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Wednesday, June 19th, 2024
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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Bible Commentaries
Numbers 13

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary



This chapter contains the names of the twelve princes selected from their tribes to visit Canaan and report the quality of the land and the number and military resources of its inhabitants, (1-20,) their adventures during forty days, (21-25,) and their conflicting reports, (26-33.) Here the Israelites were doomed to a prolonged probation: they were turned back for nearly forty years into the wilderness they had left.


(1.) If, as we have suggested, the proposal to send spies originated with the people as the first result of their distrust of Jehovah, why did he so readily accede to this proposition? The answer is not difficult. We see in the history of Israel the progress and completion of that hardening process which showed the unfitness of that generation for the conquest of Canaan. It was better that their latent unbelief and rebellion should come to the surface in the wilderness than in the presence of their enemies on the field of battle. God does not so interfere with the process of the inward development of the character of individuals or nations as to prevent their working out their natural inclinations if they resolve to reject his grace. He sets before them his promises and his warnings. Then he bids them go forward with good courage. Here is the test of true faith and loyalty to him. The result must be either the gradual unfolding of faith or the hardening of unbelief into practical disobedience. So “we see” and the lesson is to all time and to all men “that they could not enter in because of unbelief.” Hebrews 3:19. Again, this answer to a prayer prompted by a distrust of God’s guidance “teaches a large truth as to God’s dealings; namely, that he often lovingly lets us have our own way to show us by the issues that his is better, and that the daring which is obedience is the true prudence.”

(2.) “Inquiry” may mark the beginning of faith; it may also issue in the completing of unbelief, just as “the gloaming” may usher in the dawn of morning or precede the darkness of night. It depends on our position relatively to the sun. It is too much the fashion to speak of the honesty and sacredness of doubt. They who have really felt it know best its load and its misery. And there is a doubt which is neither honest nor sacred. It is that of those who have, or ought to have, experienced the truth a doubt which springs from moral rather than intellectual causes.

(3.) What purpose could this record of Israel’s sin have served if it had not been true? Why should later writers have invented it? It is a matter of fact that later Jewish writers, boasting of the merits of their ancestors, are tempted to extenuate and soften their sins recorded in the Scriptures. This record of sins constitutes a dark background against which is set the faithfulness and mercy of Israel’s covenant God.

Verse 1

1. Send thou men Although Canaan had been promised to the Israelites as a God-given inheritance on the condition of their fidelity, yet this promise did not render the means of conquest unnecessary. All the strategy of war was required, such as the ambuscade (Joshua 8:13) and spies, (Joshua 2:1,) in order to success. God’s promises are not designed to supersede, but to stimulate, human activity. Moreover, this reconnaissance afforded to the spies a test of faith in Jehovah, and their report tested the whole nation.

Every one a ruler R.V., “a prince.” Spies in war are usually not men of high rank, but adventurers who court peril for gain or praise; but these spies, though not the tribe-princes named in chaps. i and vii, are rulers or princes selected from their tribes because of their eminence. From Deuteronomy 1:22, we infer that the policy of sending out the spies originated with the Israelites themselves, and was permitted by God as a concession to the weakness of their faith, with a warning to “be of good courage.” Strong faith would have accepted Jehovah’s description of Canaan, and would have leaned on his ability to bring them in according to his oft-repeated promise, without any reconnaissance. Thus suggests the Jewish Midrash. The order of the tribes differs from that in Numbers 1:5-15, only in the separation of Zebulun from the other sons of Leah in Numbers 13:10, and in Numbers 13:11 Manasseh from Ephraim, who together constitute the tribe of Joseph, but are always counted as two tribes, in accordance with the prediction of the dying Jacob in Genesis 48:5-6.

Verse 16

16. Oshea Hebrew, help, is changed into Jehoshua or Joshua, Hebrew, Jehovah-help. See Introduction to Joshua, page 7. It was an occasional custom for Hebrews to change their names if, at any point in their lives, there was a radical change of character or a marked transition from obscurity to distinction. Genesis 17:5; Genesis 32:28. It is to be noted that the exact time when Moses made this change is not indicated here. The change may have been previously made, while attention is called to it here. He is called Joshua in Exodus 17:9; Exodus 17:13; Exodus 24:13; Exodus 32:17; Exodus 33:11; Numbers 11:28.

Verse 17

17. Southward Hebrew, Negeb, or South-Country. “As a geographical term the name has been entirely ignored in the English version, where the word is invariably translated ‘the south,’ (as a point of the compass;) and the misapprehension has given rise to several absurd contradictions in terms. Thus, when the spies went up from Kadesh we are told that Moses ‘said unto them, Get you up this way southward,’ [R.V., ‘by’ (marg. ‘into’) ‘the South;’] ‘and they went up by the South, and came unto Hebron.’ As Hebron certainly lay to the north of Kadesh, this express mention of the South is not only meaningless, but inaccurate. But if we render the word ‘South Country,’ applying it to the mountain plateau in the north-west corner of the Tih, all difficulty vanishes, and the words of the text are geographically exact.” E.H. Palmer. The Negeb rises in a vast steppe, of about eighty miles from south to north, and gradually passes in successive terraces into the hill country of Beer-sheba. The most southerly of these, Jebel Magrah, is a great plain of fifty or sixty miles from east to west. Over all this region there still are found fertile spots, with grass and water, and signs of ancient populousness and prosperity appear in every direction. Here, at Kadesh-barnea, on the eastern slope of the hills, in a wady noted for its pastures and abundant springs, Moses chose his headquarters, in anticipation of presently passing on to Canaan. This was their rallying point and centre during more than thirty-eight years. Joshua 10:41, note. The Negeb literally signifies dry, or parched. If we assume that Moses attached to the Negeb the simple idea of “the dry land,” there will be no need of supposing that the term is proleptically used.

The mountain Western Palestine is an elevated ridge or mountain running from south to north between the Dead Sea and the Jordan valley on the east and the Shephelah, or sea-coast plain, on the west. Joshua 9:1, note. The different portions of this mountainous region, or backbone of the country, were subsequently named the mountains of Judah, the mountains of Ephraim, and the mountains of Galilee. This ridge is intersected only by one valley that of Jezreel.

Verse 18

18. Strong or weak Before the power of God, who had promised the complete conquest of Canaan, this distinction vanishes; the strong become weak, and the many are as the few. But since only the ultimate fact of conquest was revealed to the faith of Israel, and not the method, it was natural that Moses should proceed to the conflict with all the caution which characterizes the worldly commander who trusts solely in his battalions.

Verse 19

19. What the land is Fertile or barren; cultivable or necessarily waste.

Tents, or in strong holds The inquiry whether the Canaanites dwelling in cities lived in tents or in strong holds presents a difficulty, for a city of tents is something unheard of. Here the Chaldee, the Septuagint, the Vulgate, and the Targums all read, “whether they live in cities that are walled or open.”

Verse 20

20. Wood Hebrew, trees. Either fruit trees or other trees for making military engines, for houses, or for fuel.

Be ye of good courage Literally, encourage yourselves. Their perilous enterprise demanded great coolness and courage. No mercy is shown to a convicted spy. It required courage also to make a report recommending an immediate advance against a mighty foe.

Bring of the fruit Literally, take of the fruit.

Time of… first ripe grapes This is one of the very few notes of time in this book. It was about the first of August. See Introduction, (4.)

21. Wilderness of Zin This is not to be confounded with the desert of Sin near Egypt. Exodus 16:1, note. The desert of Zin is sometimes spoken of as though it were identical with Kadesh, or a whole of which Kadesh is a part. Deuteronomy 32:51. Palmer thinks that he solves all difficulties by defining the wilderness of Zin as “the southeast corner of the desert Et Tih, between “Arabah and the head of Wady Garai-yeh.” This accords with his identification of Kadesh with Ain Gadis. Joshua 10:41, note. But Dr. Strong’s party, in 1874, located Kadesh at ‘Ain Weibeh, not far from Mount Hor.

Rehob This is the name of two places in the extreme north of the Holy Land: (1) that mentioned in Judges 18:28, note, and (2) that one situated in the tribe of Asher, farther west. Joshua 19:28. It is possible that there was another Rehob in Asher, allotted to the Levites. Joshua 21:31. The first of these three is supposed to be referred to in this verse.

As men come to Hamath Hamath, the metropolis of Upper Syria, is a city in the valley of the Orontes. Its present population is 30,000. The adjacent country, afterward called Coele Syria, was the ancient kingdom of Hamath. The route from Palestine to this city, commonly called “the entering in of Hamath,” is a matter of dispute, because there are several passes in the Lebanons. See Joshua 13:5, note. It is probable that the spies made explorations far north of Mount Hermon, in territory which was never conquered by Israel.

Verse 22

22. By the south See Numbers 13:17, note. They descended by Hebron and explored the route into the Negeb, or South, (properly capitalized by the R.V.,) by the western edge of the mountains. In one of these extensive valleys perhaps in Wady Hanein, where miles of grape mounds even now meet the eye they cut the gigantic cluster of grapes.

Hebron An ancient city twenty miles south of Jerusalem, described in Joshua 10:3, note. “It is plausibly conjectured that on leaving the wilderness of Paran they first entered the Negeb, or South-Country, and passed up the eastern side of the land ‘unto Rehob, as men come to Hamath,’ in the extreme north, and then descended along the central and western slopes, and from the valley of Eshcol (Hebron) bore the grapes, pomegranates, and figs, and so brought verbal and tangible report of the country. This is the most satisfactory way of explaining the seeming contradiction in the account as given in Numbers 13:21-22.” Ridgaway.

The children of Anak A race of giants in stature (Anak literally signifying long-necked) and strength. Anak is regarded as the name of a race rather than that of an individual. Of this race there were near Hebron three tribes, whose chiefs were Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai. “That there were in times past men of extraordinary size is a tradition wonderfully prevalent to this day all over the East. It not only runs through legendary lore, but is embodied in numerous monuments of a more substantial character. The truth appears to be that there were amongst the governing races of primitive times certain families of great stature. This peculiarity was carefully perpetuated and increased by such marriage restrictions as tended to that result, and something similar has been found amongst the inhabitants of the Pacific islands.” W.M. Thomson. Notwithstanding their terrific aspect they were dispossessed by Joshua and utterly driven from the land, except a small remnant of refugees to Philistia, who were, perhaps, the ancestors of Goliath of Gath. Joshua 11:21-22. Their chief city, Hebron, fell to the lot of Caleb, who drove out the three tribes of the Anakim. Joshua 15:14. Zoan in Egypt was situated on the eastern border of the Nile delta. Its classical name was Tanis, and its Egyptian name Avaris, “departure,” the point of departure for caravans going north and east. It is supposed to have been seized by the shepherd kings about 2080 B.C., and to have been made the seat of their dynasty in Lower Egypt. Here, according to the Egyptian records, they built a temple to Set, the Egyptian Baal, and reigned 511 years. The past few years have been rich in discoveries of historical value in San, the site of ancient Zoan. Obelisks, sphinxes, sculptures, and historical tablets attest its former magnificence. The connexion here of Hebron with Zoan suggests that the founders of both cities were of the same race. It is evident that the writer was well versed in Egyptian history.

Verse 23

23. The brook of Eshcol A wady near Hebron. Says Tristram: “The walk up the valley revealed to us for the first time what Judah was everywhere else in the days of its prosperity. Bare and stony as are the hillsides, not an inch of space is lost. Terraces, where the ground is not too rocky, support the soil. Ancient vineyards cling to the lower slopes; olive, mulberry, almond, fig, and pomegranate trees fill every available cranny to the very crest, while the bottom of the valley is carefully tilled for corn, carrots, and cauliflowers, which will soon give place to melons and cucumbers. The culture is equal to that of Malta. Those who doubt the ancient records of the population, or the census of David, have only to look at this valley and by the light of its commentary to read the story of those cities.” Dr. Robinson says of the vineyards of Eshcol that “they are very fine, and produce the best grapes in all the country, and pomegranates and figs, as well as apricots, quinces, and the like, still grow there in great abundance.” Chap. Numbers 32:9, note.

Between two upon a staff On the return of the spies from the north they plucked a sample cluster and carried it upon a staff, not because of its great weight, but for the better protection of the grapes against being bruised. There are clusters of grapes produced in Palestine which weigh twelve pounds. By careful culture bunches weighing nearly twenty pounds have been produced. “The vine was the emblem of the nation on the coins of the Maccabees, and in the colossal cluster of golden grapes which overhung the porch of the second temple; and the grapes of Judah still mark the tombstones of the Hebrew races in the oldest of their European cemeteries at Prague.” Stanley.

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Pomegranates A rich, delightful fruit of the apple kind, sometimes called “grained apples,” of somewhat the same medicinal virtues as the quince; its juice is like wine. It is ever-green, and forms rather a collection of stems, like coppice-wood, than a single tree, nor does it often exceed eight or ten feet in height. The general colour of the fruit is a dull russet-green. The outside rind is thin but tough, and its bitter juice is an indelible blue dye used by native dyers of cotton fabrics. The size is about that of the orange. Within, the grains are arranged in compartments as compactly as corn on the cob, and closely resemble those of the pale red corn, except that they are nearly transparent and very beautiful. This fruit is agreeable to the taste and pleasant to the eye. Figs are very wholesome and nutritious food when dried. The fig-tree belongs to the natural order of the breadfruit family, the trunk being often three feet in diameter. The ancient Greek wrestlers ate figs when training for the contest.

Verse 25

25. Forty days were sufficient for a journey of 250 miles into the vicinity of Hamath and the return. The spies could rest six sabbaths and travel 500 miles, going at the rate of less than fifteen miles a day. It is not probable that they went in a body, but singly or by twos.

Verse 26

26. Paran See Numbers 10:12; Numbers 12:16, notes.

Kadesh Numbers 20:16; Numbers 33:36, notes.

Showed them the fruit In confirmation of their report of the excellence of the land.

Verse 27

27. Milk and honey See Numbers 14:8, note. Thus far the report of the twelve is unanimous; they all commend the richness and fruitfulness of the soil. It is a common way with calumniators to begin by saying something good of the person or plan they wish to injure and to end by speaking evil of him or that they had first commended.

Verse 28

28. Nevertheless This word introduces the godless majority report; godless because there is in it no reference to Jehovah. It is an infidel document; like those of some modern scientists, correct in its facts, but false and atheistic in its inferences. “Truly, the eye sees what it brings with it. They really went to look for dangers, and of course they found them.” The truth is told respecting the strength of the walled cities and the names of the Canaanitish tribes occupying different parts of the land. But the opinions expressed in Numbers 13:31 are glaringly disrespectful toward Him who had led Israel out of Egypt with his “stretched out arm,” and had promised to drive out all enemies from the promised land. Men are just as culpable for their opinions as for their acts, since opinions are the roots of conduct.

Cities… walled,… very great “The eyes of weak faith or unbelief saw the towns really towering up ‘to heaven.’ Deuteronomy 1:28. Nor did the height appear less even to the eyes of faith, which does not hide the difficulties from itself, that it may not rob the Lord who helps it over them of any of the praise that is justly his due.” Schultz.

Verse 29

29. Amalekites See Exodus 17:8, note. This strong nomadic tribe occupied the Negeb, or south part of Canaan, and they encountered Israel in the battle of Rephidim, near Sinai.

Hittites Or children of Heth. See Joshua 1:4; Joshua 3:10, notes. One of the points at which modern Oriental research has done much to verify the historical accuracy of the Bible narrative is in the disclosure of the prominence of the Hittite empire in the olden time. Until recently the Hittites were known to the world only in the Bible record. Now they are recognised as one of the great world-powers in their day. The fullest compendium of facts bearing on this point is The Empire of the Hittites, by the Revelation Dr. William Wright, one of the secretaries of the British and Foreign Bible Society.

Jebusites These occupied Jerusalem and vicinity. Joshua 3:10, note.

Amorites these were the most formidable. See Joshua 3:10, note.

In the mountains These are in the north-east of Et Tih, about seventy miles long and from forty to fifty broad, extending northward to near Beer-sheba. See Deuteronomy 1:20, note.

Canaanites The term is here used in its narrow meaning of Lowlanders. See Joshua 3:10, note.

Verse 30

30. Caleb The spy from the tribe of Judah here begins the minority report, which is characterized by an unwavering trust in Jehovah. “A discrepancy indicating diversity of author-ship is here again alleged, in that here and in Numbers 14:24, as well as in Deuteronomy 1:36, Caleb is spoken of alone; whereas in Numbers 14:30; Numbers 26:65; Numbers 32:12, Caleb and Joshua are spoken of as having acted together on this occasion, Caleb being first named, and in Numbers 14:6, it is Joshua and Caleb. The simple explanation of which is, that in the first instance, when the spies were making their report to Moses, Caleb was outspoken in his declaration that the people had no real cause for fear; and subsequently, when the murmurs of the people were louder and more pronounced, and took the form of open rebellion against Moses and Aaron, (Numbers 14:2-4,) Joshua and Caleb were both active in endeavouring to suppress the disturbance by encouraging the people and bringing them to a sense of their duty. Numbers 13:6, etc. Comp. Joshua 14:6, where Caleb, in referring to this event, in speaking to Joshua first joins both together, ‘me and thee,’ and then proceeds to describe his own share in the transaction without any allusion to Joshua.” Dr. Edersheim.

Stilled the people The bitter wail of despair was resounding through the vast throng.

Let us go up at once Genuine faith grasps a present God and an instantaneous salvation. Caleb was wise to counsel going up to the assault at once, for there is no better cure for fear than action. Old soldiers say that the trying time is when waiting to begin the battle. Hesitation weakens resolution. When we are sure that any thing is God’s will the sooner we are at work doing it the better for ourselves and for the vigour of our efforts.

For we are well able The ground of Caleb’s confidence is stated in Numbers 14:8-9. This report is a marvel of condensation, terseness, and vigour just what we should expect from a speaker who is permitted to utter but one sentence amid the uproar of a mob.

Verse 31

31. We be not able The majority had not asserted this before, but had left the people to draw this inference. Now they are evidently enraged at the brave words of Caleb. Faith is always a reproof to unbelief, as holiness is a rebuke to sin.

Verse 32

32. A land that eateth up the inhabitants This cannot mean that the land was sterile and the inhabitants dying of famine. It may refer to some pestilence whose ravages were noted by the spies. Calvin “thinks that the wretched inhabitants were worn out by the laborious task of cultivating it.” But it is more reasonable to suppose that from the central position of Canaan among the powerful Oriental empires it was an apple of discord, and that the people were constantly embroiled in wasting wars to maintain their independence. Hence Israel would be decimated in conquering it, and diminished, or eaten up, in defending it. See Ezekiel 36:13-15, for a confirmation of this exegesis. “It is remarkable how rapidly unbelief grows when it has once found expression. At first it was only a suggestion.

Numbers 13:28-29. Then, when Caleb had tried to still the fears to which it had given rise, it became an assertion. Numbers 13:31. Lastly, it assumed the form of ‘an evil report of the land’ itself, as of one ‘that eateth up the inhabitants thereof,’ (Numbers 13:32,) where the people are consumed by pestilence or exterminated by constant warfare of fierce races, against whom it were hopeless to attempt contending. That, if such were the views and feelings of the great majority of their best and most trusted men, the people should have risen in rebellion, need not, perhaps, surprise us. But it indicated how thoroughly unprepared Israel was for the possession of the land. Viewed from the human stand-point, the history of the Bible is one of constant disappointments.” Dr. Edersheim.

Men of a great stature Hebrew, men of measures; that is, of tall stature. See the dimensions of King Og’s bedstead, Deuteronomy 3:11.

Verse 33

33. The giants Hebrew and R.V. Nephilim, like the antediluvian tyrants who corrupted the earth. Genesis 6:4, note. The application of the term Nephilim to a race of antediluvians does not prove that the giants found by the spies were the lineal descendants of these, nor does it justify the extraordinary hypothesis of the “higher criticism,” that the writer of Genesis 6:4, knew nothing of a flood in which all mankind except one family were destroyed. A resemblance in stature is all that is requisite.

Sons of Anak See Numbers 13:22, note.

As grasshoppers An Oriental exaggeration of the disparity of stature between the Hebrews and some of the Canaanites. The fears of the unbelieving spies magnified their foes. Probably the average stature of the Israelites did not fall much below that of the Canaanites.

In our own sight… in their sight The contempt of their enemies is consequent upon their own cowardly self-depreciation. They who do not respect themselves will fail to gain the respect of others. “The man who counts himself as a grasshopper when he is set to represent a great cause is apt to be counted as a grasshopper by those who oppose him. Peculiarly is this the truth with one of God’s representatives. He who realizes that he stands for One into whose hands all power in heaven and earth is given need have no fear of giants or of the sons of giants. His sufficiency is of God; and in this sufficiency he can move forward unflinching-ly, until the giants who oppose him find themselves as grasshoppers in the path of his progress.” H. Clay Trumbull.

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Numbers 13". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/numbers-13.html. 1874-1909.
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