Numbers 13:25 – 14:12

Jimmy JoLeviticus, O.T. Survey, SermonsLeave a Comment

In a Nutshell…

Read the passage here.

Our passage today is from Numbers 13:25 – 14:12. After the account that we read last week, God tells Moses to send some of the Israelites, one from each of the 12 tribes, into Canaan to explore the land.  This is what should have been an exciting time for the Israelites because this means that the Promised Land is within reach.  Our passage today tells us what these Israelite scouts found.

The story seems to be pretty straightforward. On the one hand, the Israelites discover that the land of Canaan, the land that has been promised to them by God, is just as one would expect – an exceedingly good land.  However, it’s also occupied by several strong peoples.  So some of the scouts spread fear among the Israelites and the Israelites, once more, in their fear and discouragement complain to God.

Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”

I want to set this episode in context with last week’s passage. You’ll notice, in the Israelites’ reaction, that today’s passage shares a lot in common with last week’s account.  Last week, when confronting their situation (the food situation), Israel’s response was as follows:

The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost—also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!”

And as you might recall, this sounds an awful lot like what Israel has said before. When they were being pursued by the Egyptians at the Red Sea in Exodus 14, and when they were running out of food in the wilderness in Exodus 16.  So we see again, in our passage today, when faced with the possibility of entering the promised land, Israel’s response is to complain and wish they were back in Egypt.

Once again, we are seeing here a dichotomy between Egypt and Canaan, the Promised Land.  Or, to make the same point we’ve made before, it’s a distinction, a comparison, between the old life and the new life.  And, fundamentally, the question that the Israelites have to answer is, “do they really want it?”  Do they really want the promises of God?  Do they really want to let go of everything that they thought they knew – those things that they thought were normal life, but were not-life?  And, of course, it’s going to be hard. But is it worth it?

Only a couple of the scouts sent into Canaan, Joshua and Caleb, believed God and believed that it would be worth it.  Do we really think that it will be worth it?

At this point, I want to point out what I hope is a useful comparison between last week’s passage (and the other similar passages) and today’s passage. The simple point that I want to make is that we need to understand both stories.  Last week, we asserted that God brings us where we are, to this place and to this time, to make us who we are called to be. Our passage today, I believe, tells us about the destination.

Now I want to be careful here because it’s important that we don’t read too much into Canaan as the destination. It’s not a geography that we’re talking about.  But the point that I want to make is that we need to keep the end in mind.

There are a couple of theological terms that are useful to us in this regard. The first is eschatology, which is derived from the word eskatosEskatos is usually translated “last” or occasionally “end.”  It refers to something that comes at a final stage or the end of a series.  We usually use the term eschatology when we’re talking about theology or study of the end times.

The other term that is useful is teleology. This is derived from the word telosTelos is usually translated “end,” though it can also mean “last,” “finally,” or “purpose.”  The sense of telos is more along the lines of fulfillment or completion.

Now as you can see, the two terms are fairly closely related. And when we talk about eschatology, we also frequently talk about teleology and vice versa.  The two terms share, to a certain extent, semantic range or semantic domains.

The reason I bring this up is because it’s actually fairly important.  We are trying to understand what all of this is for – what all of this life is for.  And as we walk through the Old Testament, and as we consider all of it in the light of Jesus Christ, we are trying to understand that we are part of a story.  We are part of a grand story of God redeeming creation – a broken creation that has fallen away from what it was supposed to be.  And being part of the story means that we are not merely trying to get to the end of the story.  It’s not just about getting to the conclusion, it’s about finding fulfillment – about becoming fulfilled.  It’s about God’s purposes – in us and for us – being fulfilled.  It’s about becoming who we are meant to be.

So our story today, about Israel essentially not seeing God’s good purposes for them as something worthwhile – it was too hard, too scary, we’d rather go back to Egypt – is both insight and warning for us.  It’s insightful because what God has for us is something new. God has for us something better.  And it can be hard to see it as better because we’re so used to what we know.  Even if what we know is terrible and brutal and unfair and unkind.  Still, we want to hold on to what we know.  Like the Israelites, we want to go back to Egypt.

And it’s warning because, at the end of the day, God gives us what we want. That’s maybe a bit of a trite way to say it, but what I mean is, after this passage, because of the Israelites’ complaining, God tells the Israelites that none of this generation will enter the promised land.  They will stay in the desert for 40 years, and only when an entirely new generation arises will Israel enter Canaan.  Because Israel refused to take hold of the promise, the promise passed them by.

So the point I want to make is that I realize that sometimes life is scary and hard and confusing and disappointing. And we do all kinds of things to mitigate all of that.  We try to avoid it, we try to control it, and sometimes we just ignore it.  And in avoiding it, controlling it, or ignoring it, we often miss the point that God is working in us, precisely where and when we are – in this time and in this place.  And He’s working in us, not just to get us to the end of the story, not just to arrive at a destination, but to fulfill His purpose.  And His purpose includes our fulfilling ours – that we become who we are meant to be, who we were created to be.  In other words, it’s about becoming.

So What Now…?

This is important because we tend to think about eschatology without teleology. [To be fair, this is probably not the best use of these terms].  What I mean is that we often think about the end in terms of getting.  We think about the Christian life in terms of what we will get if we do the things we are supposed to do and avoid the things that we are supposed to avoid.  If, for example, we do the Christian thing right, then we will get our mansion in heaven and the riches stored up for us.  And so, we naturally make some sort of calculation regarding whether or not the riches we will get are worth the riches that we have to give up.  Now those riches may not be material wealth per se, but they may be experiences.  So, for example, if we think that heaven will be a matter of everyone sitting on clouds with harps and singing in a heavenly choir for all time, it’s hard to imagine that being worth giving up the excitement of pre-marital (or extra-marital) sex, or being famous and admired, or visiting all the places or eating all the food.  If it’s just a matter of getting, then it certainly makes sense that it’s better to ask forgiveness than seek permission.

But it’s not about getting, it’s about becoming. The promise of God is not that we will get what we deserve to get, but that we will be who we were meant to be.

Last week we talked about how, though the Israelites constantly complained about it, God had brought them exactly where He needed them to be. That even in the hardships, the boredom, and the uncertainty of it all, God was forming them into a people – He was forming them into His people.

This week, we see the purpose of it – the telos. Or rather, we see the importance of holding on to the purpose – of keeping the purpose in mind.  The problem with this world, the problem with human beings, is not that we don’t have enough.  The problem is that we are not enough.  But the promise of God is that we will be. We will be fulfilled.  Our purpose will become our reality.

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