Light from the Sidra

Shelach Lecha ('Sent for you')

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

Minority Report

At about the age of eight or nine, I discovered the myths of Greece and Rome. I loved the stories of gods who were virtually super men and super women; deities who were lovable rogues. Later, I enjoyed Egyptian, Mayan and Aztec mythology but my favourite myths were those of Scandinavia that told of full-blooded, hot-tempered, hard-drinking warriors like Odin and Thor. I didn’t turn to the Bible until I was in my late teens because although I thought the Hebrew Scriptures were mythology, from my limited encounters with the Bible in school and Sunday School, the stories of Abraham, Moses and David appeared to be vastly inferior to the sophisticated legends of the Greeks, or the rough-and-ready folklore of the Vikings.

The first thing that struck me about the Bible was how unlike pagan mythology it was. The Bible actually sounded true. Secondly, the Bible was amazingly frank about the failings of its best men. Nowhere was this more true than in Bamidbar, the book of Numbers. Critics of the Bible point out that no mention of Israel’s exodus has been found in Egyptian inscriptions, therefore the even must be a fanciful Jewish legend to explain the nation’s origin. The fact is that the Egyptians rarely, if ever, recorded national disasters or military defeats. Even today, there are nations that continue to idealise their history and attempt to cover up their national failings.

The history of Israel in the Bible is a warts-and-all portrait (and there are a lot of warts), and in the next few chapters of Bamidbar, we will see Israel as a people only God could love. But, as Rabbi Lionel Blue (I think) astutely observed: Jews are like everyone else, only more so.

A year before the events recorded in Numbers, Yahweh brought Israel out of Egypt with an outstretched arm. Over the course of several months, he destroyed Egypt economically through a series of nine plagues before supernaturally taking the life of every Egyptian firstborn. God divided the Sea of Reeds, allowing Israel to pass through before causing the waters to return and drown Pharaoh’s army. In the wilderness, the Israelites saw the goodness and severity of their God. Every day Yahweh miraculously supplied the people with food but, when they grumbled and demanded meat, they experienced his wrath.

In Numbers 13, the nation stands on the threshold of the land God promised to Abraham, and in the second verse, God instructs Moses to send (shelach lecha) the heads of the tribes to ‘spy out the land of Canaan’. When Moses commissioned the ‘spies,’ in vv17-20, he expanded their brief:

Go up there into the Negeb and on into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not? (Tanakh – The Holy Scriptures. The New JPS Translation According to the Traditional Hebrew Text, 1985).

Moses knew the land was good but his specific charge to the sheliachot, the sent ones, was no doubt given with the hope that their good report would encourage the people and embolden them to invade and conquer the land of Canaan.

The land was, of course, all God said it would be. But even though the events of the previous couple of years had proved God was with them, the spies and the people experienced a failure of nerve and a lack of faith on a national scale. They did not believe that the God who brought the greatest superpower of the age to its knees could or would enable them to overcome the disparate collection of tribes that inhabited Canaan.

We know the story and the sad consequence – forty years of wandering in the wilderness – but why was the account enshrined in the Bible? Obviously, the incident of the spies is recorded because it is true but was it necessary to enshrine for all ages such a shameful episode in the life of the nation? Why didn’t Moses and the compilers of the biblical books just do what Egypt and the other nations did when they experienced national disasters and strike it from the record? After all, we all want to be able to take pride in our ancestors. 

Rabbi Shaul of Tarsus, who lived in the Second Temple period and was a shaliach, or apostle, of the Messiah, wrote that they were written as warnings to those living at the end of days, the days of Messiah.

The clear warning is that the majority is not always right. In fact, looking at Israel’s history, the majority was rarely right. The principle is spelled out clearly in the book of Isaiah: ‘Who would have believed our report [the minority report]? And to whom hath the arm of the LORD been revealed?’ (Is 53:1, JPS translation).

Isaiah foretells that Israel will not believe the message of the Messiah. Rather than being welcomed by his people, Messiah would be ‘despised and rejected’ by the very people he would come to redeem. And yet, as in the case of Israel in the wilderness, God’s purposes for Israel will come to fruition and Israel will be blessed and a blessing.

The majority Jewish report about Jesus is unreliable. As a result of uncritically following the majority and rejecting the Joshuas and Calebs, the Jewish people have cut themselves off from the Messianic blessings promised them by God. The report of the twelve shaliachot, the apostles he sent to proclaim the truth of his life, death and resurrection, through which he redeemed his people, is the true report.

Whoever rejects that message – Jew or Gentile – condemns themselves to an aimless existence of wandering in a far worse wilderness than Sinai, not only in this life but in the next.

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