NUMBERS 13-14: WHY DO YOU FEAR, GRASSHOPPER?
WHY DID ISRAEL WANT TO STONE CALEB AND JOSHUA?
Another curious story, and Numbers is full of them! This story is about the Lord commanding Moses to command spies from each of the twelve tribes of Israel to go and check out the land of Canaan.
Forward spies or scouts are the most courageous of the courageous. They often go without much cover into enemy territory, and here would be twelve men doing just that. Often the only names we hear are Caleb and Joshua, but I'm going to name all twelve so that they can make the internet: Shammua, Shaphat, Caleb, Igal, Hoshea, Palti, Gaddiel, Gaddi, Ammiel, Sethur, Nahbi, Geuel. Did you see Hoshea in this list? Moses changed his name to one that would become famous, Joshua.
The spies went into the center of Canaan, Hebron, which is between the Dead Sea and Mediterranean Sea. Moses had given the men a spy's check list (13:17-20).
Often this story gets told to children with the emphasis on the courage of Caleb and Joshua (13:30; 14:5-10). Not only were they courageous in scouting, but when they returned, Caleb and Joshua were fearless in reporting, and in the face of opposition of Israel and the other ten spies, they were relentless.
"But the whole congregation threatened to stone them" (Num 14:10 NRSV).
Why did they want to stone Caleb and Joshua? Remember back in Genesis 6:4, the giants in the land, a mysterious horde called Nephilim. Look it up, and no, nobody really knows, but maybe they were giants, legends in the order of bigfoot, or rodents of unusual size, and it appears these Nephilim came back into play when it was time to make excuses for not occupying the land of Canaan. The desert was growing on the them after seeing the intimidating size of the people and land and comparing themselves with their power. In much the same way that we would use hyperbole, they did too.
Caleb had already indicated that Israel could go up to Canaan, but the other spies begged to differ! They said, "The land that we have gone through as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are of great size. There we saw the Nephilim (the Anakites come from the Nephilim) . . ." Then the ten spies, not Caleb and Joshua, said the classic line,
"and to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them."
This led to great wailing that night in the tents. People were so afraid they wept and complained and wished they'd have died in Egypt rather than for women and children to become booty (14:3). Yes, booty is what the NRSV says, look it up.
Back to the attempted stoning. God intervenes, but they'd be better off with one another's stones than the wrath of Yahweh. God turns to Moses and says, "How long will this people despise me? And how long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? I will strike them with pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they."
But here is one of the most amazing moments in all of scripture, when Moses talks God down from his anger by appealing to the steadfast love of God that God had already claimed!
But Moses said to the Lord,
“Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for in your might you brought up this people from among them, and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, O Lord, are in the midst of this people; for you, O Lord, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go in front of them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. Now if you kill this people all at one time, then the nations who have heard about you will say, ‘It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land he swore to give them that he has slaughtered them in the wilderness.’ And now, therefore, let the power of the Lord be great in the way that you promised when you spoke, saying,
‘The Lord is slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love,
forgiving iniquity and transgression,
but by no means clearing the guilty,
visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
to the third and the fourth generation.’
Forgive the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have pardoned this people, from Egypt even until now.”
Then the Lord said to Moses,
“I do forgive, just as you have asked; nevertheless—as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord— none of the people who have seen my glory and the signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tested me these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors; none of those who despised me shall see it. But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me wholeheartedly, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it."
God struck down the spies but preserved the lives of Caleb and Joshua. The Renovaré NRSV says,
"It is this faithful and trusting spirit that set Caleb apart from the rest of the Israelites and became his trademark. After all, God had afflicted the Egyptians and moved them to release thousands upon thousands of Israelite slaves. He had parted the sea. He had provided daily manna in the desert to feed the people and meat to give them variety. He had displayed his glory at Mt. Sinai. Now, how could they express doubt at God's ability to hand over the land he had promised?"
About commitment the Renovaré NRSV quotes the famous writer C.S. Lewis who says the Christian way is as different from the way of the world or way of nominal Christianity as Caleb's way is different from the way of the fearful spies:
"Christ says, 'Give me All. I don’t want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half-measures are any good. I don’t want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don’t want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked—the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: my own will shall become yours.'”
Are you tired of going along with the crowd? The other nine spies in the land? Are you ready to stand up for what you believe? What is your very next step? What was Caleb's step? What was the deep character in relationship with God that Caleb believed and acted on?
Lord, Help us to trust in the deepest of ways in the most difficult of times. Amen.
Greg Taylor preaches for The Journey: A New Generation Church of Christ. Greg's wife, Jill, teaches math at Broken Arrow High School and Tulsa Community College. Greg and Jill have three adult children, Ashley, Anna, and Jacob. Greg is the author of many books, including his latest co-authored with Randy Harris, Daring Faith: Meeting Jesus in the Book of John.