Numbers 14

The Word Made Fresh

1That night all the people moaned and wept. 2All the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron. They said, “We wish we had died in Egypt, or in this wilderness! 3Did the LORD bring us to this land to have us killed? Our wives and children will be captives. 4Let’s choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”

5Then Moses and Aaron fell facedown before all the Israelites and the people gathered there. 6Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who were in the expedition to check out the land, tore their clothing 7and said to the whole gathering, “The land we explored is a very good land. 8If the LORD is happy with us, then the LORD will see to it that we possess this land. It is filled with food and resources. 9Do not turn against the LORD and don’t be afraid of the people who live there. They are no more than a loaf of bread against us. They have no protection, and the LORD is with us. Don’t be afraid of them!”

10But the people threatened to stone them. Then the shining presence of the LORD appeared at the entrance of the meeting tent, and all the Israelites saw it.  11The LORD said to Moses, “How long will these people shrug me off? How long will they refuse to believe in me, despite all the demonstrations I have made in their presence? 12I will destroy them with a plague, and then I will make you a nation greater and stronger than they.”

13But Moses said to the LORD, “But then the Egyptians will hear about it because you brought these people away from them. 14They will tell the people who live in this land because they know, O LORD, that you are with these people; they know that your face is seen here. They know that your cloud stands over these people and that you lead them with a bank of clouds by day and a column of fire during the night. 15If you destroy this people these other nations who have heard of you will say, 16‘The LORD was unable to bring these people to the land the LORD promised them, and that is why the LORD killed them in the wilderness.’ 17So, let your power and might show forth just as you promised when you said, 18 ‘The LORD is warmhearted and gracious and abounding in love that is steadfast and faithful, demonstrating love to thousands and forgiving sinfulness and law-breaking and sin; in no way ignoring the guilty, but laying the guilt of parents on their children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation.’ 19Out of your great love for this people, please forgive them for their waywardness just as you have done ever since they left Egypt.”

20The LORD replied, “I do forgive them as you asked. 21However, as I live and fill the whole world with my shining presence, 22none of the people who have witnessed my presence and the miracles I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness – and still have challenged me all these times and not obeyed me – 23none of them will get to see the land I promised their ancestors. None of those who hate me shall see it. 24But my helper Caleb, who has a different attitude and has obeyed me without fail, I will bring into the land he has explored, and his descendants shall possess it.  25So, since the Amalekites and Canaanites inhabit the valleys, change course tomorrow and travel through the wilderness toward the Red Sea.”

26Then the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “When will these people stop complaining to me? I have heard all their griping. 28So tell them that I will bring down on them exactly what they have accused me of. 29Their dead bodies shall fall in this desert. None of them who were counted from twenty years old and older who have complained about me 30shall enter the land I promised them, except for Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. 31Their children, the very ones they said would be captives, I will allow to enter the land they have belittled, 32but their dead bodies will fall to the desert floor. 33For forty years their children will watch over their flocks in the wilderness and suffer because of their lack of faith until the last of their dead bodies falls to the ground. 34They explored the land for forty days, so for forty years, one year for each day, they will know my anger. 35I, the LORD, have said it; I will certainly do this to all the sinful people gathered against me. They will die in this wilderness.”

36The men Moses sent to explore the land, and who returned with a bad report and turned all the people against him 37died in a plague sent by the LORD. 38But Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, alone among those who explored the land, remained alive.

39When Moses told this to the Israelites, they grieved deeply. 40They rose early next morning and gathered in the hills. They said, “We know we have sinned, but here we are. We are ready to enter the land the LORD promised us.”

41But Moses responded, “Why do you continue to push back against the LORD? You won’t succeed. 42Don’t go. The LORD is not with you. You’ll just be struck down by your enemies. 43You will be attacked by the Amalekites and Canaanites and you will fall before their swords. You turned away from the LORD and the LORD will not be with you.”

44But they persisted in going up into the hill country, even though Moses and the LORD’s chest containing the Law were still in the camp. 45Then the Amalekites and Canaanites who lived in the hill country came and attacked them, and chased them all the way to Hormah.

Commentary

1-4: The ill report of the spies stirs up a fourth complaint. The people are now afraid to go on to the Promised Land and want to elect another leader and return to Egypt.

5-10:  Moses, Aaron, Caleb and Joshua are frantic over this decision and beg the people not to turn back from what God has planned for them. You may have noticed that in the account of the spies in the last chapter nothing is said about Joshua joining Caleb in urging them to enter the land, but here he takes his place as a leader and lieutenant of Moses.

11-12: God is angry and threatens to strike them with pestilence as on other occasions, and to disown them and make another nation the chosen people – a threat that is new.

13-19: Moses intercedes for the people. He reasons that if God turns against them now the other nations will think God is too weak to give them the land promised to them. He reminds God of God’s own self-revelation as a God “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

20-25: There are two accounts of God’s response to Moses’ intervention. In this first account God forgives them, but decrees that none of them will enter the Promised Land except Caleb. Joshua is not mentioned. God tells them to turn back toward the Red Sea because the Amalekites and Canaanites live in the valleys of the land they are approaching.

26-35: In this second account both Caleb and Joshua are named and excused from God’s punishment of the people. Also, those under age 20 will be spared and allowed to enter the land. They will wander in the wilderness for 40 years, corresponding to the 40 days the spies went through the land.

36-38: Also, in this second account of God’s punishment of the people, the 10 contrary spies die immediately of a plague.

39-45: The people at large are not immediately punished, but then decide to go up into the land, again defying God’s orders that they should turn back toward the Red Sea. They are driven back by the Amalekites and Canaanites.

Takeaway

While we recoil from these stories of people dying because of God’s anger, it helps to stop for a moment and reflect on how our lives today might be different if God had allowed them to never settle there. It was simply unacceptable for them to refuse.