AN EXPOSITION OF NUMBERS 14:5-20
Having delivered the Hebrew people from 400 years of bondage in Egypt, the Lord brought His people to a place near the Land of Promise called Kadesh-Barnea. While the main body of people camped and rested, twelve spies were sent into Canaan on a reconnaissance mission. When the spies returned to camp, two reports were given. In today’s political language, there was a Majority Report, and there was a Minority Report.
The Majority Report was embraced by ten of the spies, and it was disheartening. The Majority Report said the people of Canaan were numerically too many to conquer. The Canaanites were physically too big to fight in hand to hand combat. The people in Canaan were too well fortified to defeat.
As might be expected, when the Majority Report was disseminated among the people, fear spread like wildfire. The hearts of the people melted. Their knees turned to water. Their individual spines became like jelly. Fear replaced faith. The promises of God were forgotten. The miracles of the LORD were dismissed. The people believed that God had done His part in their salvation, now they must do their part, but their part was unattainable. Or so the people concluded from the Majority Report.
It was this false conclusion which produced frustration and anger in the heart of the Hebrew people.
When people are angry, they look for someone to blame. Moses and Aaron were two obvious choices to blame, for they were the ones who had gone to Pharaoh and demanded to let the Hebrew slaves go free.
Suddenly, the Hebrew people did not feel free. They did not value their freedom, for dark thoughts settled in. Here they were, in the dessert, trapped between two nations. To go back to Egypt meant a return to slavery, and a harsh reception. To go forward to the Land of Promise, invited warfare and death. Moses and Aaron were to blame for this terrible situation the people found themselves in. The anger of the tribal leaders of Israel was demonstrable. What was Moses and Aaron to do?
An Act of Humility
5 Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembly of the congregation of the children of Israel.
This expression of humility by Moses and Aaron must be understood in a cultural context, where individuals bow before figures of authority. Though Moses himself was the national leader of the people, and the rightful one to be in ultimate control, he was wise enough to know that no one has more authority over others then what they are willing to give him.
Fear and intimidation can subdue people to a certain extent, but let enough people stop being afraid, and let enough people be willing to risk their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor for a righteous cause, and then the mightest despot learns the limitations of social control.
Moses knew the people were about ready to stop listening to him, and to take all authority unto themselves. Something must be done.
An act of humility can have a calming effect in a stressful situation. Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembly of the congregation of the children of Israel.
Two Faithful Friends
6 And Joshua the son of Nun, and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, which were of them that searched the land, rent their clothes:
When Joshua and Caleb saw Moses and Aaron on their faces before the people, they understood how serious the situation was. Some of the people were about ready to lose all self-control. When people are angry and afraid, they lash out in acts of violence. They want to kick and scream in rage. Moses and Aaron were in real danger. Something had to be done. Something should be said. Perhaps it was Joshua who spoke first.
The Minority Report
7 And they spake unto all the company of the children of Israel, saying, The land, which we passed through to search it, is an exceeding good land.
8 If the LORD delight in us, then he will bring us into this land, and give it us; a land which floweth with milk and honey.
9 Only rebel not ye against the LORD, neither fear ye the people of the land; for they are bread for us: their defense is departed from them, and the LORD is with us: fear them not.
For those who are interested in homiletics, or the art of preaching, here is a short, but masterful sermon with four main points, and three subpoints. First, the land of Canaan is an extremely good land. It is a land flowing with milk and honey. It is a land which requires two men to carry on their shoulders the fruit of the vine.
Second, if the LORD is pleased with His people, He will bring them into the Land of Promise. What God has ordained; He will sustain.
Third, people should not rebel against the LORD, nor should anyone fear the people of the Land.
There are good reasons not to fear the Canaanites.
To begin with, said Joshua, they are “bread for us” meaning, “we can eat them alive.” Bread is good. Bread is enjoyable. Look upon the people of Canaan as a commodity to be consumed, and all shall be well.
Moreover, the Canaanites have no real defenses. Their military might is an illusion. They are a paper tiger.
“Best of all,” said Joshua, “the LORD is with us.”
Fourth, there is nothing to fear. “Fear them not”, said Joshua and Caleb. Why? Because the fear of the Canaanites is not a legitimate fear.
The Bible makes a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate fear.
Illegitimate fear is emotion which produces daily apprehension, because the mind says to itself that individuals are nothing more than an animal. There is no God. There is only nature, and nature demands the survival of the fittest. Might make rights. We must look out for ourselves. Now that is a philosophy of anxiety and fear, when someone or something stronger and mightier in life is encountered.
“Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. 30 But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows” (Matt. 10:29).
“Fear them not” the recommendation of the Minority Report.
When Joshua and Caleb had stopped speaking, there was a dramatic pause. Then, like a dam bursting, the floodwaters of emotion flowed over the people of Israel.
An Emotional Response to Reason
10 But all the congregation bade stone them with stones. And the glory of the LORD appeared in the tabernacle of the congregation before all the children of Israel.
The response of the people to the wise counsel of Joshua and Caleb was probably unexcepted, for all the people began to talk about stoning them to death!
The Law did permit stoning, but not for giving a good report in faith, and encouraging people to honor God.
The Law permitted stoning for necromancy, blasphemy, idolatry, and murder. It did not permit stoning for telling people to live by faith, and without fear.
Fortunately, the emotional revolt of the people against Moses and Aaron, and then against Joshua and Caleb, did not continue for very long, because the LORD Himself arrested the madness of the moment.
It is always a blessing when the Lord steps in to stop people from doing something more foolish than what they are engaged in.
The Bible says that while Moses and Aaron bowed before the people, and after Joshua and Caleb spoke to the people, “the glory of the LORD appeared in the tabernacle of the congregation before all the children of Israel.”
The reference to “the glory of the LORD” is a reference to the Shekinah glory, that majestic display of the immediate presence of God.
While the word shekinah does not appear in the Bible, the concept does.
The word itself appears in various Jewish writings, to refer to the glory of God on earth, when there was a manifestation of His presence.
There are times when the LORD comes to dwell with His people for a stated purpose. The LORD comes in an unusual way when we need Him most.
Moses and Aaron needed the LORD of glory.
Joshua and Caleb needed the LORD of glory.
The people of Israel needed the LORD of glory, though they did not realize it.
Once attention was refocused on the LORD, He spoke to Moses, whose authority He reaffirmed and re-established.
A principle is to be noted. Follow those whom the LORD has established to lead His people. Follow the man who follows God.
The LORD has something to ask, which does not need an answer. He also has a surprising offer for Moses.
The Severity of Divine Judgment
11 And the LORD said unto Moses, How long will this people provoke me? and how long will it be ere they believe me, for all the signs which I have shewed among them?
This rhetorical question demands no response. The implication is clear. The LORD will not allow the people to provoke Him any longer with their unbelief. With that being said, the LORD surprised Moses with His stated preceptive, or revealed will.
A Surprising Offer
12 I will smite them with the pestilence, and disinherit them, and will make of thee a greater nation and mightier than they.
It is not clear if anyone else but Moses was able to hear what God was saying to Moses. If anyone had been listening, their hearts might have melted in horror, as their bodies trembled in fear. God told Moses He was going to take three steps.
First, He was going to bring sickness and disease to the Hebrew people. “I will smite them with the pestilence.”
Second, the LORD was determined to disinherit the Hebrew people. Spiritually, He would divorce them, or put them away.
Third, the LORD was ready to take Moses and create a new nation that would be greater and mightier than the nation of the Exodus Generation. It was a fantastic offer. It was an intriguing proposition. However, Moses did not want that to happen. As a Great High Priest, Moses began to pray for the people. Moses began to plead with the LORD to have mercy and grace, and for this reason. It would not be in the best interest of the LORD for Him to destroy the Exodus generation and begin again.
Notice the reasoning of Moses.
Moses as Priest
13 And Moses said unto the LORD, Then the Egyptians shall hear it, (for thou broughtest up this people in thy might from among them;)
14 And they will tell it to the inhabitants of this land: for they have heard that thou LORD art among this people, that thou LORD art seen face to face, and that thy cloud standeth over them, and that thou goest before them, by day time in a pillar of a cloud, and in a pillar of fire by night.
15 Now if thou shalt kill all this people as one man, then the nations which have heard the fame of thee will speak, saying,
16 Because the LORD was not able to bring this people into the land which he sware unto them, therefore he hath slain them in the wilderness.
Moses was saying, “LORD, if you do as you intend to do, the Canaanites will tell the Egyptians that the Hebrew God was not so great and powerful after all. This course of action will not enhance your glory. It is not in your best interest to destroy everyone and start over.” What would be in the best interest of the LORD is an alternative.
A Suggested Alternative
17 And now, I beseech thee, let the power of my Lord be great, according as thou hast spoken, saying,
18 The LORD is longsuffering, and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression, and by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.
19 Pardon, I beseech thee, the iniquity of this people according unto the greatness of thy mercy, and as thou hast forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.
Moses was making the argument that if the LORD wanted to show Himself great and powerful, then He should do something to amaze the world, and that is to extend mercy and forgiveness to the undeserving. It is amazing grace that will cause the nations to notice, and to be astonished at such love and majesty.
Mercy Mingled with Judgment
20 And the LORD said, I have pardoned according to thy word: