A view towards Bishopsteignton in mist. As the mist clears, everything becomes clearer

Numbers 13-14a

Spies to Canaan. Bad report.
Condemned to wander for 40 years.

These online Bible study notes or guides are free for you to use for small groups, for individual Bible studies, or as Bible commentaries.

If you would like a printed copy, or you would like to save this study as a PDF file, click below for brief instructions:

For PCs

Press Ctrl + P or choose 'Print' from the menu. Then for PDF, On the print preview page under 'Destination', click the drop-down arrow beside the printer name and choose 'Microsoft print to PDF'

For Macs

Press Command + P or choose 'File:Print' in the menu bar. For PDF choose 'File:Export as PDF'.

Read Numbers 13:1-33

There are quite long passages to read – you may need to share it with willing readers, but don’t embarrass anyone with the names in the first part of Numbers 13! It will probably be best to read each section and then comment on it, rather than reading the whole passage first.)

1 The Lord said to Moses, 2 ‘Send some men to explore the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites. From each ancestral tribe send one of its leaders.’

3 So at the Lord’s command Moses sent them out from the Desert of Paran. All of them were leaders of the Israelites. 4 These are their names:

from the tribe of Reuben, Shammua son of Zakkur;

5 from the tribe of Simeon, Shaphat son of Hori;

6 from the tribe of Judah, Caleb son of Jephunneh;

7 from the tribe of Issachar, Igal son of Joseph;

8 from the tribe of Ephraim, Hoshea son of Nun;

9 from the tribe of Benjamin, Palti son of Raphu;

10 from the tribe of Zebulun, Gaddiel son of Sodi;

11 from the tribe of Manasseh (a tribe of Joseph), Gaddi son of Susi;

12 from the tribe of Dan, Ammiel son of Gemalli;

13 from the tribe of Asher, Sethur son of Michael;

14 from the tribe of Naphtali, Nahbi son of Vophsi;

15 from the tribe of Gad, Geuel son of Maki.

16 These are the names of the men Moses sent to explore the land. (Moses gave Hoshea son of Nun the name Joshua.)

A significant change of name – Hoshea meant ‘salvation’, when you add the name for God – ‘Yahweh’ to it, the meaning becomes ‘God’s salvation’. Jesus is the English equivalent of Joshua or Yehoshua in Hebrew. This is the same Joshua who will eventually succeed Moses.

17 When Moses sent them to explore Canaan, he said, ‘Go up through the Negev and on into the hill country. 18 See what the land is like and whether the people who live there are strong or weak, few or many. 19 What kind of land do they live in? Is it good or bad? What kind of towns do they live in? Are they unwalled or fortified? 20 How is the soil? Is it fertile or poor? Are there trees in it or not? Do your best to bring back some of the fruit of the land.’ (It was the season for the first ripe grapes.)

It was probably sensible to send a group of men, for their own safety. But a party of fit strong strangers (‘leaders’ in verse 2), obviously carrying out a reconnoitre, may well have aroused suspicions.

21 So they went up and explored the land from the Desert of Zin as far as Rehob, towards Lebo Hamath. 22 They went up through the Negev and came to Hebron, where Ahiman, Sheshai and Talmai, the descendants of Anak, lived. (Hebron had been built seven years before Zoan in Egypt.) 23 When they reached the Valley of Eshkol, they cut off a branch bearing a single cluster of grapes. Two of them carried it on a pole between them, along with some pomegranates and figs. 24 That place was called the Valley of Eshkol because of the cluster of grapes the Israelites cut off there. 25 At the end of forty days they returned from exploring the land.

(Some place Eshkol near Hebron)

26 They came back to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community at Kadesh in the Desert of Paran. There they reported to them and to the whole assembly and showed them the fruit of the land. 27 They gave Moses this account: ‘We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit. 28 But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak there. 29 The Amalekites live in the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live near the sea and along the Jordan.’

30 Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, ‘We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.’

The report back seems fair and accurate, but obviously the mention of Anak (a giant) together with 'Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites and Canaanites' – all well-known warrior nations, was enough to cause a disturbance amongst those who were listening (Verse 30). Caleb, however, was certain they would be able to take the land.

31 But the men who had gone up with him said, ‘We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.’ 32 And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, ‘The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. 33 We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.’

The first part of the report seemed fair and accurate so how do you explain the report of the people in verse 31? Compare ‘The land we explored devours those living in it’ with ‘it does flow with milk and honey’.

The first report may well have been given by Caleb. But in verse 31 it is ‘the men who had gone up with him’.

Also how did they know ‘they are stronger than we are’?

Note too that ‘We even saw descendants of Anak there’, has become ‘All the people we saw there are of great size.’ Most telling is the last phrase of verse 33:
‘in our own eyes’ and ‘we looked the same to them’.

What would God’s reaction be?

Read Numbers 14:1-38

1 That night all the members of the community raised their voices and wept aloud. 2 All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, ‘If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness! 3 Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?’ 4 And they said to each other, ‘We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.’

The whole thrust of the book of Exodus was to teach the people that they were a chosen race, in a special covenant relationship with God himself. In return, they were to be a holy people – Exodus 19:5-6 ‘Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, 6 you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation’.

In Deuteronomy 7:6 we read: ‘For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession.’

Unfortunately, people with freewill will always repeat the sin of Adam:

‘I want to do what I want to do; I don’t want to do what you want me to do’

And still today, people will only follow God if they have made a personal decision to do so.

5 Then Moses and Aaron fell face down in front of the whole Israelite assembly gathered there. 6 Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had explored the land, tore their clothes 7 and said to the entire Israelite assembly, ‘The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. 8 If the Lord is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us. 9 Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will devour them. Their protection is gone, but the Lord is with us. Do not be afraid of them.’

Again, an honest appraisal of the situation by those who knew from personal experience that the Lord could be trusted completely.

10 But the whole assembly talked about stoning them.

Always a coward’s response: stay with what we know, even if it is dreadful, rather than risk the unknown even if it is guaranteed to be better.

Then the glory of the Lord appeared at the tent of meeting to all the Israelites. 11 The Lord said to Moses, ‘How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs I have performed among them? 12 I will strike them down with a plague and destroy them, but I will make you into a nation greater and stronger than they.’

(Reminiscent of Exodus 32:10)

Did God really mean what he said? Or was he testing Moses?

Verse 12 ‘I will . . .I will’ suggests that God was waiting for Moses’s response before he acted.

13 Moses said to the Lord, ‘Then the Egyptians will hear about it! By your power you brought these people up from among them. 14 And they will tell the inhabitants of this land about it. They have already heard that you, Lord, are with these people and that you, Lord, have been seen face to face, that your cloud stays over them, and that you go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. 15 If you put all these people to death, leaving none alive, the nations who have heard this report about you will say, 16 “The Lord was not able to bring these people into the land he promised them on oath, so he slaughtered them in the wilderness.”

17 ‘Now may the Lord’s strength be displayed, just as you have declared: 18 “The Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” 19 In accordance with your great love, forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now.’

A truly inspired prayer: look again at verse 18 before we move on

20 The Lord replied, ‘I have forgiven them, as you asked. 21 Nevertheless, as surely as I live and as surely as the glory of the Lord fills the whole earth, 22 not one of those who saw my glory and the signs I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness but who disobeyed me and tested me ten times – 23 not one of them will ever see the land I promised on oath to their ancestors. No one who has treated me with contempt will ever see it. 24 But because my servant Caleb has a different spirit and follows me wholeheartedly, I will bring him into the land he went to, and his descendants will inherit it. 25 Since the Amalekites and the Canaanites are living in the valleys, turn back tomorrow and set out towards the desert along the route to the Red Sea.’

The Lord replied to Moses, but with a punishment that will fit the crime. He would not wipe them all out with a plague, but all those who longed to return to slavery would be enslaved by God and condemned to wander in the wilderness until the last of them had died.

Now it seems the Lord now spoke to both Moses and Aaron – perhaps in a more formal setting:

26 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: 27 ‘How long will this wicked community grumble against me? I have heard the complaints of these grumbling Israelites. 28 So tell them, “As surely as I live, declares the Lord, I will do to you the very thing I heard you say: 29 in this wilderness your bodies will fall – every one of you twenty years old or more who was counted in the census and who has grumbled against me. 30 Not one of you will enter the land I swore with uplifted hand to make your home, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. 31 As for your children that you said would be taken as plunder, I will bring them in to enjoy the land you have rejected. 32 But you – your bodies will fall in this wilderness. 33 Your children will be shepherds here for forty years, suffering for your unfaithfulness, until the last of your bodies lies in the wilderness. 34 For forty years – one year for each of the forty days you explored the land – you will suffer for your sins and know what it is like to have me against you.” 35 I, the Lord, have spoken, and I will surely do these things to this whole wicked community, which has banded together against me. They will meet their end in this wilderness; here they will die.’

The punishment was very specific; only the children and young people would be spared. The others would get exactly what they had asked for ‘If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness!’ (Verse 2)

36 So the men Moses had sent to explore the land, who returned and made the whole community grumble against him by spreading a bad report about it – 37 these men who were responsible for spreading the bad report about the land were struck down and died of a plague before the Lord. 38 Of the men who went to explore the land, only Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh survived.

Although the people would be spared, those who were considered to be leaders from each of the tribes, those who together had encouraged the people to rebel against God: they would have to die.

If we are left with a feeling of depression following this study, imagine how God felt. He was keen that his people would leave their slavery but against his will, they had caused this delay. I wonder if we ever cause God’s plans to be delayed because of our reluctance to obey?

I think the route of the exodus shown on this map (and the second map shown in Numbers 20) is quite possible.

See Numbers chapter 33 for a detailed record of the Israelite's journeys, but remember the position of names is often speculative.

Exodus route map 1
Exodus route map 1

Map of possible route of the Exodus

1) Rameses: The journey begins (Exodus 12:37).

2) Succoth: (Exodus 13:20).

3) Pi Hahiroth: (Exodus 14:2).

4) Marah: (Exodus 15:22-23).

5) Elim: (Exodus 15:27).

6) Wilderness of Sin: (Exodus 16:1).

7) Rephidim: (Exodus 17:1).

8) Mount Sinai or Horeb (or Jebel Musa):(Exodus 19:1-2).

9) Sinai Wilderness: (Exodus 40:36).

10) Uncertain! (Sinai/Paran Wilderness) Kibroth Haattaavah and Hazeroth: (Numbers 10:12 to 11:35).

11) Wilderness of paran: (Numbers 12:16).

The yellow line indicates the possible route the spies took: (Numbers 13:1-26)

12) Kadesh-barnea: (Numbers 20:1; 13:26; 32:8; Deuteronomy 2:14).

(Numbers 14:22-25) The 40 years of desert wanderings started here, but the names of villages have long been forgotten! (Deuteronomy 1:34-46 - Deuteronomy 2:1-2)

They could have wandered anywhere within the circle shown.

Numbers 11 Numbers 16 NIV Copyright