When we finished up last time, the scouts (minus Caleb) were making an “evil report” about all the nasty stuff awaiting the Israelites in Canaan.

Frightened, the people start to question Moses and Aaron’s leadership. Believing that they have no future ahead of them, they regret that they will be dying in the wilderness rather than in their own homes back in Egypt – an understandable concern given the realities of burial and remembrance for the dead in nomadic societies, combined with the emphasis on ancestors and genealogies that we’ve seen so far in our story.

Of course, the point of this story is that the people aren’t trusting God, they’ve lost confidence that he’ll be able to pull off the whole Canaan thing. From a Small Gods perspective, it makes total sense that God would be really upset by this lack of faith since it would, literally, diminish his power (and himself!). It also makes sense in a cultural context where gods are worthy of worship based on their displays of power, which makes “we’re just not sure you can pull this off” mean effectively the same thing as “I’m planning to cheat on you, Barbara.”

Over and over again, we’ve seen that the narrative’s emphasis is on God’s power, not his goodness, love, or any other trait. This only makes sense in a henotheistic context. Also, from a relationship standpoint, it seems that God is putting his eggs in the wrong basket. A relationship that is based on one party always outperforming the competition is on inherently shaky ground. I think that it might have been better for God if it had focused instead on developing a relationship of mutual respect and understanding. Just as an example, anticipating that his people – as mortals – would need to eat and not waiting until they beg him for food to provide it. Another example would be to then not slaughter a whole bunch of them when they ask for some variety in their diet. Obviously, it’s not ideal to base a relationship solely on material gifts, but that would certainly have been a better start than simply reminding the people on a regular basis of how easily he can make their heads go squishy.

But David Plotz points out that the focus on God’s experience of the events may be missing the point for the humans:

But can you blame them? One of the lessons of the Iraq occupation is that people who’ve been oppressed for generations are not immediately ready for tolerant, rational self-government. They have habits of violence and intolerance and suspicion of authority that can’t be shrugged off in a moment. The Israelites were in bondage for 400 years, enslaved to brutal dictators: It’s unreasonable to expect them to immediately govern themselves and trust in God. God abandoned them for 20 generations, and He expects them to count on Him after a few months. I understand the Israelites’ fears—they needed, perhaps, a gentler God.

In any case, they decide to choose a new leader and return to Egypt.

Of course, Moses and Aaron come to God’s defence – and this time they are joined by Joshua, son of Nun, and Caleb, son of Jephunneh. Moses and Aaron fall on their faces while Caleb and Joshua take up clothes-rending duty and tell the people that the land they had spied out really is quite lovely.

Gone off the deep end a little, the people respond by agreeing to “stone them with stones” (v.10), which seems rather more dignified than being stoned with, say, aubergines, but nonetheless rather unpleasant.

God has a say

God’s not about to let a bunch of hooligans harm his BFF, so his “glory” swoops down to the tent of meeting.

Moses and the Messengers from Canaan, by Giovanni Lanfranco, 1621-1624

Moses and the Messengers from Canaan, by Giovanni Lanfranco, 1621-1624

“How long will this people despise me?” (v.11), he asks Moses. It’s a bit needy, isn’t it? I mean, putting it into human terms, this question really isn’t very flattering. The guy has just spend pages upon pages giving the people a huge set of rules, many of which seem to have no purpose other than making sure that the Israelites can’t have any non-Israelite friends. Then, nearly every time the people ask him for anything or disobey any of this huge number of commandments (including ones they don’t even know about yet), he slaughters them in rather horrible ways. With the exception of manna, the only thing he’s done for them in return so far is promise that things will be different once they get to his house. And yet, the people who’ve seen his house say that it’s a death trap. Is it really unreasonable for the people to start having some doubts? Maybe, instead of whining to Moses that he isn’t being loved on enough, God could, I don’t know, maybe send the people a box of chocolates? Preferably not ones infected with a “very great plague” (Num. 11:33).

True to form, God proceeds quickly to threats: “I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they” (v.12).

So yeah, why don’t the people trust God? Because he sees people as utterly disposable and his go-to reaction to not getting everything his way is to massacre everyone and start over with a new family.

Moses’ counter-argument

Moses comes back with a response that says a whole lot about the dynamic – and characters – at play:

  1. If you kill them now, everyone is going to assume that you killed them off because you weren’t able to make good on your promises.
  2. You keep telling us that you are “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression” (v.18) – quoting God’s own words from Exodus 34:5-8 – so how about acting like it?

Right, so God is terribly concerned about keeping up appearances, and even Moses can see that there’s a disjoint between God’s displayed character and the way he describes himself.

This whole speech makes me wonder if we humans are allowed to hold God accountable, or if this is a patriarch-only thing. One of the common arguments against atheists speaking about the immorality of the Bible (or of whatever Religious Person X claims that God thinks) is that God is the Judge, not subject to the judgement of mere humans.

I mean, sure, Moses is appointed by God to his position – as have been all the other patriarchs who have argued with him (such as Abraham). So are we to see Moses as a model for emulation, or does he have a special ball-buster dispensation? Frankly, given the brouhaha we had recently over Moses’ right to marry outside his ethnic group, I’m inclined to think that this is a special case. Still, though, I could see an argument being made.

The 40-year plan

It works, and God is convinced, but he’s not about to let the slight go unpunished. So he decrees that “none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs which I wrought in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the proof these ten times and have not hearkened to my voice, shall see the land which I swore to give to their fathers” (v.22-23).

He then singles Caleb out – “because he has a different spirit and has followed me fully” (v.24) – to survive the wilderness and make it into Canaan. It’s an interesting little aside for two reasons:

He names Caleb but not Joshua, who is later said to be Moses’ successor as the leader of the Israelites. The sparing of Joshua doesn’t come up until much later (verse 30), where he is named alongside a repeat of Caleb. This suggests to me that the Caleb tradition was originally separate from the Joshua tradition, and that the two stories were later melded together.

He doesn’t name either Moses or Aaron. Were they, too, included among those who put God “to the proof”? I’m guessing that it’s more likely that the authors already knew that they wouldn’t make it into Canaan, but reading the Bible as a straight narrative, this would be a really great “bwuh??” moment for the two of them.

But who is Caleb, anyway? For all the favour he’s getting in Numbers 13-14, I don’t recall hearing his name anywhere else in the narrative, nor do I remember his name from Sunday School. So what happened to the tradition that included such lavish praise from God?

But back to the decree, it may have some logic behind it. Continuing David Plotz’s point from above that the Israelites are just coming out of an oppressive situation and therefore will have “have habits of violence and intolerance and suspicion of authority that can’t be shrugged off in a moment”:

But for the same reason, it’s very hard to argue with God’s 40-year plan. Just as it took a generation for Korea and Germany to shake off their war trauma, and as it will certainly take a generation (or more) for Iraq to trust democracy, so the Israelites needed a generation. The freed slaves would never have been able to conquer the Promised Land—they were too timid and unstable. The testing of the desert journey—the self-sufficiency it required of the young Israelites—hardened them for conquest. God is cruel but practical, ruthless for a purpose.

The “evil report”

As I noted at the very end of Numbers 13, it’s not quite clear from the text (or, at least, my translation) whether the “evil report” refers to a lie or just to bad news. If it’s a lie, there’s no motivation provided since, surely, the scouts would benefit from settlement. If it’s just bad news, then the next passage becomes rather troubling.

The spies are blamed for making the people “murmur against [Moses]” when they “brought up an evil report against the land” (v.36-37). Moses isn’t even pretending that it’s about lacking faith in God here. It’s just, straight up, he wants to be the leader and the spies’ report threatened his position. And it still isn’t clear whether their crime was lying or simply bringing back bad news.

And the fact that the Moses leads the people in a retreat “since the Amalekites and the Canaanites dwell in the valleys” (v.25) suggests that maybe the report really was accurate, and that Caleb’s gung-ho attitude in Num. 13:30 could have gotten the Israelites killed.

But it doesn’t matter. They said something that Moses didn’t like so, of course, they all die from a plague. Except for Joshua and Caleb, who are spared.

Why is Joshua spared? Only Caleb is named as having contradicted the “evil report,” yet not only is Joshua also spared when all the others are killed, he will even go on to become Moses’ successor.

Well, the people are told about the whole 40 years in the wilderness thing, so they decide to backpedal and take Caleb’s advice. They head out to the hill country, ready to start conquering Canaan. But Moses tells them that it’s too late now, they aren’t going with God (or the ark), and therefore will be killed. Sure enough, the Amalekites and Canaanites attack, defeating them, and pursuing them all the way to Hormah.

So, to recap, the spies told everyone that the people living in Canaan are too strong to defeat, and they are killed for doing so. But then the people try to enter Canaan and they find that the people living there are too strong to defeat. Sounds about right?