The Twelve Spies

grapesThere is a fascinating account told in the book of Numbers about 12 spies sent into the Promised Land to see how fruitful the land was; how strong its people were; and whether they dwelt in tents or strongholds. Twelve spies were sent, one from each of the 12 tribes of Israel (Numbers 13:1-16).

They spied out the land for 40 days. Here was their report: “We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large. And besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. The Amalekites dwell in the land of the Negeb. The Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the hill country. And The Canaanites dwell by the sea, and along the Jordan.” The report started out on a positive note, but the tune changes with the word “However.” A string of reasons are given for not entering the land.

But, Caleb quiets the people and says, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.”

But the other spies said, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.” Later, they characterize the land as one “…that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them” (Nu. 13:32, 33).

Moses characterizes the report of the 10 spies as “a bad report” (13:32). What was it about their report that was bad? It is not as if they lied about the land or its inhabitants. Caleb could have just as easily said that the other men had misrepresented what they saw in the land. It would have also been counterproductive to return with grapes as evidence of this land of milk and honey.  If we can figure out why their report was “bad,” we will have discovered the purpose and value of the story.

If we do not see the story in light of the larger story of the Bible, I may almost say, there is no way to figure out why the report of the 10 spies is judged as “bad.” I say “almost” because the answer is hinted at in verse one. “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel.”

In the broader story of Israel, which begins with God’s call of Abraham (Genesis 12), the Lord promised to give Abraham land. The land consisted of everything between the great river, the Euphrates River, and the River of Egypt. Abraham left his father’s home and settled in the Promised Land. But, you will remember, there was a famine that ultimately brought the descendants of Abraham to Egypt. They remained in Egypt for over 400 years. After the Lord delivered Israel from Egypt, they received the Law on Mt. Sinai. It is after the giving of the Law that Moses sent the twelve spies into the land, the Promised Land. This is the Land the Lord promised to Abraham, and at the beginning of Numbers 13, is giving to the people of Israel once again.

Here is the point: if God is giving you land, there is nothing to be afraid of when you enter that land. Even if its inhabitants are so big they make you feel like grasshoppers, there is nothing to fear. Herein, is the reason the report the majority of the spies gave is “bad.” They were discouraging Israel from taking possession of land God promised to give them—in fact, had already given them through their great great grandfather Abraham.

The report so discouraged Israel that the entire congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. They grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and said, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” (See Numbers 14:1-4).


The spies were in the land for 40 days. The Lord determined that Israel would wander in the wilderness one year for each day they were spying out the land. So, for 40 years, Israel wandered in the wilderness. Of all the adults, 20 years and older, all but two died in the wilderness. Put another way, only two adults, 20 years and older, entered the Promised Land. Do you know who they were? Joshua and Caleb, two of the 12 spies of our story, but two spies who did not stand with the 10 who gave the bad report.

The writer of Hebrews looks back at this period of Israel’s history and writes, “For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.” (Heb 3:16-18).

The report of the 10 spies was “bad” not because it lacked facts, but because it lacked faith. Caleb’s exhortation was energized by faith.

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