Spies on a Mission in the Promised Land

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Scripture Readings: Numbers 13:1-33 (Text) ; 1 Cor 10:1-11
July 19, 2009


In every country, there are certain events that later prove to be decisive turning points that have long-lasting effects on its history.

"Moses and the Messengers from Canaan" by Giovanni Lanfranco, 1621-24 (click image to enlarge)
“Moses and the Messengers from Canaan” by Giovanni Lanfranco, 1621-24 (click image to enlarge)

A few months before the Philippine Revolution against Spanish rule broke out in August 1896, the revolutionaries sent emissaries to Jose Rizal to convince him to lead the revolution. Being the most popular leader in the struggle against an oppressive Spanish colonial rule, Rizal was the unanimous choice of the revolutionaries. But Rizal declined the offer, saying the revolution was ill-prepared and premature because the people were not educated enough. After fighting broke out, Rizal was arrested on the false charge of inciting rebellion. In a manifesto he wrote from prison to the Filipino people, he vehemently denied any participation in the rebellion, “From the very beginning, when I first received information of what was being planned, I opposed it, I fought against it, and I made clear that it was absolutely impossible.”

Could this refusal to assume leadership of the revolution have changed the course of Philippine history? It might well have, because the first phase of the war ended in a stalemate. Not only were the Filipinos lightly armed and ill-trained, they were also beset by infighting and power struggles. Could a charismatic leader like Rizal have motivated the various factions to fight a common enemy together as a united front and thereby win the war decisively?

In contrast, the American Revolution against the British forces was successful because they fought the war united under a single charismatic leader, George Washington. Like the Filipino revolutionaries, the Americans were lightly armed, ill-trained, and were organized only as local militias. During the early battles, they were overmatched by the British, but after the Americans chose Washington to be their military leader, the tide began to turn in their favor. After many defeats and much hardship, the Americans finally overcame the British after six years of war.

If Washington, like Rizal, refused to assume the leadership of the ill-prepared and ill-equipped American forces and instead chose to remain in the comfort of his home as a wealthy farmer, could the war for independence have continued for more than six years, resulting in much more deaths, destruction and deprivation?

Today, we come to the portion of the Book of Numbers where Israel reached the southern gates of Canaan, the land that God promised to give to their forefathers and to them. In the previous two chapters, we read about their grumbling against God and against Moses, how God punished them, and then how Moses interceded for them.

Here, God commanded Moses to send out twelve spies to scout the land and its people. Although God assured them that he was “giving” the land to them, the Israelites still had to study and prepare for its military conquest and then actually go in and fight their battles.

After Moses selected the spies and gave them mission goals, they went into the land at the risk of their lives and came back to the camp at Kadesh-barnea to report their findings to Moses. At the end of the chapter, we read how the spies debated among themselves on whether they should go in and conquer the land. The decision they would make at this crossroad at the gates of the Promised Land would prove to be one of the major turning points in their history.

This afternoon, we will dwell on the theme, “Spies on a Mission in the Promised Land”:

1. Their Mission Goals
2. Their Mission Accomplished
3. Their Mission Report

Their Mission Goals (verses 1-20)
Twelve tribal leaders are selected as the scouting team. This list of tribal leaders differs from that in Chapters 12. Most likely, younger and stronger leaders were needed for such a dangerous and physically demanding reconnaissance mission. There is also an important footnote that introduces Hoshea the son of Nun in verse 16. Moses renamed “Hoshea,” which means “he saves,” to Joshua, which means “Yahweh saves,” anticipating not only the faith he shows in the next chapter, but also Jesus, the one who would come at the fullness of time, whose mission is to bring to God’s chosen people the good news of salvation from God’s wrath and of redemption from slavery to sin.

God gave them two main goals. They were to go from Paran to “spy out the land of Canaan,” and they were to bring back a report concerning the quality of the land and its inhabitants.

What were they to look for? First, they were to see what kind of land it is, whether it is good or bad, plentiful or desert. Second, they were to find out what kind of people live in the land, whether they were big or small, strong or weak. Third, they were to assess what kind of cities they lived in, whether they lived in tents like them, or live in fortified cities. These are the mission goals that God gave them through Moses.

Each one of us today has goals that we want to accomplish in our lives. Those who have families, you may be thinking that your main goals are to provide plenty for your family and to raise your children well. Those who finished their studies and are starting their first job want to prosper in their chosen careers. In the Philippines, one of the most desired goals is to be able to land a job in a good company overseas.

Children, is not one of your goals to get good grades in school? This is a good goal, but obeying your parents in the Lord is a better goal. What is the Fifth Commandment? Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Exod 20:12). This means that your chief mission as children in a Christian family is to obey your parents, and God promises that he will bless you, whether in this life or in the next.

Even churches usually state their mission, which most commonly is in terms of fulfilling the Great Commission. This has led to a misunderstanding that the purpose of the public worship of God every Lord’s Day is to evangelize the unbeliever and the unchurched, neglecting the goal of building up and nourishing the covenant people of God. This is why many churches today elevate all kinds of entertainment and feel-good messages over preaching the true gospel in their worship services.

Providing for family, career advancement, obeying parents, evangelizing the world: these are good goals, even Biblical goals. However, these goals are earthly and temporal.

What then does the Bible say is the main and highest goal that God gave you in this world? The Westminster Catechisms answer to this question is, “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.” The catechisms only restated Pauls commands, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31), and “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Col 3:17). Whatever you do and whatever happens to you in this life, set your sights on the glory that awaits you when Christ returns. And be thankful to God in whatever circumstances which you find yourself.

After they were assigned their mission goals, the spies were ready to go to accomplish their mission.

Their Mission Accomplished (verses 21-24)
So the spies entered the land, risking their lives in the process. The spies covered a wide area, some 200 miles from the Negeb all the way to the north of present-day Damascus (v 21).

"The Grapes from the Promised Land" by Nicolas Poussin, 1660-64 (click image to enlarge)
“The Grapes from the Promised Land” by Nicolas Poussin, 1660-64 (click image to enlarge)

One of the places they scouted, Hebron, a city located 20 miles south of Jerusalem, was significant in Israels history. Hebron is the place of sojourning of and the burial place of the patriarchs and their wives, including Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Leah (Gen 49:29-31).

What thoughts could the spies have been thinking as they went through the area, knowing that they were walking where their forefathers walked? It was also in this place where God had promised the land to Abraham forever (Gen. 17:8). And the spies must have remembered that a year earlier, as slaves toiling in Egypt, they cried out to God in their suffering, and God heard them and promised “to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exod 3:8).

Now the twelve spies actually saw with their own eyes what God had promised them even before they left Egypt. The land was so good and fertile that they even cut down a cluster of grapes, plus pomegranates and figs, which were all in season, so big and heavy that two men had to carry the fruits hanging from a pole (v 23). This is why they named the place Eshcol, which in Hebrew means “cluster.”

Oh how God has been faithful to them since their forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob! Now God is giving them the land in which their fathers sojourned and on which they themselves are now walking.

However, the spies also saw something that they considered ominous: the inhabitants of the land, called Anakim, were big and tall and a mighty people, as we will read in the more detailed report of the spies. But as the spies saw the land, they should have realized that God was faithful in fulfilling his good promises to them.

Today, he is still faithful to the promises he has revealed to us in his Word, whether in good times or in bad. In good times, what are we to do? Give praise, thanksgiving and glory to him. In bad times, what are we to do? Pray for strength and perseverance to get through difficulties, and then give God praise, thanksgiving and glory, for he works everything for our good.

For God’s faithfulness to all his promises, it was Israels duty to bless him, as Moses commanded them, “And you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the Lord your God for the good land he has given you” (Deut 8:10). In the same way, it is also our duty to bless God as he proves time and again his faithfulness to his promises. We are to praise, thank and glorify God for the grace, mercy and lovingkindness he bestows upon his people.

The mission of the spies was not a quick one-day or one-week foray into enemy territory; they scouted the land for forty days. Next week, we will look at the significance of these 40 days in relation to Israels decision whether to obey or disobey God’s command to enter Canaan.

Their Mission Report (verses 25-33)
After completing 40 days of reconnaissance, the twelve spies came back to the camp of the Israelites.

What did they report to the people? Their report covers the goals of their mission in verses 17-20 and a summary of what they accomplished in verses 2124. The only information we read in these verses were a list of places they explored and that the land was bountiful, with all kinds of fruits. The spies report to Moses and their debate as to what their next step are given in more detail in verses 25-33. Here, they presented Moses with good news, then bad news.

The Good News
The land itself was just as God had promised to Israel when they were still slaves in Egypt, a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exod 3:8).

Deuteronomy 8:7-9 gives a more detailed description of the abundance of the land:

For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs, flowing out in the valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron, and out of whose hills you can dig copper.

This is almost like the description of the Philippines as a land abundant in natural resources, with plenty of rivers, lakes and springs teeming with fish and sea life; verdant forests and fertile land to raise crops to feed all the people and their animals; and precious metals buried in its mountains waiting to be mined.

What beautiful and bountiful land God was giving them!

The Bad News
But what was the bad news? The spies mentioned three things, and they exaggerated or even lied in all three.

First, the spies warned about the mighty Anakim. “The people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large. And besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there” (verse 28). The spies added that the Anakites were descendants of the renowned Nephilim who lived before the flood, and these people were so big that they seemed to be grasshoppers compared to these giants (verse 33).

Who are these Nephilim? To answer this question, we digress and go back to the primeval history during Noahs days. Genesis 6:4 mentions them briefly, “The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.”

This passage is fascinating because of the mysterious identities of the characters mentioned here, so that many explanations have been proposed by Biblical scholars. Since the identities of the “sons of God” and the “daughters of God” are not pertinent to our present study, it would be sufficient to say that the Nephilim, mighty men of renown, were fierce and violent warriors who sowed fear in the ancient world. Maybe the Nephilim contributed much to the great wickedness on earth in Noahs day which provoked God to destroy mankind by the Great Flood (Gen 6:7).

The Anakim, which the spies said were descendants of these Nephilim, were the same people who according to Moses will be defeated by Israel when they enter Canaan, “to dispossess nations greater and mightier than yourselves, cities great and fortified up to heaven, a people great and tall, the sons of the Anakim…” (Deut. 9:1-2). They were also the same people who lived in the Hebron area that Joshua later defeated after Israel finally entered the land, “And Joshua came at that time and cut off the Anakim from the hill country, from Hebron… Joshua devoted them to destruction with their cities” (Josh 11:21).

So it would appear that the spies report about the Anakims great size and power was greatly exaggerated. The report was probably intended to sow fear into the hearts of the Israelites so they would not have to enter the land and fight those mighty Anakim warriors. The spies were not just exaggerating; they were even lying. How? The Nephilim could not have had descendants living during the time of Moses since they all would have perished in Noahs flood.

Second, “the cities are fortified and very large.” Here, the spies were telling the truth, as confirmed by archaeological excavation of large and heavily-defended Canaanite cities of the Late Bronze Age. For example, the city of Hazor could have had a population of 40,000, a large city in those days, and its stone walls were massive and towering, 20 or more feet wide and 20-30 feet high. This is why Moses said that the cities were “fortified up to heaven” (Deut 9:1).

Third, the land devours its inhabitants. If the land was so harsh to its people, why did the spies describe it as a land of milk and honey? How can a land abounding in natural resources, “a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, in which you will lack nothing,” devour its inhabitants? How could a land be so inhospitable when it produced big and tall people? The spies were lying again on this report.

So the majority report by ten out of the twelve spies concluded with the bad news,We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are” (v 31).

The Minority Report
The minority report presented by only Caleb, and later, Joshua, agreed that the cities were massively fortified and the people were bigger and stronger. But their conclusion was diametrically opposed to that of the other ten spies,Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it” (v 30). Later in Chapter 14, we read that Joshua also agreed with Calebs assessment of the situation:

If the Lord delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them (Num 14:8-9).

How did Caleb and Joshua come up with a different conclusion when they saw the same thing as the other ten spies? Yes, they also saw the heavily fortified cities and the big and strong people. But they also saw something else that the other ten did not see. And this something else is God’s presence with them: “He will bring us into this landThey are bread for us… God will not protect them… The Lord is with us.” Instead of serving the Israelites to the Anakim as fried grasshoppers, God would feed the Anakim as bread to his people Israel!

But the ten spies did not believe God’s promises to them and to their fathers. They analyzed the situation only from their sinful human perspective, and as a result, their fear was exaggerated and magnified, and God’s power was minimized. In contrast, Caleb and Joshua magnified God’s word and believed that God would fight their battles, so their fear was minimized.

Dear friends, Jesus is your “spy” who has scouted your land of destiny. If you believe in him, he has good news for you, but if you are an unbeliever, he has very bad news for you. He has walked and experienced both lands of destiny for you, so he knows what awaits you there. And because he is the All-Knowing Truth, nothing in his report is exaggerated or untrue.

Beloved Christian, Jesus knows everything about your Promised Land because he came down from there and he is there today. He assures you that your Promised Land is the heavenly city, a beautiful land abounding in God’s blessings and goodness. Its inhabitants are not wicked enemies you have to fight and conquer, but righteous friends with whom you will fellowship for eternity. Its fortifications do not just reach up to heaven, but the city is in heaven itself, safe and secure from all evil, because nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false” (Rev 21:27).

To those of you who do not believe and trust in Jesus Christ, Jesus also knows your destination very well. The bad news is that your promised land is a place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 13:42, 50), a place of torment and eternal fire that consumes yet does not kill (Rev 20:10). Worse, for all eternity, you will share this horrible place with wicked beings under judgment by a holy God. Its walls are unscalable and a great chasm exists between your land and the heavenly city, so that you or anyone else is unable to cross over.

For you to be able to cross over into the Promised Land of God’s blessings and goodness, believe and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. If you do, you do not have to face lifes challenges alone. For unlike the spies who magnified the challenge before them because of unbelief, you have God’s promise through Paul, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13).

Even better, when you look at your problems and you feel that things are hopeless, you will not fall into the same unbelief as the ten spies. And when you think that life is too hard and hopeless, Jesus will comfort you with his words of assurance, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt 19:26). Amen.


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1 thought on “Spies on a Mission in the Promised Land”

  1. What a powerful and spiritually insightful application – Yes, the good report of Jesus bears witness with our spirit. What joy to live by faith, stepping out in obedience. What eternal awards surely await.
    I tremble at the possibility that entrance is being delayed because of the unbelief and resulting disobience of so many of our friends. Must they all perish in a time of wilderness wandering like so many Israelites?

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