You can bookmark articles to Read Later

How 2 Faith-Filled Spies Won Entry to the Promised Land

Shelach Lecha (Send Forth)
Numbers 13:1–15:41; Joshua 2:1–24; Romans 4:1–25

“Then the Lord spoke to Moses saying, ‘Send out for yourself (shelach lecha שְׁלַח-לְך) men so that they may spy out the land of Canaan, which I am going to give to the sons of Israel; you shall send a man from each of their fathers’ tribes, every one a leader among them.’”  (Numbers 13:1–2)

Last week in Parasha Behaalotecha, God commanded Aaron to light the lamps of the Menorah, and the tribe of Levi was initiated into the service of the Sanctuary.

This week’s Parasha (Scripture portion) describes how God tests the faith of the Israelites by sending out 12 meraglim (spies) to check out the situation in the Promised Land (as God had commanded them) before going in to take possession of it.

Torah scroll and a wooden yad (Torah pointer)

Torah scroll and a wooden yad (Torah pointer)

The Promised Land Is Bountiful

“‘Be of good courage.  And bring some of the fruit of the land.’  Now the time was the season of the first ripe grapes.”  (Numbers 13:20)

God instructed Moses to send one chieftain from each of the 12 tribes of Israel to scout out the land of Canaan.  Among the spies were Caleb, son of Jephunneh from the Tribe of Judah and Hosea (Hoshea), son of Nun from the Tribe of Ephraim.  Later, Moses changed Hosea’s name to Joshua.

When Moses sent out the spies, it was the season of the first ripe grapes.  They were to go in with courage and bring back a sample of the fruit of the Land.  They were also to assess the characteristics of the inhabitants, the fortification of the cities, and the existence of any trees.

After 40 days, they returned with a cluster of grapes from the Valley of Eshkol (cluster), which was so bountiful that they had to tie the cluster to a pole and carry it on their shoulders.  Here in Israel, the grapes are still tiny at the beginning of June.  They will begin to ripen around mid-July in the heat of summer.  So it is likely that the spies went into the Promised Land around the end of July.

The spies also brought back pomegranates and figs.  These fruits grow in abundance today in the Land of Israel—a miracle since this land lay barren and lifeless for about 2,000 years.  The fact that the Land of Israel is fruitful again is evidence of God’s great mercy and grace, as well as His faithfulness to His covenant promises.

Israeli grapes

Israeli grapes

Testing and the Number 40

Why were the spies scouting the land of Canaan for 40 days?  Why not a month or two weeks?

The number 40 is significant in the Bible as it is the number of testing, preparation and leadership, as well as the harbinger of something new.  (Jewish Wisdom in the Numbers)

We see this pattern many times in the Scriptures:

  • In a dramatic new beginning, rain fell for 40 days and nights during the Flood before the waters stopped and the world was repopulated.  (Genesis 7:4)
  • Moses lived in Egypt for 40 years, was prepared for leadership in Midian for 40 years; and finally led the children of Israel in the wilderness for 40 years as a new nation.
  • Moses fasted on Mount Sinai for 40 days and nights before he went down the mountain with the Ten Commandments.

“Moses was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water.  And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments.”  (Exodus 34:28)

  • Goliath challenged the Israelites twice a day for 40 days before David defeated him, which began a great following by the people.  (1 Samuel 17:16)
  • Yeshua was tested by the devil in the wilderness for 40 days before He began His public ministry.

“Then Yeshua was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.  And when He had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterward He was hungry.  Now when the tempter came to Him, he said, ‘If You are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread.’”  (Matthew 4:1–3)

  • The period from the resurrection of Yeshua to His ascension was 40 days, a period of preparing the disciples for the work that lay ahead.  (Acts 1:3)
The Animals Entering Noah's Ark, by Jacopo Bassano

The Animals Entering Noah’s Ark, by Jacopo Bassano

10 Spies Inspire Fear Rather Than Faith

“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.”  (Numbers 13:33)

After 40 days, all 12 spies essentially testified to the entire Israelite community and Moses that the land flowed with milk and honey just as God had promised.  Despite that, they also saw that the cities are fortified and that giants live in the Land.

Rather than focusing on the great fruitfulness of the Land, they focused, instead, on the great size of the inhabitants in contrast to their own smallness.

Caleb tried to counter their defeatist attitude by assuring the people, “We are well able to overcome it” with God’s help.  He urged them, “Let us go up at once and occupy it.”  (Numbers 13:30)

The other 10 spies, however, instilled such fear in the people that the whole Israelite community began to cry and shout, “If only we had died in Egypt!  Or in this wilderness!”  (Numbers 14:1–2) 

A dairy farm in Israel (Photo by Luz Prieto)

A dairy farm in Israel (Photo by Luz Prieto)

In their apprehension, they forgot how the Lord had sent ten plagues and even parted a sea for them, so they cried more:  “Why is the LORD bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword?  Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. … We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”  (Numbers 14:3–4)

Of course, this is not the first time the people wanted to go back to Egypt.

In Parasha Beshalach, the people stood trapped between an advancing Egyptian army and the Red Sea.  Terrified, they told Moses, “Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’?  It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”  (Exodus 14:12)

Then God parted the Red Sea and crushed the Egyptian army.

When they reached the other side of the sea in safety, they were already craving the food back in bondage: “If only we had died by the LORD’s hand in Egypt!  There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”  (Exodus 16:3)

Then God sent manna every morning for them to eat.

In Parasha Behaalotecha last week, we saw that they got tired of the manna and remembered the fish they “ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic.”   (Numbers 11:5)

Then God sent quail, along with judgment for their continual complaining.

Throughout their wilderness journey, they complained to Moses and about Moses for many reasons.  Each time, they witnessed God’s judgments and mercy.  Yet, they still did not fully apprehend His love for them, nor His ability to keep His promise to give them a land of their own.

God said it best: “How long will these people treat Me with contempt?  How long will they refuse to believe in Me, in spite of all the signs I have performed among them?”  (Numbers 14:11) 

A Jewish woman buys fruit from a Druze Muslim in the Golan Heights.

A Jewish woman buys fruit from a Druze Muslim in the Golan Heights.

Faith and Prayer: Moses Intercedes for the Israelites

“I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.”  (Numbers 14:12)

Because of their rebellion and unbelief during this test of faith, God threatened to destroy the entire community of Israel instantly—to disown them and start all over again with Moses.

God gave Moses this same opportunity in Parasha Ki Tisa when the people He had just delivered from bondage worshiped a Golden Calf instead of Him.  (Exodus 32:9–10)

Being the most humble man on the face of the earth, however, Moses again refused to accept God’s offer to replace Israel.

Instead, he appealed to the Lord’s merciful nature, asking to forgive the people —the same people who railed against Moses and Aaron and threatened to stone Caleb and Joshua just a short time earlier.  Moses reminded the Lord:

“The LORD is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, … Pardon the iniquity of this people, I pray, according to the greatness of Your mercy, just as You have forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.”  (Numbers 14:18–19) 

A Jewish teen wearing a tallit (prayer shawl) and a kippah (head covering) prays using a siddur (prayer book).

A Jewish teen wearing a tallit (prayer shawl) and a kippah (head covering) prays using a siddur (prayer book).

Moses also appealed to the Lord’s reputation as a God of integrity who is able to do all that He promises: Moses told Him,

“They [the Egyptians] have heard that you, O LORD, are in the midst of this people. … 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 14:14–16)

Because of Moses’ intercession and his appeal to God’s reputation and merciful nature, God relented from completely destroying the entire nation of Israel; nevertheless, He decreed judgment on those who refused to trust in Him the way Joshua and Caleb trusted in Him.

“I have forgiven them, as you asked.  Nevertheless, as surely as I live and as surely as the glory of the LORD fills the whole earth, not one of those who saw my glory and the signs I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness but who disobeyed me and tested me ten times—not one of them will ever see the land I promised on oath to their ancestors. No one who has treated me with contempt will ever see it.  But because my servant Caleb has a different spirit and follows me wholeheartedly, I will bring him into the land he went to, and his descendants will inherit it.”  (Numbers 14:20–24)

The entire generation (ages 20 and up) who had just been counted in the census would not enter the Promised Land they so feared; instead, they would die in the wilderness; that is, Joshua and Caleb would live to enter the Land.

Torah ark at the Western (Wailing) Wall (Photo by James Emery)

Torah ark at the Western (Wailing) Wall (Photo by James Emery)

Lessons for Us Today: Faith and Entering the Promised Land

What lessons may we learn from this account of Israel in the wilderness?

First, we need to be people of faith, seeing ourselves as sons and daughters of the King of kings and Lord of lords—and not tiny grasshoppers to be crushed under some giant’s foot.  We need to believe that no matter what challenge we face today, we are “well able to overcome it” with God’s help.

This is the kind of faith that pleases God.  Without it, it is impossible to please Him.  (Hebrews 11:6)

Second, as people of faith, we need to guard our speech and speak forth faith-filled words.

Why did the whole community of Israel die in the wilderness?  They reaped the fruit of their faithless, fearful words.

The people said many times, “We will surely die in this wilderness,” and God allowed them to speak their own future into existence.

“Say to them, ‘As I live,’ says the LORD, ‘just as you have spoken in My hearing, so I will do to you: The carcasses of you who have complained against Me shall fall in this wilderness, all of you who were numbered, according to your entire number, from twenty years old and above.”  (Numbers 14:28–29)

Two ultra-Orthodox Jewish men have a conversation in Jerusalem.

Two ultra-Orthodox Jewish men have a conversation in Jerusalem.

For each of the 40 days that the Israelites spied out the land of Canaan, the Israelites would wander in the wilderness a year until that generation died—40 years.  Only Joshua and Caleb, who had a different spirit and wholly trusted in the Lord would enter the Promised Land along with the next generation.

“According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for each day you shall bear your guilt one year, namely forty years, and you shall know My rejection.  I the LORD have spoken this.  I will surely do so to all this evil congregation who are gathered together against Me.  In this wilderness they shall be consumed, and there they shall die.’”  (Numbers 14:34)

Third, we need to repent of our unbelief and begin trusting in God or else we cannot move forward.  And sometimes, our lack of faith may prevent us from moving forward in a particular area even after we repent.

In this Parasha, the Israelites were suddenly remorseful for their behavior and gathered up the courage to go up and take the Land, but it was too late.

Moses warned them, “Do not go up, for the Lord is not among you, lest you be struck down before your enemies,” but they rebelled again, went up in presumption and were, therefore, defeated by the Amalekites and Canaanites.

Also, the ten spies who had brought back the evil report of the Land were struck down by the Lord in a plague, but Joshua and Caleb were left alive.

God had rendered His final decision and they were now “not able” as they had spoken over themselves.

Fourth, we should be a humble people given to intercession for others—from family members to complete strangers.  May we all be like Moses, who pleaded for mercy on behalf of his people. 

An Ethiopian Jewish man and a Kes, a religious leader of the Ethiopian Jews, carry the Torah.

An Ethiopian Jewish man and a Kes, a religious leader of the Ethiopian Jews, carry the Torah.

Our faith matters to God!

The Word of God says that the power of life and death is in our tongues and we shall, in a sense, eat our words.  (Proverbs 18:21)

Yeshua said that it is by our words that we will be acquitted and by our words we will be condemned.  (Matthew 12:37)

May we be careful and deliberate in the words that we speak over ourselves and others, since faith comes by hearing.

May our words and actions be a testimony of the goodness and greatness of the God of Israel, and may we take hold of His promises through faith.

“May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.”  (Psalm 19:14)

A mother and daughter share a moment at the Dead Sea in Israel.

A mother and daughter share a moment at the Dead Sea in Israel.  (Photo by opalpeterliu)

Haftarah (Prophetic Reading): Faith Moves Us into His Promises

In Haftarah Shelach Lecha (Joshua 2:1–24), we see that Joshua, Moses’ assistant, who was one of the two spies who trusted God, has been appointed by the Lord to lead the next generation of Israelites into the Promised Land.

As Abraham’s tested faith moved Him forward into the role of the Patriarch of the Chosen People and recipient of the covenant, so did Joshua’s tested faith move him forward into his role of a leader who, with God’s help, was “well able to overcome” all the obstacles before him and take possession of the Promised Land.

In this Haftarah, Joshua sends out two of his own spies into Jericho, in preparation for battle.  Although Jericho is a well-fortified city with a well-equipped army and great walls surrounding it, the spies tell Joshua, “The LORD has surely given the whole land into our hands; all the people are melting in fear because of us.”  (Joshua 2:24)

Now in the land that their parents so feared, the next generation of Israelites witness God move and have great faith, being “fully convinced that God is able to do whatever He promises.”  (Romans 4:21)

May we be fully convinced of that truth as well.

report article corrections