Light from the Sidra

Shelach ('Send')

Torah: Numbers 13:1-15:41. Haftarah: Joshua 2:1-24

Who’s afraid of the big bad goys?

‘It’s more scared of you than you are of it.’ I’ve never understand why dog owners dispense that patently false nugget of information as they struggle to hold back their snarling, barking, straining-at-the-leash monsters. Their attempts to be reassuring always seem to be accompanied by sharp remonstrations directed at the beasts: ‘Down boy!’ ‘Hey! Leave him alone!’ ‘Hey! Let go of his leg!’ If the dogs are so scared of me, why do they always try to get at me rather than to run away from me?

In Num 13, Israel is preparing to go into the Promised Land, just weeks after leaving Egypt. The twelve leaders of the tribes were sent to reconnoitre the territory and to bring back a report. Ten returned with a story that filled the people with horror. The land certainly flowed with milk and honey, they said, but the people of the land were strong, their cities were fortified and very large. There were Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites and Canaanites. And there were giants, the sons of Anak.

Caleb calmed the people, urging them to set out at once and take the land, ‘for we are well able to overcome it.’ God was on the side of the people. He loved them; he had chosen them. He had entered into an unconditional covenant with Abraham to give the land to his seed.

The other leaders become more elaborate and extreme in their description of the land and its inhabitants. Israel was no match for the people who were already in the land. The Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites and Canaanites were stronger than the Israelites. All the inhabitants of Canaan were taller than them and the land itself devoured its inhabitants. All the people in the land, they said, were of taller than them. Worst of all, there were ‘Nephilim’ – the superhuman giants who walked the earth before the Flood (Gen 6:4) – in the land,

The No’s have it. The people weep all night and grumble against Moses and Aaron. ‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the LORD bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt? And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt”.’ (Num 14:2-4).

Although this is the first account in the book of Numbers of the people rebelling against God (in the previous chapters the people immediately obeyed whatever God commanded), it bears a number of remarkable resemblances to the incident of the golden calf in Ex 32. Moses was away from the people on Mount Sinai for forty days, and the spies were in the land for forty days. Moses brought back a message from God, just as Caleb and Joshua returned with a good report.

The penalty for Israel’s unbelief in Num 14 should have been death but, just as in the case of the golden calf, Moses interceded for the people, pleading with God to be merciful to them.

And God was merciful to them. In Ex 32:28, three thousand Israelites died as a result of disobedience, whereas the only Israelites who died immediately after the surveillance of Canaan were the ten spies who made Israel grumble against God by bringing a bad report about the land. They died by plague but God’s judgement on the people was mercifully postponed. The generation that came out of Egypt, except for Caleb and Joshua, would never enter the land. They would die in the wilderness but their children would enter the land, a judgement that demonstrated the kindness and severity of God.

Contrast the events of Num 13-14 with Josh 2. Two spies (as opposed to ten) entered the land and discovered that the people of whom their fathers had been so afraid were more frightened of Israel than Israel was of them. Even though the generation that died in the wilderness had been disobedient to their God, Rahab nevertheless believed in him and was willing to provide a false report to the servants of the ruler of Jericho. She explained her reasons to the two Israelites:

‘I know that the LORD has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. For we have heard how the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the LORD your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath.’

Rahab was a Gentile and a prostitute to boot – which makes one wonder why the two men chose to spend the night in a brothel – but the woman’s faith put to shame the unbelief of the Israelites. She risked her life to protect the people of God. And Rahab the Gentile was spared when her people were defeated by Israel. She married Caleb and became an ancestor not only of King David but also of the Messiah.

Today, there are huge numbers of Jewish people who, like Israel in wilderness, do not believe their own God. At the same time there are millions of Gentiles who, like Rahab, fall short of the standards of God’s Torah but have faith in the God of Israel as ‘God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath.’ Like Rahab, we believe ‘the LORD dried up the water of the Red Sea before [Israel] when [Israel] came out of Egypt.’

More than that, we believe in the Messiah of whom Rahab was an ancestor. And, like Rahab, through faith we have found salvation from the wrath of God so that when the heavenly shofar announces the final Day of Justice, even though the world around us collapses like the walls of Jericho, we will be saved. Our great desire is that Israel, too, might know the salvation God offers them through the Messiah.

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