The vivid style of the narrative that began in Numbers 11 is especially true of chapters 13 and 14. This tells the story of the twelve spies and their different reports of what they found in the land and their judgment about whether they can go into it or not. The characters emerge here as real, life-like people, passionately concerned about the things they believe in. The story is told with great drama. It’s also filled with lessons, which is one reason why these chapters are mentioned so many other times in the Bible (see Num. 32:8-13; Deut. 1:19-46; Ps. 95:10-11; 1 Cor. 10:5). At the end of this week’s studies, we’ll look at a great passage on this story from the book of Hebrews.
After all the people had gone through the past year—their deliverance from Egypt by the mighty hand of God; the miracles they had seen; the frightening, awe-inspiring revelation of God at Sinai; God’s provision of manna and water; and the cloud that led and overshadowed them by day and night—you would think that they would have been ready to go in and possess the land that God had promised to them. Yet they didn’t do it. There are lessons to be found there, because that is exactly the way we are. We have seen the power of God in Jesus Christ. We have His promises. Yet we’re afraid to act upon them. And like the Israelites, we too also suffer the consequences of our unbelief.
What was the Israelites’ failure? Their failure was a failure to believe the Word of God. That’s what our failure is, too. We have seen great demonstrations of God’s power. In his hymn “A Debtor to Mercy Alone,” Augustus Toplady said, “His promise is Yea and Amen, and never was forfeited yet.” And yet, when we come up against the giants of this world, we say, “Well, God may have done it in the past, but He can’t do it now.” We disbelieve him.
Are the people who are now standing on the very edge of the promised land going to believe God, go in, and possess it? We know the answer. They didn’t, and they suffered the consequences.
The same question is before us. We have our battles to face. Are you going to believe God and fight as His soldier and possess the land that He is giving you to possess? Or are you going to say “No, the enemies are too great, the giants are too tall, and the war is too strenuous,” and allow the victory to go by?
When Moses tells this story again in Deuteronomy 1, there is a seeming contradiction with Numbers 13. In Deuteronomy, Moses writes that the people suggested they send in spies, and that Moses thought it was a good idea. Numbers says that God told Moses to send in the twelve spies. But this is not a contradiction. You can imagine that something like this happened. The people had now come to the very edge of the land. Their anticipation had been building for a long time. If you were among that number, probably you would have been a bit anxious as you stood there, and also tired from your desert wandering. You might have been glad to have an excuse to delay the conquest just a little. They wanted to spy out the land first before they plunged in there.
Moses would have known perfectly well that they didn’t need to spy out the land. They didn’t have to know what was there, because God knew what was there. He’d lead them in the right way. But the people were anxious, and Moses probably thought it might not hurt if the spies were sent in and they came back with a good report, which would encourage the people. So he said that should be done. Moses would not have done this without consulting God, which is what Numbers tells us. Moses must have talked with God about the people’s suggestion and asked what he should do. At that point, God told him to pick twelve spies, one from each tribe, and send them in to spy the land out carefully.
This is why Numbers 13 begins with a long list of names of these men that represented the twelve tribes. In verse 8, you see that Joshua’s name is written “Hoshea, the son of Nun.” Hoshea means “God is salvation,” or “Salvation is of God,” which is virtually the same meaning as the name Joshua, which is the name Moses gives him in verse 16. But there is one significant difference. Hoshea is based on the general name for God, which is Elohim, while Joshua is based on the name Jehovah. So Joshua’s name means “Jehovah is salvation,” or “Jehovah saves.” That’s significant to us because Jesus’ name is Yeshua or Joshua, meaning “Jehovah is salvation” (see Matt. 1:21).
The twelve spies were sent into the land to investigate an area of about 250 miles, and they investigated it thoroughly. They went from the Desert of Zin in the south—also called the Negev—to the furthest reaches of the north. Exploring the land took about forty days. On the way back they went through a valley that had enormous grapes. They took a huge cluster of grapes that was so big that one man couldn’t carry it. They had to put it over a pole and then two men had to carry it. (Today, the logo of Israel’s Ministry of Tourism has two men carrying a branch with a cluster of grapes.) Think what that must have meant to people who had just spent a year in the desert eating manna. And suddenly here they have a suggestion of the fruit that’s in the land ahead of them. Well, you think that would have led to a great report. But it didn’t.