Israel is in the process of unraveling in Numbers 13. After being marvelously responsive to God during their time at Sinai (post golden calf incident), they began to break down. The hardships of their circumstances was wearing on them. They became bored with their blessings (read: manna) and began to complain. It started on the fringes of the camp and worked its way toward the center (11:1-6). Three times they spoke of how good it was in Egypt, concluding with, Why did we ever leave Egypt? (11:20). They asked and God answered. They had wanted meat, so God gave them meat with a side order of plague to remind them that life in Egypt really wasn’t that good. They had been engaging in revisionist history and they should have known better.
Their complaining was contagious. Aaron and Miriam bring charges against Moses in 12:1-2. The presenting issue concerned his wife, but the real problem for them was his leadership. They wanted to know why he was the in charge when God had also spoken through them. God struck Miriam with a case of leprosy that turned into banishment from the camp for a week. Dissatisfaction with the way Yahweh was doing things had started on the fringes, spread through the camp, and showed up in Israel’s leading family.
Numbers 13 begins with God telling Israel to send spies into the land of Canaan (v. 1-2). From there, it’s a small step to assume the spies were God’s idea, but I’m not sure we are supposed to take that step. We’re told in Deuteronomy 1:22ff that it was Israel who asked Moses to send out the spies. The best way to reconcile the two texts is that Israel came up with the idea and brought it to Moses. Moses then apparently took it to God who He permitted it. But we recognize that’s not the same thing as saying it was the intent of His heart. God permitted hard-hearted Israel to divorce for any reason but that was never His intent for marriage (Deuteronomy 24:1-4; Matthew 19:8-9).
It seems the same thing happened with the spies. After all, God had promised Israel Canaan, why was it necessary to spy out the land? More to the point, the reconnaissance mission resulted in a shift in the spies’ focus from trusting God to becoming fearful and giving a bad report. They won the nation over to their point of view, rebelled against God’s purpose for them and they all ended up dying in the desert. Viewed from this perspective, sending out the spies was the beginning of the end for the exodus generation.
This episode reinforces a spiritual truth that is often mentioned but seldom taken seriously—be careful what you ask for. From the request of James and John’s mother to Israel asking for a king, we have examples of people asking for wrong things and receiving them. This should bring to mind the model prayer’s petition of Your kingdom come, Your will be done. It’s also instructive that Paul’s prayer for the disciples at Philippi was that their love would abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight so they might be able to discern what is best (1:9-10). That’s the kind of thing you can always ask for.