Christian, Library

Numbers 13, complexity, and judgement

Request from a supply preacher

I have a friend who is a ‘supply preacher.’ It’s okay-I had no idea what this meant either. It means that he’s licensed or certified by some group as a person of sound mind and religion, and able to fill in at your church when the pastor is ill, on vacation, golfing, or on leave for whatever reason. It surprised me, but he asked me to read over Numbers 13 and give him some notes to think about when preparing his talk. His first idea was to read the passage and then ask the congregation which camp they are in: the camp of Caleb whom G praises, or the camp of the ten spies who G killed? Shucks. I wonder… But the question and circumstances are more complex than a simple yes or no. Or are they? We talked about his sermon last week, and he confided that he likes to talk to me because everyone else simply agrees with him. “Wow,” they say, “greatest sermon I’ve ever heard.” But me? If it’s dopey, I tell him the truth. Maybe it’s my spiritual gift.

I’ve read this passage a hundred times, but the complexity of it opens up with a close read. There is a thread here that makes a lot of people really happy: G is a G of judgment, and He is here to judge, and His judgment is final. Also, I’m not sure why the ten spies who gave a bad report were stricken dead. I would understand the story more if they were caught having sex with local religious prostitutes, but they basically did what they were asked to do. And no one tells them they’re wrong. Neither Moses, Caleb, or even G. The one point I see is that they worked to incite Israel against Moses and against G. The story made most sense to me as an unfolding of the idea that we see the evolution of G in the scriptures. That during this time and in this part of the world, this is how G is said to have acted. I read through it and wonder how the Son of God would do His Father’s bidding, though.

Following is the email I sent to my supply preacher buddy. It’s not very polished.

See Point 10 for my most important takeaway…


My emailed thoughts

Hey XXX, here are some thoughts on the promised land/spy issue. Not in any order…

  1. There is a danger in normalizing the past, believing that the way it was then is the way it will be in the future, and THE WAY IT SHOULD ALWAYS BE. This, of course, is the bane of old men everywhere. “Back in my day…” The Israelites know what to expect in Egypt. They know what foods they would eat, they know no one would attack them, and they know they could keep a bit of their culture. Now they’ve got this upstart WHO MARRIED A CUSHITE who says he hears G and is dragging them all over the desert. Just like you and I, just like our wives and children, we want things to stay the same. You have a situation going on that you told me is a ‘bump.’ It’s only a bump because it’s something different, and we can’t yet see if it’s a good or bad thing.
    I’ve been listening to Beth Moore lately, and she talks about ‘staying in your lane.’ We like our lane, and we’re told to stay in it all the time. It’s a rule at work: stay in your lane and elevate issues through proper channels… But she asks, “what if your lane is two inches wide and the lane G has for you is as wide as a freeway?” When XXX talks about the kids, I always tell her she forgets how different she is, that she practiced gymnastics for five hours a day–no one does that. Except for Olympians. And you? No one would say a word if you wanted to retire and stay home and do your devotional and be a deacon, but you hear a different calling. Most people take up an inch in their lane, but people like you and XXX are called to a freeway. Moses was, too, but it was hard for the people to see.
  2.  Another thing about history I think about whene I read history of any sort is that we’re no different as persons. Every time I think of some pastor standing up and hitting the podium saying that these people were sinners who deserve everything they got, I think, “Ok, let’s see how you act when your family is kneeling with guns to their heads. Of course, this is where faith comes in, apparently in short supply for the spies.
  3. One commentator said the ’12 spies’ were probably princes, sent to observe. They knew the limitations of their people and probably wanted to save as many of them as possible. Don’t we expect this kind of thing from our leaders? In this sense, they are being prudent. As I read, I think the spies did exactly what they were asked to do except they added their opinion and commentary to their observations. Sometimes the best bet is to keep our mouths shut.
  4. Was Moses being wise and prudent and thinking of the people when he sent out the spies? Why didn’t he just point a stick north and tell everyone to move in? Was he worried that the people weren’t ready, or that G wouldn’t follow through?
  5. It doesn’t come out in Numbers, but this whole thing is the reason Jews today ‘celebrate’ Tishe B’av. It’s a day of weeping and fasting when Jews remember how the spies’ reports were “Lashon Hara,” meaning that they said something so libelous about G that it hurt people. This is a great evil within Judaism. It’s an extreme kind of gossip that hurts or defames someone, causing harm to them financially or professionally.
  6. It’s interesting that my Jerusalem Bible says in its intro to Numbers that the book focuses on the ‘absolute demands of G’s holiness.’
  7. For what it’s worth, commentators seem to agree that the Deut telling is older.
  8. Like you say, these are people who have seen wondrous things stacked up on each other, but they still don’t get it. Do we? And no one argues with them about their observations. Neither Moses, nor Caleb, nor G. It’s not their observations that get them, it’s their lack of faith. The unseen thing that is hoped for. I won’t write it down as a commandment, but it seems to be how G works and builds faith. Everything is against us, and everything seems lost, and then, in ways that we never imagined, things work. “No eye has seen and no ear has heard, things beyond the mind of man, all that God has prepared for those who love him.”
  9. I’m not sure about how you tie this to a Christian’s judgment. I get the part about ‘who’s camp are you in?’ but it’s more complex to me. As Christians, you and I are adopted sons of the father. That’s the gospel right there. We don’t call him “Mr. Mighty Majestic King of the Universe”, but Abba, Father. Just like the prodigal son’s father, we are welcomed in love. Of course, as Christians, we want to be faithful and trusting. I certainly want to live a life of faith and faithful action but not so I don’t get slapped, but because that’s the picture Jesus gives me of my highest calling in love. It’s like we talked about on Wednesday morning: we don’t give ten bucks to the guy on the corner because of what he does, but because of who we are.
  10. Reading through several chapters, I couldn’t help but think of Tim Keller’s words: It’s only because we’re human and don’t know the transcendent love of G and the wisdom of G or the purposes of G that we think something is difficult or not fair. I’m paraphrasing. It’s a tough scripture. Do I want to send my girls to a place with armed warrior men who only want to kill them? Even when G says go?
  11. A couple other interesting things I read that probably won’t apply to your sermon: G is G of the impossible. If leadership languishes, the congregation fails.

There you go. It’s a mess, but these are my thoughts as I read through the chapters.


What do you think when you read through Numbers 13? What of my comments? What would you tell my supply preacher friend?

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