The story of the spies sent to scout Canaan before the Israelites were supposed to enter the land is actually an “insult to injury” combination of two stories, enough to make us sit up and ask, “What in tarnation were those people thinking?” Also vital to the story is the “forgiveness” Moshe gains for the people from God, after the horrible mess the spies made. But was this forgiveness? These are the two aspects of the story we will address today.
We know the story. In the desert of Paran, a hop skip and jump from Canaan (well, no more than a few months more of meandering around), the people or Moshe or both want to know what they will encounter in the promised land. Moshe appoints 12 men, a prince from each tribe, to carry out the reconnaissance. Their mission: to report on the land, whether it is fertile or not, on the people, whether they are strong or weak, and on the cities, whether they are open or fortified. And they are to bring some fruits of the land to show the people.
The chosen dozen sally forth, going up from the Negev to Hebron, to points north, and 40 days later they return with a bunch of grapes so large that it takes two men to carry the staves they are attached to (the symbol of Israel’s Ministry of Tourism). The good news – the land is really flowing with milk and honey (and grapes). The bad news. Oy! The people – giants! Oy! The cities – fortified! Calev immediately says, We can defeat them. The others say, No way, Jose! The land eats its inhabitants. The residents are huge. “We were like grasshoppers in our own eyes and in their eyes too.”
This is just what the former slaves wanted to hear. When Caleb and Joshua, two of the spies, say “If god wants us to do it, we will! Don’t revolt against God and don’t fear the nations there. God is with us, we will prevail!” the people want to stone them. And to go back to Egypt.
What happens next is predictable. God says, enough. I’m going to kill them all off and you, Moshe, will begin a new nation. But Moshe, who has been here before, says, No way. You can’t do that. What will the other nations say – that you took the people out of Egypt, you couldn’t handle them so you destroyed them. God, the merciful, the bountiful, etc., forgive them! And after much mollification God says, I have forgiven them as you asked.
In the very next verse we read that God says that those who revolted against him will not see the land. A few verses later we are told in graphic detail that their bodies will drop in the desert. Their children, whom they bemoaned because they would die in the desert – these children would inherit the land, but they, the non-believers will die. Forty years, one year for each day of scouting, they will walk this desert and die.
Two questions. One: why did the princes report as they did, and two, what kind of forgiveness is this? I forgive you, now die?
Kobi Oz, the musician and performer, offers an interesting possible explanation. He says that the princes, and the people did not really want to go back to Egypt. It was simply that they had gotten used to God’s providing them with everything, from plagues in Egypt to splitting the Red Sea to water from rocks and manna from heaven. They just wanted to ask for one more little present: conquer the land for us so that we don’t have to fight. They weren’t really going against God, they were just trying to squeeze another little favor out of Him.
Of course God didn’t see it this way. He concluded that his whole system of education had failed. Which leads us to His decision. Forgiveness. What does he forgive? Ah! He will not destroy the whole nation. But that does not exonerate those ungrateful people who were and would always remain slaves – they would die in the desert because certain sins simply cannot be written off without punishment.
Does this view hold water? With difficulty. But wait, let’s look at the sequel to the story. The next day, after the people realize they have gone much too far, they try to make amends by deciding to go out and fight against the Amalekites and the Canaanites. But to do this they have to disobey Moshe, who tells them this is not what God wants.
So, not only did they insult God with their refusal to enter the land, they also went out to fight against His wishes. Insult to injury. The result, naturally, was total defeat and even deeper depression for the people.
What we see is that the stubborn streak in our national character goes back a long way. We will do things davka – just to spite. We think we’re doing it for good reason although if we used our reason we would realize it was askew.
In these days of multiple crises – corona, possible annexation, spiraling national debt and soaring unemployment rates – we are at our best. With just a little effort, we can spite everyone and everything and feel that we are doing the right thing. Let’s hope that the most inflated government in the history of this country will have enough sane minds to navigate us through the crises to safety.