Photo by boombonic on Morgue File.
I recently began a winter bible study at my local church. Last year, I led them through the letter of Colossians. This year the suggested book was Deuteronomy. Yes, I know, I know, when many here the D word they either find a flimsy excuse to exit stage right or they suddenly contract some sort of ancient fainting disease, which exhibits long blank stares, drooling at the corners of the mouth, shortly before causing a violent (and reportedly uncontrollable) plop of the head down to the nearest flat surface. Inevitably, snoring ensues and the culprit (eh, victim?) finds a nice, long rested sleep.
Well, Deuteronomy isn’t all that bad, right? I mean, if you can learn to spell it that’s half the battle!
The first three chapters open as a historical prologue for this new generation of Israelite faithful. The last generation, well, let us just say, they have been dropping like flies out in the wilderness! But now Moses is speaking to a new lot of wide-eyed and ready participants. Maybe this is a great lesson in leadership: if you can’t sway the vote, just lead your people in meandering, elongated circles until they all croak and then start with a fresh batch of volunteers!
Okay, on second thought, probably not!
One of the episodes mentioned in the first chapter is a retelling of a train wreck episode (cf. Dt. 1.41f). The Israelites had voted to side with the ten nays against the two yeas (i.e. Joshua and Caleb). You will recall twelve spies (one for each tribe) entered the land of promise from Kadesh-Barnea and scoped out the land (cf. Nm. 13). Today we would call this good, old-fashioned CIA reconnaissance.
The spies, after forty days, come back with produce in hand and a report ready. They all agree and are in unanimous agreement . . . initially anyway. This is important I think. We have to remember this whole notion of a promised land had been told and retold among Israel’s faithful for centuries. How many had come to think that maybe it was all too good to be true? How many had begun the eye-roll technique when they heard a hopeful telling of a distant land, lush and fertile, promised to them−a land that would one day, some day be theirs at long last. It seems there had to be at least a few who thought the whole thing sounded more like pie-in-the-sky than reality.
But yet, here the twelve recon guys were, with fruit in hand, all clamoring on about how great and wonderful the land was. Few things like this ever live up to the expectations, but this did! The twelve spies are unanimous in their agreement that the land of promise is all they had ever heard and hoped it would be . . . even more!
So far, so good, right?
Yet, there always seems to be a but to these sorts of things and that’s where it all breaks down. Yes, the land is all they could of ever hoped for, but there is one small (or should I say several big ones!) problem: there are some pretty mean, nasty inhabitants in that there land!
Make no mistake, the Canaanite culture was a warrior culture. That is to say, they knew how to fight! Israel, well Israel was a meandering group of former slaves and children of former slaves, hardly the sort of group to strike fear in the heart of a battle-tested Canaan dweller. No, there is no exaggeration to say that the Canaanites (I use this designation for short-hand to speak of all the people-groups in the land) were a superior fighting machine than Israel. In fact, the very pericope I wish to consider will prove just that!
From a strictly human point of view, this was a classic mismatch. If Vegas had been taking odds in that day, Israel would have been the clear underdog . . . and it would not have even been close! This had all the makings of a woodshed beat down, a backyard rout, which would leave Israel bloody and beaten.
But, it wasn’t going to be a mano a mano fight; no, the odds were decidedly stacked to Israel’s advantage. Why? Because YHWH would be fighting for Israel! Talk about a secret weapon!
But, this fact seems to have gotten lost somewhere between the foothills of the promised land and Kadesh-Barnea. When the spies tally the pros and cons, ten vote nopey and only two vote to go in and kick butt and take names later. Not surprising, the people side with the majority (hence, majority may rule, in most cases, but they are not infallible) and chose to say no dice to the whole conquering-the-promised-land idea.
Not their first, and certainly would not be their last, bad decision.
Later that night (see Nm. 14.1f), the people throw one big pity party! Woe is mes are flying around like confetti at a New Year’s Eve party! The people have a pretty wild and loose theology that can be summed up succinctly: God has brought us here to kill us!
Hmm, yeah, as if he couldn’t have done that by the hands of Egypt . . . you know, Egypt the most powerful kingdom in the world at that time!
But, instead, according to these rocket science theologians, God has gone through all the trouble of calling a wandering shepherd to face down Pharaoh (an incarnate god in Egyptian thought), sent the plagues to wrestle Pharaoh’s grip from the necks of his people, parted a sea, appeared in theophanic glory more than once and all the rest he has done, all for the sake of bringing them out here in the middle of no where to kill them!
Yeah, that sounds well thought out and reasonable!
To cut to the chase, God punishes Israel, pronouncing they shall wander in the wilderness one year for each day the spies were sneaking around in Canaan (40 days x 1 year=40 years).
So, for forty years, Israel would be forced to wander the wilderness until, basically, that unbelieving generation died off and a new generation grew to maturity.
And it is precisely here, after Moses announces God’s judgment and sentence upon Israel, that Israel goes a bit off the old rocker. All of sudden, they feel terribly sorry for ever doubting God’s good word in the first place and decide that two wrongs must make a right!
Even against God’s specific command (sound familiar?!) they do the exact opposite and muster up some strange (false?) courage to go rushing headlong into the promised land like a bunch of mad men. Earlier, they had been too afraid to go in and face the inhabitants of the land (and that was counting God on their side); but now, even when God tells them he will not be making the trip with them, so if they go rushing in like a bunch of zealots they will be traveling God-free, they have the nerve to go charging in anyway!
Let me let you read the passage first and then we will comment a bit more on this bizarre (did I mention train wreck earlier?!) scene:
When Moses told these words to all the people of Israel, the people mourned greatly. And they rose early in the morning and went up to the heights of the hill country, saying, ‘Here we are. We will go up to the place that the LORD has promised, for we have sinned.’ But Moses said, ‘Why now are you transgressing the command of the LORD, when that will not succeed? Do not go up, for the LORD is not among you, lest you be struck down before your enemies. For there the Amalekites and the Canaanites are facing you, and you shall fall by the sword. Because you have turned back from following the LORD, the LORD will not be with you.’ But they presumed to go up to the heights of the hill country, although neither the ark of the covenant of the LORD nor Moses departed out of the camp. Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and defeated them and pursued them, even to Hormah. (Nm. 14.39-45, ESV)
As a kid, I was a big Star Wars fan. I still am actually! In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, which was the first Star Wars movie released, but not actually the first in the chronology, you see because . . . oh well, never mind, anywho, in that first movie, Luke and his Jedi pal (Obi Wan) hop on board a bucket of bolts called the Millennium Falcon. The Falcon, (as her friends call her!), was piloted by the rogue, swashbuckling, antihero Han Solo (played by Harrison Ford). In one scene, after they have been pulled into the Death Star by a powerful tractor beam, Han and Luke dress up like Storm-troopers. Long story longer, the rebels are found out and are trying to move through the intergalactic space station to get back to the Falcon. As they do so, they run into a small number of Storm-troopers. Han, takes it upon himself to be the hero and go rushing in, like an insane madman toward these soldiers of the big, bad Empire. With blaster blasting, he chases the Storm-troopers away from his friends and colleagues; thus far, everything is working according to plan.
Then the Storm-troopers round a corner with Han hot on their trail and as he rounds he discovers there is a boat load more of Storm-troopers waiting. Suddenly, he lets out a loud yell, makes a u-turn and heads back whence he came as fast as he can skedaddle! He runs away for his life as the Imperial henchmen chase after him.
That’s basically the scene we have in Numbers with Israel. Well, minus the blasters and spaceships of course; unless, those Ancient Alien Astronomers are right, and then, who knows?!
Israel learned a valuable lesson that day, you don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind, you don’t pull the mask off the old Long Ranger and you don’t mess around with Jim (or Slim, depending on which verse you are on!) . . . no, wait that is a different lesson for another day!
They learned that apart from YHWH’s help and presence, they had absolutely no shot against the inhabitants of the land. Some of the shows on TV that discuss Israel’s take over of the land crack me up. They speculate long and hard about how Israel had all these ninja warriors in their ranks that enabled them to defeat the Canaanite tribes. Uh no! They had God on their side, end of story!
Israel alone was no match for the Canaanites. Only with the help and presence of YHWH could they defeat them and possess the land that God had promised them.
There was another lesson to be learned here as well. Though, like us many times, I’m not so sure Israel ever learned it completely. The lesson is a simple one, but one that seems to be hard for many of us to grasp fully. God’s commands are to obeyed. When they are not there are consequences. Now, thankfully God is merciful and gracious, as he proved to be with Israel, but when God says go we should go. And, when God says no we had better stay put!
In the end, Kadesh-Barnea should have been Israel’s strategic launching point into the land. A place to be remembered for generations to come as the place where Israel marched forth into their God-given destiny. Instead, it became a place representing rebellion and failure. A place of idleness and disobedience, instead of a place of blessing and the launching pad for conquest.
Where is your Kadesh-Barnea? That is, where has God led you? Or, what has God led you to do? God proves himself faithful. The question is, will you be obedient to God’s call and leading?
Two things are important here. Pray for wisdom to discern God’s will and pray for faith to do God’s will. Wisdom and faith are needed to follow the Lord and trust his will and ways.
As you journey on, plant your flag in the sand of your Kadesh-Barnea and launch out into the promises of God for you. If you do, your life will be one pleasing to our Father, honoring to his Son and led and borne along by his Spirit.
So, what are you waiting for? Get to marching!