Feb. 17 Reading: Numbers 14-15 Commentary
“So all the congregation lifted up their voices and cried, and the people wept that night. And all the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron, and the whole congregation said to them, ‘If only we had died in the land of Egypt! Or if only we had died in this wilderness! Why has the Lord brought us to this land to fall by the sword, that our wives and children should become victims? Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?’ So they said to one another, “Let us select a leader and return to Egypt.” (Num. 14:1-4)
Today we read one of the saddest moments in the entire Bible. Israel is on the doorstep of entering the Promised Land, having sent 12 men to scout out the land. Upon their return, 10 of these men gave a discouraging report about the land, saying the cities are fortified and there are “giant” men who live in the land.
Only Joshua and Caleb tried to rally the people, saying that with God’s help they could conquer the land. In a stunning development – but one that we could have seen coming giving their propensity to complain – the people believe the 10 spies negative report and refused to enter the land, disregarding all that God had done for them.
The consequences are devastating. The disbelieving generation would die out before God would allow them to move forward. 40 years they would wander in the wilderness, one year for each day they scouted out the land.
Numbers 14 – Israel Will Not Go In
Upon hearing the negative report about the land, the people are panic-stricken. Instead of listening to Caleb (Num. 13:30), they react in utter fear, crying all night and complaining to Moses and Aaron saying,
“If only we had died in the land of Egypt! Or if only we had died in this wilderness! Why has the Lord brought us to this land to fall by the sword, that our wives and children should become victims? Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?…Let us select a leader and return to Egypt.” (Num. 14:1-4)
It is hard to imagine. They would rather return to slavery in Egypt than face the possibility of freedom in a new land. What’s worse? They had seen God work and had forgotten all he’d done for them. They complained to Moses and Aaron. But the direction of their complaint was pointed solely at God.
Their response caused Moses and Aaron to fall on their faces (v. 5). The two faithful spies, Joshua and Caleb, tore their clothes in despair (v. 6). They gave one last plea to the people saying:
“The land we passed through to spy out is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord delights in us, then He will bring us into this land and give it to us, ‘a land which flows with milk and honey.’ Only do not rebel against the Lord, nor fear the people of the land, for they are our bread; their protection has departed from them, and the Lord is with us. Do not fear them.” (vv. 7-9)
But the congregation would have none of it and they attempted to stone Joshua and Caleb. Then the glory of the Lord showed up at the tabernacle (v. 10).
Moses Saves the People Again
“How long will these people reject Me? And how long will they not believe Me, with all the signs which I have performed among them? I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.” (vv. 11-12)
God’s reaction to these stubborn people is the same one he had in Exodus 32. He wants to wipe the people out and start over with Moses.
But just like in Exodus 32, Moses rejects the opportunity to be the father of a new nation. Instead, he prays. He pleads like never before.
He presents the argument that if God wipes out his people, then all the nations – including Egypt – would hear about it. They would mock God saying that he was not powerful enough to bring the people up into the land. In essence, God would lose regard and esteem among the nations (vv. 13-16).
Moses concludes with reminding God who He is by saying,
“And now, I pray, let the power of my Lord be great, just as You have spoken, saying, ‘The Lord is longsuffering and abundant in mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He by no means clears the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation.’ Pardon the iniquity of this people, I pray, according to the greatness of Your mercy, just as You have forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.” (vv. 17-19)
God’s Sentence on the Rebels
In response to Moses’ prayer, God relented. He did not wipe out the people. But his mercy was also met with justice. So that his glory would be known among all the earth (v. 21), he responded in this way to the people who had seen his miraculous works and had now tested him 10 times (v. 22):
“…they certainly shall not see the land of which I swore to their fathers, nor shall any of those who rejected Me see it…The carcasses of you who have complained against Me shall fall in this wilderness, all of you who were numbered, according to your entire number, from twenty years old and above…And your sons shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years, and bear the brunt of your infidelity, until your carcasses are consumed in the wilderness. According to the number of the days in which you spied out the land, forty days, for each day you shall bear your guilt one year, namely forty years, and you shall know My rejection.” (v. 23, 29, 33-35)
Joshua and Caleb were the only men spared this punishment (v. 38). The other ten spies were immediately stricken with a plague and died (v. 36-37).
The people mourn when the punishment is announced (v. 39) but it’s too late. Against Moses’ advice, they show still more stubbornness by attempting an invasion of the land (v. 41-45). But God is not with them and the attempt fails miserably.
It’s a sad conclusion to what should have been a glorious moment. But the fulfillment of the promise would have to wait another 40 years.
Numbers 15 – Some Ceremonial Laws
Even though God punished the people for their sin, he did not forget his promise. In fact, he reiterates it at the beginning of Numbers 15 as He begins to discuss various ceremonial regulations for the grain and drink offerings. It’s subtle but God begins his discussion with Moses with these words:
“When you have come into the land you are to inhabit, which I am giving to you…” (v. 2).
Just in case they missed it, God said the same thing later in verse 17. It was an important reminder for hurting people, especially the younger generation who may have begun to doubt God’s promise. One day, they would enter the promised land.
Other important issues in the chapter include:
1. How to deal with unintentional sin, whether by the entire nation or an individual (either native-born or stranger). In this case, a sacrifice was required to forgive the sin (vv. 22-29).
2. How to deal with intentional sin. In this case, when a person shakes their fist at God and knowingly commits sin, they were to be “cut off” from the people and bear the guilt of their sin (vv. 30-31).
(Note: It is interesting that God addressed intentional vs. unintentional sin here. The people’s refusal to enter the Promised Land was completely intentional. Another example of intentional sin is implied in the discussion of the man caught gathering sticks on the Sabbath in verses 32-36. His punishment indicates he violated the Sabbath intentionally.)
Tassels of Remembrance
Time and time again God told the people to remember what he had done for them. It’s as if he knew their memories were short. History serves as a great reminder when we are going through difficult challenges in the present.
So God instructed them to “make tassels on the corners of their garments…and to put a blue thread in the tassels of the corners” (v. 38). Why this clothing alteration? So that,
“…you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them, and that you may not follow the harlotry to which your own heart and your own eyes are inclined, and that you may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy for your God.” (vv. 39-40).
The people had learned they could not accomplish anything noteworthy if God was not in it. These tassels would serve as a reminder of that throughout all generations to come.
Questions to Consider:
It’s a sad moment in Numbers 14:44 when the people attempt to conquer the Promised Land on their own. God was was not with them in that moment because of their earlier sin. Have you ever tried to do something on your own apart from God’s leading?
Why is it so easy for us to forget what God has done in our past? Do you have any triggers that help you remember what God has done in your life? What seemingly insurmountable odds has God helped you overcome?
What other points would you want to know about in our Numbers 14-15 commentary? Email us here with questions or comments.