a kind of existential limbo that lasted four decades.

During that time, both Miriam and Aaron died. Many of their friends and family members succumbed to the effects of old age and illness. And they all discovered that life in the wilderness was no picnic. Their persistent presence near the borders of Canaan had attracted the attention of the land’s occupants. These nations had heard the rumors about this massive host of people who had escaped from Egypt and were headed their way. It is likely that they knew the Israelites to be the descendants of Jacob and were afraid that they would be looking to find a place to live. This was a migrant problem of epic proportions. The thought of two million-plus Israelites invading their borders caused these nations to react with fear and brute force.

The last chapter revealed that the Edomites sent a large army to dissuade the Israelites from attempting to pass through their land. They wanted nothing to do with them. And now, “The Canaanite king of Arad, who lived in the Negev, heard that the Israelites were approaching on the road through Atharim. So he attacked the Israelites and took some of them as prisoners” (Numbers 21:2 NLT). Nothing was going well for the Israelites. As a nation, they were persona non grata. They had no home and were finding the nations outside the borders of Canaan to be just as dangerous as the “giants“ they had refused to confront. Their refusal to enter the land had come with serious repercussions.

Yet, there is one glimmer of hope in this dark period of Israel’s existence. Their self-inflicted troubles caused them to call out to God. When some of their people were captured by the forces of the king of Arad, the Israelites begged God to come to their aid. And what’s interesting to note is that these very same people who had seen the odds in Canaan as insurmountable were suddenly ready to take on all comers. They even made a vow to completely annihilate the opposition if God would come to their aid.

“If you will hand these people over to us, we will completely destroy all their towns.” – Numbers 21:2 NLT

What makes this even more fascinating is that the Israelites had been here before. Thirty-eight years earlier, after having refused to enter the land of Canaan the first time, God had sentenced them to their life of wandering in the wilderness. In response to this death sentence from God, they quickly changed their minds and decided to enter the land after all. But Moses warned them that it was too late.

“Why are you now disobeying the Lord’s orders to return to the wilderness? It won’t work. Do not go up into the land now. You will only be crushed by your enemies because the Lord is not with you. When you face the Amalekites and Canaanites in battle, you will be slaughtered. The Lord will abandon you because you have abandoned the Lord.” – Numbers 14:41-43 NLT

But the people refused to listen, and “defiantly pushed ahead toward the hill country, even though neither Moses nor the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant left the camp” (Numbers 14:44 NLT). The result was a rout. The Israelites were soundly defeated because they attempted to take on their enemies without God’s permission or help.

Now, 38 years later, they decided to seek God’s assistance, and He “heard the Israelites’ request and gave them victory over the Canaanites. The Israelites completely destroyed them and their towns” (Numbers 22:3 NLT). Amazingly, what they had feared was impossible four decades earlier, was actually quite easy when they did it God’s way. Their victory was assured when they chose to seek God’s permission and assistance.

But even after that exhilarating display of God’s power, they quickly reverted to their old habit of complaining about their lot in life. While they had enjoyed a great victory, they were not allowed to occupy the towns they had conquered. Instead, they had to backtrack to Mount Hor and then travel further south and east in order to skirt the borders of Edom. They had gotten a taste of success, but still found themselves cursed to wander through the wilderness. Those conquered cities and villages were not theirs to occupy.

And as the people made the long trek around Edom, the thrill of victory soon gave way to the agony of defeat and despair.

…the people grew impatient with the long journey, and they began to speak against God and Moses. “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die here in the wilderness?” they complained. “There is nothing to eat here and nothing to drink. And we hate this horrible manna!” – Numbers 21:4-5 NLT

The incessant wandering they had brought on themselves soon led to discontentment and dissidence with God’s will. They were not happy with the way things were going and they let Moses know. And God let them have it. He sent a plague of poisonous snakes among them, and soon the bodies of the dead began to pile up. And suddenly, the people were singing a different tune.

“We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take away the snakes.” – Numbers 21:7 NLT

God’s judgment produced a confession. The people repented of their sin and begged Moses to intercede on their behalf and ask God to remove the curse of the snakes. And when Moses sought God, he was given the following instructions.

“Make a replica of a poisonous snake and attach it to a pole. All who are bitten will live if they simply look at it!” – Numbers 21:8 NLT

This rather strange command makes it appear as if God was asking Moses to make an idol. But the serpent on a stick was not meant to be worshiped. It was intended to be a test of their faith.

God did not answer their request to remove the snakes. In fact, He indicated that the snakes would continue to do what He had sent them to do. They would keep inflicting pain, suffering, and death upon the Israelites as punishment for their ingratitude and dishonor of His holiness. What God did was create a rather bizarre plan for receiving deliverance over certain death. When bitten, all the people had to do was look at the serpent on the pole and they would be healed. But that simple glance would require faith.

God did not remove the penalty for their sins. They would still be bitten by the snakes. But now they had a means of receiving life rather than death. The bite of the snake would no longer prove deadly. But the secret to receiving life rather than death was faith – the belief that God could and would heal. And that faith required the one who had been bitten to look their death sentence in the face. They had to turn their eyes to the pole and see their condemnation on public display. And if they refused, they would die.

And the apostle John would later record the words of Jesus where He stated that this entire scene in the wilderness was meant to foreshadow His coming and His substitutionary death on the cross.

…the Son of Man has come down from heaven. And as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life. – John 3:13-15 NLT

When a sinner looks at the cross, he sees the wrath of God poured out on the sins of mankind. Jesus was not the cause of our death but the means of our victory over it. He bore our sins so that we might not have to pay for them with our own lives. And that is exactly what the apostle Paul told the believers in Corinth.

God made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God. – 2 Corinthians 5:21 BSB

And Peter would state the same blessed hope.

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. – 1 Peter 2:24 ESV

And the key to victory over death is faith. One must “believe in Him” to be saved. The Israelites had only to look at the serpent on the pole to be saved from death. And all those under the death sentence that comes as a result of sin need only look at the cross of Christ to receive life everlasting.

It should be noted that this entire scene began with the people complaining about the manna that God had graciously given as a source of life. Their ingratitude was met with God’s judgment. They had refused His offer of the bread of life and faced the sting of death. And the only means of salvation would be faith in His mercy and grace.

“The bread is a picture of Jesus; as the Bread of Heaven he is the proper nourisher of his people. The bronze snake is a picture of Jesus, who became sin for us as he hung on that awful tree. The manna had to be eaten. The snake had to be seen. The commands of Scripture are for doing. The manna was no good if left to rot. The metal snake would not avail if none looked at it. The manna and the snake are twin aspects of the grace of God.” – Ronald B. Allen, “Numbers.” In Genesis—Numbers. Vol. 2 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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.

No Shortcuts to Holiness

14 Moses sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom: “Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the hardship that we have met: 15 how our fathers went down to Egypt, and we lived in Egypt a long time. And the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and our fathers. 16 And when we cried to the Lord, he heard our voice and sent an angel and brought us out of Egypt. And here we are in Kadesh, a city on the edge of your territory. 17 Please let us pass through your land. We will not pass through field or vineyard, or drink water from a well. We will go along the King’s Highway. We will not turn aside to the right hand or to the left until we have passed through your territory.” 18 But Edom said to him, “You shall not pass through, lest I come out with the sword against you.” 19 And the people of Israel said to him, “We will go up by the highway, and if we drink of your water, I and my livestock, then I will pay for it. Let me only pass through on foot, nothing more.” 20 But he said, “You shall not pass through.” And Edom came out against them with a large army and with a strong force. 21 Thus Edom refused to give Israel passage through his territory, so Israel turned away from him.

22 And they journeyed from Kadesh, and the people of Israel, the whole congregation, came to Mount Hor. 23 And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron at Mount Hor, on the border of the land of Edom, 24 “Let Aaron be gathered to his people, for he shall not enter the land that I have given to the people of Israel, because you rebelled against my command at the waters of Meribah. 25 Take Aaron and Eleazar his son and bring them up to Mount Hor. 26 And strip Aaron of his garments and put them on Eleazar his son. And Aaron shall be gathered to his people and shall die there.” 27 Moses did as the Lord commanded. And they went up Mount Hor in the sight of all the congregation. 28 And Moses stripped Aaron of his garments and put them on Eleazar his son. And Aaron died there on the top of the mountain. Then Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain. 29 And when all the congregation saw that Aaron had perished, all the house of Israel wept for Aaron thirty days.  Numbers 20:14-29 ESV

The Israelites were nearing their final destination and as they approached the borders of Canaan, God was cleaning house. Chapter 20 opens with the death of Miriam. But the end of the chapter records the death of her brother, Aaron, the high priest of Israel. He too was disciplined by God for his part in the affair at Meribah. God had accused both Aaron and Moses of treating Him disrespectfully before the people.

“Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” – Numbers 20:12 ESV

While Moses had been the one to strike the rock three times in anger, Aaron had done nothing to stop his brother from disobeying God’s command. God had clearly communicated His orders to both men.

“You and Aaron must take the staff and assemble the entire community. As the people watch, speak to the rock over there, and it will pour out its water. You will provide enough water from the rock to satisfy the whole community and their livestock.” – Numbers 20:8 NLT

But Moses and Aaron were fed up with the constant bickering and complaining of the people. Despite what God had ordered them to do, they were going to use this God-ordained miracle as an opportunity to teach the people a lesson.

Then he and Aaron summoned the people to come and gather at the rock. “Listen, you rebels!” he shouted. “Must we bring you water from this rock?” Then Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with the staff, and water gushed out. So the entire community and their livestock drank their fill. – Numbers 20:10-11 NLT

Moses, speaking on behalf of himself and his brother, tried to leave the impression that they were the ones who would meet the Israelite’s needs by providing water from the rock. In essence, they tried to rob God of glory. Then, by striking the rock rather than speaking to it, Moses violated the command of God. And God would hold both men accountable for their actions.

It was on the southern border of the land of Edom that God delivered the devastating news to Aaron and Moses.

“He will not enter the land I am giving the people of Israel, because the two of you rebelled against my instructions concerning the water at Meribah.” – Numbers 20:24 NLT

In a rather sobering ceremony atop Mount Hor, Moses took the priestly robes off of Aaron and gave them to Aaron’s son, Eleazar. It appears from the text that Aaron did not get to live out the rest of his life wandering in the wilderness, but died on top of the mountain while Moses and Eleazar looked on. They descended the mountain without him and the people of Israel mourned his death for 30 days.

Now Moses was alone. For nearly 40 years he had led the people of Israel with the help of his brother and sister, but their deaths had left him with the sole responsibility of getting the people of Israel to the land of Canaan. But Moses knew that he was never going to set foot in the land because of his role in the affair at Meribah. Like Aaron, he would be denied access to the land of promise and breathe his last breath in the wilderness.

But Moses continued to fulfill the duties God had given to him some four decades earlier. He mourned the loss of his brother but then set about leading the people of Israel to the border of Canaan. To do so, he had attempted to take a shortcut through the land of Edom.

Edom was located on the southernmost border of Canaan and was occupied by distant relatives of the Israelites. The Edomites were the descendants of Esau, the firstborn son of Isaac and the twin brother of Jacob. When Esau had been cheated out of his birthright by Jacob, he decided to relocate his family to another part of Canaan.

Esau took his wives, his children, and his entire household, along with his livestock and cattle—all the wealth he had acquired in the land of Canaan—and moved away from his brother, Jacob. There was not enough land to support them both because of all the livestock and possessions they had acquired. So Esau (also known as Edom) settled in the hill country of Seir. – Genesis 36:6-8 NLT

Once there, Esau’s descendants prospered and developed a thriving kingdom. During the four centuries that the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, the Edomites lived under a long line of kings (Genesis 36:31) and enjoyed a measure of peace and prosperity.

So, when Moses sent emissaries to the king of Edom seeking permission to pass through their territory, he expected a favorable response.

“This is what your relatives, the people of Israel, say: You know all the hardships we have been through. Our ancestors went down to Egypt, and we lived there a long time, and we and our ancestors were brutally mistreated by the Egyptians. But when we cried out to the Lord, he heard us and sent an angel who brought us out of Egypt. Now we are camped at Kadesh, a town on the border of your land. Please let us travel through your land. We will be careful not to go through your fields and vineyards. We won’t even drink water from your wells. We will stay on the king’s road and never leave it until we have passed through your territory.”– Numbers 20:14-17 NLT

The kingdom of Edom covered a large swath of land and without the right of safe passage through its territory, Moses and the people of Israel would be forced to take a much longer route around it. But no matter how hard Moses pleaded, the king of Edom refused to grant access to their land. He even threatened them with war if they tried. He even “mobilized his army and marched out against them with an imposing force” (Numbers 20:20 NLT). 

Rejected by their own kin, the Israelites were forced to reverse course and take the long detour around Edom. What’s interesting to consider is that the Israelites had always been led by the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. God had used these two phenomena to guide His people throughout their four-decade-long journey. So, was Moses’ attempt to go through Edom an unauthorized decision on his part? Had the cloud led him to this point or was the negotiations with Edom something he had come up with on his own? Was Moses trying to shorten the distance to Canaan by taking an unauthorized path through the land of Edom?

It seems unlikely that God would have chosen to use the Edomites to help His chosen people reach the land He had promised to provide for them. These two nations remained in constant conflict with one another long after Israel conquered and occupied the land of Canaan. And the book of Obadiah describes God’s anger against Edom for the way it took advantage of Israel’s later misfortunes when the Babylonians conquered them and left the land desolate and depopulated.

“Because of the violence you did
    to your close relatives in Israel,
you will be filled with shame
    and destroyed forever.
When they were invaded,
    you stood aloof, refusing to help them.
Foreign invaders carried off their wealth
    and cast lots to divide up Jerusalem,
    but you acted like one of Israel’s enemies.

“You should not have gloated
    when they exiled your relatives to distant lands.
You should not have rejoiced
    when the people of Judah suffered such misfortune.
You should not have spoken arrogantly
    in that terrible time of trouble.
You should not have plundered the land of Israel
    when they were suffering such calamity.
You should not have gloated over their destruction
    when they were suffering such calamity.
You should not have seized their wealth
    when they were suffering such calamity.
You should not have stood at the crossroads,
    killing those who tried to escape.
You should not have captured the survivors
    and handed them over in their terrible time of trouble.– Obadiah 10-14 ESV

The Israelites received no assistance from their distant relatives and were forced to travel southeasterly toward the Arabian desert. This unexpected setback must have disappointed Moses and it’s clear from the next chapter that it left the people of Israel far from pleased.

From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. – Numbers 21:4 ESV

God was not done teaching them the lessons they needed to learn. They were not yet ready to enter His rest. So, God continued to purge their leadership and purify their hearts in preparation for the day when He would lead them into their promised inheritance.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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.

No Rest for the Wicked

26 And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, 27 “How long shall this wicked congregation grumble against me? I have heard the grumblings of the people of Israel, which they grumble against me. 28 Say to them, ‘As I live, declares the Lord, what you have said in my hearing I will do to you: 29 your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness, and of all your number, listed in the census from twenty years old and upward, who have grumbled against me, 30 not one shall come into the land where I swore that I would make you dwell, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun. 31 But your little ones, who you said would become a prey, I will bring in, and they shall know the land that you have rejected. 32 But as for you, your dead bodies shall fall in this wilderness. 33 And your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness. 34 According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, a year for each day, you shall bear your iniquity forty years, and you shall know my displeasure.’ 35 I, the Lord, have spoken. Surely this will I do to all this wicked congregation who are gathered together against me: in this wilderness they shall come to a full end, and there they shall die.”

36 And the men whom Moses sent to spy out the land, who returned and made all the congregation grumble against him by bringing up a bad report about the land— 37 the men who brought up a bad report of the land—died by plague before the Lord. 38 Of those men who went to spy out the land, only Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh remained alive.

39 When Moses told these words to all the people of Israel, the people mourned greatly. 40 And they rose early in the morning and went up to the heights of the hill country, saying, “Here we are. We will go up to the place that the Lord has promised, for we have sinned.” 41 But Moses said, “Why now are you transgressing the command of the Lord, when that will not succeed? 42 Do not go up, for the Lord is not among you, lest you be struck down before your enemies. 43 For there the Amalekites and the Canaanites are facing you, and you shall fall by the sword. Because you have turned back from following the Lord, the Lord will not be with you.” 44 But they presumed to go up to the heights of the hill country, although neither the ark of the covenant of the Lord nor Moses departed out of the camp. 45 Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and defeated them and pursued them, even to Hormah.  Numbers 14:26-45 ESV

God essentially told the Israelites that the worse-case-scenario they had conjured up in their minds was going to take place. Their greatest fears were going to become reality. In an attempt to rationalize their rebellion against Moses’ leadership, they had predicted a foreboding future if they stayed where they were.

“Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. – Numbers 14:2-3 ESV

And God let them know that their projections of doom and gloom would come true.

“As surely as I live, declares the Lord, I will do to you the very things I heard you say. You will all drop dead in this wilderness! Because you complained against me, every one of you who is twenty years old or older and was included in the registration will die. You will not enter and occupy the land I swore to give you. – Numbers 14:28-30 NLT

As punishment for their rebellion, God revealed their fate. They would not be returning to Egypt and they would never enter the land of Canaan. Instead, they could die in the wilderness. They wouldn’t have to worry about dying in battle because they would never make it to the promised land. No, their deaths would be from old age as they spent the next 40 years wandering in the wilderness; a year for every day the spies had spent in Canaan.

There would be no supernatural cosmological display of fire and brimstone to consume the wicked. The ground wouldn’t open up and swallow all those who were guilty. In fact, for the next 40 years, God would continue to provide for their physical needs; providing them with manna, quail, and fresh drinking water. They would continue to live, raise their children, and live out their days in relative peace and security. But they would never enter the land that God had promised as their inheritance.

“Not one of you from this wicked generation will live to see the good land I swore to give your ancestors.” – Deuteronomy 1:25 NLT

Canaan was to have been their final destination. It was a rich and fertile land, just as the spies had discovered. And even before God had leveled a single plague against Egypt, He had promised to lead the descendants of Jacob to their new homeland.

“I have promised to rescue you from your oppression in Egypt. I will lead you to a land flowing with milk and honey—the land where the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites now live.” – Exodus 3:17 NLT

But as a result of their stubborn refusal to trust God, they would spend 40 years wandering on the wrong side of the border of Canaan. In time, one by one, they would succumb to old age and die, and their bodies would be buried in the wilderness. And the author of Hebrews uses their rebellion and punishment as a warning to a new generation of Jews who had been offered another promise of future inheritance by God.

“Today when you hear his voice,
    don’t harden your hearts
as Israel did when they rebelled,
    when they tested me in the wilderness.
There your ancestors tested and tried my patience,
    even though they saw my miracles for forty years.
So I was angry with them, and I said,
‘Their hearts always turn away from me.
    They refuse to do what I tell them.’
So in my anger I took an oath:
    ‘They will never enter my place of rest.’” – Hebrews 3:7-11 NLT

Canaan was to have been their place of rest. That doesn’t mean Canaan was going to be a stress-free environment, devoid of difficulties. There actually were enemies in the land and the Israelites would have to do battle with each of them in order to make the land their own. But God had promised them victory. He was going to use them to purge the land of all the wickedness, immorality, and godlessness that had filled it since their departure more than 430 years earlier.

Yet, rather than obeying God and doing battle with those who opposed Him and had desecrated the land He had given them, the Israelites ended up having God for an enemy.

“Because your men explored the land for forty days, you must wander in the wilderness for forty years—a year for each day, suffering the consequences of your sins. Then you will discover what it is like to have me for an enemy.” – Numbers 14:34 NLT

What makes this story so painful and impactful is that it involved the people of God. These were His chosen ones. He had redeemed them out of slavery in Egypt. He had graciously offered them freedom and a permament home of their own where they could enjoy His presence, power, and provision. Yet, because the conquest of the land appeared to be more difficult than they had imagined, they turned their back on God’s gracious offer. And the author of Hebrews emphasizes the disbelieving nature of God’s chosen people.

And who was it who rebelled against God, even though they heard his voice? Wasn’t it the people Moses led out of Egypt? And who made God angry for forty years? Wasn’t it the people who sinned, whose corpses lay in the wilderness? And to whom was God speaking when he took an oath that they would never enter his rest? Wasn’t it the people who disobeyed him? So we see that because of their unbelief they were not able to enter his rest. – Hebrews 3:16-19 NLT

And he warns his fellow Jews to learn from their ancestors’ mistakes.

Be careful then, dear brothers and sisters. Make sure that your own hearts are not evil and unbelieving, turning you away from the living God. – Hebrews 3:12 NLT

For if we are faithful to the end, trusting God just as firmly as when we first believed, we will share in all that belongs to Christ. – Hebrews 3:14 NLT

God’s promise of rest required obedience. The land was theirs, but they were going to have to do battle in order to take full possession of it. They would have to cleanse the land from all its impurities, and that would require hard work and faith. Any effort they put forth would have to be based on their faith that God would go before them and provide them with victory. But for the Israelites, a long march back to Egypt and the promise of certain enslavement were more appealing than doing the will of God. And, as a result, they would never enter His rest.

And, as for the ten spies, they would face a more immediate and unpleasant end for their leadership in the rebellion.

The ten men Moses had sent to explore the land—the ones who incited rebellion against the Lord with their bad report—were struck dead with a plague before the Lord. – Numbers 14:36-37 NLT

God had not changed His mind. His promise of providing an inheritance for the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob remained just as firm as ever. But there would be some who would never get to enjoy it. They had forfeited that right.

But when the people heard the news of God’s judgment against them, they were grieved and attempted to repent for their rebellion.

“We realize that we have sinned, but now we are ready to enter the land the Lord has promised us.” – Numbers 14:40 NLT

But it was too little, too late. Moses even warned them that they were only making matters worse by attempting to escape God’s judgment through further rebellion. They were suggesting immediate entrance into the land, even though that is not what God had ordered. They thought a show of enthusiasm might temper God’s anger. But Moses warned them against making such a dangerous and ill-fated decision.

“Why are you now disobeying the Lord’s orders to return to the wilderness? It won’t work. Do not go up into the land now. You will only be crushed by your enemies because the Lord is not with you. When you face the Amalekites and Canaanites in battle, you will be slaughtered. The Lord will abandon you because you have abandoned the Lord.” – Numbers 14:41-43 NLT

But stubborn as always, the people rejected Moses’ counsel and attempted to enter Canaan – without God’s approval or help – and they failed miserably. They had forfeited their right to the inheritance. The land would never be theirs and they would never enjoy the rest that God had promised. And the apostle Paul provides a powerful application of this story for those who long to enter the eternal rest that comes through faith in Christ.

I don’t want you to forget, dear brothers and sisters, about our ancestors in the wilderness long ago. All of them were guided by a cloud that moved ahead of them, and all of them walked through the sea on dry ground. In the cloud and in the sea, all of them were baptized as followers of Moses. All of them ate the same spiritual food, and all of them drank the same spiritual water. For they drank from the spiritual rock that traveled with them, and that rock was Christ. Yet God was not pleased with most of them, and their bodies were scattered in the wilderness.

These things happened as a warning to us, so that we would not crave evil things as they did, or worship idols as some of them did. – 1 Corinthians 10:1-7 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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.

Close, But Yet So Far

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

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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.

A Case of Worst-Case Scenario

Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembly of the congregation of the people of Israel. And Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had spied out the land, tore their clothes and said to all the congregation of the people of Israel, “The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.” 10 Then all the congregation said to stone them with stones. But the glory of the Lord appeared at the tent of meeting to all the people of Israel.

11 And the Lord said to Moses, “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? 12 I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.” – Numbers 14:5-12 ESV

We all suffer from it on occasion – worst-case-scenario syndrome. The symptoms are easily recognizable: fear, doubt, a growing sense of panic, and visions of all kinds of disasters happening – one bad thing leading to another. Usually, it starts with a fairly pedestrian situation, one that is negative, but not catastrophic. But before we know it, we’ve conjured up images of mishap and mayhem. Our minds begin to play tricks on us, causing us to imagine all kinds of negative outcomes as we conjecture what is going to happen next. We start playing out a variety of circumstances in our heads, wondering what will happen if…

That’s exactly what the Israelites suffered from in this story – as they stood on the edge of the promised land, weighing out the two disparate reports given by the 12 spies. When these men had returned from their investigatory trek through Canaan, they had delivered a report that was equal parts good news and bad news. The land was wildly abundant and fertile, and they had even brought back samples as proof. But while Canaan was bountiful and rich, it was also filled with “giants” who would surely pose a formidable threat to the Israelites. This land that God had promised to Israel as an inheritance was already occupied and its current residents would be far from pushovers. They were powerful, plentiful, well-armed, and well-protected in their fortified cities.  And that part of the report was all the people of Israel heard.

Ten of the spies were convinced that any attempt to conquer the land of Canaan would end in disaster, so they launched a campaign of misinformation, blowing the negative elements of their report out of proportion and drawing conclusions that were NOT based on fact. Instead of trusting God, they decided to trust their very fertile imaginations. They stirred up the people with outlandish claims and false accusations against God Himself.

“Why is the Lord taking us to this country only to have us die in battle? Our wives and our little ones will be carried off as plunder! Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?” – Numbers 14:3 NLT

In a matter of minutes, these people had turned a bit of bad news into a forecast of complete disaster. And they had actually accused God of attempted murder. These men had whipped themselves into a frenzy of fright and faithlessness and infected the entire community. Suddenly, the God who had freed them from slavery in Egypt through a series of miraculous plagues, and who had cared for them all throughout their journey to the promised land, was too weak to take care of them anymore. Their troubles were greater than their God. And the symptoms of worst-case-scenario syndrome began to appear throughout the camp.

Yet, Moses, Aaron, Caleb, and Joshua begged the people to trust God and not rebel against Him.

“The land we traveled through and explored is a wonderful land! And if the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us safely into that land and give it to us. It is a rich land flowing with milk and honey. Do not rebel against the Lord, and don’t be afraid of the people of the land. They are only helpless prey to us! They have no protection, but the Lord is with us! Don’t be afraid of them!” – Numbers 14:7-9 NLT

But the people continued to respond with fear and anger, even threatening to stone Moses, his brother, and the two spies. Consumed by their lurid visions of wanton destruction, they refused to listen to what Moses and the others had to say. So, God intervened.

Then the glorious presence of the Lord appeared to all the Israelites at the Tabernacle. – Numbers 14:10 NLT

God showed up in all His glory, and He was far from pleased. He informed Moses that He was determined to wipe out the entire nation and start all over again. Despite all He had done for them, they had dared to treat Him with contempt. They had hurled accusations against Him, declaring Him to be uncaring and unsympathetic to their plight. They had displayed a staggering degree of ingratitude for all His past mercies and miracles.

“How long will these people treat me with contempt? Will they never believe me, even after all the miraculous signs I have done among them? I will disown them and destroy them with a plague. Then I will make you into a nation greater and mightier than they are!” – Numbers 14:11-12 NLT

God had run out of patience with these ungrateful and disobedient people. So, He vowed to destroy them and start all over again with Moses. He would simply make for Himself a new nation. And He would have been perfectly just and right in doing so. After all, He had been the one who had chosen them in the first place. They had done nothing to earn His favor or to deserve His affections. God had set them apart as His people, not because they were a great and powerful nation, but because He was a covenant-keeping God. According to Moses, their unique relationship with God was totally undeserved and fully God’s doing.

For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for His prized possession out of all peoples on the face of the earth.

The LORD did not set His affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than the other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But because the LORD loved you and kept the oath He swore to your fathers, He brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. – Deuteronomy 7:6-8 BSB

God had miraculously delivered them from their bondage in Egypt. He had led them across the wilderness and brought them safely to the shores of the Jordan River. He had kept their sandals from wearing out. He had supplied them with water, manna, and quail to eat. He had guided and protected them along the way. But now that it was time for them to do their part of entering and conquering the land, they had reneged on their end of the agreement. Moses had made their God-ordained instructions perfectly clear.

When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are entering to possess, and He drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you – and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you to defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. Make no treaty with them and show them no mercy.  – Deuteronomy 7:1-2 BSB

But they had decided to reject God’s command and go with their guts. They had determined that they knew better than God and believed a return to Egypt was preferable to a certain defeat in Canaan.

When we face difficult times, it is easy to succumb to worst-case-scenario syndrome. It’s almost natural. We begin to doubt and fear. We blow things out of proportion. Our vision gets blurry. Our memory gets sketchy. We tend to forget things – like God’s history of goodness in our lives. We become weak and prone to fear, instead of faith. Worry replaces worship. Even little things get blown out of proportion. And the usual result is rebellion.

We refuse to believe, trust and obey God, and so we fail to experience His power in our lives. We miss out on the blessings. Like the Israelites, we stand on the edge of the promises of God but never get to enjoy them. But there is a cure for worst-case-scenario syndrome. It’s called trust. Trust is putting our belief into action. It is stepping out and relying on God’s goodness. It is resting on His power even in the presence of problems. God doesn’t promise us a life free from problems. But He does promise to see us through them. He promises us strength. He promises us joy and contentment. He promises us His presence. He will see us through.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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.

I’ve Got Good News and Bad News

25 At the end of forty days they returned from spying out the land. 26 And they came to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation of the people of Israel in the wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh. They brought back word to them and to all the congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land. 27 And they told him, “We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. 28 However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large. And besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. 29 The Amalekites dwell in the land of the Negeb. The Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the hill country. And the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and along the Jordan.”

30 But Caleb quieted the people before Moses and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” 31 Then the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.” 32 So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. 33 And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.”

Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” Numbers 13:25-14:4 ESV

For 40 days, the people of Israel anxiously awaited the return of the 12 men who had been sent to reconnoiter the land of Canaan. And each passing day must have fueled their growing doubts and concerns. The longer the delay, the more they must have wondered whether the spies had met an untimely demise at the hands of the land’s current occupants. Had they been captured and enslaved? Worse yet, had they been tortured and forced to disclose the location of Israel’s camp in the wilderness of Paran? Was a heavily armed force headed their way with plans to annihilate the rest of the Israelites before they could cross the Jordan River?

But much to the relief of the Israelites, the spies eventually returned, bearing news and “the fruit they had taken from the land” (Numbers 13:26 NLT). Rumors of their return spread quickly through the camp and soon everyone had gathered to hear their long-anticipated report. And as the people stood in breathless silence, they heard the spies deliver their findings.

“We entered the land you sent us to explore, and it is indeed a bountiful country—a land flowing with milk and honey. Here is the kind of fruit it produces. – Numbers 13:27 NLT

The spies had not returned empty handed. According to verse 23, they had gathered tangible evidence of the land’s fruitfulness and now used these props as a kind of show-and-tell.

When they came to the valley of Eshcol, they cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes so large that it took two of them to carry it on a pole between them! They also brought back samples of the pomegranates and figs. – Numbers 13:23 NLT

It was as if the spies knew that their words would not be enough. Any attempts they made to describe the land’s abundance would fall short and be met with skeptical ears. So, they brought proof. And it was like nothing the Israelites had ever seen before. A single cluster of grapes had to be carried on a pole between two men. This land was super-abundant and more than adequate for meeting the physical needs of the Israelites. It’s interesting to remember that, just recently, the Israelites had been reminiscing about the wonderful cuisine they had enjoyed in Egypt.

“We remember the fish we used to eat for free in Egypt. And we had all the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic we wanted. But now our appetites are gone. All we ever see is this manna!” – Numbers 11:5-6 NLT

While their memories of the food they enjoyed in Egypt were probably a bit cloudy and far-from-accurate, they couldn’t argue with the evidence right before their eyes. Canaan was a virtual cornucopia of culinary delights. And it was just across the river Jordan.

But before the Israelites had time to take in the wonderful news about the fruitful land of Canaan, the spies poured a bit of cold water on their enthusiasm. They delivered the bad news.

“But the people living there are powerful, and their towns are large and fortified. We even saw giants there, the descendants of Anak! The Amalekites live in the Negev, and the Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites live in the hill country. The Canaanites live along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and along the Jordan Valley.” – Numbers 13:28-29 NLT

If the size of the grapes had been enough to make their mouths water, this news must have made them sick to their stomachs. It was the last thing they wanted to hear. After all, what good was a fruitful and abundant land if it was filled with frightful and dominant enemies?

As soon as the Israelites heard the downside of the spies’ report, they went into a panic. And Caleb, one of the 12 men who had seen the land with his own eyes, tried to calm them down. He didn’t attempt to dismiss or discredit the presence of enemies in the land. He didn’t refute their existence or diminish the report of their superior power. Instead, he simply encouraged the people to do what God had commanded them to do.

“Let’s go at once to take the land,” he said. “We can certainly conquer it!” – Numbers 13:30 NLT

The spies had done exactly what Moses had instructed them to do.

“Go north through the Negev into the hill country. See what the land is like, and find out whether the people living there are strong or weak, few or many. See what kind of land they live in. Is it good or bad? Do their towns have walls, or are they unprotected like open camps? Is the soil fertile or poor? Are there many trees? Do your best to bring back samples of the crops you see.” (It happened to be the season for harvesting the first ripe grapes.) – Numbers 13:18-20 NLT

They had returned with a report and samples. But at no point were their findings intended to play a role in whether or not the Israelites entered the land. Their mission had been a fact-finding one. And when their report turned out to be a combination of good news and bad news, it should have had no bearing on God’s plans for Israel. It provided proof that the land was fruitful. But it was also provided evidence that the land was already occupied. While the first fact was encouraging, the second was disheartening. But both were intended to remind the people that God was their provider. Not only had He given them a land, but He would also give them victory over its more formidable occupants.

But for ten of the spies, the thought of the Israelites defeating the Canaanites was a pipe dream. There was no way a rag-tag army of former shepherds and slaves was going to conquer a land filled with “giants.” The Israelites would find themselves up against Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, and Canaanites. They would be out-numbered and under-equipped for the task. And the ten spies made their views plainly known.

“We can’t go up against them! They are stronger than we are!” – Numbers 13:31 NLT

These men were more than scared. They were absolutely petrified and determined to convince the people to disobey God’s command to enter the land of Canaan.

“The land we traveled through and explored will devour anyone who goes to live there. All the people we saw were huge. We even saw giants there, the descendants of Anak. Next to them we felt like grasshoppers, and that’s what they thought, too!” – Numbers 13:32-33 NLT

Notice how they conveniently leave God out of the picture. It was all “us-versus-them.” It was giants against grasshoppers, the powerful against the weak. The odds were completely lopsided and any hope of victory was wishful thinking.

And their words had the desired effect. The people were devastated and demoralized. They wept and mourned. They regretted ever having left Egypt. And any encouragement they may have received from the sight of oversized fruit was crushed by the prospect of annihilation at the hands of their enemies.

Fueled by the disheartening rhetoric of the ten spies, the people railed against Moses and Aaron, questioning why they had ever left the land of Egypt in the first place.

“If only we had died in Egypt, or even here in the wilderness!” they complained. “Why is the Lord taking us to this country only to have us die in battle? Our wives and our little ones will be carried off as plunder! Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?” – Numbers 14:2-3 NLT

They had regrets. And they suffered from a severe case of good-old-days syndrome. When confronted with the less-than-ideal option of entering the land of Canaan, they began to long for their days back in Egypt. They preferred slavery to possible slaughter at the hands of the Canaanites. Their view of the promised land was anything but promising. Filled with pessimism and fueled by fear, they lashed out at Moses and Aaron. And then, anxious to derail any plans these two men may have had to lead them into Canaan, the people began to plot their overthrow.

“Let’s choose a new leader and go back to Egypt!” – Numbers 14:4 NLT

Little did they know that they were thumbing their noses in the face of God Almighty. They were rejecting the gift of an inheritance that He had promised to Abraham. The land was theirs by right. But now, they were declaring their intention to return to slavery rather than obey the word of their gracious deliverer. They were rejecting the will of the One who had redeemed them from captivity and refusing to believe that He could provide them with victory over their enemies. And they were about to learn just how deadly their decision would be.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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.

Faith Over Facts

1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel. From each tribe of their fathers you shall send a man, every one a chief among them.” So Moses sent them from the wilderness of Paran, according to the command of the Lord, all of them men who were heads of the people of Israel. And these were their names: From the tribe of Reuben, Shammua the son of Zaccur; from the tribe of Simeon, Shaphat the son of Hori; from the tribe of Judah, Caleb the son of Jephunneh; from the tribe of Issachar, Igal the son of Joseph; from the tribe of Ephraim, Hoshea the son of Nun; from the tribe of Benjamin, Palti the son of Raphu; 10 from the tribe of Zebulun, Gaddiel the son of Sodi; 11 from the tribe of Joseph (that is, from the tribe of Manasseh), Gaddi the son of Susi; 12 from the tribe of Dan, Ammiel the son of Gemalli; 13 from the tribe of Asher, Sethur the son of Michael; 14 from the tribe of Naphtali, Nahbi the son of Vophsi; 15 from the tribe of Gad, Geuel the son of Machi. 16 These were the names of the men whom Moses sent to spy out the land. And Moses called Hoshea the son of Nun Joshua.

17 Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan and said to them, “Go up into the Negeb and go up into the hill country, 18 and see what the land is, and whether the people who dwell in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many, 19 and whether the land that they dwell in is good or bad, and whether the cities that they dwell in are camps or strongholds, 20 and whether the land is rich or poor, and whether there are trees in it or not. Be of good courage and bring some of the fruit of the land.” Now the time was the season of the first ripe grapes.

21 So they went up and spied out the land from the wilderness of Zin to Rehob, near Lebo-hamath. 22 They went up into the Negeb and came to Hebron. Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai, the descendants of Anak, were there. (Hebron was built seven years before Zoan in Egypt.) 23 And they came to the Valley of Eshcol and cut down from there a branch with a single cluster of grapes, and they carried it on a pole between two of them; they also brought some pomegranates and figs. 24 That place was called the Valley of Eshcol, because of the cluster that the people of Israel cut down from there. Numbers 13:1-24 ESV

After a brief seven-day delay in which Miriam was punished for attempting to lead a coup against her own brother, God led the people to Kadesh-Barnea. They were now on the edge of the land of Canaan. This had been their destination all along. It was the place that God had promised to give them as their inheritance and now they stood on the banks of the Jordan River, ready to cross over and begin their conquest of the land.

But before they could enter into the land that God had promised to give them, He instructed Moses to select one man from each of the twelve tribes and send them on a clandestine mission to spy out the enemy’s strength and to verify the agricultural quality of the land itself.

“Go north through the Negev into the hill country. See what the land is like, and find out whether the people living there are strong or weak, few or many. See what kind of land they live in. Is it good or bad? Do their towns have walls, or are they unprotected like open camps? Is the soil fertile or poor? Are there many trees? Do your best to bring back samples of the crops you see.”  (It happened to be the season for harvesting the first ripe grapes.) – Numbers 13:17-20 NLT

According to Moses’ account of this event, recorded in the book of Deuteronomy, the sending of the spies had actually been the peoples’ idea.

“But you all came to me and said, ‘First, let’s send out scouts to explore the land for us. They will advise us on the best route to take and which towns we should enter.’

“This seemed like a good idea to me, so I chose twelve scouts, one from each of your tribes. They headed for the hill country and came to the valley of Eshcol and explored it. They picked some of its fruit and brought it back to us. And they reported, ‘The land the Lord our God has given us is indeed a good land.’”  – Deuteronomy 1:22-25 NLT

They petitioned Moses to send in spies and God went along with the plan. But it appears that God had a different agenda than the people did. Their reason for sending in spies was to determine whether there was any hope of defeating the nations that already occupied the land. But God agreed to send in spies so that they might give witness to the truth concerning the abundance and fruitfulness of the land. In other words, as far as God was concerned, this was a fact-finding mission. This was not a specially formed committee to determine or decide whether or not to go into the land. That was not an option. The conquest of the land was not up for debate.

So,the spies went and they saw. And when they returned they reported the facts just as they had witnessed them. They even brought back physical evidence of the land’s long-rumored fruitfulness: grape clusters so large that they had to be carried on a pole between two men.

When they came to the valley of Eshcol, they cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes so large that it took two of them to carry it on a pole between them! They also brought back samples of the pomegranates and figs. – Numbers 16:23 NLT

But the 12 men who went in to spy out the land returned with two different opinions about the land. The majority affirmed its fruitfulness, but also said it was filled with giants and an abundance of well-armed foes living in fortified cities. Their conclusion? “We can’t attack those people; they’re way stronger than we are” (Numbers 13:31 MSG).

Everything they said was true. The land was filled with giants. There was an abundance of well-armed people living in fortified cities. And they were far stronger than the Israelites. But in reporting what they had seen, these men left out one important fact: God was on their side, and He had promised to give them this land.

He had never told them it was going to be easy. From day one, He had warned them that the land would be filled with other inhabitants (Exodus 3:8, 17). He had told them that they would have to remove those inhabitants from the land. But He was going to give the victory.

“For my angel will go before you and bring you into the land of the Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hivites, and Jebusites, so you may live there. And I will destroy them.” –Exodus 23:23 NLT

God had never told them that this was going to be a cake-walk. But He did assure them of their victory – as long as they obeyed Him.

But it seems that, of the 12 spies, only Caleb and Joshua believed God. They saw the same things the others had seen. They didn’t deny the fact that there were giants in the land and fortified cities occupied by well-armed people. But their conclusion was very different: “Let’s go at once to take the land, we can certainly conquer it!” (Numbers 13:30 NLT).

We can do this! In spite of the odds, we can accomplish what God has told us to do. Faith can trump the facts. We can trust God because He promised us this land! It is as good as ours!

Every day we are faced with all kinds of facts that seem to contradict the faithfulness of God. Unpaid bills, financial uncertainty, illness, relational problems, job pressures, etc. We look around us and wonder if this is what God really promised us. And we lose heart. We let the facts determine our faith, instead of the other way around. We give in and give up. We fail to step out in faith in the face of the overwhelming facts and watch Him work.

God did not tell us the Christian life would be easy. He just promised to be with us. He gave us His Holy Spirit. He provided us with His Word. And He assured us of victory. We will have trials. We will face enemies. We will run into “giants” in the land. But God will go ahead of us. He will provide for us and protect us. We will still have to do battle, but He assures us of victory in the end. Like Caleb and Joshua, we must say, “We can do this, because God is with us!”

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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.