Numbers 13-14

Good morning! Today in Numbers 13-14 we get a first encounter between the Israelite tribes and the inhabitants of Canaan. The reaction to early espionage reveals the lack of Hebrew resolve, causes God to reconsider helping these people, and consigns the Israelites to a full forty years of wandering in the wilderness.

The land of Canaan looms close in Numbers 13, and we’ll hear much more about it in upcoming weeks. Spies from each of the Hebrew tribes go into and survey this “promised land” to see how vulnerable it is to conquest. As the Bible portrays Canaan, it appears to be a land inhabited by infidels, justifiably exterminated by the righteous Israelites. Remember that this is “history” as written by the victors. The Canaanites would have a very different assessment of what happened here, in the way the Native Americans would tell differently the story of European “manifest destiny”. This chapter seems to be from another author than the Priestly narrative because of the clarifications of Hoshea/Joshua’s name (the Priestly writer has already been repeatedly referring to Joshua without remark) and the “tribe of Joseph” (presumably “corrected” by a later editor to mean the tribe of Manasseh). Upon coming back from their espionage mission, the twelve spies disagree among themselves whether the Israelites have the power to overcome the tribes of Canaan. The fearful Nephilim which the spies reportedly saw in Canaan are described in Genesis 6:4 as the demigod offspring of gods and human women. Caleb and Joshua are the only voices who say, “Press on!”

As Chapter 14 opens, the people predictably rebel in the face of the daunting news of Canaan’s power. Again they long to be back in Egypt and start rallying against Moses’ leadership, despite the positive encouragement of Caleb and Joshua. The divine glory appears at the tabernacle, inflamed with anger at the ungrateful, rebellious Israelites. God’s determination to wipe out the Israelites and Moses’ defense are echoes of what we read last month in Exodus 32 after the golden calf incident. Moses has the courage in the face of God’s anger to quote back the covenant God established in Exodus 34: “The Lord is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression.” I love the theology here, as Moses models trust and shelter in the covenant of God even despite human sin. Calling on God to be faithful to God’s own promises is a theology that extends ahead for centuries, and we’ll see it abundantly in the Psalms.

God agrees to forgive, but also consigns the people to wandering in the wilderness for their weak faith, waiting for a new and presumably more faithful generation to arise before entering Canaan. Caleb and Joshua alone are permitted to go into Canaan because they demonstrated faith in God’s deliverance. A change of heart by the people (again disobeying Moses’ lead) leads them to attempt an invasion, but they suffer heavy losses. Happy reading!

Read Numbers 13-14.

Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. Tomorrow’s passage is Numbers 15-16. Thanks for reading!

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