Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Lie of the Land

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 Lordnone 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 13:35 - 14:25

One of the series of books I enjoyed as a young adult was written by Dorothy Gilman featuring a lady named Emily Pollifax whose dream was to become a spy for the CIA. Who would suspect an elderly lady from New Jersey of being a spy? It seemed like a glamorous occupation but it was fraught with danger and needed all Mrs. Pollifax's quick wits (not to mention her brown belt in karate) and innocent appearance to pull it off. I never wanted to be a spy myself, but I certainly enjoyed reading those books.

James Bond has given several generations a taste of the world of the spy, or at least, the Hollywood version of it. There's excitement, romance, adventure and more than a little danger. I have a feeling, though, that the real world of espionage is a rather different; there might not be exceptionally clever gizmos around to help save the day if things get dicey and there might not be a rescue team if the agent is captured. Real spies have to be chameleons, blending into the scene so that they appear to have a very real and reasonable reason for being there while seeing and hearing as much as possible that can be used against the people they are secretly observing.

Two sets of spies set out from the Israelite camp, each with the commission to find out as much as they could about this promised land they were heading toward. Twelve men, each a representative of his tribe, went out and for forty days (there's that number again!) they did what good spies do; kept a low profile, took mental notes of what and who they found and avoided getting caught spying. What they found was a good place with good land for growing crops and tending herds. They also found the occupants of the land, and there is where the trouble started. Most of the spies seemed to feel that the occupants were too big, too numerous and too powerful to overcome. They described them as giants and intimated that they, the Israelites, would be squashed like bugs if they tried to take over the land. There was real fear, fear of the unknown and fear of having to prove themselves, even though God had pointed them in this direction and with a promise of success.

Once again the Israelites thought of the comforts of home in Egypt and with much fear, wailing and griping, they were ready to choose a new leader to take them back to the place they had been just escaped. Two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, however, stood up and, ripping their clothes to show their sincerity, spoke to the people about trusting that God had promised them the land, hadn't brought them all this way for nothing, and wasn't going to let them be defeated. The news wasn't met with overwhelming success. If ten people say one thing and two say something to the contrary, it is usually the ten who are believed. The faithless Israelites, despite having seen so many miracles and deliverances, still felt they would be better off returning to Egypt rather than pressing on to the promised land God was giving them. Caleb was being prophetic in his assertions, and prophets aren't always appreciated or believed.

Prophets are like first responders: they charge in when everyone else is heading out. They tell the truth even when it is unwelcome or unpopular. They point out what is wrong when everyone else feels things are just fine. Caleb's prophetic testimony was in his reiteration of the promises of God and that God hadn't let them down yet despite all their own faults and faithlessness. It wasn't popular and it could have cost Caleb his life right there. Instead, it gained him entrance into the promised land, unlike most of the rest of his spy-companions and most of the people who were ready to stone him.

Courage, I think, is a kind of faith, a belief that one person can make a difference, even a small one and even when the odds seem astronomically the other way. Faith kept Joan of Arc focused on what her visions told her and got a French king crowned even though those visions ultimately cost her her life. Faith kept Paul going even when the Jerusalemites and the Gentiles to whom he went wanted to sever both the connection and the person -- permanently. Faith sent Fr. Mychal Judge and firefighters rushing into the Twin Towers when everyone else was trying their hardest to get out. That faith that one person can make a difference, whether it is in an idea, a vision, a goal or even a belief that it is what God wants can sometimes make all the difference in the world.

Spies return to their masters with the information they have gathered along with their interpretations and impressions based on their own experiences. The Israelite spies were no different; their reports reflected their relative courage (or lack thereof), their judgment, their imaginations and their faith. The twelve spies could be any group of twelve -- including disciples. Some might see giants while others might see opportunities. Some might see bounty and some might see conflict. Some would have faith that God wouldn't let them be defeated and others would simply report the lie of the land. The Israelites had to decide for themselves who to believe, who was telling the truth and who was misreporting. Who had faith and whose was a bit shaky?

Where is my faith when I'm offered a glimpse of a promise? Do I believe and move ahead or do I see giants in the way?  How do I determine the lie of the land? And do I have enough faith to continue on or am I going to turn back to safer, more familiar paths?

I think I will have to walk with Caleb a bit. It might be a good thing to have his prophetic vision about what lies ahead. I think he'd be a lot more believable than James Bond...

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, June 21, 2014 under the title "Spies and the Lie of the Land."

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