Then the men who had gone up with him said, ‘We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than we are.’ So they brought to the Israelites an unfavourable report of the land that they had spied out, saying, ‘The land that we have gone through as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are of great size. There we saw the Nephilim (the Anakites come from the Nephilim); and to ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.’
Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron; the whole congregation said to them, ‘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 booty; would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?’ So they said to one another, ‘Let us choose a captain, and go back to Egypt.’
Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembly of the congregation of the Israelites. And Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had spied out the land, tore their clothes and said to all the congregation of the Israelites, ‘The land that we went through as spies is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. Only, do not rebel against the Lord; and do not fear the people of the land, for they are no more than bread for us; their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.’ But the whole congregation threatened to stone them.
Then the glory of the Lord appeared at the tent of meeting to all the Israelites. And the Lord said to Moses, ‘How long will this people despise me? And how long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? I will strike them with pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.’
But Moses said to the Lord, ‘Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for in your might you brought up this people from among them, and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, O Lord, are in the midst of this people; for you, O Lord, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go in front of them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. Now if you kill this people all at one time, then the nations who have heard about you will say, “It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land he swore to give them that he has slaughtered them in the wilderness.” And now, therefore, let the power of the Lord be great in the way that you promised when you spoke, saying,
“The Lord is slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love,
forgiving iniquity and transgression,
but by no means clearing the guilty,
visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
to the third and the fourth generation.”
Forgive the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have pardoned this people, from Egypt even until now.’
Then the Lord said, ‘I do forgive, just as you have asked; nevertheless—as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord— none of the people who have seen my glory and the signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tested me these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors; none of those who despised me shall see it. But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me wholeheartedly, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it. Now, since the Amalekites and the Canaanites live in the valleys, turn tomorrow and set out for the wilderness by the way to the Red Sea.’ -- Numbers 13:31-14:25 (NRSV)
Moses sent out twelve spies to see what this "Promised Land" was really like. It was a natural thing, at least I think we'd see it that way. Any time I move, I want to find out as much as I can about where I'm going, what the weather's like, how the neighborhoods are, etc. When there are a whole bunch of people moving in all at once, it is a pretty safe bet that the locals aren't going to be happy about it, so the more that is known beforehand about them and their land, the better.
Sometimes it's hard to get the straight story. Two people witness an accident and there will be two (probably somewhat different) accounts of what happened. Two political candidates will speak to a single issue and it, and the solution to it, will undoubtedly seem like two entirely different things, even if the two candidates represent the same party with, allegedly, the same goals. So it was with the Israelites. Out of twelve spies who set out to scope out the new territory God promised them, ten came back with one story while two gave a very different one. Somehow when I read passages like this, it is hard not to think that things haven't really changed all that much between us and Moses' band of wandering exiles.
Everybody has an idea of a land of milk and honey, where everything is good and to their liking. I sometimes think the second item there is the most important, because I don't always see where "good" and "to their liking" are totally compatible, especially since human beings tend to be a cantankerous bunch, each with their own idea of what is good and to their liking and it seldom agrees totally with that of their next-door neighbor, the person on the other side of town or even in another part of the state much less the country or the world. When you have ten people telling you it's awful, the people are huge and mean, the land isn't very good and oh, why did we come all this way for this, while two others are telling you it's great, the grapes are THIIIIIIIIS big, the pasture is terrific and it all looks like paradise, who are you supposed to believe? When you have ten people telling you that this group is out to "convert" you and your children to a degenerate way of life because they demand equal rights and opportunities while two tell you they are just like you, except that they happen to be a gay or lesbian couple, who are you to believe? When ten people tell you that bleeding-heart programs just foster more welfare-dependent and lazy people and two tell you that most folks aren't looking for a handout but rather a hand up, who are you supposed to believe?
Moses put the people's questions to God, strategically reminding God that if God allowed the Israelites to be wiped out, all the neighbors and their rulers would say that God didn't live up to the billing and couldn't deliver on promises made. How would that be for recruitment of a new people? So, despite the temerity and doubt of the people, Moses got God to find an alternative plan, one that would, unfortunately, keep them wandering in the desert for forty years but which would, eventually, lead their sons and daughters to the Promised Land as promised. It's easy to look back at this story and see that indeed, the two spies were right and the ten were so wrong, God had an alternative plan in the pipeline and things would work out as promised. What happens now with our media, our elected officials, our nay-sayers and "But God's Word clearly states...." folks, it's a little harder to see. Clearly their vision is a lot like the ten spies, full of fear and temerity and, sometimes, reporting what they feel or want us to feel, not what actually is.
Sometimes it's better to listen to two than to ten, and sometimes it is necessary to go talk to God about it and see what the plan is. It's usually better to step out in faith than to grovel in fear, no matter how hard that step is. Sometimes returning to the past seems the safest move, even if the past has a lot of negative stuff attached to it. Even if it is negative, at least it's familiar and familiarity counts when I try to balance it with something new and untried, something that might turn out great but which also has the possibility of being as bad as, if not worse, than the I tried to escape.
Lack of trust, faith and courage kept the older generation of Israelites who had known bondage wandering around in the desert, seemingly going in circles when a straight line would have quickly taken them to the Promised Land. With the death of the last of their generation, a new generation, their sons and daughters, could move past the fear and into the inheritance that was promised so many decades ago.
What's keeping me from my own inheritance? Do I hang on to a past that is at least familiar, or do I set off not knowing what's beyond the next rise or around the next corner? One thing's for sure -- I won't be sending out any spies to investigate the territory and report back. I've got to do it on faith alone, and by myself. Well, by myself -- with God's help.
Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 23, 2012, under the title "What Will We Find in the Promised Land?"