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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 13

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries


This chapter has a record of the sending out of the spies to survey the land of Canaan, an event that proved to be pivotal in the history of Israel. In this chapter, there is:

(1) the cause of sending out spies (Numbers 13:1-2)

(2) the choice of the spies (Numbers 13:2-16)

(3) the commission of the spies (Numbers 13:17-20)

(4) the conduct of the spies (Numbers 13:21-24)

(5) the confirmation of what God had said about Canaan by the spies (Numbers 13:25-27)

(6) the contradiction of God’s Word by the majority report of the spies (Numbers 13:28-29), and

(7) the counter-report of the minority (Numbers 13:30), and

(8) the crooked rebuttal by the majority (Numbers 13:31-33)(F1)

The unity, consistency, and harmony of this amazing narrative are unassailable. Never was the criticism any more bankrupt than in the assaults directed against this chapter. A summary of critical views is that of Wade:

“This narrative is marked by numerous discrepancies, being a fusion of two accounts drawn from JE and P. In JE the spies start from Kadesh, and the survey is limited to southern Palestine; the report of land is favorable, but the inhabitants are alarming, and only Caleb opposes the majority report. In P the spies start from Paran, the survey extends to the far north boundary of Canaan, and the report of the country is unfavorable, with both Caleb and Joshua dissenting.”(F2)

“Kadesh vs. Paran as the starting place” There is not a scholar on earth who knows with certainty the exact location and boundaries of either Paran or Kadesh, and the conceited assumption that these terms are in any sense contradictory is absolutely untenable. Kadesh was a station within the much larger district called Paran. It was natural that both names would appear in a truthful narrative.

“The journey covered only southern Canaan… it extended all the way to Hamath” Nowhere in the Bible is there any suggestion whatever that the journey of the spies was limited to southern Canaan. Such a view is mere scholarly imagination imported into the text. The narrative does not have a summary of all that the spies did during that forty days, and the mention of the valley of Eschol (in southern Canaan) was purely incidental to identifying the source of the cluster, and cannot mean that the spies went nowhere else.

“Caleb alone mentioned as opposing the majority… both Caleb and Joshua are said to oppose the majority” The first mention of Caleb (Numbers 13:30) came from his being the leader of the minority and simply cannot mean that he was alone in his opposition. In Numbers 14:6, it is revealed that both Joshua and Caleb opposed the majority report. A discrepancy or contradiction could be alleged here only in the event that one of the passages said Caleb alone stood against the evil report. Where is any such statement?

We may summarize all critical fulminations against this chapter in the words of Keil:

“These `discrepancies’ do not exist in the Biblical narrative, but have been introduced by the critic himself by arbitrary interpolations…. We cannot possibly suppose that two accounts have been linked or interwoven here… This style of narrative is common, not only in the Bible, but also in the historical works of the Arabs.”(F3)

Verses 1-3

“And Jehovah spake unto Moses, saying, Send thou men, that they may spy out the land of Canaan, which I give unto the children of Israel: of every tribe of their fathers shall ye send a man, every one a prince among them. And Moses sent them from the wilderness of Paran according to the commandment of Jehovah: all of them men who were heads of the children of Israel.”

Here at the outset the question arises as to “Whose idea was it?” that the children of Israel should spy out the land. Here, there is no mention of the people as being behind such a plan; but in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 1:20-22) it is revealed that the people themselves were behind this proposal. Is this a “contradiction?” Certainly not. Did not God command Balaam to “go with the men,” whereas the desire and purpose of his doing so originated not with God at all, but in the evil heart of Balaam (Numbers 22:35)? Another instance in which the same phenomenon occurs is in the life of Paul. It was the church that sent Paul up to the so-called “Jerusalem Conference” (Acts 15:2); and yet Paul himself stated that he “went up by revelation” (Galatians 2:2), indicating that he went by God’s commandment and approval. There are numerous examples of this style of narrative in the Bible, in which “the whole picture” appears only in the light of “all that the scriptures have spoken.” It can be nothing but a corrupted exegesis that sees supplementary passages as discrepancies.

As a matter of truth, there is no way that the Israelites should have desired to send out spies. Was not God their leader? Was not His visible appearance among them day and night in the phenomenal glory of the fiery cloudy pillar? Did God need any information that their spies could have discovered? In this episode, the Israelites were the prototype of all faithless and timid brethren, who, in the face of clear duty, prefer not to act, but to disguise their unwillingness as prudence in “seeking more facts.”

Their request for spies indicated a lack of faith. They were not trusting God. God had already spied out the land. He knew all about it. He would not have sent them to possess the land unless He had known that they were able to take it. When they finally did enter it, the giants were still there, and all the difficulties and problems were still there; but, of course, they took it anyway. Yes, God permitted them to send out the spies; but “He gave them their request; but sent leanness into their souls.”(F4)

There are two things in this passage: (1) the lack of faith on the part of the people; and (2) the compliance of God with their request, for the purpose of educating them and letting them “have their foolish way and taste its bitter results.”(F5)

Verses 4-16

“And these were their names: Of the tribe of Reuben, Shammua the son of Zaccur. Of the tribe of Simeon, Shaphat the son of Hori. Of the tribe of Judah, Caleb the son of Jephunneh. Of the tribe of Issachar, Igal the son of Joseph. Of the tribe of Ephraim, Hoshea the son of Nun. Of the tribe of Benjamin, Palti the son of Raphu. Of the tribe of Zebulun, Gaddiel the son of Sodi. Of the tribe of Joseph, namely, of the tribe of Manasseh, Gaddi the son of Susi. Of the tribe of Dan, Ammiel the son of Gemalii. Of the tribe of Asher, Sethur the son of Michael. Of the tribe of Naphtali, Nahbi the son of Vophsi. Of the tribe of Gad, Geuel the son of Machi. These are the names of the men that Moses sent to spy out the land. And Moses called Hoshea the son of Nun Joshua.”

Note that the tribe of Levi is not mentioned and that both Manasseh and Ephraim appear as the tribe of Joseph. This came about from Jacob’s adoption of Ephraim and Manasseh as his sons with full rank with the twelve sons of Jacob. It is easy to memorize these names if they are arranged so as to allow the alliteration, thus:


“Shammua” means “heard,” the name appearing also in 2 Samuel 5:14; Nehemiah 11:17; Nehemiah 12:18.

“Shaphat” means “judge.” This was also the name of Elisha’s father.

“Sethur” means “hidden.”

“Ammiel” means “God is my kinsman.” The name also appears in the story of Mephibosheth (2 Samuel 9:4).

“Gaddiel” means “God is my fortune.” This is the full form of the name Gad.

“Geuel” means “majesty of God.” It occurs nowhere else in the Bible.

“Igal” means “he will redeem.” One of David’s heroes (2 Samuel 23:36).

“Nahbi” means “hidden.”

“Palti” means “God’s deliverance.” Also the name of Michal’s husband (1 Samuel 25:44).

“Gaddi” another form of “Gad.”

“Caleb” means “dog” and could have been applied to him because of his Gentile ancestry. He was a Kenizzite (Numbers 32:12).(F6)

“Hoshea” means “desire of salvation.” Moses changed the name to Joshua by adding the prefix “Jeh” for Jehovah, giving the meaning of “divinely appointed, head of salvation,” or “Savior.” The name as changed is the same as “Savior”, or “Jesus.”(F7)

We cannot leave the discussion of the name Joshua without noticing the fantastic proposition advanced by some critics to the effect that the P author of this passage gave the name of Hoshea instead of Joshua, and then invented the story that Moses changed his name, “in order to defend his view that the name Jehovah could not have been known before Moses, and so presumably not at the time of Joshua’s birth!”(F8) What an insight this gives to the critical NONSENSE about the name Jehovah having been unknown before Moses. The name of Jehovah appears in the name of Moses’ mother, Jochebed! It was known extensively by the patriarchs of old, as any student of the Bible may read for himself. The air castle that members of the critical community have built upon Exodus 6:3 by means of their erroneous translation of the passage crumbles into nothing in the light of the truth. It is not true that God said that He was not known prior to the burning bush as “Jehovah.” The proper translation of the verse in question is: “By my name Jehovah was I not known unto your fathers?”

The scholarship that supports this is superior in every way to that which denies it. Exodus 6:3 dogmatically affirms the very truth it is alleged to deny!

Now look at the allegation regarding Hoshea: the “editor of P” was like the critical scholars today ignorant of the true rendition of the passage in Exodus (how this could have been true in a prior source of Exodus is indeed a mystery, and also this editor perverted the name of Joshua to defend his position!) Indeed! Indeed! How blind is unbelief!

Those interested in a more extensive discussion of this question are invited to see our exegesis of Exodus 6:3 in this series of commentaries.

“And Moses called Hoshea Joshua” This was an exceedingly significant prophecy. “Moses was looking beyond all the dismal grief and failure about to be manifested in the people to that Greater Salvation that would at last appear in Jesus Christ.”(F9) Whitelaw thought it was “an obvious difficulty” that Joshua had already been called by his new name in Exodus 17:9 and in all the other places where he is previously mentioned in the Bible.(F10) What difficulty? The text does not say that this new name was given on the occasion where it is recorded here, but even if that should be inferred, this narrative written near the end of the forty-year journeyings of Israel and long after the event here would naturally have referred to Joshua by the name under which he would be known for all ages. Prolepsis is the technical word for this. “The new name may have been given earlier, but if the change was made at this time, the earlier reference would be proleptic. The new name might have been given after Joshua’s defeat of the Amalekites (Exodus 17).”(F11)

Verses 17-20

“And Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan, and said unto them, Get up this way by the South, and go up into the hill-country: and see the land, what it is; and the people that dwell therein, whether they are strong or weak, whether they are few or many; and what the land is that they dwell in, whether it is good or bad; and what cities they are that they dwell in, whether in camps, or in strongholds; and what the land is, whether it is fat or lean, whether there is wood therein or not. And be ye of good courage, and bring of the fruit of the land. Now the time was the time of the first-ripe grapes.”

“Get you up this way by the South” Literally, “by the Negeb”(F12) The Negeb is called the South Country and is a well-defined area lying from Kadesh North to the vicinity of Hebron, and covering the whole area between the Jordan and Dead Sea valley to the Mediterranean.

“The first-ripe grapes” “The first-ripe grapes came in late July or early August, but the full vintage came in September and October.”(F13) This corresponds exactly with the time elapsed since their leaving Sinai.

Verses 21-24

“So they went up, and spied out the land from the wilderness of Zin unto Rehob, to the entrance of Hamath. And they went up by the South, and came unto Hebron; and Ahiman, Sheshal, and Talmai, the children of Anak, were there. (Now Hebron was built seven years before Zoan in Egypt). And they came unto the valley of Eshcol, and cut down from thence a branch with one cluster of grapes, and they bear it upon a staff between two; they brought also of the pomegranates, and of the figs. That place was called the valley of Eshcol, because of the cluster which the children of Israel cut down from thence.”

“To the entrance of Hamath” Throughout the Bible, Hamath is repeatedly referred to as the North gateway to Palestine. Jeroboam restored the ancient Solomonic empire “from the entrance of Hamath,” etc. (2 Kings 14:25).

“And came unto Hebron” This was a very old city, dating from a time about 1600 B.C.(F14) or even as early as 2000 B.C.(F15) Hebron was known to the patriarchs under its older name Kiriath-Arba. Arba was the father of Anak (Joshua 15:13), and gave Kiriath-Arba its name (City of Arba).(F16) Descendants of Arba through Anak, the Anakim, mentioned here as Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai, could have been descendant tribes, not merely individuals. They were still in the vicinity of Hebron when Caleb became their eventual destroyer (Joshua 15:14).

“Seven years before Zoan” Who but Moses could have known when Zoan, the great Egyptian city of Tanis, a magnificent city on the Nile Delta and having a summer residence of the Pharaohs, was founded? Whitelaw was correct in the discernment that such information shows that “Moses had access to the archives of Egypt through the priests who had provided his education in Egypt.”(F17) This comment noting that Hebron was founded even before Tanis has no connection whatever in the context, appearing as totally irrelevant and unnecessary. But this insertion into the holy record of a fragment of history so minute and unimportant proves that “No one but Moses could have written it.”(F18) No later writer could have had any such information, and there could have existed no reason whatever for his inventing it. Many apparently trivial things such as this afford cumulative evidence of the Divinity of the Pentateuch that defies all denials.

“One cluster of grapes” How big, really, was it and why did they appoint two men to carry it? Most current commentators suppose that it was carried in such a manner in order to preserve the grapes, and not because of the size of the cluster. We have no opinion about it, but the diversity of views on this is of interest. Adam Clarke testified that he himself had cut down such a cluster that weighed 20 pounds.(F19) Pliny is credited with the statement that bunches of grapes were known to be larger than an infant, and “Paul Lucas declared that he had seen bunches of grapes at Damascus that weighed over forty-five pounds”!(F20)

Verses 25-29

“And they returned from spying out the land at the end of forty days. And they went and came to Moses, and to Aaron, and to all the congregation of the children of Israel, unto the wilderness of Paran, to Kadesh; and brought back word unto them, and unto all the congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land. And they told him, and said, We came unto the land whither thou sentest us; and surely it floweth with milk and honey; and this is the fruit of it. Howbeit the people that dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified, and very great: and moreover we saw the children of Anak there. Amalek dwelleth in the land of the South; and the Hittite, and the Jebusite, and the Amorite, dwell in the hill-country; and the Canaanite dwelleth by the sea, and along by the side of the Jordan.”

“The wilderness of Paran, to Kadesh” One of these names most certainly referred to a large area, and Kadesh referred to a particular station that served as the headquarters of Israel for some 38 years after the events of this chapter.

“Kadesh was the scene of a great number of important events described in the following chapters of Numbers, and it stands out as the most important and conspicuous place of Israel’s encampment after their departure from Sinai.”(F21) The most important event of all, however, was the rebellion of Israel in this very chapter. It drastically changed the course of their history.

The spies, at least the ten faithless ones, had gone on that expedition looking for reasons why they should NOT try to take Canaan, and, of course, they found what they were seeking. They presented their report very skillfully, pretending to be very factual and objective in their report, but the facts they presented were designed for one thing only, that of discouraging the people from moving as God commanded.

Note that obtrusive “howbeit” (Numbers 13:28). They meant only one thing, “WE CANNOT TAKE THE LAND.” The whole trouble here was that the leaders simply did not believe God.

It is a bad sign when unbelief sends out sense to be its scout, pretending to verify God’s Word by human confirmation. Not to believe God unless a jury of twelve of ourselves agrees is the same as not believing God at all, for it is not God but their own contemporaries that they believe after all.(F22)

Verses 30-33

“And Caleb stilled the people before Moses, and said, Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it. But the men that went up with him said, We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we. And they brought up an evil report of the land which they spied out unto the children of Israel, saying, The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature. And there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come of the Nephilim: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.”

This crooked rebuttal on the part of the majority is called “an evil report,” and the basic meaning of such a charge lays a mighty challenge as to the veracity of what that majority said. The commentators have tried to make their report “accurate,” and “in keeping with the facts,” but look at that line which says:

“It is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof” That was simply a bold and unprincipled LIE, designed to scare the people into following the false leaders. We have no patience with the commentators who make this a TRUTHFUL declaration, affirming that it means the land was so fruitful that people continually fought over it, and the consequent wars were what ate up the inhabitants, but that is not the LAND’S doing so! There is another falsehood here.

True, they saw the sons of Anak, and they mentioned the “giants” in their first report; but note the change: “All the people that we saw were men of great stature.” So, they saw a few giants and then cried that “all the people” were giants!

Yes, their report was evil, false, inaccurate, exaggerated, slanted, and perverted to serve their lack of faith. It is not the first time, nor the last, that a majority has shouted a lie to persuade the thoughtless to follow them instead of the true leaders. “How exaggerated and one-sided is the distrust of God’s promises”(F23)

Caleb’s magnificent challenge here stands out as the words of a true believer: “Let us go up at once and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.”

Such noble words are worthy to be the motto of any church or of any believer. They sprang from a heart of faith. Caleb’s confidence was not in Caleb, but in the God of Israel. The “giants” of Canaan struck no fear into his courageous heart, for he, like Paul, knew “Whom he had believed” and was sure of his ability in that strength to overcome.

“They brought up an evil report of the land” The Hebrew from which this is translated is, “They made go at a defamation of the land.”(F24) This has the effect as making their charges to be falsehoods, and certainly this nonsense about the land eating up the people must rank as the yarn of a champion liar!

“The Nephilim” is translated “giants” in the Septuagint (LXX), and that is probably the true meaning of it. “They are mentioned elsewhere only in Genesis 6:4.”(F25)

In regard to the questions that naturally arise concerning those “giants,” Plaut has the following:

“The Anakites were long understood to denote `giants.’ Although anthropology has no evidence that men of unusual size lived in Palestine during that period, nevertheless the reason for the tradition is clear. “The existing dolmens and the size and strength of the Canaanite fortresses suggest that only giants could have built them. We find this same idea among the Greeks, who reported that huge walls of their ancient cities had been built by the Cyclopes, giant artisans from Asia Minor. This tradition has led to the expression `Cyclopean masonry,’ to describe the huge blocks used in constructing some ancient cities.”(F26)

The Biblical description of Goliath gives his height at “six cubits and a span,” (1 Samuel 17:4), namely about 10 feet! There are occasional giants in nearly every country. The famous Cape Breton Giant was a person of great size, as attested by the wax image clad in clothes actually worn by him, and exhibited in the museum at Halifax, Nova Scotia. Ethan Allen Crawford of Vermont was also a man of incredible strength who lifted a horse up a thirty-foot cliff! A few of our current basketball stars approach giant stature.

The next chapter reveals what a nation of cry-babies Israel was at this time, and this is an appropriate place to take a closer look at what we shall call:


Text: “Surely they shall not see the land that I sware unto their fathers.”

Intro: There is a world of interest in this tragic story of a lost generation. Their generation had begun in glorious success. Through God’s blessing, they had been liberated from slavery in Egypt. In their immediate past history, there were the astounding wonders of the Red Sea crossing, the destruction of their enemies in the sea, the glory of the fiery, cloudy pillar, the thunders of Sinai, the holy Covenant, the manna, and such miracles as humanity had never before seen. Yet they were defeated, lost, and condemned to die in the wilderness. From their tragic mistakes, there may be gleaned precious truth that might prevent other generations from following their pathetic example. Why did they fail?

I. They had a morbid fear of the dangers. Schooled in slavery and reared in servitude they were, in a word, cowards. They were afraid someone might get hurt.

II. They had no regard for liberty to which they were called, and they even contemplated stoning Joshua and Caleb and returning as slaves of Pharaoh! They were willing that their little children should have holes drilled in their ears marking them the chattels of Pharaoh, rather than suffer the hardships incumbent upon all who would be free.

III. They allowed themselves to fall into “unbelief.” When it is recalled that they had every conceivable reason for believing in God, how almost incredible is the record that they let genuine faith slip away! Many Christians are confronted with the same temptation.

IV. They lost their self-respect. Read those lines again about the grasshoppers! What an amazing self-depreciation appears. “We were in our sight as grasshoppers!”

V. They accepted the majority report. What a devilish thing is “the majority”! They gave heed to what “the majority said,” not to what God said. All over the world today, many so-called “believers” are willing to take the “majority opinion” on any vital question - baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the inspiration of the Bible, or anything else. Majorities are practically always wrong, as they proved to be here.

VI. They were thinking merely of what they personally could do, and not about the power of the Lord.

VII. They had a small eye upon themselves, a big eye upon their enemies, and no eye at all upon God.

Shammua, Shaphat, and Sethur, etc., these were mighty men, princes in Israel, but they were shamefully and tragically wrong. We should never look upon the excellence or the rank of men, nor their appearance of being in the majority, as any kind of a safe criterion by which one may find it safe to follow them. The majority report ruined the thousands of Israel for a whole generation; and may we add, tearfully, it is still ruining countless thousands of others today.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Numbers 13". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/numbers-13.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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