It’s one thing to ask legitimate questions of God and what he’s up to. It’s quite another to attack Him directly as incapable and incompetent. Yet the latter is what the 12 spies did when asked to report on the Promised Land they had just scouted. Well, all except two of them. 

the 12 spies

The incident in Numbers 13 and 14 hinges on one question, “Is God capable of doing what he says he will?” The people had been promised a new land. They had journeyed through harsh wilderness conditions to get there. Now, they were on the doorstep of all they had hoped for.

Could God deliver? Would he fulfill his promise?

Unfortunately for Israel, two competing lines of thought emerged from within the 12 spies on that issue. And it soured the people’s vision of God and led to devastating consequences.

It’s a defining moment in the Old Testament history of the Israelites. It would alter the fate of two generations of people groups. And it teaches us a valuable lesson today as we grapple with the same question. 

The 12 Spies Enter Canaan

A recap of this situation in Deuteronomy 1:21-23 tells us that it was the people’s idea to send some men to spy out the land. They probably thought this would give them insight in how to divide and conquer the region. So Moses asked God, and He instructed Moses to proceed with the plan. 12 spies were chosen to scout the land, one from each tribe. 

The 12 spies’ journey would take them all over the land. They were gone for forty days, so not your average road trip. And what they saw was wondrous. Such a fertile place, filled with grapes and all kinds of promise. A land “flowing with milk and honey” (Numbers 13:27) they would say. It was all God had said it would be and then some. 

The Negative Report

“Nevertheless…” Oh, if only they had not uttered that word. Despite the goodness of the land, 10 of the 12 spies focused on something entirely different. They weren’t focused on the positives nor the potential. Their personal vision took them away from God’s vision. 

Despite all the positives, 10 of the spies said,

Nevertheless the people who dwell in the land are strong; the cities are fortified and very large; moreover we saw the descendants of Anak there. The Amalekites dwell in the land of the South; the Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the mountains; and the Canaanites dwell by the sea and along the banks of the Jordan.” – Numbers 13:28-29

And then…

“…We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we.” And they gave the children of Israel a bad report of the land which they had spied out, saying, “The land through which we have gone as spies is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people whom we saw in it are men of great stature. There we saw the giants (the descendants of Anak came from the giants); and we were like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight.” – Numbers 13:31-33

The Positive Rebuttal

Only two of the 12 spies dared to think differently. Caleb and Joshua (Moses’ right hand man) spoke out against the bad report of the other spies. They knew nothing was impossible for them with God leading the way. 

Their vision of God spoke volumes about their faith: 

Caleb: “Let us go up at once and take possession, for we are well able to overcome it.” – Numbers 13:30

Caleb and Joshua: “But Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had spied out the land, tore their clothes; and they spoke to all the congregation of the children of Israel, 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.” – Numbers 14:6-9

The People’s Response

Two passionate pleas. Two varying visions of what God was capable of. One side believed God could do anything in and through the nation. The other side, not so much.

If the negativity had stopped here, only a few lives would have been impacted. Instead the people responded this way: 

“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.’” – Numbers 14:2-4

And finally…

“…the congregation said to stone them [Caleb and Joshua] with stones.” – Numbers 14:10

The Aftermath

So far in their journey, Israel had a history of complaining against Moses (and indirectly at God). But this time, the object of their complaining is directed squarely towards God. It’s slander pure and simple in blaming God that he brought them into the wilderness to die with their wives and children.

“It’s God’s fault we are in this situation.”

“He won’t be able to lead us.”

“We were better off as slaves in Egypt.”

Needless to say, God is not pleased. He steps into the scene in Numbers 14:11-12 with this to say to Moses about the 12 spies report:

“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.”

This is now the second time God has declared he would wipe out the nation and start over with Moses. It happened before at the golden calf incident. One would think this time Moses just might take him up on the offer. After all, Moses had to be fed up with the people too. 

Related Content: The Golden Calf: One Leader’s Mess Up Is Another Leader’s Opportunity

Moses’ Response to God

Instead of taking God’s offer, Moses does what he always did – beg forgiveness for the people. 

You would be hard pressed to find a more passionate prayer in all the Bible than the one Moses says in Numbers 14:13-19. It had to be. All the lives in the nation were on the line. 

And as Moses pointed out, God’s reputation in the eyes of the surrounding nations was also on the line. If the people were destroyed, He would be mocked by all nations for not being able to bring his people to their destiny. It’s a shrewd argument by Moses, but one done out of utter desperation because the people’s sin was beyond great in this matter. 

God’s Judgment on the 12 Spies (and others)

In the end, God showed both his attributes of mercy and justice. The 10 spies who issued the negative report died immediately of a plague (Num. 14:37). But Joshua and Caleb were spared the fate of the others because of their courage and faithfulness. 

And God did not wipe out all of Israel as he said he’d do. However, the ultimate sentence was harsh. It had to be based on the depth of the sin the people had committed. Here was God’s verdict in the matter:

“…because all these men who have seen My glory and the signs which I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and have put Me to the test now these ten times, and have not heeded My voice, 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….your little ones, whom you said would be victims, I will bring in, and they shall know the land which you have despised…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.” – Numbers 14:22-23, 29-34

What a devastating consequence. No one of that generation 20 years old and above would ever set foot in the Promised Land. 

A Lesson for Us Today From the 12 Spies

We don’t use the word “nevertheless” today like the spies did when they issued the negative report. However, we have adopted another word into our vocabulary when deciding to point out an alternative to a situation.


Typically, thoughts that precede the word “but” are positive and filled with hope. They point out the good of a situation or its benefits.

The thoughts and ideas that follow the word “but” often shift the conversation in a different direction. They usually point out why the preceding thoughts and ideas won’t work. They serve as the negative counterpart to positivity and hope. 

The 10 Spies Lived in a “But” World

That’s essentially what happened with the 12 spies. All 12 saw the beauty of the land and its potential for prosperity. “But” 10 focused on the negative. They saw pain, suffering and potential failure, and it overcame them.

And probably because 10 outnumbers 2, the rest of the people bought the “but” side of the 10 spies argument. 

Because they dwelt on the negative aspects, they did not see how God had power over it all. That’s a little surprising considering how much God had already done for them.

There were the miraculous plagues in Egypt that led to freedom. The people participated in the unthinkable crossing of the Red Sea on dry ground (Exodus 14). God had supplied water, bread and meat during the wilderness crossing. And they had seen God hand write their law (Exodus 20) and descend to dwell among them in the Tabernacle. 

All of this should have given the 10 spies and the people confidence. It did not. They gave into blindness and fear. They chose to live in their sketchy and hopeless past instead of envisioning a brighter future. Most importantly, they doubted and blamed God for what he was doing. 

Sometimes, We Live in a “But” World Too

It would be great if we were always like Caleb and Joshua. Positive. Living with confidence. Unwavering with our faith in God. 

But, often we live in the world of the 10 spies. Negative. Living in fear. Doubting what God is doing in our lives. 

What should keep us from living in that negative space is the same thing that should have helped them. 

It’s a deep remembering of all that God has done for us in the past. The God who has seen us through so much before is the same one who will see us through our future. We should live in celebration of our past victories and trust God to give us those same victories going forward. 

He promised all Israel, including the 12 spies, he would do it for them. He’s made the same promises to us. We need to rest in that, no “ifs”, “ands” or “buts”. 

Leave a Comment or Answer a Question Below: What big lesson do you take away from the story of the 12 spies?  In your daily life, do you lean more to the positive or negative? How do you feel about the balance between God’s mercy and justice in this situation?

Photo courtesy of Amos Bar-Zeev on Unsplash


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