Reflections on Torah–10 (Numbers 14)

They Weren’t Ready (Numbers 14:1-12)

Published in Mennonite Weekly Review (July 27, 2009)

From the beginning of the Bible, we see that our life-giving God greatly values humanity and desires that we share in bringing forth fruit in the good creation. But we find such work extraordinary difficult.

From the calling of Abraham in Genesis 12 through the establishment of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21, we read of the fragility of the working out of God’s promise to bless all the families of the Earth through the witness of the communities God creates for that purpose.

Here in Numbers 14, we encounter one of these moments of fragility. God liberated the Hebrews from slavery in order to form a community centered around faithfulness to God. Now, they approach the promised land with the task to enter and then embody and witness to God’s shalom.

A group of scouts goes ahead to “spy” out the land of Canaan. The scouts return, and most argue that the task will be impossible. “We are not able to go up against this people, for they are stronger than we” (Num. 13:31). In response, “all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night” (14:1). They cry out, “would that we had died in the land of Egypt!” (14:2). “Why is the Lord bringing us into this land to fall by the sword?” (14:3).

Fear has conquered hope. The message of the promise is utterly unrealistic in the face of the power of the Canaanites. Or is it?

We see echoes of this story later in the words of Jesus: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).

Paralyzed by fear

There are consequences of the Israelite’s paralyzing fearfulness: none from this first generation other than the two faithful spies, Calab and Joshua, would enter the promised land. We best understand this not as overt punishment from God so much as a recognition that these people were simply not ready to be at home in the land due to their fearful priorities.

As occurs time and again, God’s faithfulness does not waver. The promise continues, but the challenge remains. Will we in our day find the way to remain focused ahead on the task of shalom, or will we “look back”?

Ted Grimsrud teaches theology and peace studies at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.

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