Updated: Dec 18, 2020
[Commentary on Numbers 14:5-19] Don’t think that God will never punish us for our wrongdoing. The Israelites didn’t just fail to trust God; they out-and-out rebelled against Him despite the pleas of four leaders. Jesus said that there is one unforgivable sin: failing to trust in Him (for salvation). God will not let us “get away” with failing to trust Him, especially since He has always been faithful to us.
The Lord said to Moses, “How long will these people despise me?" Numbers 14:11
[Editor's note: this Bible study supplement started as a printed newsletter for teachers, which is why it is so text-heavy. I am slowly adding older lessons to our website.]
What Goes Around Comes Around.
Start your class off with something like “When I say ‘What goes around comes around’ what comes to mind? What does that mean? What other phrases do you say that mean the same thing?” Here’s a quick list that came to my head (if they need more help): “You reap what you sow”, “Lie down with the dogs, wake up with fleas”, “You get what you give”, “Karma’s a $%@#”, “Sow the wind, reap the whirlwind”, “Eventually you have to pay the piper”, “You get what you deserve”.
People really seem to like that idea in our culture. They love it when the crook “gets what’s coming to him”. They love it when the bad person gets caught and the good person gets rewarded. (Full disclosure: I’m like this too! When I learned about the Theranos scandal and Elizabeth Holmes, I really want her to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, and I’m genuinely concerned that she will get off on a technicality. I grew up in Houston, and many people I knew were crushed by Enron; I almost took a job with Arthur Andersen’s consulting partner. We were not terribly sad when Kenneth Lay died of a heart attack, and we’re mortified that Jeffrey Skilling is now a free man. I believe that I am wrong to feel this way, but I know that I’m not the only one who does.)
There are three significant problems with this fixation on “you reap what you sow”. Ask your class if they know what those problems are. (1) The lines of “right” or “wrong” aren’t always very clear. This is evident from the fact that people routinely line up on both sides of an issue. (Remember—I’m not talking from a biblical perspective; I’m talking from a societal perspective.) (2) It’s incredibly not self-aware. How many laws, no matter how minor, have you broken? How many hurtful decisions have you made? If you truly reaped what you sowed, what would your life be like? (3) It’s not Christian. Jesus taught us about grace. Let the government enact punishment—there are laws for a reason. Let us show mercy to one another, just as God showed mercy to us in Jesus. (Or, in the case of our passage this week, let God do the judging. He knows the heart. Let us not gloat about someone else’s divine retribution; we probably deserve the same. Let us take it as a warning to continuously search our own hearts.)
“You reap what you sow” is a biblical concept. Paul says in Galatians 6:7, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked. A man will reap what he sows.” But Paul’s focus is on the heart. A person who continuously lives in the flesh cannot escape God forever. He will eventually face damnation. Paul’s point is that God will be the one to judge the heart; Christians should be in the business of sharing the gospel and praying for mercy.
[Note: the Hindu concept of “karma” is nothing like what we’re studying in Numbers. With “karma”, everything that happens to you is a product of the good or bad things you’ve done in this and previous lives. There is no concept of sin or grace (or accuracy) in “karma”.]
This Week's Big Idea: The Land and Peoples of Canaan
“Canaan” usually refers to everything west of the Jordan, in between the deserts of Syria in the north and the Wilderness of Paran in the south. It was (in those days) a fertile land, a “land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex 3:17, Lev 20:24, Num 13:27, Deut 6:3, Josh 5:6). That was a common phrase to mean “abundance”; the land was able to sustain so much livestock and bees that the lifegiving milk and sweet honey could be found everywhere (note: some argue that the honey mentioned here would have been nectar from dates). When the spies brought back a cluster of grapes, it took two men to carry it! The spies saw the great fishing from the Mediterranean and Galilee, the farmlands of the valleys, and the great forests; they walked for more than a month. That abundance is how the land was able to sustain so many local peoples—God mentioned 7 that were “greater” than the Israelites, all in this one spot! (Deut 7:1. Please read my blog entry I sent out last week if you want to know what “greater” means. It doesn’t mean “in number”; historians put the entire population of the region at 500,000 at the time, so no tribe would be a match for the 2,000,000-strong Israelites.) But those tribes were fiercely independent of one another and should have been easily cleared out of the way by the greater numbers of Israelites. That the Hebrews were so incomprehensibly afraid of the local tribes speaks volumes to their lack of faith in God. It is truly the equivalent of America being afraid of Switzerland. The various tribes in this region (and I know it’s confusing that “Canaanite” is used both of one specific tribe and the entire region) inherited their religions from ancient Assyria and Babylon—going all the way back to the time of Abraham and before. The later books of the Bible speak regularly about the pagan gods Asherah, Baal, and others. And yes, human sacrifice was a part of some of those religions. We really don’t know much about these tribes; they didn’t leave archeological evidence (outside of important sites like Jericho) because they were mainly small farmers. We know what we know from the Bible and a few references of the greater nations (Assyria, Egypt, Babylon) that eventually conquered them. This was a very desirable region, so mighty armies would routines sweep through (as the Jews would soon learn).
The Larger Context of Numbers
Last week, we introduced the idea of the people following God literally as He led them through the wilderness toward the promised land. Unfortunately, the people started grumbling almost immediately. Despite God giving them spirit-filled leaders, a miraculous catch of quail, and manna and water, there was open rebellion—including from Aaron and Miriam! (Miriam was instantly given leprosy.) They finally made it across the wilderness, and in chapters 13 and 14, spies were sent into the promised land—one from each tribe. They entered through the desert to the southwest of Canaan and traveled all throughout, from the coast to the Jordan, through the plains and valleys and hill country. They made notes about the settlements already in the land, and they brought back samples of the produce of the land. Caleb then encouraged the people to follow God into the land, but ten spies said that it would be impossible. The people living there were so large that the Israelites were like grasshoppers (two things: that’s an exaggeration designed to discourage the people [remember what David just preached about exaggerations!]; and it ignores the fact that the Israelites outnumber the indigenous residents by multiple factors; see the back page for a discussion about their complaints). So the people decide to replace Moses!
Part 1: Challenge Issued (Numbers 14:5-9)
Then Moses and Aaron fell facedown in front of the whole assembly of the Israelite community. Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who were among those who scouted out the land, tore their clothes and said to the entire Israelite community: “The land we passed through and explored is an extremely good land. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us into this land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and give it to us. Only don’t rebel against the Lord, and don’t be afraid of the people of the land, for we will devour them. Their protection has been removed from them, and the Lord is with us. Don’t be afraid of them!”
You’ll definitely have to give your class some context—even just reading from the beginning of the chapter. The gestures of falling facedown and tearing their clothes represent humility and grief. The leader guide says these were directed at the grumbling crowd (begging them to consider their choice), but I think it’s more likely they were directed at God (begging Him to have mercy on the whole people for their terrible, faithless reaction). Note that Joshua and Caleb join in; what we learn is that the two men were the only two in all of the Jews to actually believe God with their whole heart. Remember that Aaron had just led an almost-rebellion before being terrified by Miriam’s leprosy. And Moses would eventually lose his cool on behalf of God and thus forfeit his right to claim a wholehearted faith (sadly). What they say to the Israelites is clear, simple, and inarguable . . . unless you don’t really believe in God. At the end of my handout, I’ll peek a few verses ahead to explain what will happen to those people who didn’t really believe in God. It’s frightening! But it’s no different than the choice we have in Jesus.
Think about it. “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” And the corollary—if you don’t believe in Jesus, you will be separated from God forever. (The rewards are greater. Instead of a land of milk and honey, we get eternal glory in the presence of God!) That’s essentially what the men said to the people: “If God is pleased with us . . .” The word “pleased” means “feel great favor”. God’s desire is to show favor to His people, just as parents would always prefer to show favor to their children (of course, that desire to show favor doesn’t preclude also showing necessary discipline or punishment). This means that the Israelite’s decision not only to fail to trust the Lord and follow His leading but also to walk the other direction is nothing short of a rebellion. That’s true of us today when we fail to do what God has asked us to do; we’re rebelling against God. If you’ve had kids “rebel” against you as a parent or a teacher or a coach, it’s not fun. It’s not enjoyable.
I can think of three application/discussions you might consider for this section. The first is the parent/rebellious child dynamic. If you’ve been through it, you know that it can be serious or silly. In our passage, it was very serious. The second is to consider what Joshua and Caleb must have thought. They had traveled through the land with the ten other spies. They knew that the other ten were deliberately misrepresenting what they had discovered for the explicit purpose of manipulating the crowd’s reaction. How must they have felt? Betrayed? The third is the “facing the giants” idea. What “giants” do we have in our lives that make us unwilling to follow God?
[Aside on Joshua and Caleb. Let’s start with the easy one. Joshua is one of the most important people in the Old Testament. He was born into slavery in Egypt and first rose to prominence as the military general of Israel (Ex 17). Most importantly, Joshua was with Moses as his scribe and servant when Moses received the law (Ex 32). God chose Joshua to be Moses’ successor. He was the one to lead the people into the promised land, and he followed God to victory after victory. He was a charismatic leader, capable administrator, brilliant strategist, and a humble follower of Yahweh. The book of Joshua is named for him. “Jesus” is another form of this name, basically meaning “God saves”.
Caleb was the other of the two spies who gave a favorable report to the people and encouraged them to faithfully obey God and trust Him to give them victory. Num 32:12 calls him a “Kenezite”. Those were descendants of Esau who joined the Israelites in Egypt and were incorporated into the tribe of Judah. And that’s the only thing the Bible tells us about Caleb! The next thing we read about him is him giving the favorable report to the people, which they reject. And then we have verse after verse, such as Deut 1:36 “‘None of these men in this evil generation will see the good land I swore to give your fathers, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh. He will see it, and I will give him and his descendants the land on which he has set foot, because he remained loyal to the Lord’”, in which God sanctifies Caleb from the faithless Israelites. Joshua 14 tells the rest of his story: 45 years after our passage this week, Caleb asks Joshua to fulfill God’s promise by letting him conquer the area of hill country near Hebron, which is the final military conflict in the region. Here’s the importance: Caleb was basically a nobody. The only thing he “did” was trust God. And that’s the point! All he should have done was trust God. All God wants of any of us is to trust Him. Caleb’s reward was a picture of ours in Jesus.]
Part 2: Accountability Comes (Numbers 14:10-12)
While the whole community threatened to stone them, the glory of the Lord appeared to all the Israelites at the tent of meeting. The Lord said to Moses, “How long will these people despise me? How long will they not trust in me despite all the signs I have performed among them? I will strike them with a plague and destroy them. Then I will make you into a greater and mightier nation than they are.
How interesting! Not that God is fed up with the Israelites, but that He would single out Moses. At first glance, this almost reads like a temptation, but there is no quid pro quo described. Besides, God has made it clear that He doesn’t tempt anyone. Rather, this is a simple declaration, and I think we would be right to call it a test of Moses. Or better, a test of Moses’ leadership. Ask your class how they identify a truly great leader. I look to how that leader handles extreme conflict or controversy. Anybody can stand out front when things are going well, but when the walls cave in, can they recognize it and respond quickly? God gives Moses the ultimate test here. The Israelites have catastrophically failed, and God has announced that He will justly punish them. “Despise” is not too strong of a word. Ask your class to recite everything that generation of Jews had experienced (I’m thinking the plagues, the Red Sea, Mount Sinai, and all of the miracles in the desert). Can they think of a generation (other than Jesus’) who had experienced more direct evidence of the might and power of God? But they were still going to turn back. Why? How? How does your class make sense of their actions?
Note that God had said something similar in Ex 32:10, and Moses had responded similarly. Ask your class why God would have gone through this same “threat”. As parents, if we give enough empty threats, our kids will eventually stop listening. This is different. God is (of course) fully justified in His anger, and He is fully capable of carrying out what He says. Moses is learning that “adversity” isn’t just a one-time thing, but something that a leader must be able to handle indefinitely (can you imagine if Lincoln or Roosevelt or Churchill gave up at their second major conflict?).
Part 3: Grace Sought (Numbers 14:13-19)
But Moses replied to the Lord, “The Egyptians will hear about it, for by your strength you brought up this people from them. They will tell it to the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, Lord, are among these people, how you, Lord, are seen face to face, how your cloud stands over them, and how you go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. If you kill this people with a single blow, the nations that have heard of your fame will declare, ‘Since the Lord wasn’t able to bring this people into the land he swore to give them, he has slaughtered them in the wilderness.’ “So now, may my Lord’s power be magnified just as you have spoken: The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in faithful love, forgiving iniquity and rebellion. But he will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ iniquity on the children to the third and fourth generation. Please pardon the iniquity of this people, in keeping with the greatness of your faithful love, just as you have forgiven them from Egypt until now.”
The question here is to ask your class to analyze Moses’ argument. What do they think of it? How effective do they think it is? Perhaps there’s some overdrama at work here, but point out that such was quite common for the day. Almost every official record we have from that era has a great deal of “flair” in it. I find it interesting that Moses would appeal to public perception, as if God would care what anyone thinks of Him. And yet, it’s extremely biblical. What was the dominant reason given for the release of the Israelites? That they might worship the one true God (Ex 3:12, etc.), in fulfillment of His covenant with Abraham (Ex 6:4, etc.), and as proof that He is the only true God (Ex 7:5, etc.). Well, if those rescued Israelites die by being wiped out by God, then God has not kept any of the reasons He gave for bringing them out of slavery in the first place! God may very well be the one true God, but what good is that if no one believes it? (To me personally, that argument has some big holes in it, which is how I know that Moses wasn’t “convincing” God of anything; again, this was more a test of Moses’ leadership.) Just as a note, the word “kill” here is different than the word “murder”—this word basically means “to allow to die”.
His second line of argument is much more effective (in my humble opinion). He is simply appealing directly to God’s character. God is both a God of mercy and justice. Surely He can find a way to punish guilt while still being forgiving. Deut 14:18 is basically Ex 34:6, so Moses is repeating what God has already said. (I’m running out of space here, but it would be well worth your time to look up “slow to anger” and “faithful love” in your Bible to see all the ways they are used to describe God!) But what about the rest of verse 18? Ezekiel 18:20 says, “The person who sins is the one who will die. A son won't suffer punishment for the father's iniquity.” Isn’t that the opposite of what God says here? (The NIV actually translates this “He punishes the children for the sins of their fathers”). Well, no. The phrase is literally translated “He visits the iniquity of the fathers upon their children” (see NASB). That means what our CSB version says: the children will suffer the consequences of the sins of their parents. And that is, unfortunately, absolutely true. God forgives, but He doesn’t miraculously undo whatever damage was done by the sin. So, God answered Moses’ prayer by not immediately wiping the people out. God received glory and demonstrated justice by continuing to preserve His people in the wilderness (miraculously), but waiting until they had all died before leading their children into the promised land. The children were not punished for the parents’ sin, per se, but they still had to wander in the wilderness for 40 years and be the ones to take up the sword. They still had to suffer the consequences of their parents’ sin. Does that distinction make sense?
There are several ways to conclude this lesson; I suggest focusing on prayer. Moses essentially prayed to God a Bible verse and then asked God to apply it. That’s how we see people talking to God in the New Testament. And I strongly believe this is what “praying according to God’s will” means. The Bible contains the truth of God that He wants us to know. When we desire a certain action from God, we should go to the Bible to see how God has acted in such a situation before. And we look to God’s character (like being slow to anger). And then we pray—not to change God’s mind, but because that’s what He wants us to do, as a father wants to hear from his children in need.
Aside: Did God Change His Mind?
This is one of the more controversial passages in the Bible. In verse 12, God says that He will destroy the faithless Israelites. Then, Moses begs Him not to, appealing to His mercy and even image. In verse 19, Moses begs God to forgive them, to which God replies in verse 20, “I have forgiven them as you asked.” So . . . Had Moses not asked, would God have destroyed the people?
The reason this is controversial is the idea that God can be convinced to change His mind. If that’s true, then it would mean that God can be manipulated. And if that’s true, then God certainly can’t know all or see all (or be all that trustworthy). Several groups, like some in the prosperity gospel, key on this to teach that all we have to do is be insistent enough with God to convince Him to do what we want—then, regardless of His larger plan, He will give us what we ask.
Two passages that are commonly appealed to in support of this are John 16:23: “Whatever you ask from the Father in My name, He will give it to you”, and Genesis 18 in which Abraham “convinces” his visitors not to destroy the city of Sodom if they can find 10 righteous people there. The latter passage has several similarities with ours this week: a man essentially appealing to God’s nature not to do what he thought God was about to do. At a very quick reading, it would seem that God can be convinced to change His mind as long as He gets a good enough argument.
That’s not at all what is going on. We have the benefit of the New Testament, in which we learn that God answers prayers that are in accordance with His will (1 John 5:14). So here’s what is happening: God was never going to act outside of His will and character. But to hear Abraham and Moses work this out in their heads (remember—neither of them had the Holy Spirit as we do) was the most powerful way to teach a lesson about who God is. Everything they said was correct, and then God’s “response” verified what they believed to be true. In other words, we look at events like these in the Old Testament as “teaching moments” in which God reinforces to His people what His character means in action.
Aside: Did God or the Spies Misadvertise the Promised Land?
Here’s everything the spies said about the land: “The land that we passed through to investigate is a land that devours its inhabitants. All the people we saw there are of great stature. We even saw the Nephilim, and we seemed like grasshoppers both to ourselves and to them!” Frankly, this is a strange report. It doesn’t sound like a land “flowing with milk and honey”, even though they also brought with them a bunch of grapes so heavy that it took two men to carry. What are we to make of it? I’ll be honest. As much as I hate to think it possible, I believe this is misinformation on the part of the spies designed to discourage the people from obeying God. How Moses selected such a group of men is beyond me. The phrase “a land that devours” is elsewhere used to describe an infertile land—a land so hard to live off that it kills the people who try. But we know that not to be true. One scholar suggested that one or more of the tribes practiced cannibalism, so they were speaking literally (we have no other evidence in support of this). Most explanations are to the effect of (1) a land filled with warlike peoples, or (2) a land that is prepared for war. In that case, the spies would be using a figure of speech that, while true, was exaggerated to bring a different idea into the people’s minds. In other words, it was disingenuous and dishonest. The people responded exactly as the report led them to: in fear and doubt.
In truth, the tribes of Canaan were warlike. They fought with one another all the time (just read Genesis again). And there were great warriors among them (we haven’t met Goliath yet). But that didn’t make them a legitimate threat to the Israelites. Had the Israelites simply obeyed boldly, I imagine that the peoples would have fled before them with little bloodshed. But their “weakness” made them a target.