Wednesday of week 18 of Ordinary Time – First Reading

Commentary on Num 13:1-2, 26-14:1, 26-35

At last the end of the long desert journey is in sight – though not in the way many of the people expect.
Yahweh tells Moses to send scouts, a leading man from each of the 12 tribes, to explore the land of Canaan, which the Lord has promised to give them as their own. Forty days later they returned to Moses, Aaron and the whole Israelite community waiting in the desert of Paran at Kadesh. This is not a town but indicates a region and the site of the principal oasis to the north of Sinai, 90 km southwest of Beersheba. The name is preserved today by the spring of Ain Qadeis. From time immemorial, this oasis has been a stop-off point for caravans in the desert.
The scouts make a report on what they found and brought back with them samples of the country’s produce. Their report was very upbeat. The country did indeed flow with milk and honey. Less promising was their discovery that its inhabitants were powerful and lived in large and fortified towns. Taking it over would not be easy.
Among the people they encountered were the Anakim, an aboriginal race occupying southern Palestine. Also in the region were the Amalekites who occupied the Negeb, the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites who were in the highlands and, lastly, the Canaanites along the sea shore and the banks of the Jordan.
Caleb, one of the scouts, who was from the tribe of Judah, urged that they should march in immediately and the take the land. He was confident it could be overcome. Others in the scouting party, however, were much more cautious. “We cannot attack these people; they are stronger than we are.”
As if to back up their argument, they gave a far less attractive picture of what they saw. It is a country, they said, which devours its inhabitants. The people they saw were of huge size; they even saw giants. (Anakim is explained as ‘descended from giants’.) Either because of their tall stature or because of the massive stone structures left by them the Israelites regarded them as giants. In comparison with these people, the scouts felt like grasshoppers.

The people were influenced by this more negative report. They cried out in dismay and wept the whole night. The frightening words of the faithless scouts led to mourning by the entire community and to their great rebellion against the Lord. They forgot all the wonders the Lord had done for them, they despised his mercy and spurned his might. In their ingratitude they preferred death.
What follows in the Bible text is not included in our reading but explains the latter part of the reading.
Faced with this terrible report, the people become very angry and vented their anger on Moses and Aaron. Once again they were saying they would have been much better off staying behind as slaves in Egypt or even to have died in the desert rather than be slaughtered together with their wives and children in this country. They even suggested appointing a leader to bring them back to Egypt.
Faced with this rebellion, Moses and Aaron fell prostrate on the ground but two of the scouts, Joshua (whose name had been changed from Hoshea) and Caleb repeated the positive picture that had first been given about the land being very attractive. If God wanted them to live there, it would happen. There was no need to rebel against Yahweh or to be afraid of the people. It is not they who would gobble up the Israelites but the other way round. However, the people were not convinced and wanted to stone the two leaders.
Now, it is God, appearing in the cloud at the Tent of Meeting, who expresses his anger at the ingratitude of the people. He threatens to strike them with a pestilence and disown them – they will no longer be his people.
Once again, Moses pleads on their behalf. To destroy the people now would only make God a laughing stock among the nations. “Yahweh was not able to bring this people into this country, so he slaughtered them in the desert.” On the contrary, says Moses, this is precisely the time for Yahweh to show his power and to remember his earlier words that he was “slow to anger and rich in faithful love, forgiving faults and transgression”, yet dealing justly with those who had done wrong. “Please forgive this people’s guilt, as you have done from Egypt until now.”
God finally promises to forgive but those people who over the years have put the Lord to the test ten times already and not obeyed his voice will not enter the Promised Land. They will die in the desert, as they had wished. Their lack of faith and of confidence in God is cited in 1 Cor 10:10 and Heb 3:12-18, as a warning for Christians. In Hebrews we read:
Take care, my brothers, lest any of you have an evil and unfaithful spirit and fall away from the living God… Who were those who revolted when they heard the voice [of God]? Was it not all whom Moses led out from Egypt? With whom was God angry for 40 years? Was it not those who had sinned, whose corpses fell in the desert? To whom but to the disobedient did he swear that they would not enter his rest? We see, moreover, that it was their unbelief that kept them from entering” (Heb 3:12-19).
There is clearly meant to be a message there for Christians.
Caleb, the scout from the tribe of Judah, on the other hand, who is “of another spirit and has obeyed me completely” will take possession of the land and his descendants will own it. (Later, the two kingdoms will be called ‘Israel’ and ‘Judah’.)
Yahweh then speaks to Moses and Aaron. He can no longer endure the complaints of this perverse community. Sentence is then given: All those who are 20 years or over and who muttered against the Lord will die in the desert. Their children will be nomads in the desert for 40 years on the basis that the sins of the fathers go to the third and fourth generation. “This is how I swear to treat this entire perverse community united against me. In this desert, to the last man, they shall die.”
The 40 days of the travels of the scouts becomes the numerical pattern for their suffering: one year for one day – for 40 years they will recount their misjudgement, and for 40 years the people, who are now 20 years old or more, will be dying off. In the end only a later generation, under 20 years of age at the time of this final rebellion, will be able to enter the Promised Land. Significantly, Israel’s refusal to carry out the Lord’s commission to conquer his land is the climactic act of rebellion for which God condemns Israel to die in the desert. Divine promises will be kept but not for those to whom they were originally made.
Our God is a God of compassion and mercy but there are limits and justice has to be done. These people have brought their misfortunes on themselves. Sin, because it is the choice of evil over good, of lies over truth, of hatred over love, or revenge over forgiveness, contains its own punishment. It is never the work of God.

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