Three months into the Wilderness experience, and crisis hits. Moses sends out twelve spies – leaders of the twelve tribes – to reconnoiter the land of Canaan and bring back a report:
When Moses sent them to scout the land of Canaan, he said to them, “Go up there into the Negev 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 tit wooded or not? And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land.” (Numbers 13:17-20)Forty days later, the twelve spies return with this report:
[The land]… does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites there. Amalekites dwell in the Negev region; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites inhabit the hill country; the Canaanites dwell by the Sea and along the Jordan. (Numbers 13:27-29)There are two ways to hear this report. The first is that the land is rich and abundant and the people who live there will be a challenge to conquer. The second is to hear the report as the Israelites did. The lushness of the physical landscape is eclipsed by the fierceness of its inhabitants. Terror fills the hearts of the Israelites and they are paralyzed by fear.
Caleb attempts to offset the pessimistic mentality that is going viral through the Israelite camp. He assures the people that they can overcome the inhabitants and gain possession of the land, but his words are too little and too late, because fear rules the hour.
We might wonder: if God has instructed the people to enter the land and take possession of it in accord with the promises of the Covenant, then surely God knows they will be able to succeed. This is, after all, the same God who overpowered Pharaoh, brought plagues upon Egypt, brought Israel out of slavery, parted the Reed Sea, and brought Israel to Mt. Sinai. Why would the people believe the report of ten men over that of God? How can fear so quickly and easily creep into their joints and souls and dominate their heads and hearts?
Perhaps the answer lies in the way the Israelites understand the report of the spies, and how it affects their self-image:
But the emissaries who had gone up with [Caleb] said, “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we.” Thus they spread calumnies among the Israelites about the land they had scouted, saying, “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are of great size; we saw the Nephilim there – the Anakites are part of the Nephilim – and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13:31-33)Seeing themselves as mere grasshoppers, they are convinced that others will see them as small and powerless. The slave mentality holds firm. This generation cannot recognize their strength and ability. How often does this happen to individuals and nations?
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman