Numbers 13 & 14: A Crisis of Unbelief


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The narrative of the spies’ expedition into Canaan is the prologue that leads to the story of the divine judgment upon Israel at Kadesh Barnea. Twelve men, one chosen from each of the twelve tribes, are sent in to spy out the land.

The instructions given by Moses to the spies are recorded in 13:17–20. The commission was definite and specific. They were to penetrate the Negev (the south), and the hill country, and seek to make some assessment of the possible military strength of the people, and their aptitude for war, and estimate the economic resources of their land. This was an astute and businesslike proposal, with both the more immediate objective of conquest, and the longer term prospect of settlement in the land, in view.

The opening of this chapter provides an excellent example of why we need to study all of Scripture. Sometimes, when we just read verses out of full context, we don’t have the whole picture. According to Deuteronomy 1:20-25, the plan to send spies did not directly originate with Moses, but came from the people. Moses told them simply to go and take the land, and the people suggested this “spying out” plan to Moses (“Everyone of you came near to me and said, Deu 1:22). Furthermore, in Deuteronomy 1:23 Moses said, “the plan pleased me well.”

This expedition had an unfortunate result; it may very well be that Moses was wrong in taking this suggestion of the people. Perhaps the accusations of Miriam and Aaron (petty, false, and self-interested as they were) had made Moses hesitant to take strong leadership.

We find a key word in the spies report after their return to camp. In Numbers 13:26–29 they say, “Nevertheless.” Nevertheless means “despite all that.” At that moment, Moses, and every person in Israel should have cried out and said, “Nevertheless nothing! How can one say, ‘We went to the land, found it good, and God’s promise true,’ and then say, ‘Despite all this . . .’?” Commenting on this passage, author and speaker Joyce Meyer wrote, ““We look around and see all these giants. We are supposed to be giant killers. We are more than anything when God is on our side. It was the way they saw themselves as grasshoppers and they let fear keep them from living the life God was going to give them.”

This chapter does have its heroes as Caleb and Joshua stand firm in the face of the spies’ unbelief, but they cannot change the minds of the people who are ready to return to the slavery of Egypt.

In Chapter 14 of Numbers the people reject Canaan. It is one of the saddest and most tragic experiences of Israel’s long history and is fraught with serious and far-reaching consequences. Their attitude of rebellion and unbelief, despite seeing God’s power and glory first-hand, dooms this generation to 40 years of desert wandering and banishment from the Promised Land. Sadly, of this generation, who had been promised and prepared by God, only the faithful heroes of the story, Joshua and Caleb, will reach the ultimate goal.

Some observations:

1. It’s all a matter of perspective. The ten spies saw foes; Joshua and Caleb saw the fruit. The ten spies saw giants; Joshua and Caleb saw God. The ten spies saw the walls and their faith crumbled; Joshua and Caleb had faith and knew God would crumble the walls.

2. We need to cast hesitation to the wind and go forward in God’s plan. We can’t let unbelief or disobedience cause failure. Hebrews 4:11 says, “Let us therefore be zealous and exert ourselves and strive diligently to enter that rest [of God, to know and experience it for ourselves], that no one may fall or perish by the same kind of unbelief and disobedience [into which those in the wilderness fell] (Amplified Version).”

3. When we move in God’s time there is an anointing to move through whatever He’s asked us to do. Of course we sometimes need to talk precautions, but there is a time when we simply need to commit our way to the Lord and trust Him completely.

4. If we stare at the enemy too long we can think ourselves right out of victory. We need to get beyond what we think of ourself Do we honestly believe we can do all things through Christ? Or, is that just a cute saying for a refrigerator magnet? We need to know who God is and what He is capable of. We need to know who we are in Him.


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Trust is the winsome wedding of faith and hope.

Brennan Manning

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