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The Spies (Numbers 13:1-33)

By R. J. Rushdoony
July 28, 2017

[Reprinted from Numbers (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 2006), pp. 133-139)]

1.   And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
2.   Send thou men, that they may search the land of Canaan, which I give unto the children of Israel: of every tribe of their fathers shall ye send a man, every one a ruler among them.
3.   And Moses by the commandment of the LORD sent them from the wilderness of Paran: all those men were heads of the children of Israel.
4.   And these were their names: of the tribe of Reuben, Shammua the son of Zaccur.
5.   Of the tribe of Simeon, Shaphat the son of Hori.
6.   Of the tribe of Judah, Caleb the son of Jephunneh.
7.   Of the tribe of Issachar, Igal the son of Joseph.
8.   Of the tribe of Ephraim, Oshea the son of Nun.
9.   Of the tribe of Benjamin, Palti the son of Raphu.
10. Of the tribe of Zebulun, Gaddiel the son of Sodi.
11. Of the tribe of Joseph, namely, of the tribe of Manasseh, Gaddi the son of Susi.
12. Of the tribe of Dan, Ammiel the son of Gemalli.
13. Of the tribe of Asher, Sethur the son of Michael.
14. Of the tribe of Naphtali, Nahbi the son of Vophsi.
15. Of the tribe of Gad, Geuel the son of Machi.
16. These are the names of the men which Moses sent to spy out the land. And Moses called Oshea the son of Nun Jehoshua.
17. And Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan, and said unto them, Get you up this way southward, and go up into the mountain:
18. And see the land, what it is; and the people that dwelleth therein, whether they be strong or weak, few or many;
19. And what the land is that they dwell in, whether it be good or bad; and what cities they be that they dwell in, whether in tents, or in strong holds;
20. And what the land is, whether it be fat or lean, whether there be wood therein, or not. And be ye of good courage, and bring of the fruit of the land. Now the time was the time of the firstripe grapes.
21. So they went up, and searched the land from the wilderness of Zin unto Rehob, as men come to Hamath.
22. And they ascended by the south, and came unto Hebron; where Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai, the children of Anak, were. (Now Hebron was built seven years before Zoan in Egypt.)
23. And they came unto the brook of Eshcol, and cut down from thence a branch with one cluster of grapes, and they bare it between two upon a staff; and they brought of the pomegranates, and of the figs.
24. The place was called the brook Eshcol, because of the cluster of grapes which the children of Israel cut down from thence.
25. And they returned from searching of the land after forty days.
26. And they went and came to Moses, and to Aaron, and to all the congregation of the children of Israel, unto the wilderness of Paran, to Kadesh; and brought back word unto them, and unto all the congregation, and shewed them the fruit of the land.
27. And they told him, and said, We came unto the land whither thou sentest us, and surely it floweth with milk and honey; and this is the fruit of it.
28. Nevertheless the people be strong that dwell in the land, and the cities are walled, and very great: and moreover we saw the children of Anak there.
29. The Amalekites dwell in the land of the south: and the Hittites, and the Jebusites, and the Amorites, dwell in the mountains: and the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and by the coast of Jordan.
30. And Caleb stilled the people before Moses, and said, Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.
31. But the men that went up with him said, We be not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.
32. And they brought up an evil report of the land which they had searched unto the children of Israel, saying, The land, through which we have gone to search it, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of a great stature.
33. And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the giants: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight. (Numbers 13:1-33)

We have here another account of unbelief. As Israel approaches the Promised Land, spies were sent in to spy out the land. Twelve men were chosen, one from each tribe (vv. 3-16). These spies apparently divided into two groups; according to vv. 17, 22-23, some went by way of the south; in v. 21, it would appear that some entered Canaan from the wilderness of Zin, south of the Dead Sea, and from there to Hamath.1

Of the twelve spies, two were godly and faithful men, Caleb, of the tribe of Judah (v. 6), and Joshua (or, Oshea), of the tribe of Ephraim (v. 8). The other ten men proved to be cowardly and faithless. Their names, however, are carefully recorded for us; they are names of infamy, permanently recorded in the Bible. They are a reminder to us that God forgets nothing. The Bible is not a record of sweetness and light.

Verses 3 and 17 tell us that Moses, “by the commandment of the LORD” (v. 3), sent out these spies. However, at this point we are not told of an important fact that appears years later. In Deuteronomy 1:20-46, Moses gives a more detailed account of the matter. There were three aspects to the decision to spy out Canaan. First, the people took the initiative. Their excuse in approaching Moses was that the mission of the spies would have as its purpose military strategy, to find out “by what way we must go up” (Deut. 1:22). This was a lie to deceive Moses and to cover up their fearfulness. An invasion was required, and they had no stomach for one unless it would be very easy. They were concealing cowardice in the name of strategy. Second, Moses took their reaction and statement at face value: “the saying pleased me well” (Deut. 1:23). He was apparently greatly encouraged by their seeming resolution and their readiness to face up to the responsibilities ahead of them. Third, God, of course, knew the cowardice of the tribes or clans. He commanded Moses to go ahead with the plan. By this means, God brought into the open Israel’s unbelief. In Watson’s words, “Always and everywhere, faithless means foolish, faithless means cowardly.”2 A great and strong people can become foolish and cowardly and lose all their resolution and power through faithlessness. Although the historical documents are fragmentary and contradictory, it was said of one ancient empire that the decision of enemies to attack and destroy it came when they saw the effete luxury and apparent homosexuality of its ruler. Watson was right: courage and the willingness to make a stand are not genetic but moral facts. Many a civilization has collapsed when its faith waned.

Canaan at that time was very different from the present Palestine. It was in many areas well-wooded and well-watered and capable of supporting considerable populations through its farming and ranching. A key area visited by the spies was Hebron, about twenty miles south of Jerusalem and a very ancient center of civilization. Its antiquity is cited in Numbers 13:22; Hebron antedated an ancient Egyptian city.

The names of some of the peoples who lived in Canaan are given in vv. 28-29. The Anakim are referred to in various texts as a very tall people. The Amalekites were a particularly vicious and militant people whom Israel had already encountered. There were various nations of Amalekites at the time. The Hittites are well known to scholars of ancient history; their center was elsewhere, but they were entrenched in Canaan also. The Jebusites held the Jerusalem area, while the words Amorites and Canaanites refer to the long-standing peoples of the land. In v. 33, the reference to “men of great stature,” the Nephilim, means peoples of a giant race. Such references were regarded as mythological prior to the time that explorers encountered the giant Watusis of Africa.

Caleb is an interesting person in many ways. He is here referred to as a member of the Judah clan. In Joshua 14:6 and 14, he is called Kenezite, a clan related to Edom (Gen. 36:11, 15, 42). The Kenezites were absorbed into the tribe of Judah. Thus, while Caleb’s Kenezite father was Jephunneh, Caleb is also listed as a son of Hezron of Judah, a subclan he had been made a member of.

The reputation of Canaan in antiquity was one of exceptional fertility. It is described as a land flowing “with milk and honey” (v. 27); the term is a symbol of “peace and plenty.” The honey could be date honey or wild-bee honey. In a fertile, well-planted land, with hills covered with wild flowers and shrubbery, wild honey would be very plentiful. Milk meant, of course, dairies and also butter and cheese, very basic foods in much of history. The Greeks used the term “milk and honey” to describe the food of the gods; it is a term common to antiquity.3

The report of the ten faithless spies had four aspects. First, they reported on the amazing fertility of the land. They brought back with them grapes, pomegranates, and figs as evidence of the high quality of the farming products. We are told of one cluster of grapes, on a single branch of a vine, which was carried on a staff by two men. To the modern mind, this sounds like hyperbole, because men today are ignorant about farming. The common summer grape in California is the Thompson seedless grape. As it appears in markets, it is twice the size of any such grape we might grow in our garden. By a process of girdling the branches, the grapes are force-fed into growing dramatically in size; the flavor of the ungirdled grapes is better, but, for marketing, girdled grapes alone will sell normally. When I was a boy, occasionally, with a garden vine, a farmer would strip the vine of many bunches or clusters of grapes and thereby produce a bunch or cluster of very great size. Such huge clusters have now no market value, so we do not see them. Smaller families, too, limit the amount the consumer wants.

At any rate, the products brought back by the spies were very impressive and were a witness to the productivity of Canaan.

Second, these faithless spies had another motive in bringing back so huge a bunch of grapes, and so superior a kind of pomegranate and fig. They were in effect saying, If you think these are big, wait until you see the size of the people! Not all the people of Canaan were “men of great stature” (v. 32), but this is what they stressed in order to intimidate the people even as they themselves had been. They reported, “And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which came of the giants: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight” (v. 33). This is vivid imagery, and very deceptive. A man can step on and squash a grasshopper: there is no contest between them. This is exactly the intention of the image: it reflects the people’s cowardice. They still preferred slavery in Egypt to fighting for freedom. Being faithless, they were empty men. James Moffatt’s rendering of Jeremiah 2:5 is very telling. God declares through Jeremiah,

What did your fathers find wrong in me that they went far from me, went after empty idols and became empty themselves?

Men who self-consciously choose evil have a strength for a time, but men who are lukewarm and pharisaical are marked by impotence.

Third, there is a strange statement in v. 32: “The land, through which we have gone to search it, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof.” Moffatt renders it as “a land that starves its inhabitants to death.” This paraphrase does not jibe with the description of Canaan as a land flowing with milk and honey. The literal reading is that the land eats up its inhabitants. The question is, what does this mean? This means, according to Wenham, that people “tend to die due to the hostile environment.” This was a false report, and the law of Deuteronomy 19:16-21 later summarizes the penalty for false reports. In Numbers 14:37, we read that these ten cowardly spies died of a plague as a judgment for their cowardly report. So, too, did all the people, other than Joshua and Caleb, before the entry into Canaan. The death they feared in Canaan, they met in the desert.4 According to Maarsingh, the reference to the land eating up its inhabitants can refer generally to war, disasters, infectious diseases, anything.5

Fourth, in v. 28, we read that the spies reported that the walled cities were impregnable. There was no possibility of anything but defeat. It would therefore be unwise to think of any kind of assault on Canaan. Defeatism was written into the minds of the ten spies, as well as cowardice, and they refused to present any option except retreat. To fight was out of the question. At every stage of their deliverance, Israel had been presented with miraculous answers. They apparently now wanted no more miracles: no miracles, no more on their part. This was faithlessness, and it asked for God’s judgment.

Caleb had another report, a very brief one: “And Caleb stilled the people before Moses, and said, Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it” (v. 30). The response of the ten faithless spies was “an evil report” (v. 32). “The original for ‘bringing up an evil report’ is in Prov. 10:18 rendered ‘uttering a slander.’”6 They were slandering the God who had delivered and led them. In Numbers 10:9, God had promised them,

And if ye go to war in your land against the enemy that oppresseth you, then ye shall blow an alarm with the trumpets; and ye shall be remembered before the LORD your God, and ye shall be saved from your enemies.

God thus promised to bless Israel with success in any war conducted in terms of His law or at His command. All this meant nothing to the people.

Forty days had been spent by the spies in Canaan. Apparently only Caleb and Joshua thought in terms of military strategy; the others reacted with fear.

Archeological research of Canaanite sites of the era indicates that the fearful spies were correct about the strong fortifications of that age.7 These spies, however, left out the degenerating morale of these peoples, and, even more, the power of God. God had commanded that Moses agree to the spying venture; it was a test of the people’s faith. They obviously preferred to be ruled by the fear of man rather than the fear of God, and this is a mark of the slave mentality. The world is always full of difficulties, and it is absurd and foolish to hope otherwise. We must see all difficulties in terms of God’s law and government, His sovereign purposes.

The twelve spies were clan leaders, not necessarily the head men by any means, but important men. They were thus in the main fairly representative of Israel, whereas Caleb and Joshua were not. What Israel demonstrated was not a religious fear but an ungodly fear, a fear of man, not of God. With this episode, Israel’s opportunity to enter Canaan in that generation ended. They had proven themselves to be true slaves, not God’s free men, and they were shortly thereafter sentenced to die in the wilderness. Their unbelief was a rebellion against God, a form of revolution. History is a long account of man’s revolution against God and His law, and God cannot lose in this war, nor can man win.


1. Robert A. Watson, The Book of Numbers (Cincinnati, OH: Jennings & Graham, n.d.), p. 151.

2. ibid.

3. Walter Riggans, Numbers (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1983), p. 108.

4. Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1981), p. 120.

5. B. Maarsingh, Numbers (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), p. 47.

6. George Bush, Notes, Critical and Practical, on the Book of Numbers (Boston, MA: Henry A. Young, 1870), p. 193.

7. R.K. Harrison, Numbers (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1990), p. 207.

 


Topics: Biblical Commentary, Biblical Law, Old Testament History, Pentateuch, Theology

R. J. Rushdoony

Rev. R.J. Rushdoony (1916–2001), was a leading theologian, church/state expert, and author of numerous works on the application of Biblical law to society. He started the Chalcedon Foundation in 1965.  His Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) began the contemporary theonomy movement which posits the validity of Biblical law as God’s standard of obedience for all. He therefore saw God’s law as the basis of the modern Christian response to the cultural decline, one he attributed to the church’s false view of God’s law being opposed to His grace. This broad Christian response he described as “Christian Reconstruction.”  He is credited with igniting the modern Christian school and homeschooling movements in the mid to late 20th century. He also traveled extensively lecturing and serving as an expert witness in numerous court cases regarding religious liberty. Many ministry and educational efforts that continue today, took their philosophical and Biblical roots from his lectures and books.

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