Numbers 14:20-45

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In a Nutshell…

Read the passage here.

As we saw last time, God sent twelve Israelites, one from each of the twelve tribes, into the land of Canaan, and they then reported back to Israel.  Except for Joshua and Caleb, all of the scouts reported that the land was full or terrifying peoples and warned against trying to take the land.  Therefore, because of the Israelites’ lack of faith and rebelliousness, announces judgment on Israel.  He states his intention to strike the people with pestilence, taking away their inheritance, and make a nation from Moses. 

In the intervening verses, Moses pleads on behalf of the nation and people of Israel.  And Moses’ argument is essentially that such action will reflect badly on God, Himself. (This is worth reflecting on but, though it’s only a few verses, I’ll leave those with you). 

Our passage today picks up from Moses’ pleas to God, showing us God’s response and what happens next.  Now there’s a sense in which this episode is pretty straightforward. 

God announces that the Israelites will be forgiven but that there will be consequences for their rebellion.  This entire generation, except for Joshua and Caleb who demonstrated faith in God and His promises, will wander and die in the wilderness and not enter the promised land.  Those scouts who spread the bad report all died of a plague.  When the Israelites found out about God’s judgment, they declared that they wanted to follow God after all.  They tried to enter Canaan, despite Moses’ warnings, and were defeated and driven out by the Amalekites and Canaanites. 

So, plot-wise, it’s pretty clear what happens.  And thematically, there aren’t a lot of surprises either.  However, I do want to point out a few things that I think are interesting and I hope will be helpful. 

Firstly, once again, I hope that you are reading, or have read, through the book of Numbers as we go through this series.  Mostly, I hope you are doing this because it’s important that we actually spend time in the word of God.  Also, as you read through it, I hope and trust that you will notice many things that I haven’t – or at least, things that we don’t have time to discuss in this context.  For example, there’s a certain amount of arbitrariness (or at least expediency) in my selection of the passages for each week.  Which is to say that the way that I’ve selected the verses for each week may not be the best way to understand the sections or divisions in the biblical text.  So you may find connections or themes that we don’t have time to talk about or that I’ve simply missed. 

So, for example, in 14:11-12 (which is not part of our passage today), we get: 

1The Lord said to Moses, “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? 12 I will strike them down with a plague and destroy them, but I will make you into a nation greater and stronger than they.”

Now this passage has a lot in common with Exodus 32:9-10

“I have seen these people,” the Lord said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. 10 Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”

The Exodus passage is from the golden calf incident.  Now the golden calf incident is probably the most distressing and disappointing one in Israel’s story in Exodus.  Remember, we talked about how Israel had come out of Egypt, unquestionably through the mighty hand of YHWH.  They had seen the ten signs, they had seen the parting of the Red Sea, they had been nourished by manna and quail from God.  Yet, at the foot of Sinai, they chose to make for themselves an idol to worship instead of God.  And God’s anger and judgment, that we’re seeing in these verses here, seems very justified. 

The response (of God) that we see here in Numbers mirrors what we’ve seen in Exodus.  And I don’t think the similarities are accidental or incidental.  So, we should take note of a couple of things.  Firstly, we should remember, although I suppose this is obvious, that this is part of the same story.  This is something that I want us to bear in mind, not only as we consider our passage today, but as we continue to read through the Old Testament, and indeed all of scripture.  The second thing that we should note in this similarity is that what we’re seeing here in Numbers is that the problem is not just that the Israelites were frightened and anxious and uncertain (which may be easy to assume).  What we’re seeing here is rebellion.  (this is obvious in the Exodus passage – less so in the Numbers passage, which is why I want to point out the similarities).

I want to stress this because it’s pretty easy to relate with Israel.  And it’s easy to relate with Israel because we are Israel.  Or in other words, people are people.  We would be just as likely to complain or whine or refuse to do something because it’s hard.  If I was Israel eating nothing but manna every day I would have complained.  And if I faced the prospect of entering a hostile new land with enemies surrounding me at every turn, I would have demurred.  The Israelites weren’t terrible people (any more than any of us are terrible people). 

The sin here is not that they weren’t good enough, brave enough, or strong enough.  The sin here is that they rebelled. 

To continue, let’s consider these verses (14:20-23): 

20 The Lord replied, “I have forgiven them, as you asked. 21 Nevertheless, as surely as I live and as surely as the glory of the Lord fills the whole earth, 22 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—23 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.

What’s interesting about these verses (at least what we’re considering) is the end of verse 22, in which God says that Israel disobeyed Him ten times.  This is interesting because there isn’t a biblical record indicating ten times.  So there are a number of possibilities: 

Firstly, the ten times simply aren’t recorded.  That is, Israel indeed disobeyed God ten times, but not all of those ten times are in the bible (because or repetition, redundancy, or whatever). 

Secondly, “ten times” is figurative.  “Ten times” may be an idiomatic expression which means repeatedly, “over and over,” or (given that ten denotes fullness or completion) something like “as much as possible.” 

Thirdly, and this is my personal leaning, ten times is a direct allusion to the ten plagues, or the ten signs, in Egypt.  I tend to lean this way because of the combination of images we get here. 

  • “glory and signs”
  • “Egypt”
  • “Ten times”

Recalling the Egypt narrative in Exodus, which I’m sure we all know, God performs ten signs – or sends ten plagues – in Egypt to convince Pharaoh to let the Israelites go.  And despite the signs, despite the display of power and sovereignty, Pharaoh refuses to let Israel go until after the tenth plague.  Or, in other words, Pharaoh continued to deny God’s sovereignty and authority – Pharaoh continued to deny that God is God (remember, this is one of the key themes in the Exodus narrative – the assertion of YHWH as sovereign over all other gods). 

So the accusation here may go something like this.  It took Pharaoh ten signs of God’s wonders, power, and authority – His glory – before he (more or less) acknowledged YHWH.  Israel, even after seeing all of God’s signs and wonders – his displays of power and faithfulness – still refuses to acknowledge YHWH.  They (unlike Pharaoh?) still rebel. 

The final part of our passage that I want to look at is the closing episode (vv. 39-45).  Remember, after God’s pronouncement of judgment, all of the scouts sent into Canaan, except Joshua and Caleb, die.  After seeing this, the Israelites say, “Now we are ready to go up to the land the Lord promised. Surely we have sinned!” (v. 40). 

We might be tempted to think that Israel has finally seen the error of their ways.  After all, didn’t they finally agree to do what God had wanted them to do in the first place? 

Well sure, we might also say, but we also have to understand that there are consequences to our decisions and our actions, don’t we? 

We might also say, doesn’t this contradict our understanding of repentance?  The Israelites sinned, but repented of their sin.  Isn’t God supposed to forgive them? 

In short, I think that it’s a little more complicated than this.  In other words, while I do believe that actions have consequences and that part of being human is accepting and learning from the consequences of our actions.  But I don’t think this story is about consequences – at least not mostly about consequences. 

The passage makes clear that the reason the Israelites failed is because the Lord wasn’t with them.  Verse 39 says:

42 Do not go up, because the Lord is not with you. You will be defeated by your enemies…

The reason the Israelites failed is because the Lord was not with them.  Yet, as we see, despite Moses’ warning, the Israelites went anyways.  They went into Canaan determined to take hold of the promise (the promised land) on their own.  Essentially, they tried to take the promise by force. 

And, not to put too fine a point on it, the promises of God cannot be gained by our strength, our wisdom, our ingenuity, our strategy.  They cannot be gained by good works and they cannot even be gained by obedience.  They cannot be gained, they can only be given.  Israel wanted to take what could only be given. 

So, in my opinion, this story is not about consequences for bad choices.  It’s about continuing to fail to see God as God. 

And it’s the same sin that Israel committed in the golden calf incident.  It’s the same sin that Pharaoh sinned through the ten plagues.  The same sin that Israel was guilty of in all of their complaining and lack of faith.  It’s the same sin when they refused to enter Canaan.  And it’s the same sin when they tried to take Canaan on their own terms. 

And it’s the same sin with which the serpent tempted Eve, with which we (human beings) have been struggling since the fall – to choose for ourselves what is right and wrong.  To be gods for ourselves. 

So What Now…?

We’ve been talking about the story of Israel, from Egypt to Canaan, as a journey of spiritual formation.  We’ve said that the story is not about travelling but about becoming.  I believe that for all of us, as people of God, life is about formation – about becoming.  And I wonder if the biggest obstacle most of us face is truly allowing God to be God. 

I imagine that it sounds like I’m repeating myself a lot – and I probably am.  When we allow God to be God, I can’t guarantee that we will get the things we want or the things we think we deserve.  And I can’t guarantee that life will be easier than if we try to do it ourselves.  But I do believe that the purpose for life, the meaning of life, can only be found in the creator and sustainer of life.  I also believe that this life is not the end.  And that most of (all of?) our wandering, our wondering, our brokenness and emptiness is because we are desperately trying to find that which we’ve lost. 

And the wonder of it is that He is looking for us too.  And not only is He looking, He has made a way.  He has made a way through His Son who is the way.  So, if we are willing to accept what only God can give, to be redeemed and restored as only God can do, and to become what God has always meant us to be, we find ourselves on the way. 

So we are on the way.  We are becoming.  We are becoming because God is working.  So let us pay attention, be involved, and allow God to work in us for His kingdom’s sake. 

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