We are studying Numbers 13:1-14:10 for Sunday, September 22, focusing on Numbers 13:25-28 and 14:5-10. This is the story of Israelite spies sent to reconnoiter the Promised Land before the main body of the Israelites, and of their initial, discouraging, report, and of the minority report, and of the majority response to that dissent. The focal text is broken up so badly because, I assume, the editors have tried to maintain the narrative flow, but have tried to zero in on the report itself, and the Israelite response. This is the first of a pair of lessons on the episode with the spies; next week we’ll finish up Numbers 14 with God’s temper tantrum, Moses’s intervention, and God’s forgiveness of the Israelites despite their under-appreciation of the promise. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are my notes on this week’s text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: Numbers. One of the members of our class has informed me more than once that she hates the book of Numbers and wonders why it’s even in the Bible. We haven’t gone into this in detail, but the problem seems to be the litany of faithless behavior, and the recurrent reports of God’s annoyance. Unfortunately, knowing about all this probably IS why the book of Numbers is in the Bible.
This story is not in the Revised Common Lectionary – making it an outstanding example of something important you won’t know about The Story if all you know is what you read in the lectionary. [We had a discussion about the lectionary in Session the other day, in which one of the Session members expressed the opinion that it was a point of concern when a pastor didn’t use the lectionary, as if using the lectionary was some kind of mark of the true church. I thought “You really need to go to re-education camp.” In the most Christianly loving way possible, naturally.]
The book of Numbers mostly unfolds between the two censuses of Israel, in chapter 1 and chapter 26, the first one in the Sinai, the second one on “the plains of Moab” across the Jordan from Jericho, the interval spent working off the judgment incurred by the events of the story we are reading on Sunday. There is something of an appendix of legal and military material in chapters 27-36, enclosed by the story of the Daughters of Zelophehad [another one of the stories you won’t know from the lectionary], including the slaughter of the Midianites in chapter 31 and various tribes calling dibs on some of the land they are about to take over [another reason our classmate has for not appreciating the book of Numbers.]
So the issue of faithfulness and unfaithfulness, or in different vocabulary obedience and disobedience, to God’s commands, and the issue of knowing what God’s commands are and how we know that, and the troublesome aspect of that issue posed by the specific content of some of the commands in the Bible, arises in this text.
[Not too many of us have been commanded by God to invade other people’s land and kill everything that breathes, and to be fair, the killing everything that breathes part doesn’t seem to have been the sticking point for the Israelites in the wilderness-and-conquest story, but knowing that was one of the commands once upon a time dims my personal enthusiasm for making blanket statements about the Bible’s consistent ethic of life.]
Our story this week is the plot pivot that explains why the journey in the wilderness is so long: the report of the spies, and the Israelite response to it.
One thing I notice about all this is that how we characterize “what the story is about” and “what is happening in the story” makes a big difference. We have choices. We can call it “the spies’ negative report,” or “the Israelites’ faithlessness,” or “disobedience” or “the problem of discernment,” or “what perspective to take” or “whose perspective to pay attention to” or “not trusting” or … we could even call it “the Israelites facing the problem of decision making under conditions of uncertainty.” Who in B-school hasn’t studied that? Which choice we make affects the conclusions we draw about what the narrative means for us.
CLOSER READING: Our focus is on select verses in the longer narrative: vv1-2, in which God issues the instruction to send the spies, and specifies who to send; we skip the verses that list the individuals; read v17, in which Moses follows the instruction, skip vv17b-24, which gives Moses’s instructions to the spies, and their itinerary, read vv25-28, most of the spies’ report, skipping the list of the peoples living in the land [maybe the editors don’t want us to focus on that, or maybe it’s just too many hard-to-pronounce names], also skipping Caleb’s minority report and the intensification of the negative report in Numbers 13:30-33, picking up again with part of the Israelites’ response in 14:1-2, skipping the alternative interpretation of God’s intentions for the people and the plan B proposed in vv3-4, picking up again with Moses, Aaron, Caleb and Joshua arguing for the minority, and facing down death by stoning.
In other words: reading the whole story also makes a difference. I understand about space constraints. Still, it seems to me the essence of the narrative comes up in vv 13:31, where the spies asses their own strength relative to the inhabitants of the land, but don’t factor in God’s strength, and again in v14:3, where the Israelites misconstrue – I assume – God’s intentions. Misconstruing God’s intentions makes this story structurally and thematically similar to the story of Eve and the serpent in Genesis 3. Misconstruing God’s intentions leads to fatal error. In particular, thinking that God means you harm, when God means to bless you, does not work out well for characters in the Bible. This could be a lesson for us, as well.
Focusing on human strength while ignoring God’s strength, which is what happens in 13:31, is a different kind of assessment problem. And then, for a little perspective, at the end of chapter 14, the Israelites will ignore the fact that God is not with them in their plan, and will meet with military disaster, ironically just as predicted by the nay-saying spies. So what all this really suggests, it seems to me, is: it’s vital to have the right ideas about or from God, and to act on those, and not on the wrong ones. Think about that.
It must matter that God’s instructions in v2 include specifying that the one man per tribe to send be a “prince” or chieftain of the tribe (i.e. family group). To me it says: the kind of respectable people you will listen to. [I think: the kind of people you would nominate to be an elder or a deacon or to be on the PNC. Which makes me think.]
The Bible names names. The spies who turn out to have made the wrong decision are, I hope, consoling themselves up in heaven with the knowledge that most of the readers of Numbers over the past 3000 years or so can’t put faces to those names. I would not like to be named in that annual report, I admit.
So the spies follow instructions (see vv17-24). For forty days. I.e., “a long time” or maybe “the requisite number of days for a big project in the Bible” – like flooding the earth, or downloading the Torah, or getting ready to be tempted by Satan in the wilderness.
The congregation becomes a focus in our section; that word is repeated seven times between 13:26 and 14:10. Because the congregation is a main character in this part of the narrative. We may need to think about how congregations behave, and why they behave that way.
The factors in the decision making that’s being described are: the goodness of the land (v13:27; vv14:7-8), the strength of the inhabitants (vv13:28-29, 31, 32-33), and the [expected] role of God (vv14:3, 8-9).
Something outside the narrative is the answer to this question: what shapes the expectations of the congregation, and of the 10 spies who are not Caleb and Joshua? What shapes Caleb’s and Joshua’s expectations? Why are the two sets of expectations so different? This seems like an important question. The answer is far from obvious, at least to me.
Caleb and Joshua say the land is tovah meod meod – we would say something like so, SO good. “Only do not rebel” – a Deuteronomistic historian’s word – against YHWH, as they are about to do. This is when the whole congregation says to stone them with stones. I don’t know whether it is significant that stoning people with stones is what you are supposed to do when people try to get you to break the sabbath or worship other gods – that is, try to break up your communal solidarity. My guess is, it is significant. Ironically significant. Because Caleb and Joshua ARE talking about another God from the one the whole congregation is imagining in Numbers 14:10.
The problem for the congregation is that Caleb and Joshua are the ones with the right intel.
So another important question is: why doesn’t the whole congregation see this?