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the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 13

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Verses 1-16


In Numbers 11 we see a desire in the people of God to return to Egypt. Someone who yearns back to the world – of which Egypt is a picture – proves that he does not know the true character of the world. In Numbers 13 a new problem is emerging: how do the people think about the promised land? It will appear that, just as they do not know Egypt, they do not know the promised land either. They are as unbelieving in the glory that lies before them, that is of the land of Canaan, as they are in respect of Egypt that they have forsaken. The same goes for the wilderness they pass through.

The characteristic of Israel is that they fear more for the enemies than for the LORD. That is why they only think about the pleasant things of Egypt when they think about that land. Over against that, they have the unpleasantness of the wilderness. Therefore they long to go back to Egypt. Now that they stand before the promised land, it is the other way around. They are opposed to the difficulties of conquering the land and do not want to conquer it. So they despise the blessings of it that the LORD has presented to them. They do not see the blessings, they forget them, because they are blinded by the effort it will take to possess them.

The Twelve Spies

In Deuteronomy 1 it says that the people themselves are asking to send spies: “Then all of you approached me and said, ‘Let us send men before us, that they may search out the land for us, and bring back to us word of the way by which we should go up and the cities which we shall enter” (Deuteronomy 1:22). Now God gives them what they want. He knows their desires. They want to spy it out to compare it with their own strengths. God commands them according to their desires, that they may experience the results. It is like appointing a king in Israel. The LORD commands Samuel to appoint a king, but that is because the people want a king (1 Samuel 8:22).

The name change of Hosea by Moses is significant. Hosea means ‘salvation’, Joshua means ‘Yahweh is salvation’. With this Moses indicates what God will do and that the strength of the people can be found in Him. He will have spoken this change of name loud and clear as an encouragement to the people. This change of name also shows the special bond that exists between Moses and Joshua, between an old man of God and a young man of God.

Verses 17-20

Commission to Explore the Land

God has already told them everything, both about the blessing and about the enemies who live there. But they don’t remember that God also said: “I give you the land.” Then there is no need to go and see what kind of land it is, whether it is good or bad, and how strong the enemy is, is it? Nevertheless, courage is needed to spy out the land. After all, it is hostile territory. For the first time in the Bible the exhortation sounds: “Make an effort”, or: “Take courage.”

The inheritance that we Christians will receive together with the Lord Jesus is “all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth” (Ephesians 1:10). That is why we have been saved. There is nothing we could do about this salvation. So it is with the inheritance. We do not need to spy out that heritage or to be strong enough. We have no strength, as we didn’t have it for salvation. God has redeemed us and gives us the inheritance.

Verses 21-24

The Land Spied Out

The spies come to Hebron, which means ‘fellowship’, which indicates that the blessing is enjoyed in fellowship with others. In Hebron is also the enemy. He will try to prevent us from enjoying fellowship with others and above all with God and the Lord Jesus.

In the meaning of the names we see the nature of the enemies who want to rob us of the blessing of the land. “Anak” means “long of neck”, which indicates pride, haughty. They think only of themselves. Such people know very well how to keep us from our blessings. They will point to the folly of our faith. It is not only others who are like this, we must also be aware that in each of us there is an ‘Anakite’.

In the names of Anak’s three children, the characteristics of pride come to life:
1. “Ahiman” means ‘who is my brother’. We recognize individualism in this, in which thinking about oneself is expressed in a stronger way.
2. “Sheshai” means ‘free’. This indicates that one does not submit to any authority, but feels free to do what oneself thinks is right.
3. “Talmai” means ‘audacious’ or ‘unashamed’. This shows the aspect of posturing.

If we do not eliminate these ‘children’ of pride, but give them the opportunity to assert themselves in our lives, the blessings are lost to us.

The cluster of grapes speaks of joy. Joy is the result of fellowship (1 John 1:3-Numbers :). Joy and fellowship belong together. Anyone who is involved with the heavenly blessings, together with others – two men are needed to carry the cluster – will be glad.

Hebron was built seven years earlier than Zoan. This is not just a chronologic remark. There is an important spiritual meaning attached to it. Zoan was at that time the capital of Egypt. There are many sages living there. Zoan stands for everything Egypt represents, both in wisdom and in the enjoyment of sin. Egypt is, as we have seen before, a picture of the world. Do we long for that back? Then let’s remember that Hebron is much older.

Christendom and the things we have received in it are much older than our stay in the world. The blessings of heaven date from before all times (Ephesians 1:4). Compared to that the world is nothing, which only has later and temporary pleasures. Is the choice still difficult when we have to choose between Zoan in Egypt or Hebron in the promised land?

Verses 25-33

The Spies Bring Back Word

When the twelve spies leave, there is no difference between them yet to be seen. The difference becomes only clear when they return “at the end of forty days”. The number forty is the number of trial (Genesis 7:17; Exodus 24:18; 1 Samuel 17:16; 1 Kings 19:8; Jonah 3:4; Mark 1:13; Acts 1:3). Testing of the faith reveals the state of the faith. The twelve spies show this to be the case. They have all seen the same, but only two have looked with the eyes of God. One of the two is Caleb. The name Kaleb means ‘wholeheartedly’. He is worth that name. Caleb hath given himself with an undivided, completely dedicated heart to the LORD and His case. For him, the punishment that comes soon is not a setback from entering the land, but a postponement.

The ten other men who have spied out the land have received the same blessings as Caleb, but have never taken possession of the land. They are like the people of whom is written to have enjoyed the gifts of the heavenly land, but have been lost. “For in the case of those who have once been enlightened and have tasted of the heavenly gift and have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powers of the age to come, and [then] have fallen away” (Hebrews 6:4-Joshua :). These are people who have never truly, with their hearts, been converted to God. Although the ten have an unbelieving heart, they cannot deny that the land flows “with milk and honey”.

Milk is a healthy food we received from our mother as a baby. As believers, we are called to long for the Word, as a baby longs for its mother’s milk (1 Peter 2:2). Honey is a picture of the natural relationships between the members of God’s people and speaks of the sweetness of brotherly love. We find in the milk and honey the blessing of the vertical and horizontal relationships.

The ten spies give a correct description. They have seen no other things than God has said from the beginning (Exodus 3:8). But they let their report follow by a limiting “however” (Numbers 13:28) and shift the emphasis of blessing to the enemies. Yet God also told them of those enemies and not only of the blessing.

Already to Abraham He told him that his descendants would go to a land where there are enemies (Genesis 15:18-Ecclesiastes :). And to Moses He promised – and Moses told the people – that He would drive out the enemies from the land (Exodus 23:27-Obadiah :). But if a man forgets what God has said, he will see things differently. Thus the ten feel like grasshoppers in their own eyes, because they have lost sight of God.

The impression that unbelief conveys causes turmoil among the people. Kaleb knows exactly what the others are talking about. He does not present things differently and does not belittle the dangers. He is not insensitive to the dangers, but he is a man of faith in what God has said. That makes the difference. With a calm confidence in the power of God, he bears witness to the certainty of victory and quietens the people.

Then “the men who had gone up with him” spread a bad report of the land. They paint in detail the impossibility of taking possession of the land, as if to undertake an effort for this purpose is equivalent to suicide.

This way of reasoning can be applied spiritually. We reason like that, for example, when we say to others that doing Bible study is actually nonsensical, that engaging in the blessing of God’s land is a tiring activity that only causes problems. Then we present the heavenly land as an area where no life is possible. We may well wonder how we talk about living with the Lord and how we understand what He has given us as spiritual blessings.

Bibliographical Information
de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Numbers 13". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/kng/numbers-13.html. 'Stichting Titus' / 'Stichting Uitgeverij Daniël', Zwolle, Nederland. 2021.
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