Beyond the Lectionary Text: Numbers 13

by Heidi De Jonge

Comments and Observations

Here in Numbers 13, the Israelites have arrived at the southern border of the Promised Land. Ever since the days that they left Egypt, this is where they were heading. The land was the gift that God had promised them. This was “the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites” (13:1, emphasis mine). And now they have arrived.

The tension has been building in the chapters leading up to their arrival on the border. Chapters 11 and 12 include stories of rebellion – in the fringes of the camp (11:1-3 – fire from the Lord burned on the outskirts after the people complained), amongst all of the people (11:4-35 – the Lord delivers quail and a plague to the people who complained about not having meat), and even right in the heart of the leadership (12 – Miriam and Aaron oppose Moses and suffer consequences). All is not quiet on the southern front.

Spies are chosen and sent. Their traveling instructions end with a request: that the spies bring back some of the fruit of the land as a tangible piece of evidence so that the people can taste and see the goodness of the Lord. It was the season, after all, for the first ripe grapes (v. 20). The narrator makes sure we know that the fullness of time has arrived.

The spies, including Joshua and Caleb, explore and return. They bear with them a cluster of grapes so big they had to carry it on their shoulders. The people wait with bated breath as the report is given.

It turns out that everything about the Promised Land is larger than life – just like those grapes. The evidence is indisputable.

But what is to be made of this evidence? That is the question I wrestled with in writing this sermon. What meaning did the spies make of the things that they had seen, of the data that they had collected?

We are meaning-making creatures. We see the world in part and we make meaning of what we see – which effects how we see and interpret the data. Sometimes the meaning that we make leads us toward life, toward love, toward trust, toward obedience… Sometimes the meaning that we make leads us toward fear, toward rebellion, toward depression, toward hopelessness.

All the spies were confronting the same reality – the same facts. Caleb made meaning that led toward going up and taking the land, in obedience to God and in reception of the gift of the land. The rest of the spies made meaning that stoked the fears of the people and led toward rebellion.

The meaning that the spies made is as juicy as the grapes that they carried. The first report of the land was that it was flowing with milk and honey – and look at the grapes! The gift of the land was meant for the purpose of tasting. But now, the metaphor gets turned inside out. The spies say that this land will devour them (v. 32)! “Whether this phrase meant that the land was infertile, or unstable, warlike, and unforgiving, or even comparable with Sheol, the real point is that the phrase is designed rhetorically to frighten the people and win them to the majority view” (Timothy R. Ashley, p. 243).

In the spies’ original report, they said that they saw the descendants of Anak in the land (v. 28), but as time goes on, so does their embellishment. No longer are the inhabitants simply powerful, they are the Nephilim (see the mysterious passage about Nephilim in Genesis 6:1-4). These God-Man giants are large enough to pop a whole cluster of those enormous grapes in their mouth in one nibble – so large that the Israelites were like crushable, crunchy little grasshoppers in their eyes.

The spies had all seen the same land and the Israelites were all seeing the same evidence. When some of them looked at that cluster of grapes, they saw Gift, Provision, More than Enough! When others of them looked at that same cluster, they saw only Giants and Destruction. The majority report of the spies tips us over into chapter 14, where we read of the largest-scale rebellion yet. The people, once again, wish that they had died in Egypt, or in the wilderness, and they begin to make plans to find a new leader and return to Egypt (vv. 1-4).

We are meaning-making creatures. Encourage the congregation to consider the giants in their lands, the meaning that they make of the circumstances in which they find themselves, and the actions that these meanings prompt.

I painted a typical scenario for the congregation. Girl meets boy. They go on a date. Girl fully expects a call for a second date but doesn’t receive one. What meaning does she make? Suppose she discovers that the boy is just not that into her. Now what meaning does she make? Some girls might make the meaning that “I’m un-likeable. No one will ever want me.” Others might demonize the boy: “He’s a jerk. He’s not worth it.” A meaning that sends us toward despair or toward hatred is not the meaning that we have to make of the situation. There are other meanings. I, personally, am learning that whenever I feel trapped or afraid or in despair, I ask myself: “What meaning am I making of this situation? Is there another meaning that I might make of this situation?”

The Sunday that I preached this message was the day after a British foreign aid worker was beheaded by ISIS. One Sunday morning CNN news headline read, “PURE EVIL.” Another claimed, “THEY ARE MONSTERS.” The media is a meaning-making organization, just like we are meaning-making creatures. The meanings that we assign to reality are catalysts for action or inaction. I wondered with the congregation what these headline meanings do for us, what they do to us, what they say to the world.

It is hard to preach chapter 13 without dipping into chapter 14 (unless, of course, you’re preaching it the following week!). In chapter 14, we find the people’s rebellion and God’s multi-layered, painful judgment. But finally, we also find tucked into the certainty of death, the promise of life. Joshua and Caleb will enter the land, on account of their faithfulness, trust, and obedience. But, so will the children. “As for your children that you said would be taken as plunder, I will bring them in to enjoy the land you have rejected” (14:31).

There is death and destruction and evil all around. The giants are in the land and they are big. No doubt. The consequences of our rebellion heap violence upon bloodshed. But, God is working his purposes out. He provides, right in the middle of all the death, the signs that he is for life and that he will find willing recipients of his good gifts.

I wonder what it was like for the Israelites to wander in the wilderness for all those God-forsaken years. I imagine that, though their hearts were broken at not receiving the promised gift, they often found themselves looking wistfully at their children – knowing that those children would, one day, taste and see the goodness of the Lord in the promised land of the living.

We are meaning-making creatures, for we are made in the image of a meaning-making God. His meaning always includes his love and his redemptive purposes. As we try to make sense of the world around us, we can trust that God’s promises – to restore, to forgive, to rebuild, to bring Shalom – are part of that meaning.

The Israelites are on the (unrequited) verge of the conquest of Canaan. In a time when our world seems, once again, bent on using violence to get rid of violence, I found it difficult to preach a text where violence and conquest are equal to obedience to God. I didn’t engage this directly. My general point in the message, and a point that one can trace all through Scripture, is that whatever God calls us toward (or whatever God calls us away from), we can move with trust and obedience, and without fear.

I found Walter Brueggemann’s dual-perspective helpful as I wrestled with the truth of evil and the truth of God’s redemption. He says that we need both realism and certitude.  Realism about our human place of jeopardy. Certitude about its outcome, by the faithfulness of God. Realism taken alone leads to despair, for then we only know about the danger but not about the outcome. Certitude taken alone leads to romanticism, for then we only know the victory but imagine we are immune from the battle. But the narrative is unflinching in realism and undoubting about the outcome” (Genesis, p. 375).

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