The story in Numbers 13-14 looms over the biblical witness like a dark storm cloud. Its presence is especially felt in the Pentateuch, where it empties its rain and washes away a generation of people. It is a mountain top moment for Israel—essentially everything before had led to the men spying out the land, and after it everything plummets back to earth as a result of their rebellion.
For the attentive reader, the story raises a simple question that reverberates all the way back to Eden and forward to today: Do we trust God to do what is good, right and true, or will we be seduced into believing that He somehow isn’t entirely good and therefore His promises can’t be counted on? This is one of the constant questions of Scripture. It is presented over and over in different forms—as fruit to be avoided, an offering to be made, a son to be sacrificed, a leadership role to be assumed, land to be taken or life being lived a certain way. Do we trust God and His goodness?
In working our way through the story in Numbers, it is painfully obvious that Israel had no reason to distrust Yahweh. He had blessed their patriarchs with promises, led them out of Egypt, forgiven them of great transgression (Exodus 32), and was now ready to deliver on another one of His promises. While it’s true their wilderness experience had been difficult, it’s not hard to see how this helped them to learn to lean on God (Deuteronomy 8:3-5). What made them give up on the promised land and God?
1) They weren’t grateful for what they had. I’m not sure the destructiveness of ingratitude can be overrated. It’s among the first things Paul mentions in Romans 1 in his long list of ways that people departed from God (v. 21). As we sometimes do, Israel tended to focus on what they didn’t have. If you choose to go down this road, you start by asking why God hasn’t given you this or that. This is followed by applying your emptiness (from not having whatever it is) to God’s character—if He is so good, then why doesn’t He take care of me (as I see fit)? These are the steps to becoming a bitter believer and Israel was walking in them.
2) They focused on themselves, rather than God. It’s all a matter of perspective. If we put our faith in the One who spoke the universe into being, created man from dust and raised Jesus from the dead—we’re okay with whatever opposes us (that’s what Paul said in Romans 8:31ff). On the other hand, if all we have is ourselves, then that’s an entirely different story and we’re likely to devolve into the grasshopper thinking that Israel did.
3) They acted out of fear rather than faith. Because they hadn’t filled up the reservoir of their heart with love for God by reminding themselves of all of the ways He had been good to them, there was a spiritual vacuum—a hole in their soul that fear quickly filled. It started with ten of the spies (13:31-33) and spread like wildfire through the camp (14:1-4).
4) They were willing to settle for mediocrity rather than reach for blessings. Their big vision was to go back to Egypt and die or perish in the wilderness (14:1-4)! God wanted so much more for them than they wanted for themselves, but they wouldn’t have it! They chose the path of least resistance and ended up getting what they asked for. When you reach for blessings, you don’t hand God your bucket list (that is settling for mediocrity)—you give Him your life and watch as He leads you (His bucket list for you).
Like Israel, God has a promised land waiting for us. Like them, our journey there will take us over some challenging terrain. We have the same choice they did, to put our confidence in Him or die in the desert. On those occasions when we feel our faith faltering (and it happens to all of us), we need to think about these areas where they stumbled and ask God to help us make whatever course corrections are necessary. He will do it!
Stepping forward is always preferable to shrinking back!
Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to Him, and He will make your paths straight. (Proverbs 3:5-6)