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God had just proved His supernatural power to the Israelites three times since the nation had left Sinai (chs. 11-12). There was no excuse for this failure to trust Him to lead them victoriously into Canaan.
The rebellion of the people 14:1-12
Moses and Aaron tried to persuade the people to enter the land (Deuteronomy 1:29-31). They also prayed for the nation in this hour of its rebellion (Numbers 14:5). Moreover Joshua and Caleb warned the people against turning back (Numbers 14:7-9). They rightly identified the true actions of the Israelite majority as rebellion against God and fear of the Canaanites (Numbers 14:9). They reminded the people that God was with them (Numbers 14:9).
Nevertheless the congregation violently rejected their pleas to trust and obey God (Numbers 14:10). God Himself prevented the people from stoning Caleb and Joshua by manifesting Himself (Numbers 14:10).
". . . the majesty of God flashed out before the eyes of the people in a light which suddenly burst forth from the tabernacle (see at Ex. xxv. 10)." [Note: Keil and Delitzsch, 3:92.]
As a faithful mediator Moses again interceded for the disobedient Israelites.
The failure of the Israelites grew out of unbelief (Numbers 14:11; cf. Hebrews 3:19). They failed to believe that God would give them the land of their enemies as He had promised.
"Like Pharaoh, they were hardening their hearts and ignoring God’s clear command (cf. Psalms 95:7-8) . . ." [Note: Herbert M. Wolf, An Introduction to the Old Testament Pentateuch, p. 194.]
Often in Scripture we read of people asking God, "How long?" (e.g., Psalms 6:3; Psalms 13:1-2; Psalms 35:17; et al.). However here it is God who asked this of Moses (cf. Exodus 16:28). This illustrates the intimate relationship that Moses and God enjoyed (Numbers 12:7-8).
Was God’s threatened action a real possibility, or was He only testing Moses’ reaction with this offer? God had threatened a similar punishment at Sinai when the Israelites had made the golden calf (Exodus 32:10). God could have fulfilled His promises to Abraham by destroying and dispossessing all the other living Israelites and by sparing only Moses and his descendants. However, God could not have fulfilled the prophetic promises that He had given through Jacob (Genesis 49) and done so. There would have to be descendants of Judah from whom a great ruler would come (Genesis 49:10) as well as some future for the other tribes. Perhaps God meant that He would completely destroy that older generation of Israelites immediately (cf. Exodus 32:10). He said that He would also give Moses and his descendants a much larger place in the nation. Perhaps then other peoples would regard Moses as the father of the Israelite nation.
". . . this passage intends to show that the people failed to inherit the Promised Land and hence died in the wilderness without inheriting the blessing, not so much for a specific act of disobedience or for fear of the battles that lay ahead, but rather for the simple fact of their unbelief. They failed to trust in God." [Note: Sailhamer, p. 388.]
Moses’ intercession for the people 14:13-19
Moses interceded again, much as he had done at Sinai (cf. Exodus 32:11-13). Moses based his appeal on God’s reputation among the Egyptians (Numbers 14:13-14) and the other nations (Numbers 14:15-16). He also cited God’s promise that He would be patient (Numbers 14:17-18) and His past loyal love to Israel (Numbers 14:19). Moses’ words proved effective (Numbers 14:20).
God’s punishment of the people 14:20-38
The fact that God granted the people pardon in response to Moses’ intercession is another indication of His grace (Numbers 14:20-21). The failure of the Israelites would not frustrate God’s purpose to manifest His glory throughout the earth through the seed of Abraham (Numbers 14:21). Even though the present generation would die in the wilderness, Caleb (and Joshua, not mentioned here, cf. Numbers 14:30) would enter the Promised Land.
The ten times the Israelites tested God (Numbers 14:22) by complaining were probably these.
1. At the Red Sea (Exodus 14:11-12)
2. At Marah (Exodus 15:23)
3. In the wilderness of Sin (Exodus 16:2)
4. In the wilderness of Sin (Exodus 16:20)
5. In the wilderness of Sin (Exodus 16:27)
6. At Rephidim (Exodus 17:1-2)
7. At Horeb (Exodus 32)
8. At Taberah (Numbers 11:1-3)
9. At Kibroth-hattaavah (Numbers 11:4-34)
10. At Kadesh (Numbers 14:1-3)
It is noteworthy that in Egypt God sent 10 plagues to build the faith of His people, but in the wilderness they complained against Him in unbelief 10 times. Evidently the measure of their iniquity had reached its capacity from God’s viewpoint with this tenth rebellion (cf. Genesis 15:16).
Because the adult generation had failed to trust God He would not defeat their enemies. Therefore He instructed them to march southeast toward the Gulf of Aqabah and away from the Amalekites and Canaanites (Numbers 14:25). Since they wanted to return to Egypt, God sent them back toward where they had been. Since they feared their children would die in Canaan, God would preserve those very children in the wilderness and give them a home in Canaan (Numbers 14:31). Since the adults had rejected Canaan, God would give it to their children (Numbers 14:31). Since they feared dying in Canaan, God would let them die in the wilderness (Numbers 14:2).
"Typical of the irony in this story, their punishment is made to fit their crime." [Note: G. Wenham, p. 123.]
"When the Lord asked ’How long?’ [Numbers 14:27] he meant this was the end. The oath formula ’As I live’ [Numbers 14:28] was the strongest denial conceivable. The things he said next were irrevocably going to happen. That is what lies behind Numbers 14:28; Numbers 14:30; Numbers 14:35." [Note: Maarsingh, p. 50.]
The Bible nowhere specifies a particular age of accountability for children. However the fact that God judged all the Israelites who were 20 years old and older for this sin seems significant. He evidently regarded those who had lived 20 years as responsible adults (Numbers 14:29). Jewish boys became "sons of the covenant" on their thirteenth birthdays in later Judaism. This is what the bar mitzvah (lit. son of duty) celebrates.
The 40-year duration of the punishment was based on the 40-day duration of the expedition by the spies (Numbers 14:34). These 40 years included the two years already spent in the wilderness, since complaining characterized the people from the time they first departed from Egypt.
"The round number forty (Numbers 14:34) may refer to a human lifetime: generally speaking, everyone above the age of twenty would die in the wilderness in a period of forty years, because very few people lived beyond the age of sixty. There is a curious connection between the forty days of preparation for an entry that did not take place and forty years of awesome preparation for an entry that would take place-but only for a new generation." [Note: Maarsingh, p. 51.]
The 10 spies who brought the majority opinion seem to have died shortly after God pronounced their sentence as a result of a plague He sent (Numbers 14:37).
"As an unmistakable evidence that God’s word of judgment would be literally fulfilled, the spies, except Joshua and Caleb, at this moment were struck dead with a plague from the Lord." [Note: Jensen, p. 67.]
The presumption of the people 14:39-45
Having received their sentence from the Lord, the people then presumptuously proceeded to go up on their own to take the land (Numbers 14:40-42).
"They are like children who had broken a valuable vase and decided to ’make it better’ by gluing it back together. The result of such action looks nothing like the original." [Note: Ashley, p. 270.]
The Israelites refused to accept God’s discipline as they had refused to accept His promise. Thus they rebelled against Him again even though Moses sounded the ominous warning, "the LORD will not be with you" (Numbers 14:43). They tried to gain His blessings without Him, which is unbelief. Consequently God allowed their enemies to rout them. The key to success would not be their military might or psychological power but their obedient trust in God.
It is also possible for us Christians to fail to enter into our full reward if we fail to continue to trust and obey God (1 Corinthians 9:24 to 1 Corinthians 10:13; Hebrews 3:12 to Hebrews 4:14). [Note: Philip, pp. 166-67.] Every genuine Christian will eventually go to heaven, but only the faithful will receive all the rewards God wants each Christian to possess. God will give or withhold these at the judgment seat of Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11-15; 2 Corinthians 5:10; et al.).
"This rather large section of narrative [i.e., chs. 13-14] introduces an important element in the development of God’s covenant with Israel: the theme of the faithfulness of God in keeping the covenant and the unfaithfulness of humans in not trusting him.
"Following the account of the people’s failure to believe in God in chapters 13 and 14, the writer has attached a further and rather large set of laws dealing with sacrifice and the priesthood (Numbers 15:1 to Numbers 19:22). Thus, as has been the case throughout the earlier parts of the Pentateuch, after an account of Israel’s unbelief, more laws are added within the narrative [cf. Exodus 32; Galatians 3:19-23]." [Note: Sailhamer, p. 387.]
Battles, this one and the battle with the Canaanites in Numbers 21:1-3, frame this section of laws and the Lord’s discipline of the Israelites in the wilderness during the next 38 years. [Note: Ashley, p. 274.]
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Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Numbers 14". "Expository Notes of Dr. Thomas Constable". https://www.studylight.org/