By Dr. Candace Wood
The 12 Israelite spies who were sent by Moses to get a sneak peak of the promised land are an interesting lot (Numbers 13–14). What a tremendous honor for each of them to be selected to represent his tribe. What an awesome responsibility with which they were entrusted. Their discoveries stood to influence the future of the Israelite people who waited in anticipation for their report.
No doubt their mission began on a positive note, with expectations of claiming and moving onto the new property. Keeping journals, recording data, collecting physical specimens, making mental pictures, conversing among themselves about the hopeful future they envisioned—these tasks may have focused their minds for the 40 days of such a great undertaking.
What might they have imagined? Ah, the good life. They expected a beautiful land where they could settle down, build homes, watch their families prosper, live to old age. They would have stability, a permanent possession. They would be able to live out the promises God had made to their ancestor Abraham. They would enjoy the blessings of God, and Israel would be a great nation. To borrow from the opening sentence in Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, it was “the best of times.” So how could it so quickly have become “the worst of times”?
Something went wrong. But what? There is no indication that the travelers experienced personal difficulty, harm, or injury. In fact they returned loaded with samples of the land’s abundance. But relating their findings was quite another story. What a mess it became! The conclusion they revealed to the Israelites conflicted with the sights they had actually witnessed.
The dangers the explorers described seemed to come out of nowhere. One verse ends with all the goodness they found, that the land did indeed flow with milk and honey (Numbers 13:27). But the next begins with and continues a show stopping “but” (v. 28-31)—but the people are powerful, but the cities are fortified and large, but those people are bigger and stronger than we are. It’s as if, on second thought, as they heard their own words, they frightened themselves!
It became a deal-breaker, even as two other explorers, Caleb and Joshua, gave a different opinion. “We can do this,” they said. But they were not heard.
Is it typical of humans to choose the path that suggests the least trouble? Can even the things that appear to be good be dismissed? Apparently so. All the potential goodness that the promised land foreshadowed for the Israelites was metamorphosed into dread and harm in the minds of the fearful spies. The potential difficulties and hardships that troubled these men, real or imagined, were passed along to the multitude. And the multitude prepared to retreat.
This is not an unfamiliar story. Fear of new frontiers whispers in our minds. Perhaps it is the relocation of a job that takes you away from your family and friends. Maybe you’ve lived in the same locality all your life, but it is changing and becoming unfamiliar. Your employer of many years may have issued new job expectations to keep pace with changing technologies, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to compete with newer coworkers who have an edge in that field. Perhaps your job has been terminated, and no matter how much you apply all the best job search advice, you aren’t finding any success. What are you to do? It’s not just for the future, but how can you take care of your obligations in the present?
The fortified walls undoubtedly dismayed the fear-ridden spies. This land was one that “devoured” those living in it. We too can become whipped and beaten down when we meet head-on the circumstances of life. We can well feel that we are being devoured. So we take a step back.
What about the “great giants” the spies described? Painting a picture of a devouring land had likely already done its work in the imaginations of the Israelites. So it was no huge leap to think that certainly such a place would have called for tremendously powerful inhabitants to be able to survive such a station in life. Who were the Israelites to come up against such a foe as this?
We can relate, can’t we? How many of us may have, at one point or another, been intimidated by something of enormous size? Airplanes and ships, buildings and stadiums, mountains, deserts, oceans—yes, we can relate. So it doesn’t stretch the imagination too far to see these Israelite explorers describe giants they would have to confront.
But physical mass, size, height, and even a person’s physique isn’t always our biggest scare. We can be intimidated by different facets of people—personalities, attitudes, words, and actions. But when we are going through difficult, stressful, vulnerable times, we may place more significance and value on those words and actions than we should. No one can please everyone else, nor is that a desirable endeavor. Understandably this also takes its toll when facing unpleasant giants. And we take another step in retreat.
The third distressing challenge identified by the ten fearful spies was a reflection of the people of Israel themselves. How much more blunt could they be? They felt so small and insignificant in comparison to the dwellers of this land, they were nothing but grasshoppers. And what is a grasshopper against a giant? But the scared spies were so desperate to build their case, they went to extremes to emphasize it. And the people accepted their version.
The poor Israelites were shaking in their sandals by the time the travel memoirs had been recited. Their anxiety was so great, they “wept aloud” (Numbers 14:1). And it didn’t stop there. They grumbled, complained, and blamed Moses and Aaron, who, up to this point, had not even spoken aloud in the conversation. Ultimately, the people proposed an interesting alternative—dying back in Egypt looked much better than risking going ahead into the promised land.
What must the other two explorers, Caleb and Joshua, have been thinking to even suggest they had a chance of coming out of this situation alive, much less being amazingly victorious? The Israelites took another step back.
How about you and me? These same nagging kinds of fears can plague us. They can prevent us from accomplishing the goals we have set, from sharing the talents we have been given, and from enjoying the blessings of each day. When you’ve heard of an opportunity or a request for help, have you entertained the possibility of accepting but then put it out of mind? Maybe you’ve considered going on a mission trip or becoming a youth sponsor. Or you have a heart for the elderly or those who are often overlooked. But you are unsure what to do. Many steps take us backward because we allow our fears to overrule an idea that could have become our passion if we had given it time to grow. We become our own worst enemies when we let our fears paralyze us.
Who is missing from this picture? Where is God in all the anxiety shown by the fearful spies and Israelites? He is there, certainly, but they failed to see and consult him. How quickly are forgotten the blessings that had gotten them to that point. So the Israelites made their own way and engaged in another of their famous rebellions. This time consequences were severe. The generation that had witnessed God’s amazing miracles died out during the 40 years of wilderness wandering God pronounced on them. They did not receive the blessings God would have bestowed on them in the promised land if they had but trusted him.
Ultimately there is a powerful love that pervades this episode of Israel’s history. Despite their fears and their failure to trust God instead of themselves, God still forgave. This event epitomizes God’s love, his enduring patience, and his everlasting willingness to accept his children back after defeats again and again and again.
This experience of weakness and fear among the Israelites can remind all of us of times when we haven’t trusted God. But it can also demonstrate that God will provide opportunities to begin again. How about you? Are you stepping back? Or are you up to the task?
Dr. Candace Wood is a freelance writer in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Spread the Gospel Through Story
“Christian Storytelling Network (CSN) has a passion to equip Christian workers with the powerful tool of storytelling! Our seminars, trainings and products are designed to improve communication skills and bring storytelling to a higher level of professionalism. . . . God has placed a high value upon storytelling. Renewing this art is key to reaching men and women, boys and girls with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
“Tell is a biblical storytelling training. Participants learn how to retell stories from Scripture and draw out spiritual applications listeners can apply to their lives. . . . Over 80 percent of the world cannot or does not easily learn by reading. The communication vehicle of choice for these oral learners is story. God gave us 75 percent of the Bible in story format. You can learn to tell fascinating, accurate Bible stories and lead interactive discussions to change lives.”