PERSISTENT COMPLAINING TESTS THE LIMITS OF GOD’S PATIENCE BUT THE APPLICATION OF HIS MERCY AND JUDGMENT PROTECT HIS REPUTATION
God is not someone to be trifled with. Complaining and grumbling are serious offenses. The authority of His appointed leaders must not be attacked since that is an attack against God Himself. At the end of the day, God must protect His reputation so that His glory is manifested throughout the world. His patience has limits, but His mercy and judgment know no bounds but work together in harmony to accomplish His purposes as He remains faithful to His covenant promises.
Gordon Wenham: Now the rebellion reaches its climax. Appalled by the spies’ description of the promised land, the people break down completely. In the Hebrew the verbs pile up in an attempt to express the passions unleashed. They reflect that anything they have experienced up to now will be better than Canaan. The thought moves from Egypt to the wilderness to Canaan and then back to Egypt. Time had already dulled their more bitter memories of Egypt, and in an earlier rebellion they had looked back on it with a certain wistfulness (cf. 11:5, 18, 20). But this time they actually propose returning to Egypt, thereby completely rejecting the whole plan of redemption. From Exodus 1 to the mission of the spies there is but one plot: how Israel was brought out of Egypt to the borders of Canaan. Now within sight of their goal they suggest giving it all up. Not only that, they propose electing an alternative leader to Moses, their divinely appointed mediator of salvation. ‘Let’s choose a leader and go back to Egypt!’
Ronald Allen: The malicious report of the ten spies (13:26-33) spread throughout the populace like a vicious virus on rampage. The words of Caleb and Joshua were not heard. Everywhere people heard of walled cities, strong men, giants, and the fabled Nephilim. . . No one talked about God’s grace. None recited his miracles. Forgotten was the act of God where the most powerful nation of their world was stymied at the rushing of waters back to their beds. The thunder of Sinai, the fire of God, that he had spoken ad delivered and graced his people beyond imagination – all these things were forgotten in their paroxysm of fear. Fear unchecked becomes its own fuel, a self-propelling force that expands as it expends.
I. (:1-10) TRUNCULENT COMPLAINING SPREADS THE CONTAGION OF FEAR AND PANIC —
REFUSING TO LISTEN TO THE VOICES OF REASON AND OF FAITH
A. (:1-4) Rebellion Against God’s Appointed Leaders
1. (:1) Self-Pity – Woe is Me
“Then all the congregation lifted up their voices and cried,
and the people wept that night.”
2. (:2a) Community Grumbling
“And all the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron;”
Dennis Cole: The Israelite community reacted to the majority report with fear and frenzy, discounting totally the credibility of Caleb’s minority report and his visionary challenge to go forth and conquer the land with God’s power and presence. The collective congregation of the tribes of Israel and the accompanying non-Israelite rabble (11:1) now moaned vociferously against the divinely ordained leadership of Moses and Aaron, precipitating an all-night session of weeping and wailing because of their perceived plight. Looking only through the eyes of their human frailty, they felt they had nowhere to turn. They had departed Egypt under dramatic circumstances, but now they somehow thought slavery would be better than facing Canaan, which seemed like a mighty invincible fortress, or simply dying in the wilderness.
3. (:2b-3) Irrational Despair – Abandoning Reason
“and the whole congregation said to them,”
a. (:2b) Preferring Prior Death
“Would that we had died in the land of Egypt!
Or would that we had died in this wilderness!”
C.H.M.: Are not we, too, like Israel, prone to look at the difficulties which surround us, rather than at that blessed One who has undertaken to carry us right through them all and bring us safely into His own everlasting kingdom? Why is it we are sometimes cast down? Why go we mourning? Wherefore are the accents of discontent and impatience heard in our midst, rather than the songs of praise and thanksgiving? Simply because we allow circumstances to shut out God, instead of having God as a perfect covering for our eyes and a perfect object for our hearts.
b. (:3) Preferring Egyptian Bondage
“And why is the LORD bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become plunder;
would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?”
Dennis Cole: The intensity of the lament was heightened further by their stated preference for a return to Egypt, where they might have preferred to die in a state of subjection and oppression. The very people who had seen firsthand the marvelous and miraculous demonstration of God’s omnipotence against one of the most powerful nations of the second millennium B.C.. now longed to return to a world of bondage rather than believe a word of blessing. The sinful human tendency, even among Christians, to lapse back into the addictive ways of sin and despair after having seen the outward demonstration of God’s working on their behalf was evidenced in this setting. Often in a state of rebellion against God, one loses the benefit of spiritual mooring, whereby wisdom and discernment become elusive and proper decision making is made extremely difficult. Worry and fear dominate one’s thought patterns. The Israelites had thus renounced and rejected God’s beneficence, by now suggesting that a return to Egypt would be a good thing rather than marching into a land that even the cynical scouts deemed as good. Further evidence of their stupefaction can be seen in the statement in v. 3, where they suggested that God might have led them into the desert to die. They made the God of life and hope to be one of death and despair.
4. (:4) Foolish Decision Making – Abandoning Faith
“So they said to one another,
‘Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt.’”
B. (:5-10a) Rejection of the Voices of Reason and of Faith
1. (:5) Sober Reminder of the Fear of God
“Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces in the presence of all the assembly of the congregation of the sons of Israel.”
Gordon Wenham: To fall on one’s face is the Old Testament’s ultimate mark of religious worship and awe (Gen. 17:3; Lev. 9:24). But in Numbers it usually anticipates some great act of judgment (cf. 16:4, 22, 45; 20:6). Moses and Aaron, sensing the presence of God, fall to the ground in fear at what he is about to do.
2. (:6-9) Last Chance to Listen to the Voices of Reason and of Faith
a. (:6) Joshua and Caleb Get the People’s Attention
“And Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh,
of those who had spied out the land, tore their clothes;”
Dennis Cole: At this point in the narrative Joshua chimes in and corroborates the positive witness of Caleb regarding the exceeding goodness of the land they had scouted and the powerlessness of the peoples of the land before the faithful people of God. The reminder that Joshua and Caleb were among the scouts serves the narrative purpose of connecting them with the earlier events—the scouting theme as these two men had witnessed the same land that the other ten had—and of emphasizing their role in the present context. For the first time in the narrative all four of the faithful leaders are mentioned together, and the antithesis between the righteous few (remnant) and the innumerable nation of rebels is heightened.
b. (:7-8) Joshua and Caleb Point to the Lord’s Promise
1) (:7) Report of the Land Matches the Lord’s Promise
“and they spoke to all the congregation of the sons of Israel, saying, ‘The land which we passed through to spy out is an exceedingly good land.’”
2) (:8) Possession of the Land Tied Only to God’s Good Pleasure
“If the LORD is pleased with us, then He will bring us into this land, and give it to us– a land which flows with milk and honey.”
Timothy Ashley: For Yahweh to give the people success, he must delight (ḥāp̄ēṣ) in them, which requires that Israel obey him.27 If Yahweh delights in the people he will bring them into the land of Canaan in triumph.
c. (:9) Joshua and Caleb Warn Against Rebellion
1) Don’t Rebel Against the Lord
“Only do not rebel against the LORD;”
2) Don’t Fear the People of the Land
“and do not fear the people of the land,
for they shall be our prey.
Their protection has been removed from them,
and the LORD is with us; do not fear them.”
3. (:10a) Angry Rejection of God’s Faithful Messengers
“But all the congregation said to stone them with stones.”
Gordon Wenham: This is not simply a mob-lynching (cf. Exod. 17:4; 1 Kgs 12:18). The congregation had judicial authority, and stoning was reserved for the punishment of major religious crimes (e.g. Lev. 20:2, 27; 24:23; Num. 15:36; Deut. 13:10) and sins within the family which symbolize breaches of the covenant (Deut. 21:21; 22:21, 24). Joshua and Caleb have accused them of rebelling against the Lord (9); the congregation rejects this charge as false and proposes to exact the appropriate penalty for false witness.
Timothy Ashley: Wenham posits that the people’s reaction here is a judicial reaction to what they perceive as false witness on the part of Joshua and Caleb.35 But two points tell against this explanation. First, it is doubtful that their words do not rebel (’al-timrōḏû, v. 9) in the jussive may be taken as false witness. Second, although the Torah forbids false witness (Exod. 20:16; 23:1; Deut. 5:17 [Eng. 20]) the punishment for it is set forth only in Deuteronomy and is a talion, i.e., doing to the false witness what he had planned for the accused (Deut. 19:16–21); no punishment of stoning is set forth. Therefore, the reaction of the crowd here is more likely to be a reaction of anger than a perceived judicial sentence.
C. (:10b) Revelation of the Glory of God — What Happens When God Shows Up?
“Then the glory of the LORD appeared in the tent of meeting
to all the sons of Israel.”
Dennis Cole: At pivotal points in the Bible, when humanity’s sinful rebellion reached an uncontrollable crisis, God would intervene through wondrous means to demonstrate his power and glory, and then manifest his justice and grace by endeavoring to draw his crowning creation back to himself. From Noah and Abraham, to Moses and Elijah, and finally and incomparably in Jesus, the story of his redemptive power has resonated through his word to challenge those whom he desires to call his own to faith and fulfillment. But redemption often was prefaced by judgment, so from the cloud of the Lord’s presence came the revelation that God intended to ravage the Israelite nation with plague and destruction and rebuild a new and greater kingdom through Moses. This potential of starting over through Moses had been raised by Yahweh when the people constructed the golden calf soon after the Exodus (Exod 32:10). . .
This is the pivotal point of the narrative, for here God intervenes and interacts with his appointed leaders.
II. (:11-25) TENSE CONFRONTATION REGARDING THE LIMITS OF GOD’S PATIENCE –
MERCY AND JUDGMENT APPLIED IN RESPONSE TO THE EFFECTUAL INTERCESSION OF MOSES
A. (:11-12) Time for Dramatic Judgment – The Last Straw
1. (:11) Patience of God Severely Tested
“And the LORD said to Moses,
‘How long will this people spurn Me?
And how long will they not believe in Me,
despite all the signs which I have performed in their midst?’”
Gordon Wenham: Though words for faith and belief in God are fairly rare in the Old Testament, that man must exercise faith in God and his word is a fundamental presupposition of all the writers. To believe in God means to accept all he says and to act accordingly: to trust his promises and obey his commands. Faith makes a man to be counted righteous before God (Gen. 15:6): its absence damns him (cf. Num. 20:12). In this instance God proposes destroying Israel and starting afresh with Moses and his descendants (12).
2. (:12) Proposed Severe Judgment and Redirected Blessing
“I will smite them with pestilence and dispossess them,
and I will make you into a nation greater and mightier than they.”
Raymond Brown: ‘Striking with a plague’ was reminiscent of his judgment upon the obdurate Egyptians. The Lord was proposing to start his plan of salvation history all over again with a fresh line and a new people. Caleb and Joshua had not succeeded with the people. Moses hoped that he might plead effectively with God. Three issues were uppermost in the mind of this compassionate intercessor.
– He was jealous for God’s glory (13–16),
– committed to God’s word (17) and
– mindful of God’s love (18–19).
– It is persistent love. He is slow to anger (18). They had repeatedly tried his patience (22), but he kept on loving them, even at a time of widespread defection at Canaan’s border.
– It is generous love. Overflowing with compassion and abounding in love (18), God refused to put limits on his love simply because, at times, they did not appear to love him.
– It is reliable love. The word used for love here (ḥeseḏ) is the great term, variously translated and found about 250 times in the Old Testament, for God’s covenant or steadfast love, his unfailing faithfulness to his loving agreement with his people, his pledge of total dependability.19
– It is pardoning love, forgiving sin and rebellion. On the grounds of God’s great love, the intercessor begged him to ‘forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now’ (19). That verb ‘to forgive’ means ‘to carry away’, like lifting a crippling load from our shoulders forever.
– It is righteous love. ‘Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation’ (18).
B. (:13-19) Desperate Intercession by Moses
1. (:13-16) Plea Based on God’s Glory
a. (:13-14) Wiping Out Israel Would Impugn God’s Reputation
“But Moses said to the LORD, ‘Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for by Thy strength Thou didst bring up this people from their midst, 14 and they will tell it to the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that Thou, O LORD, art in the midst of this people, for Thou, O LORD, art seen eye to eye, while Thy cloud stands over them; and Thou dost go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night.’”
Dennis Cole: Rhetorically, the threefold use of the second person pronoun in emphatic position echoes Moses’ depth of passion in his appeal to God concerning his present and future reputation among the peoples of Egypt and Canaan, saying: You are in their midst, You appear to them and over them, and You go before them day and night. These expressions brilliantly portray the intimacy of the relationship between God and his people, through his abiding presence, his providential protection, and his power. With such mighty deeds renowned among the nations, Moses beseeched the Lord to allow his vengeance to acquiesce to his forgiveness based upon the possibility that defamation might come to his Name. To allow the Israelites to suffer great loss or be annihilated in one fell swoop of vengeance might convey to the nations that Israel’s God was unable to bring them into the Promised Land, casting a detrimental reflection on his character rather than on the real problem, an insolent nation. The terminology of ability here (yākôl) reminds the reader of similar usage in the contrasting reports of Caleb (yākôl nûkal, “we are surely able”) versus the ten other scouts (loʾ nûkal, “we are not able”). The Egyptians would echo the words of the unfaithful spies who were deserving of judgment rather than continue to stand in awe of Yahweh because of his continued miracle working on behalf of his people. God might be seen as unfaithful to his people.
b. (:15-16) Wiping Out Israel Would Impugn God’s Power
“Now if Thou dost slay this people as one man, then the nations who have heard of Thy fame will say, 16 ‘Because the LORD could not bring this people into the land which He promised them by oath, therefore He slaughtered them in the wilderness.’”
Iain Duguid: Moses’ prayer of intercession was based on two equally fundamental Scriptural truths: the requirements of God’s glory and God’s merciful nature. He pleaded for his fellow-Israelites first on the basis of the requirements of God’s glory (14:13–16). If the Lord were to blot out the Israelites at this point, the Gentile nations around them would misunderstand his reasons. They had heard that the Lord’s name was linked with this people, that he had brought them out of Egypt, and that he had gone through the wilderness with them. If God were to kill them now, the nations might think it was because he was unable to bring his people into the land, and they would be confirmed in their unbelief. The Lord’s glory might be tarnished.
Second, though, Moses pleaded for the people on the basis of God’s mercy (14:17–19). He quoted the Lord’s own description of himself from Exodus 34:6, 7: the Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love, and forgiving sin and rebellion, yet not leaving the guilty unpunished. He does not falsify the Scriptural record by only quoting the first half of God’s self-description. On the contrary, Moses acknowledges that the Lord is a God of both justice and of mercy; yet he asks that in accordance with his great ḥesed, the Lord’s covenantal faithfulness to his people, he would be reconciled with them in spite of their continuing record of sin.
Both of these motivations should feature prominently in our own prayers of intercession. Why do we ask God to respond to our prayers? It is “for your name’s sake,” so that he might receive the glory he deserves. Why do we ask him to change our neighbor’s heart toward him? It is so that the Lord might be glorified by another soul captivated by his beauty. Why do we ask him to strengthen our churches and add new people to them? It is so that we might more adequately and fully declare his praises in those places. Why do we ask for victory over our sins? It is so that our hearts might be more free to glorify him and delight in his presence. Praying for the sake of God’s glory will dramatically reshape what we pray for and the way we pray for ourselves and those around us.
What is more, if we ask, motivated by God’s glory, we will also be comforted when he does not answer our prayers in the way we had hoped. If God is more glorified in my continuing weakness, suffering, or even failure, then my prayer has nonetheless been answered when I remain weak or suffering. If God is more glorified by enabling me to rejoice in him in spite of a door being closed in front of me or a deep longing in my heart going unfulfilled, then my prayer for his glory has been answered. If God is more glorified by my failure than he would be by my success, then my prayer has been answered even when my best endeavors to serve him have been shipwrecked. If God is my servant or my partner, then my failure means that God has let me down. However, if God is my Master who does all things for my good as well as for his glory, then I can know that he has a glorious purpose in even the most inglorious circumstances of my life. It would be perverse indeed for me to pray for something and then complain because God gave it to me wrapped in a different form from the one I had anticipated.
2. (:17-19) Plea Based on God’s Loyal Love
a. (:17-18) Loyal Love Consistent with God’s Justice
“But now, I pray, let the power of the Lord be great, just as Thou hast declared, 18 ‘The LORD is slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generations.’”
Dennis Cole: With this foundation laid, Moses takes his entreaty to a second level now based upon God’s attributes of long-suffering, faithfulness, loyal love, and forgiveness, while still maintaining the balance with his justice and righteousness. Moses understood that God’s strength could be magnified through the balanced application of his attributes to their current situation. On one hand he recalled the words of the Decalogue, which spoke of God’s judgment of idolatry lasting to the third and fourth generations of the rebellious, while his loyal love would endure to a thousand generations of the faithful (Exod 20:5–6). Additionally, he remembered that Yahweh was a gracious God, who through His compassion, abundant love, and long-suffering could forgive the sinful and rebellious (Exod 34:6–7). So often the God of the Old Testament has been presented errantly and misguidedly as a God of wrath and destruction, while asserting that the God of the New Testament in Jesus was one of mercy and love. The present appeal of Moses demonstrates that the opposite was and is true. It furthermore evidences that Moses’ understanding of God and his nature had advanced to a level of keen discernment that can only come as a result of an intimate relationship with him.
J. A. Thompson: Steadfast love (Heb. Hesed) is a peculiarly significant word expressing the qualities of loyalty, faithfulness and steadfastness which are to be found in One who is true to His covenant and to His obligations. It occurs about 250 times in the OT with strong overtones of the loyalty and the commitment to one another of the parties to a covenant.
b. (:19) Loyal Love Consistent with Pattern of Forgiveness Already Established in History
“Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of Thy lovingkindness, just as Thou also hast forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.”
C. (:20-25) Forgiveness Granted but Without Compromising God’s Glory
1. (:20) Announcement of Pardon
“So the LORD said, ‘I have pardoned them according to your word;’”
2. (:21) Proclamation of Glory
“but indeed, as I live, all the earth will be filled
with the glory of the LORD.”
3. (:22-24) Disposition of the Land Promise
a. (:22-23) Removal of the Blessing of Possession of the Land from the Unfaithful
“Surely all the men who have seen My glory and My signs, which I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness, yet have put Me to the test these ten times and have not listened to My voice, 23 shall by no means see the land which I swore to their fathers, nor shall any of those who spurned Me see it.”
Gordon Wenham: Typical of the irony in this story, their punishment is made to fit their crime. They wanted to die in the wilderness and return to Egypt: in a way rather different from the one they intended, God grants their request. The long-term programme of entering Canaan will be postponed to let the generation of rebels die where they wanted.
Timothy Ashley: The Levites are also not to be counted in the number of those who murmured and spurned Yahweh (v. 23). This conclusion is probable for two reasons. First, Eliezar (Aaron’s son and successor) was probably over twenty years old at the first census, and he survived to enter Canaan (cf. Josh. 14:1; 17:4; 20:24, 33). Second, and more importantly, the Levites are exempted from the punishment because they were not involved in the general census of ch. 1, but were set over against Israel and given their own censuses in chs. 3–4, with different age ranges than from twenty years of age and up.
b. (:24) Promise of the Blessing of Possession of the Land to Faithful Caleb
“But My servant Caleb, because he has had a different spirit and has followed Me fully, I will bring into the land which he entered, and his descendants shall take possession of it.”
4. (:25) Instructions to Begin Their Wilderness Wanderings
“Now the Amalekites and the Canaanites live in the valleys; turn tomorrow and set out to the wilderness by the way of the Red Sea.”
Brueggemann: Thus far, the movement had always been toward the Promised Land. But now God had them turn around and get away from the land he was going to give them: “set out for the wilderness” (14:25). God warned that he had heard their complaints and wondered how long they would continue (14:27). Elsewhere in the book when God “hears” of sinful behavior, it is a precursor to judgment. In this case, too, the Lord threatened judgment with an oath: “As surely as I live, declares the Lord” (14:28). The judgment would come in the very terms of their libelous complaints about God (14:27–28). They had complained that they had been led out to die in the wilderness; therefore, that is what would happen (14:29). God would wipe out every military man age 20 and up, except the faithful Caleb and Joshua (14:29–30). But their libel wouldn’t poison the hopes of the next generation. They had complained that their children would be captured; however, God would bring the next generation into the land so they could enjoy what their fathers had despised (14:31). The only effect on the children would be years of wandering in the wilderness, waiting for their mutinous parents to die off (14:32, 35). That would require 40 years, a year for each day of rebellious reconnaissance, a period when they learned the frustrating consequences of rebelling against God’s plans (14:34).
Gordon Keddie: (:20-38) — The Lord returned a five-pan answer, which “sings both of mercy and judgment” (Psalm 101:1).
1) He pardoned the nation as a whole of the sentence of death (:20).
2) He punished them, however, by depriving them of their inheritance in the land (:21-23).
3) He promised faithful Joshua and Caleb that they would enjoy their inheritance in the land (:24).
4) He proscribed the whole community, by sending them back to the wilderness (for thirty-eight more years), to ensure the fulfilment of his judgment upon them; and he fully explained his reasons for doing so (:25-36).
5) He purged, through plague, the ten spies, whose “majority report” had precipitated the apostasy of Israel (:37-38).
III. (:26-38) TRAGIC COSTS OF COMPLAINING AGAINST THE LORD –
MAKING THE PUNISHMENT FIT THE CRIME
A. (:26-27) Complaining and Grumbling are Serious Offenses
1. Don’t Presume Against the Lord’s Patience and Forbearance
“And the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, 27 ‘How long shall I bear with this evil congregation who are grumbling against Me?”
2. Don’t Presume that You Will Escape Accountability
“I have heard the complaints of the sons of Israel,
which they are making against Me.’”
Dennis Cole: (:26-35) – The third section of the Yahweh speech begins with the standard revelatory formula used throughout the Book of Numbers, wayĕdabbēr YHWH, indicating divine instruction for the leadership of the faithful community. This is the first time the phrase has been employed in the narrative since 13:1. Now the divine adjudication concerning the case of the rebellious Israelites is spelled out to Moses the prophet and Aaron the priest with alarming clarity. As noted in the earlier outline of the literary structure, these verses are set forth in a chiastic structure in which the central theme is the survival and deliverance of the faithful scouts Joshua and Caleb (14:30) in contrast to the male militia whose bodies will all fall in the wilderness from whence they were sent.
B. (:28-35) Consequences Matched to the Complaints
1. (:28-29) Death in the Wilderness for All the Numbered Warriors
a. (:28) Fitting Punishment
“Say to them, ‘As I live,’ says the LORD, ‘just as you have spoken in My hearing, so I will surely do to you;’”
b. (:29) Inescapable Punishment
“your corpses shall fall in this wilderness, even all your numbered men, according to your complete number from twenty years old and upward, who have grumbled against Me.”
2. (:30) Exception Made for Faithful Caleb and Joshua
“Surely you shall not come into the land in which I swore to settle you, except Caleb the son of Jephunneh and Joshua the son of Nun.”
3. (:31-34) Next Generation Will Enter the Land after Painful 40 Year Delay
a. (:31) Ironic Blessing on Next Generation
“Your children, however, whom you said would become a prey– I will bring them in, and they shall know the land which you have rejected.”
b. (:32) Death in the Wilderness for Disbelieving Generation
“But as for you, your corpses shall fall in this wilderness.”
c. (:33-34) Painful Delay for 40 Years
“And your sons shall be shepherds for forty years in the wilderness, and they shall suffer for your unfaithfulness, until your corpses lie in the wilderness. 34 According to the number of days which you spied out the land, forty days, for every day you shall bear your guilt a year, even forty years, and you shall know My opposition.”
Timothy Ashley: One must contrast the two generations here. The verb “to know” is used of both groups. The children, in due course, will know (i.e., experience) the land (v. 31), while the older generation will know Yahweh’s frustration and opposition so that they may not go forward, but only in circles until the punishment is fulfilled.
4. (:35) Guarantee of Fulfilment
“I, the LORD, have spoken, surely this I will do to all this evil congregation who are gathered together against Me. In this wilderness they shall be destroyed, and there they shall die.”
C. (:36-38) Clear Distinction in Destiny Between the Unfaithful and the Faithful Spies
1. (:36-37) Destiny of the Unfaithful = Death Immediately by a Divine Plague
“As for the men whom Moses sent to spy out the land and who returned and made all the congregation grumble against him by bringing out a bad report concerning the land, 37 even those men who brought out the very bad report of the land died by a plague before the LORD.”
Ronald Allen: The people as a whole receive a commuted sentence, a mitigated judgment. But not the men who were responsible for the attitudes that led to this debacle of doubt! Those responsible for spreading the bad report had to be put to death. The judgment on the ten evil spies was immediate; the generation that they influenced would live out their lives in the desert, but their lives were forfeit. Only Joshua and Caleb were exempt from this judgment. The repeated mention of these two men is deserved; together the withstood a nation.
2. (:38) Destiny of the Faithful – Life Ongoing into the Promised Land
“But Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh remained alive out of those men who went to spy out the land.”
Dennis Cole: Once again in the cycles of this lengthy pericope a comparison is made between the unfaithful ten scouts and the faithful Joshua and Caleb, only this time the contrast included the final judgment against the obstinate majority. The treasonous acts were rehearsed once more in a succinct repetitive and chiastic fashion before the punishment was administered. The reiterated phrase, which brackets the focal point of the chiasmus, focuses on the act of spreading a bad report about the land. The center of the statement was the death of the spies. Note the following literary structure, which represents the Hebrew word order in the translation:
A The Men Sent by Moses to Explore the Land
B Who Returned and Made the Congregation Grumble
C And Spread Defamation concerning the Land
D They Died (by a Plague before YHWH)
C´ The Men Who Spread Defamation of the Land—for Evil
B´ Joshua and Caleb Lived
A´ Of the Men Who Went to Explore the Land
Those ten died almost immediately from a plague. The wicked community that had banded together in an attempt to overthrow their divinely appointed leaders by stoning them to death (14:10a) experienced an untimely death in the desert. Those whom they sought to slay, the steadfast Joshua and Caleb, would survive.
Warren Wiersbe: Moses led the world’s longest funeral march, and Caleb and Joshua watched their generations die. But Caleb and Joshua would be encouraged by God’s promise that both of them would enter the land and enjoy their inheritance. This assurance alone would sustain them during the trying days of the nation’s march, a discipline that wasn’t the fault of either Caleb or Joshua. So the blessed hope of Christ’s return encourages God’s people today in spite of the trials we experience on our pilgrim walk.