After the good start in the book of Numbers — when Moses and the people did all that the Lord commanded to prepare for their journey to the Promised Land — after that good start, things changed in chapters 11 and 12. In chapter 11 the people grumbled and complained about the hardships they faced on the journey; and then they grumbled and complained about the manna the Lord had provided for them and how they wished they had meat to eat. And then in chapter 12 Miriam and Aaron complained about Moses.
And things are no better in chapter 13, because in chapter 13 we read how some of them were sent out to explore the Promised Land, but instead of coming back and encouraging the people to trust in the Lord, they came back with a discouraging report with the result that the people rebelled. And since the Promised Land points forward to our eternal rest in the presence of God, then this chapter and the next warn us that we must not doubt as they did, but we must believe the promises of God and trust in Christ the Saviour in order to enter God’s promised rest.
Verses 1 to 16
The chapter can be divided into two main parts. In verses 1 to 16 we read how the spies were selected. And in verses 17 to 33 we read of the journey they made and the report they gave afterwards. And so, in verse 1 we read how the Lord told Moses to send out some men to explore the land. According to Deuteronomy 1:22, the plan to send out the spies came from the people themselves. There we read that Moses told the people to go up and take possession of the land in obedience to the command of the Lord, but all of them came to him and suggested that spies should be sent out first.
It’s possible then that the Lord in Numbers 13 is simply commanding Moses to do what the people asked. In that case, their request to send out spies reveals how little they trusted the Lord. They didn’t need spies to tell them the land was good, because hadn’t the Lord promised them that the land was good? And they didn’t need spies to tell them whether or not they could overcome their enemies, because hadn’t the Lord promised to give them the land? If only they believed the Lord and trusted in him, they would not need to send out spies.
And so, their request to send out the spies reveals already how little they trusted the Lord. Nevertheless, just as the Lord gave them meat when they complained, so now on this occasion he gave them what they wanted and let them send out the spies. And just as the meat became a curse and not a blessing, so sending out these spies became a curse and not a blessing, because of the bad report they spread.
According to verse 2, the Lord commanded that there should be one spy for each of the twelve tribes. And their names are listed for us in verses 4 to 15. None of the names are familiar to us apart from two of them. In verse 8 there’s Ho-shea the son of Nun. While that name might not be immediately familiar to us, nevertheless we read in verse 16 that Moses changed this man’s name to Joshua, which is a name we know. Ho-shea means ‘he saves’ whereas Joshua means ‘the Lord saves’; the change of name speaks to us of Moses’s faith in the Lord who alone is the Saviour of his people. The second name which is familiar to us is Caleb in verse 6 who comes to prominence in verse 30, because he contradicted what the other spies said and reported that they could take the land and should go up immediately to take it.
Verses 17 to 33
According to verses 17 and 18, when Moses sent them out, he commanded them to go through the land in order to see what the land was like and in order to see what the people were like. So, are the people strong or weak? Are there many of them? Are their cities well fortified? And is the land good or bad? It it fertile? Are there trees growing there? And he asked them to bring back some of the produce from the land to show them.
We read then in verse 21 how they went up and explored the land. Notice that, according to verse 22, they came to Hebron. Hebron was an important place in the book of Genesis, because Abraham buried Sarah at Hebron in the field he purchased and which was the only piece of land he ever owned in the land of Canaan. Abraham himself was buried there, as was Isaac, his son. That burial ground was a foretaste of the land which the land had promised to give to Abraham’s descendants.
And here in Numbers 13, some of the Israelites came to Hebron and perhaps they passed the place where Abraham was buried. They had finally come to the land which the Lord promised to Abraham and his descendants; and the only thing keeping them from possessing it was their own unbelief, because if they had believed God’s promises — just as Abraham had believed God’s promises — they would have received the land from the Lord without any further delay. As it was, because they doubted God’s word and failed to trust his promises, they were kept from possessing the land and enjoying the rest which God has promised to them.
We read how they saw some of the inhabitants; and at the Valley of Eschol, they got some grapes to take back to the camp. The cluster of grapes was so large that it needed two of them to carry it. In other words, the land was very fertile. And at the end of 40 days, they returned to the camp. We read their report in verses 26 to 29.
At first it’s an encouraging report. As the Lord had said, it was a land flowing with milk and honey, which, of course, is an expression to convey the idea that the land had everything they could want. And to prove their point, they were able to show them the grapes and other fruit they had gathered. However, then they went on to say that the inhabitants were powerful and their cities were well fortified. ‘We even saw the descendants of Anak there’, they said. That name might not mean much to us, but in verse 33 we’re told that they were related to the Nephilim, who are mentioned in Genesis 6 and they were a race of giants who populated the earth before the flood. And the point the spies are making is that they are too strong and powerful for them to defeat. Furthermore, as well as the descendants of Anak, there were many other nations living on the land.
Since we’re told in verse 30 that Caleb silenced the people, that tells us that they must have started talking among themselves after hearing the report of the spies. And so, we can imagine them muttering and murmuring and chattering to one another about this worrying report. So, Caleb got up and silenced them and encouraged them to rise up and take possession of the land, because they can certainly do it. He’s not denying what the other spies said, but he trusts the Lord to help them overcome their enemies. The glory-cloud above them and the ark of the covenant ahead of them were signs and symbols of the Lord’s presence with them. And since the Lord was with them, then no one would be able to stand against them and succeed.
But the other spies replied in verse 31 that they can’t attack the Canaanites: they’re stronger than we are. And again, that might be true. The Canaanites may have been stronger than them. But they had forgotten the power of God and the faithfulness of the Lord and the fact that the Lord had promised to give them the land. Instead of believing, they doubted. And so, they spread a bad report among the Israelites, saying that the land was not in fact good, because the land devoured those who live in it. It’s not clear what that means, but it’s obvious that it’s not a good thing. And they told the people that all the inhabitants are a great size. They were so large they made them feel as if they were as small as grasshoppers.
And so, that was their report. Instead of trusting the Lord, they doubted his word. In fact, they made the Lord out to be a liar, because they were in effect telling the people that what God said about the land was not true: it was not a good land, but a land that would devour them. And though the Lord had said he would give them the land, they were saying you cannot trust the word of the Lord.
If only they had believed, they could have entered the Promised Land straightaway and enjoyed that land flowing with milk and honey, that land like Paradise and like the Garden of Eden. But because they doubted his word, none of that generation — except Joshua and Caleb — were allowed to enter the land and all of them died in the wilderness.
And since the Promised Land of Canaan symbolises our eternal rest in the presence of the Lord, then this passage warns people in every generation that we must not doubt as the Israelites did, but we must believe the promises of God, for he has promised us forgiveness; and he has promised us everlasting life. And he’s able to give us forgiveness and he’s able to give us everlasting life, because Christ our Saviour died to pay for our sins and he was raised to give us life.
The Devil accuses us, and our own guilty conscience accuses us. They say to us that God will not forgive us, because we deserve to be condemned and we deserve to be punished forever. They say to us that there can be no forgiveness or hope for us, because of our sin. And in a sense, they’re right, because we are sinners who deserve to be condemned. But still we must believe what God has promised; and he has promised to forgive us for the sake of Christ and to give us everlasting life.
And so, as the writer to the Hebrews tells us, we must see to it that none of us has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But we must encourage one another daily so that none of us is hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. Instead of being deceived, we must believe God’s promises and trust in him to do for us all that he has said he will do. And we must plead with the Lord in prayer to enable all who hear his word to believe his word, so that they will not harden their hearts when they hear his voice, but will believe and become members of his pilgrim people who are on our way to everlasting life.