The idea of Israel’s scouting party entering Canaan to reconnoiter the land was good. The people would see that the promised land was a great place for grapes and grain. They would hopefully catch a vision for life as free men and women living on the land under a covenant relationship with God.
Instead they worried about the struggle. The Canaanites were powerful. And there were giant warriors that made some of the scouts afraid.
We miss so much in life by focusing on the wrong part of what we see. It should have been clear. God was visibly with the Israelites. His face had been hidden for long years while they were in Egypt. But now, he was with them and the moment was right. But fear kept them from doing what was needed to obtain a better life.
Torah showed us a potential for a different kind of existence in this world. The image of scouts returning with a giant cluster of grapes on a pole between two sturdy men is an image of that potential. Canaan was a land that could become something more, a place of wholeness and enjoyment. There are a number of reasons why human beings do not achieve wholeness. The most obvious is simply a lack of faith in the goodness of God’s world, in the ability of the things God made to produce a bounty, in the abilities God gave us to create in imitation of his own creative power.
The message of Torah is not simply to wait for God to do it for us. Ultimately we know our God-given abilities will only take us so far and we depend on him for the ultimate future. But in the meantime, even the Canaanites brought giant clusters of fruit from the land. But what stands in the way is our unwillingness to face the task.
The command to send scouts into Canaan (1-2), heads of tribes chosen (3-16), instructions for the scouts (17-20).
Torah recounts two defining stories of the failure of the nation of Israel’s faith: the Golden Calf of Exodus 32 and the Fearful Scouts (or spies) of Numbers 13. While there are more stories about the people complaining, Moses’ failure, etc., it is in the Golden Calf and the stories of the scouts that we most clearly see the people failing to regard Adonai as deliverer and trust in his covenant to bring them to the land. In Deuteronomy, when the history of the wilderness is recounted, these two stories receive special attention (Deut 1:22-45; 9:12-25).
Three versions of the scouts story exist. Here in Numbers 13 we find a combination of the P source (vss. 1-16, 25-26, 32) and J (Vss. 17b-24, 27-31, 33) with vs. 17b as an editorial comment binding them together (see Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed). The other version is the D source in Deuteronomy. There is some tension and possibly a discrepancy between the Deuteronomy 1 account and this account in Numbers 13. In Numbers there is no hint that the people requested a scouting mission before entering to conquer the land. The narrative presents the scouting mission as God’s command. In Deuteronomy 1:22, the people came to Moses and asked for the scouting mission and “it seemed good” to Moses. If we had only the Numbers account, we would think it was purely God’s idea and if we had only the Deuteronomy account we would think it was purely the people’s idea.
The purpose of the mission was to determine the number and strength of the enemy (vs. 18) and the quality of the land for farming and the cities for living (vss. 19-20). But things will go terribly wrong as ten out of the twelve will become fearful, disbelieving God’s repeated assurances that he is giving them the land.
“The land that we passed through, to scout it out, the land is very, very good!” (Numbers 14:7). Joshua and Caleb saw something very different from the other scouts.
At creation, the first chapter of Genesis, says, “God saw everything he had made and, behold, it was very good” (1:31). Interestingly, both texts, Genesis 1:31 and Numbers 14:7, are from the P source (a priestly author writing from Judah before the exile). The priestly theology of ancient Israel takes a positive view of the world. It is not inherently dark. It is the future dwelling place of God, a place he made with potential for good, for supplying the needs of human beings and all other creatures, a place of abundance and life.
According to the priestly theology in Genesis, the world has been shaped in such a way as to promote life and to provide everything needed by living things. Joshua and Caleb’s words in this story are penned by the priestly author. Their statement is more than simply part of a story about some scouts reporting on Canaan as a possible home for the Israelites. They are relaying one of the strongest messages of the covenant between God and Israel: the land, especially with God’s supernatural promise backing it up, gives life rather than taking it.
The people and the rest of the scouting party had it exactly backwards. Their world view was fear. To them the land was not good. It was inherently dark and it would be up to human strength to conquer it, which seemed to them a very uncertain endeavor. They simply did not believe they could conquer it and make a home.
What about those of us who do not expect to experience a supernatural covenant of blessing in this life? The promise is for the collective nation of Israel in the land being faithful as an entire people to Torah. Outside of that specific setting and circumstance, human beings are subject to nature and not promised a supernatural blessing.
But that is exactly the point of priestly theology. It is why the story includes the image of the giant cluster of grapes from Eshcol. The Canaanites were experiencing the blessing of the land. The same goodness and abundance that God built into all of the world is available to human beings everywhere. Yes, the world God made is subject to death and not everyone will see the bounty of life that can be in the world. But in general, creation is good and if we have faith in that goodness, much like having faith in God, he has given us powers to bring life and abundance from the earth.
The scouts find grapes abundant at Eshcol (13:21-24), the first report of the scouts (35-29), Caleb’s positive report (30), the negative report of others (31-33), the people of Israel lose faith (14:1-3), the call to return to Egypt (4-7).
The things the Israelites lost faith about are those very things which God promised in his covenant to take care of for them. As a people, they needed security and provision. They would require abundant produce. They would need protection from marauding armies and hostile powers. The spies who sought out the land described its dangers, calling it “a land that devours its inhabitants.” This was perhaps a reference to the difficulty of agriculture in Canaan. Yet the promised blessings of Israel’s relation to God included great rain and harvests. The spies worried about the “men of great stature” they saw in Canaan. But God promised to drive them out.
“Go back to Egypt,” said the spies, and turned their back on what God had done already and promised to do in the future. The narrative is constructed to give the lie to the negative report of the spies. They find fruitfulness in Eshcol, a cluster of grapes so heavy it needs two men to carry it (the scouting mission is in July-August, according to vs. 20). But instead of rejoicing at the sign of the land’s ability to become a paradise, they worried about the sons of Anak (giants, from whom Goliath descended) in Hebron.
Their fear and doubt spread to the people, who suggested in 14:4 replacing Moses with another leader who would take them back to Egypt. Moses and Aaron fell on their faces (in prayer knowing a plague would fall) and Joshua and Caleb tore their clothes (in the ancient custom of mourning). Joshua and Caleb describe the land much as Genesis describes the world God has made: “it is very, very good!”
What is God like? The Torah contains a liturgy, a poetic description of God’s nature that is repeated throughout the Torah. The earliest source for this ode to the divine nature is J, a writer in Judea perhaps in Hezekiah’s time or shortly after.
We see the divine attributes first in Exodus 34, as part of the aftermath of the Golden Calf incident. The JPS translation is as follows: “The LORD! the LORD! a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.”
Now in the story of the aftermath of the faithlessness of the scouting party, we find a nearly identical situation. God wants to annihilate the Israelites and rebuild the nation from Moses’ line. As part of his argument that God would damage his reputation in the eyes of the nations who observe Israel’s fate, Moses quotes back to God his own words about the divine nature.
Milgrom (Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary) notes that the full formula is often abridged in other citations outside of Exodus 34 (thus a shortened form appears in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5). In the Numbers 14 version, there are five omissions: (1) a God compassionate and gracious, (2) and faithfulness, (3) extending kindness to the thousandth generation, (4) and sin, (5) and children’s children.
The omission of (5) has no particular significance. The omission of (2) about divine faithfulness (the idea that God is true to himself and his word) is omitted because God’s truth would be an argument to punish Israel rather than have mercy. The omission of (4) about sin is because this usually refers in Torah to inadvertent violations of commandments, whereas Israel’s faithlessness is deliberate. And (1) and (3) are omitted because Moses is not asking for a full pardon forever. Rather, he is asking for a postponement (Milgrom).
In all our reflection about divine judgment and mercy, we always see both sides. Human beings are liable to punishment. Evil on earth is undeniable. But as much as justice is needed, so is mercy. Only God can provide a solution to the problem of human evil that transcends simple punishment. In the case of Israel’s faithlessness, God shows forbearance so that a greater purpose can be achieved. A people will inherit the promised land and become a testimony to the world about dwelling with God. This will be in spite of themselves and not because of their inherent goodness. Life with God is ultimately a gift, the result of mercy, a sign that the ideal justice is not annihilation, but redemption.
Joshua and Caleb’s impassioned speech for faithfulness (8-9), the people want to stone them (10), God announces his intention to smite the people (11-12), Moses reminds God of his own words (13-19), God’s verdict: none but Caleb will enter the land (20-25).
The minority from the scouting party, Joshua and Caleb alone, saw the direction the people were going and made a valiant effort to dissuade them. The power of the majority was against them and their wholehearted speech urging confidence in God’s promise fell on deaf ears. In vs. 9 they referred to the Canaanites as “our bread” (usually rendered “our prey”), meaning that possession of the land had been determined by God to pass over from the Canaanites to the Israelites. The land would provide bread for Israel now and no longer for the Canaanites. “Their protection has been removed,” said Joshua and Caleb. Milgrom (Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary) sees this as part of a tradition that each nation has angelic representation before the divine council (see Deuteronomy 32:30-31) and that Canaan’s safeguarding was now removed.
The speech of Joshua and Caleb is recounted in the P source and reflects the priestly theology. God’s administration and authority over the happenings of the world is emphasized. Canaan’s fate is determined by the divine council. Israel’s ascendancy is due to God’s choice of them as the covenant people. When the people are about to stone Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and Caleb, the Glory of Adonai (meaning the pillar of cloud-encased fire) appeared at that moment and stopped the execution from happening by the implied threat of force. All of these elements are consistent with the priestly theology.
But starting in vs 11, the account is once again from the J source (a Judean author writing perhaps in Hezekiah’s time). P and J have been intertwined throughout, with J’s narrative represented in 13:7b-24, 27-31, 33; 14:11-25 (see Richard Elliott Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed). Two indications in the text confirm that vss. 11-25 are from J. First, the expression of divine the divine attributes (“Adonai, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness…”) is repeated (with omissions) from Exodus 34 (also a J text). Second, only Caleb is mentioned (Joshua is omitted) in God’s declaration about who will be allowed to enter the land. In the J version, Joshua was not on the scouting mission. This is consistent with the second telling of the story in Deuteronomy 1, where only Caleb is mentioned as being on the scouting party and speaking up for confidence in God’s promise. It seems P has a different version of the story in which Joshua was among the scouts.
The negotiation between Moses and God about whether Israel should be destroyed is nearly identical to Exodus’s account following the Golden Calf. Moses argues that if God annihilates the Israelites, the nations will not see a covenant with God to be a desirable thing. Milgrom notes that this similar argument is a major theme in Ezekiel. God preserves Israel for the sake of his own reputation among the peoples of the world. God acknowledges that the nations are watching and that his gracious dealing with Israel will be a sign to the world. Yet also insists on faith, bringing reward only the Caleb and his household because of their faithfulness. God will show his mercy, but also that his justice is measured.
NUMBERS 14:26 – 15:7
“And the people mourned greatly” (וַיִּתְאַבְּלוּ הָעָם מְאֹד veyitabbelu ha’am me’ōd).
We don’t know what we want. We complain. We reject the good. And when the consequences of our inability to pursue greatness, to take hold of the gift offered by creation and our Creator, we mourn and feel the loss.
Because of fear the children of Israel said they’d be better off if they’d never left Egypt. Surely the inhabitants of Canaan would kill them. The obstacles in front of the goal of living in a land of promise with a divine covenant are too much. The promise sounds good, but there’s too much risk to get there.
“You won’t go in to the land, but your children will,” God said. Doomed to wait out an entire generation in the desert, they mourned greatly.
The very thing they said they didn’t want, now seems good to them. So, they refuse to accept God’s verdict and try it alone.
Half attempts at faith inevitably fail. Success with God and in life come for people who can see the goal with clarity and pursue it with perseverance.
Sentenced to forty years and death in the desert (14:26-35), all the scouts but Joshua and Caleb die of a plague (36-38), the mourning people try to conquer the land without God’s blessing (39-45), the laws of grain and drink offerings to accompany animal offerings (15:1-7).
The punishment is measure for measure, a year exiled to the desert for each day the scouts were spying the land. God’s reaction according to the story is harsh: the death of all the scouts except Caleb and Joshua. The people sadly go against the word of Moses, who speaks for God, and try pathetically to conquer a Canaanite settlement. As the prophet told them, they are easily defeated. Having rejected the giver, they think they can pursue the gift on their own and in their own way.
Why is this account of failure followed by laws that apply once Israel is in the land? The laws of grain offerings and libations (drink offerings) are here as a sort of reassurance: the second generation will inhabit the land though the first generation has failed. Thus, after the failure of the first generation and the judgment that they will not be allowed to enter, we read of the second generation, “When you enter the land . . .” (15:2). It must have hurt the first generation to hear their children receiving worship instructions for the grain and wine offerings while they would live out their days in the desert separated from life in the land.
“And when an immigrant dwells temporarily among you” (וְכִי־יָגוּר אִתְּכֶם גֵּר veki-yagur ittechem ger). The first case is an immigrant who is only in the land for a temporary stay.
“Or whomever is in your midst to your generations” (אוֹ אֲשֶׁר־בְּתוֹכְכֶם לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם ‘ō asher-betochechem ledōrōteichem). The second case is an immigrant who is settling permanently.
“And he would make an offering by fire of pleasing aroma to Adonai” (וְעָשָׂה אִשֵּׁה רֵיחַ־נִיחֹחַ לַיהוָה ve’assah isheh reach-nichōach l’Adonai). The question at hand is what about non-Israelites who wish to approach the altar inside the sacred courts.
“Just as you do, he will do” (כַּאֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשׂוּ כֵּן יַעֲשֶׂה ka’asher ta’asu ken ya’aseh). The answer is surprising. Given all the regulations about impurities and keeping the sacred courts free from all ritual and actual signs of human death, we might assume that foreigners in Israel would need to undergo some sort of purification process beyond that of native Israelites. Or we might assume, as was the case in the Second Temple by the edict of the priests and not by any commandment of God, that foreigners would be prohibited altogether from approaching the altar.
Instead, the foreigner is welcomed. The principle “one law for the native and the immigrant” applies directly here (see vs. 15). To be clear the “one law” principle in Torah does not mean there are no distinctions. Foreigners, unless they convert to Israelite status by circumcision with intent to join Israel (i.e., conversion), may not eat the Passover sacrifice (Exodus 12:48). Immigrants and foreigners are permitted, even inside the land of Israel, to eat meat that is forbidden to Israelites (Deuteronomy 14:21).
“One law” apparently means something like “equal justice” and, in the case of the altar where people worship Adonai with gifts from the field and flock, “equal access.”
More laws of grain and drink offerings to accompany animal offerings (8-12), immigrants and foreigners at the altar (14-16).
In the desert these accompaniments were not needed because there was no agriculture. In the land, the people would grow grain, olives, and grapes, and must present offerings from them. These laws occur here as an encouragement after the dismal news that the first generation (the Exodus generation) will not enter the Promised Land.
Further, whereas the “riffraff,” quite likely a group that started some of the trouble and grumbling (see 11:4), have been chastised, now in 15:14-16 there is a hopeful message for foreigners who wish to dwell with Israel in the Land. God will allow them to bring offerings. Although in Second Temple non-Jews were forbidden access to the altar, this was not in Torah. Resident aliens will be protected by Torah as are the natives. It should be noted that there are still distinctions for resident aliens (Exod 12:48; Deut 14:21). Therefore, the meaning of the “one law” statements in Torah is not that resident aliens and foreigners in the land have identical obligations, but equal access to the altar and equal justice.
“When you eat from the bread of the land.” In the narrative context, this passage comes during Israel’s wilderness journey. The idea of being in the Land is, for them, a future dream. Having left Egypt, a land of irrigation agriculture and a place where Israelites were at the bottom of the social structure, they look forward to entering a land whose agriculture depends on rain. In the Torah covenant, if the people as a whole abide by the terms of the agreement, there will always be rain and bread will come from heaven.
But there is a second context in time for this passage. Numbers 15:1-31 is a later insertion in Torah. Richard Elliott Friedman (The Bible with Sources Revealed) argues it is from the time of the Redactor, the final editor of Torah (perhaps Ezra the scribe). One of his evidences is that “tabernacle” is not mentioned here. In the Redactor’s time (after the Babylonian exile and after the Second Temple was built, during the Persian period) there was no tabernacle. Also, Numbers 15:1-31 repeat and make slight alterations to the sacrificial laws already given in Leviticus.
In the context of this later time, being “in the land” and eating bread from heaven is also a dream to be realized. Though post-exilic Israel is in some ways more faithful to Torah that their pre-exilic ancestors, things are far from ideal. The covenant promises are still not being realized.
The promise of a blessed future seems remote to us, a distant vision hard to hold on to. In this present world, most times the dream is never fully realized. And even when conditions are approaching paradise, they always stop short or they are interrupted by reminders of death. But it is possible to believe in “when,” to fully expect a total realization of our dreams and desires as they will be reimagined by God.
First portion of the dough [challah] offered to God (17-21), community offering for inadvertent sin (22-26).
The challah or dough offering is practiced for symbolic reasons today (that Torah may not be forgotten, say the rabbis) even though it is not necessary outside of the land. A small piece (the size of a brussels sprout for a typical loaf) is removed before shaping and burned (not in the oven) after a blessing is recited. In ancient Israel the dough was to be set aside for the priests and it is unclear exactly how this was accomplished. Ezekiel 44:30 clarifies that the dough offering is a way for a non-farmer (a homeowner) to make an offering and bring blessing to the household (Milgrom, Numbers: The JPS Torah Commentary).
Vss. 22-26 are the offering for the community for inadvertent sin and these verses clarify that offering is the way for the people to remain free of guilt. The passage is a puzzle, since this topic has already been covered in Leviticus 4:3-21. In Leviticus, communal sin requires a bull for a sin offering, but in Numbers the requirement is a bull for a burnt offering and a male goat for a sin offering.
The discrepancy between the two sets of instructions suggests one of three possibilities: the Numbers passage may be an independent tradition, the Numbers passage may have originally been understood to be about performative commandments only (but a later scribe inserted language referring it to all commandments), or the Numbers passage is a later tradition changing the Leviticus instructions.
One rabbinic harmonization is (via Ibn Ezra, though faulted by Ramban) to read Leviticus 4 in the case of violations of prohibitive commandments and Numbers 15 for performative violations. This passage is one of several examples showing that the Torah as we possess it today has been edited and that some further input (rabbis? prophets? Messiah?) is required to establish the right practice when the Temple is restored.
The picture of the sanctuary providing a way for Israelites to remain close to Adonai, is an idealistic and yet beautiful one. Faults and errors would primarily be inadvertent, in the image depicted in this text, with people knowing God so well they would want to remain in close relationship. The Torah appears to assume that such a level of adherence to moral and ritual law is possible. Or does it?
The warnings in Torah about karet (כָרֵת being cut off) seem empty. If we took the karet laws literally, who would be left in Israel? Supposedly a person would be cut off for all of the following violations: eating leaven at Passover, neglecting the Passover sacrifice, working on the Sabbath, failing to observe Yom Kippur, imbibing blood or the organ fat of sacrificial animals, using sacred incense or oil for a common purpose, eating sacred meat after its holiness expires, eating sacrificial meat in a state of impurity, Levites who touch sancta, desecrating God’s name, neglecting circumcision, neglecting purification from corpse contact, Molech worship, necromancy, sacrifices made outside the sanctuary, and incestuous relations.
Furthermore, in addition to the lack of carrying out of this harsh sentence, the Torah also gives evidence that repentance converts intentional sin into inadvertent wrongdoing, thus making it expiable.
Torah penalties could be carried out against the people of Israel in a harsh manner. But what we see instead is forbearance on God’s part for long periods of time. Penalties are passed over. People are given multiple chances.
We are left instead with a positive motivation, a picture of the people living close to the divine Presence, making offerings for accidental infringements. It is an image to motivate Israel to holiness.
Individual offering for inadvertent sin (27-29), high-handed sin and being cut off (30-31), a wood-gatherer stoned (32-36), fringes (tzitzit) as reminders (37-41).
Inadvertent sin is atonable, but brazen (defiant, high-handed) sin requires being cut off (כָרֵת karet is the name of the penalty in Hebrew).
Karet (being cut off) is always for sins against God (ritual matters) and not against people (Milgrom, Numbers: JPS Torah Commentary). Examples of sins which lead to karet include: eating leaven at Passover, neglecting the Passover sacrifice, working on the Sabbath, failing to observe Yom Kippur, imbibing blood or the organ fat of sacrificial animals, using sacred incense or oil for a common purpose, eating sacred meat after its holiness expires, eating sacrificial meat in a state of impurity, Levites who touch sancta, desecrating God’s name, neglecting circumcision, neglecting purification from corpse contact, Molech worship, necromancy, sacrifices made outside the sanctuary, and incestuous relations.
Theories about the meaning of karet have included an early death, eradication of one’s family line, and prevention of a person being “gathered” to their kin after death (Milgrom). There is no clear answer in Torah about what karet means. Nor is it clear what the parameters are. Can the penalty of karet be overcome by repentance? Does lack of intention ameliorate the penalty (i.e., if someone inadvertently transgresses are they absolved of guilt)?
Perhaps karet is a penalty left deliberately vague because God did not reveal details to the priests or Israelites, leaving room for repentance and forgiveness. It often seems the warnings in Torah and prophets are more to motivate obedience than to close off hope. It is important to note that this does not mean deliberate sin is un-atonable. Repentance converts deliberate sin into inadvertent sin (as can be seen in the guilt or reparation offerings of Leviticus).
Those who refuse to repent are the ones whose sin is ultimately high-handed. In the case of the wood-gatherer, that his action was wrong is clear, since gathering manna on the Sabbath was forbidden (Exod 16:22-26). Many have guessed Moses was unsure about the penalty and how it should be carried out, which is why he sought God to be sure.
The fringes Israel was to wear on the corners of their garments are called tzitzit (צִיצִת). These fringes are similar to ornamentation worn by priestly classes in other ancient Near Eastern cultures. In commanding Israelites to wear the fringes, God is indicating that all Israelites are priests, and the blue (תְּכֵלֶת techelet) is a royal color (Milgrom, Numbers: JPS Torah Commentary).