Spies Sent Out, 1-16

13:1  The LORD spoke to Moses: 13:2 “Send out men to investigate the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites. You are to send one man from each ancestral tribe, each one a leader among them.” 13:3 So Moses sent them from the wilderness of Paran at the command of the LORD. All of them were leaders of the Israelites.

Duguid describes this narrative as ‘the Israelites snatching defeat from the jaws of victory through their unbelief.’

Introducing this dramatic narrative, Brown notes how it is ‘tragically easy to be influenced by unworthy attitudes, corrupted by impure motives or manipulated by unsuitable people.’

‘From Deuteronomy 1:22 it seems that the purpose of the mission was to strengthen the Israelites’ faith, not to bring back tactical information’ (Wenham).  Indeed, the same passage indicates that it was the people, not the Lord, who wanted scouts to be sent.  The present command would therefore represent a concession on the part of the Lord.

‘They would not take God’s word that it was a good land, and that he would, without fail, put them in possession of it. They could not trust the pillar of cloud and fire to show them the way to it, but had a better opinion of their own politics than of God’s wisdom. How absurd was it for them to send to spy out a land which God himself had spied out for them, to enquire the way into it when God himself had undertaken to show them the way!’ (MHC)

Wiersbe (Expository Outlines) notes that ‘God had already told them many times what Canaan was like, what nations were there, and how He would defeat their enemies and give them their promised inheritance; so what need was there for men to go in and spy out the land? Sad to say, human nature prefers to walk by sight, not by faith.’

“The land of Canaan, which I am giving you” – These words alone, echoing God’s ancient promise to Abraham and his descendants, should have been enough to reassure the entire nation that their future was secure.  ‘As we face the unknown future, we do so with a reliable Bible in our hands. God ‘has given us his very great and precious promises’, assuring us that, as we encounter the unknown, everything we need will be unfailingly provided.’ (Brown)

Had the Israelites but taken God at his word, then they could have avoided the forty years of punishment in the wilderness, and marched straight into the Promised Land.  ‘O, what peace we often forfeit; O what needless pain we bear’, all because we do not come to God in prayer, nor take him at his word.  ‘He who promised is faithful’, Heb 10:23.

‘God’s promise was Israel’s title deed to the land as well as His guarantee that they would defeat their enemies. God’s promise was all Israel needed, but the nation doubted God’s Word and began to walk by sight instead of by faith.’ (Wiersbe)

13:4 Now these were their names: from the tribe of Reuben, Shammua son of Zaccur; 13:5 from the tribe of Simeon, Shaphat son of Hori; 13:6 from the tribe of Judah, Caleb son of Jephunneh; 13:7 from the tribe of Issachar, Igal son of Joseph; 13:8 from the tribe of Ephraim, Hoshea son of Nun; 13:9 from the tribe of Benjamin, Palti son of Raphu; 13:10 from the tribe of Zebulun, Gaddiel son of Sodi; 13:11 from the tribe of Joseph, namely, the tribe of Manasseh, Gaddi son of Susi; 13:12 from the tribe of Dan, Ammiel son of Gemalli; 13:13 from the tribe of Asher, Sethur son of Michael; 13:14 from the tribe of Naphtali, Nahbi son of Vopshi; 13:15 from the tribe of Gad, Geuel son of Maki. 13:16 These are the names of the men whom Moses sent to investigate the land. And Moses gave Hoshea son of Nun the name Joshua.

‘Hoshea’ means ‘God saves’, and ‘Joshua’ means ‘the Lord saves’.  The Gk. form of the latter is ‘Jesus’.

The Spies’ Instructions, 17-20

13:17 When Moses sent them to investigate the land of Canaan, he told them, “Go up through the Negev, and then go up into the hill country 13:18 and see what the land is like, and whether the people who live in it are strong or weak, few or many, 13:19 and whether the land they live in is good or bad, and whether the cities they inhabit are like camps or fortified cities, 13:20 and whether the land is rich or poor, and whether or not there are forests in it. And be brave, and bring back some of the fruit of the land.” Now it was the time of year for the first ripe grapes.

It was the time of year for the first ripe grapes – the end of July.

‘The Negeb is the dry area, unsuitable for cultivation, that runs southwards from Beersheba (cf. Gen. 20:1; 24:62; Num. 21:1). The hill country means the chain of hills that run north through the tribal territories of Judah, Ephraim and into Galilee (cf. Josh. 20:7).’ (Wenham)

The Spies’ Activities, 21-25

13:21 So they went up and investigated the land from the wilderness of Zin to Rehob, at the entrance of Hamath. 13:22 When they went up through the Negev, they came to Hebron where Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai, descendants of Anak, were living. (Now Hebron had been built seven years before Zoan in Egypt.) 13:23 When they came to the valley of Eshcol, they cut down from there a branch with one cluster of grapes, and they carried it on a staff between two men, as well as some of the pomegranates and the figs. 13:24 That place was called the Eshcol Valley, because of the cluster of grapes that the Israelites cut from there. 13:25 They returned from investigating the land after forty days.

“Descendants of Anak” – ‘The descendants of Anak are generally considered “giants” (v. 33; Deut 2:10–11; 2 Sam 21:18–22), though the description “gigantic” may be more appropriate. There is no mention of the Anakites in other sources, but the Egyptian letter on Papyrus Anastasi I (thirteenth century B.C.) describes fierce warriors in Canaan that are seven to nine feet tall. Two female skeletons about seven feet tall from the twelfth century have been found at Tell es-Sa’ideyeh in Transjordan.’ (IVPBBC)

Hebron had been built seven years before Zoan in Egypt – Zoan (Tanis, Avaris), became the capital city of the Egyptian delta.  It was built in c. 1700 BC.  ‘Perhaps the author of Numbers knew about Egypt’s building of Zoan because Israel had been involved.’ (NBC)

‘It may well be significant that the narrative devotes so much attention to Hebron. It was near Hebron that God first promised Abraham that he would inherit the land (Gen. 13:14–18). It was from that area that he set out to defeat the coalition of kings (Gen. 14:13ff.). It was in Hebron that he acquired his only piece of real estate for the burial of his wife, and where he and the other patriarchs were buried (Gen. 23; 25:9; 35:27–29; 50:13). The narrator knew these traditions, and he assumes the spies did and that the reader does.’ (Wenham)

Hebron was indeed hallowed ground.  ‘Centuries earlier, Abraham had bought some land from the local Hittites so that he and his family might be buried there. In that very place, his body and those of his wife Sarah, his son Isaac with his wife Rebekah, and his grandson Jacob with his wife Leah, had all been laid to rest. All Jacob’s sons, with the exception of Joseph, were buried there too.’ (Brown)

Brown continues: ‘Those twelve spies were on ground hallowed by memories of God’s faithfulness. Here the patriarchs had lived and loved, walked and worshipped, believed and obeyed. They too had faced difficult and demanding experiences. Life had been far from easy for any of them, but God had seen them through. At one time or another, they had made huge mistakes and had let God down, but the Lord had not failed them. This very countryside offered its own rich testimony to the Lord’s unchanging faithfulness. Surely, in such honoured territory, the spies would be encouraged that the Lord who had helped their forebears would not fail them.’

That place was called the Eshcol Valley, because of the cluster of grapes that the Israelites cut from there – ‘Eshcol’ means ‘cluster’.  The region is known for its grape production to this day.

According to Wenham, the journey described here would have been about 250 each way.  Forty days, then, represents a realistic timescale.

The Spies’ Reports, 26-33

13:26 They came back to Moses and Aaron and to the whole community of the Israelites in the wilderness of Paran at Kadesh. They reported to the whole community and showed the fruit of the land. 13:27 They told Moses, “We went to the land where you sent us. It is indeed flowing with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. 13:28 But the inhabitants are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large. Moreover we saw the descendants of Anak there. 13:29 The Amalekites live in the land of the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live by the sea and along the banks of the Jordan.”

First comes the majority report.

‘The twelve spies traveled about 500 miles during the forty days of their survey of Canaan, but they discovered nothing that God hadn’t already told them! They already knew the names of the pagan nations that lived in the land (Gen. 15:18–21), that it was a good land (Ex. 3:8) and a rich land flowing with milk and honey (vv. 8, 17). They saw the incredible fruit of the land and brought back a huge bunch of grapes for the people to see. They even visited Hebron, where the patriarchs of Israel were buried with their wives (Num. 13:22; Gen. 23:2, 19; 49:29–31; 50:13). Did the reminder of the faith of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph encourage their own trust in God? For ten of the spies, the answer is no.’ (Wiersbe)

“We went to the land where you sent us” – Compare Num 13:2; 14:16, 23, 30, 40; 15:2, etc.

‘It’s interesting how the ten spies identified Canaan as “the land to which you sent us” (Num. 13:27) and “the land through which we have gone” (v. 32), but not as “the land the Lord our God is giving us.”’ (Wiersbe)

‘The spies’ opening words give them away…[There is] no mention that the Lord had sent them and no acknowledgement of his promise (cf. Num 10:29).’ (NBC)

“But…” – or ‘nevertheless’.  ‘This word is usually a sign of unbelief. The people were strong; the cities were walled up; and giants were in the land. They saw the giants and saw themselves as grasshoppers—but they did not see God. Their eyes were on the obstacles, not on the God who had led them there.’ (Wiersbe, Expository Outlines)

‘One of the hallmarks of a life of sin and rebellion is a person calling “evil” what God has deemed as good and calling “good” that which is inherently evil, which amounts to a confusion of ultimate reality.’ (Cole)

Against God’s promise, the ten scouts report that

  1. The inhabitants are strong.
  2. The cities are fortified and very large.
  3. We saw the descendants of Anak [a tribe of large men] there.
  4. The Amalekites…the Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live there.  The land is full.  There is no room for us!

‘Significantly, two men could see the exact same sights – the same grapes, the same men, the same land, the same cities – one can come away singing in faith, and the other is filled with a sense of certain doom. Ultimately, faith or unbelief does not spring from circumstances or environment, but from our hearts, which God must change.’ (Guzik)

“The Amalekites” – ‘The Amalekites, who were descended from Abraham through Esau (Gen 36:15), were a nomadic or seminomadic people who inhabited the general region of the Negev and the Sinai during the second half of the second millennium B.C.’ (IVPBBC)

“Canaanites” – ‘The Canaanites were the principle inhabitants of the fortified cities of the land, though they do not seem to have been native to the land.’ (IVPBBC)

‘It is a tragic irony that the spies were speaking of the very nations already named in God’s promise to Abraham (Gn. 15:18). God had already indicated that the Amorites were ‘filling up’ their iniquity and were being reserved for his judgment, which Israel would execute (Gn. 15:16).’ (NBC)

‘[The] first-hand details about the residents of the land gave the spies’ report a touch of authority, and no doubt helped to convince the people of the impossibility of its conquest. But at the same time they obliquely, but totally, challenged the divine promises. Up to this point the phrase a land flowing with milk and honey has always been coupled with the promise that God would give the land and its inhabitants, often listed as here, to Israel (Exod. 3:8, 17; 13:5; 33:3; Lev. 20:24). The spies question this conclusion. They look on the presence of these other nations as an insurmountable obstacle to entry, not as a confirmation of God’s purpose.’ (Wenham)

How important it is for us to have a right view of the costs and benefits of discipleship!  ‘In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world’ (Jn 16:33).

13:30 Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses, saying, “Let us go up and occupy it, for we are well able to conquer it.” 13:31 But the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against these people, because they are stronger than we are!” 13:32 Then they presented the Israelites with a discouraging report of the land they had investigated, saying, “The land that we passed through to investigate is a land that devours its inhabitants. All the people we saw there are of great stature. 13:33 We even saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak came from the Nephilim), and we seemed like grasshoppers both to ourselves and to them.”

Now comes the minority report.

Caleb silenced the people – We later learn that Joshua was on his side, Num 14:6.

“We are well able” – This is not self-belief or self-confidence.  It is confidence in the Lord.

“We are not able” – They had access to exactly the same set of facts.  But two of them said, “We can”, while the rest said, “We can’t”.  ‘Unbelief always sees the obstacles; faith always sees the opportunities.’ (Wiersbe, Expository Outlines)

They forgot that the undertaking was not between themselves and their enemies, but between the Lord and their enemies. (Blunt)

Resisting majority opinion

Caleb did not take a minority view out of stubborness, argumentativeness, or because he wanted to be different.  ‘Imagine standing before a crowd and loudly voicing an unpopular opinion! Caleb was willing to take the unpopular stand to do as God had commanded. To be effective when you go against the crowd, you must (1) have the facts (Caleb had seen the land himself); (2) have the right attitude (Caleb trusted God’s promise to give Israel the land); and (3) state clearly what you believe (Caleb said, “We can certainly conquer it”).’ (HBA)

“We are not able to go up against these people, because they are stronger than we are!” – No doubt they were: but they had not reckoned with their God.  ‘Apart from me you can do nothing’ (Jn 15:5).  But, ‘I can do all things through Christ, who gives me strength’ (Phil 4:13).

In v31f the men give an even more outrageously negative account of their findings.

A discouraging report – a ‘false report’; what they say is actually untrue.  Moreover, they entirely left God out of their calculations.  Psa 106:24 – ‘They despised the pleasant land; they did not believe his promise.

“A land that devours its inhabitants” – ‘Under ancient oriental law those who made false accusations were punished by receiving the sentence those they accused would have received if convicted (Deut 19:16–19). The spies had wrongfully accused the land of homicide; therefore they could expect to receive the death penalty themselves. This principle is worked out in the rest of the story. The spies meet sudden death (Num 14:37). The people who accept the false testimony of the majority and not the counter evidence of Caleb and Joshua suffer similarly. The fate they feared they would meet in Canaan actually overtakes them in the desert (Num 14:3, 29–34).’ (Wenham)

“We even saw Nephilim there” – The only other reference to the Nephilim is in Gen 6:4.

‘Some have suggested that the famous Goliath, who was defeated by David, was one of the surviving descendants of these exceptionally tall individuals. Four others were killed by David’s men in a battle recounted in 2 Sam 21:15–22.’ (Cole)

“We seemed like grasshoppers” – ‘The despondent ten viewed the scene entirely from their limited human perspective, leaving God totally out of the equation.’ (Brown)

‘Their words stood in direct opposition to not only the words of the faithful servant Caleb but against Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and ultimately against God. They renounced God’s promise to accompany them with his awesome presence, to grant them decisive victory in what seemed, humanly speaking, to be overwhelming odds, and henceforth to confer upon them their rightful inheritance as the people of God—a homeland of abundant prosperity.’ (Cole)

‘The Canaanites were stronger than Israel; suppose they were, but were they stronger than the God of Israel? We are not able to deal with them, but is not God Almighty able? Have we not him in the midst of us? Does not he go before us? And is any thing too hard for him? Were we as grasshoppers before the giants, and are not they less than grasshoppers before God? Their cities are walled against us, but can they be walled against heaven?’ (MHC)

They had forgotten the God of the patriarchs.  ‘They had been instructed to go up through the Negev and on into the hill country (17)…That was precisely what Abraham had been told to do centuries earlier when the land was guaranteed to him and his promised progeny. Abraham did just that, settling eventually at Hebron, where the twelve spies had just been. God had done astonishing things for Abraham. If God could work miracles in Abraham’s life, he could do it in theirs.’ (Brown)

They had forgotten the God of the Exodus.  ‘They reported on the physical prowess and secure strongholds of the land’s inhabitants, but it was a huge mistake to forget about God. The powerful people were no worry to the Lord. He was not intimidated by giants and knew how to deal with fortified towns. Such communities may have been very large to the Israelites but they were ridiculously small to an omnipotent God. Their description of the land’s mixed races ought to have heartened them rather than daunted them, for with those words Moses was first assured of conquest. The sighting of the Amalekites … in the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites … in the hill country; and the Canaanites … near the sea and along the Jordan recalled the message about possession that God gave Moses. That is precisely how their victories were described: ‘I have promised to bring you up out of your misery in Egypt into the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites.’ (Brown)

Brown concludes: ‘Nobody in that crowd of frightened pilgrims could doubt what God had done for them in the past. Egypt’s superior strength, military resources and impressive chariots were nothing to God. He put them all under the water of the Red Sea. At the exodus they felt equally powerless, but they had trusted his word and witnessed his power: ‘Do not be afraid … The LORD will fight for you.’ The God who had vanquished the tyrants of the old land would overcome their enemies in a new one.’

‘Does it make sense to believe that the Lord poured out earth-shattering plagues on Egypt, parted the Red Sea in front of his people, and then fed them miraculously with manna in the wilderness only to have them fall at the hands of the inhabitants of the Promised Land? Does God do one dramatic series of miracles in the lives of his people only to fail at the last hurdle, leaving them tantalizingly short of what he promised? That doesn’t make sense.’ (Duguid)

Duguid continues: ‘Isn’t our unbelief equally irrational though? We believe and proclaim that our God created the universe out of nothing; yet we find it hard to believe that the results of a particular medical test belong to him. We believe and proclaim that our God directs the courses of kings and nations and that he has transformed our own dead hearts into living, responsive flesh; yet we find it hard to believe that he can bring our stubborn friends and neighbors to faith in himself. We believe and proclaim that our God entered history as a baby in Bethlehem; yet we find it hard to believe that he is active in our own personal history, holding our hand through the events of this week and the next. We believe and proclaim that he suffered on the cross for our sins and rose again triumphant from the grave to free us from our sins; yet we find it hard to believe that this particular sin of ours could ever be forgiven or that the power of that sinful habit could ever be broken. Our unbelief is always fundamentally irrational, a sinful refusal to fear God, which results equally inevitably in a sinful fear of people and circumstances. It is as irrational for us to cling to our unbelief as it is for a drowning man to cling to a heavy stone.’

It is the same for us today.  If we look at the forces ranged against the people of God, we will feel utterly impotent.  But if we look at the power of our God, then we will be able to tackle with confidence every task that he has set before us.