Numbers 13 – Spies Are Sent into Canaan
A. Spies are chosen and commissioned.
1. (1-3) The sending of the spies.
And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the children of Israel; from each tribe of their fathers you shall send a man, every one a leader among them.” So Moses sent them from the Wilderness of Paran according to the command of the LORD, all of them men who were heads of the children of Israel.
a. Send men to spy out the land of Canaan: These men were sent on a reconnaissance mission. They were to examine the land of Canaan and bring back a report to the nation. They would investigate the path to Canaan, see if the land was a good land to live in, and learn the military strength of the Canaanites.
i. This was a strategic time for the tribes of Israel. “Given all the experiences that the people have gone through in the previous months of preparation and journey, at last—at long last—it was time to claim God’s word, to believe in his power, to march in his name, and to enter his land.” (Allen)
b. From each tribe of their fathers you shall send a man, every one a leader among them: These spies were chosen from among the people. According to Deuteronomy 1:20-25, the plan to send spies did not first come from Moses, but the idea came from the people.
i. Deuteronomy 1:21 records the words of Moses when Israel came to Kadesh Barnea in the Wilderness of Paran: Look, the LORD your God has set the land before you; go up and possess it, as the LORD God of your fathers has spoken to you; do not fear or be discouraged. Moses told them simply to go and take the land God had promised. According to Ezekiel 20:6, God had already searched out the land for them. They didn’t need to do it themselves.
ii. In response, the people suggested this plan to Moses (every one of you came near to me and said, Deuteronomy 1:22). However, Moses agreed with the plan of the people saying, the plan pleased me well (Deuteronomy 1:23).
iii. This mission of the spies had a bad result. It could be said that Moses was wrong in agreeing to this suggestion of the people. Perhaps the accusations of Miriam and Aaron (petty, false, and self-interested as they were) had made Moses hesitant to take strong leadership.
iv. Since the people of Israel initiated this excursion, perhaps Moses only came to God asking how to send out the spies, not if he should send out the spies. Still, God directed them on how to do it: from each tribe of their fathers you shall send a man, every one a leader among them describes the method of sending the spies.
c. According to the command of the LORD: Nevertheless, in the larger picture this was in the plan of God. God used the report of the spies as a test of Israel’s faith.
2. (4-16) The men chosen as spies.
Now these were their names: from the tribe of Reuben, Shammua the son of Zaccur; from the tribe of Simeon, Shaphat the son of Hori; from the tribe of Judah, Caleb the son of Jephunneh; from the tribe of Issachar, Igal the son of Joseph; from the tribe of Ephraim, Hoshea the son of Nun; from the tribe of Benjamin, Palti the son of Raphu; from the tribe of Zebulun, Gaddiel the son of Sodi; from the tribe of Joseph, that is, from the tribe of Manasseh, Gaddi the son of Susi; from the tribe of Dan, Ammiel the son of Gemalli; from the tribe of Asher, Sethur the son of Michael; from the tribe of Naphtali, Nahbi the son of Vophsi; from the tribe of Gad, Geuel the son of Machi. These are the names of the men whom Moses sent to spy out the land. And Moses called Hoshea the son of Nun, Joshua.
a. Now these were their names: One man was chosen from each tribe, so the spies would represent the entire community of Israel.
b. Caleb the son of Jephunneh: This was the representative from the tribe of Judah. The name Caleb is very similar to the Hebrew word for a dog (keleb).
i. Allen speculates that despite the often-negative association with dogs in the Old Testament, “the name of this heroic companion of Joshua is indeed a word that means ‘dog’—but in a positive sense. Perhaps we may term him ‘a dog of God’ in the most honorable sense this phrase may convey.”
c. And Moses called Hoshea the son of Nun, Joshua: Joshua was chosen as the leader of the group. His name was first listed as Hoshea, meaning “salvation.” Here we learn that Moses gave him the name he is more commonly known by: Ya-Hoshea meaning, “Yahweh is salvation.” This is the Hebrew way of saying the name “Jesus.”
i. One might build an imaginary conversation of when Moses first met Joshua:
Moses: “What’s your name?”
Joshua: “I’m Hoshea” (or, “I’m salvation”).
Moses: “No, Ya-Hoshea!” (or, “Yahweh is salvation”).
Joshua: “Then just call me Joshua.”
3. (17-20) Moses commissions the spies.
Then Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan, and said to them, “Go up this way into the South, and go up to the mountains, and see what the land is like: whether the people who dwell in it are strong or weak, few or many; whether the land they dwell in is good or bad; whether the cities they inhabit are like camps or strongholds; whether the land is rich or poor; and whether there are forests there or not. Be of good courage. And bring some of the fruit of the land.” Now the time was the season of the first ripe grapes.
a. See what the land is like: Moses’ direction to the spies was a subtle example of unbelief. When God first commissioned Moses, He told him that the land was a good and large land…a land flowing with milk and honey (Exodus 3:8). Moses told Israel that it was a good land (Exodus 13:5). There is at least a small sense here that Moses sent the spies to see if God was truthful in describing the land.
i. Nevertheless, this was an entirely reasonable thing for Moses to do, and it reflected the curiosity of all of Israel. After all, they had never seen this land, nor had almost any Israelite for some 400 years.
b. Whether the people who dwell in it are strong or weak: In some sense, this was a dangerous question to ask. If they thought the people of Canaan were strong, they might be afraid to go into the land and conquer them. If they thought they were weak, they might enter trusting in their own strength.
i. Now the time was the season of the first ripe grapes: “The season of the first ripe grapes (Numbers 13:20) is late July, approximately two months after the departure from Sinai (Numbers 10:11).” (Wenham)
B. The report of the spies.
1. (21-25) The twelve spies in the Promised Land.
So they went up and spied out the land from the Wilderness of Zin as far as Rehob, near the entrance of Hamath. And they went up through the South and came to Hebron; Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai, the descendants of Anak, were there. (Now Hebron was built seven years before Zoan in Egypt.) Then they came to the Valley of Eshcol, and there cut down a branch with one cluster of grapes; they carried it between two of them on a pole. They also brought some of the pomegranates and figs. The place was called the Valley of Eshcol, because of the cluster which the men of Israel cut down there. And they returned from spying out the land after forty days.
a. So they went up and spied out the land: As these spies toured the land, they saw some of the people and the produce of the land. This spectacular produce included clusters of grapes so big that they had to be carried between two men on a pole. This was a good land.
i. Adam Clarke gave several historical citations noting the large size of grapes in the region and added this: “I myself once cut down a bunch of grapes nearly twenty pounds in weight. Those who live in cold climates can scarcely have any conception to what perfection both grapes and other fruits grow in climates that are warm, and where the soil is suitable to them.”
b. And came to Hebron: God promised all the land of Canaan to Abraham, but the only piece he owned (in the eyes of the Canaanites) was the burial cave in Hebron. They came to Hebron, but no mention is made of the tombs of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, and Leah.
i. “The narrator knew these traditions, and he assumes the spies did and that the reader does. It is essential that they be borne in mind as the rest of the story unfolds.” (Wenham)
ii. Hebron was built seven years before Zoan in Egypt: “This seems to be noted to confront the Egyptians, who vainly boasted of the antiquity of their city Zoan above all places.” (Poole)
c. The descendants of Anak, were there: This is the first Biblical mention of these people. They were a people of great stature (Numbers 13:33) and thought to be fierce warriors (Deuteronomy 9:2).
i. They saw the descendants of Anak in Hebron. “Instead of looking to the patriarchs and the promises, the spies noticed sizes of buildings and statures of persons…. they averted their glance from the tombs of the fathers, and they neglected the promise of God; they were too preoccupied with the sandal sizes of three huge men who lived in Hebron.” (Allen)
ii. “In Joshua 11:21-22 the Anakim were noted as having lived in the Hebron region, as well as to the west in the Shephelah in such cities as Gath, and in the coastal plain in Gaza and Ashdod. Some have suggested that the famous Goliath, who was defeated by David, was one of the surviving descendants of these exceptionally tall individuals. Four others were killed by David’s men in a battle recounted in 2 Samuel 21:15-22.” (Cole)
d. And they returned from spying out the land after forty days: The discovery tour covered some 250 miles (400 kilometers) and took forty days. In the Bible, a period of forty (such as forty days or forty years) is often associated with testing.
2. (26-29) The report regarding the land.
Now they departed and came back to Moses and Aaron and all the congregation of the children of Israel in the Wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh; they brought back word to them and to all the congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land. Then they told him, and said: “We went to the land where you sent us. It truly flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. 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.”
a. They brought back word to them and to all the congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land: The returning spies both spoke and showed all Israel what they saw in the land. This included the huge cluster of grapes mentioned in Numbers 13:23.
b. We went to the land where you sent us: The spies seemed to sense they were more on a mission from Israel than on a mission from God.
c. It truly flows with milk and honey: What God had promised about the land was indeed true. The fruit they brought back – grapes, pomegranates, and figs – showed how fruitful and blessed Canaan was agriculturally.
d. Nevertheless: The word (according to Wenham and Cole) is a strong way to make a contradictory statement. Nevertheless means “despite all of that.” The message from most of the spies was, “The land is as wonderful as God promised, but we can’t conquer it.”
· Despite God’s faithful promise, the people who dwell in the land are strong.
· Despite God’s faithful promise, the cities are fortified and very large.
· Despite God’s faithful promise, we saw the descendants of Anak there.
· Despite God’s faithful promise, the Amalekites dwell…the Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell…and the Canaanites dwell in the land, and there isn’t any room for the people of Israel.
i. Fortified: “The term besurot (NIV, ‘fortified’) is used in 2 Kings 18:13 of inaccessible cities and in Jeremiah 33:3 of inaccessible things. The cities of Canaan were said to be beyond the reach of the people of Israel.” (Allen)
ii. It is hard to imagine a report more unbelieving and unfaithful to God than this. This report recognized the faithfulness of God’s promise, the truth of His word, and yet said, “Despite all that, we can’t conquer the land.”
iii. If the faith of the spies was tested over this 40-day tour of the land, they failed the test. They didn’t believe God could or would fulfill His promise to give Israel this land, as stated in the covenant God made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
iv. “Presumably they left in confidence, with a spirit of divine adventure; but they returned in fear, groveling before men, no longer fearful of God.” (Allen)
3. (30) Caleb’s faith-filled objection.
Then Caleb quieted the people before Moses, and said, “Let us go up at once and take possession, for we are well able to overcome it.”
a. Then Caleb quieted the people: Caleb commanded the people to immediately (at once) trust God, obey God, and take the land. He understood that in the LORD they were well able to overcome it.
b. Let us go up at once and take possession: It took great courage for this man to stand against the tide of unbelief and doubt. Caleb had the spirit of Romans 3:4: Let God be true but every man a liar.
4. (31-33) The other spies respond to Caleb.
But the men who had gone up with him said, “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.”
a. But the men who had gone up with him said: Their unbelieving response was a strong combination of truth, lies, and exaggeration.
· It was true from a human perspective that they are stronger than we – but to say, we are not able to go up against the people was a lie.
· It was true that they had gone through the land – but to say, a land that devours its inhabitants was a lie.
· Each of the statements, All the people whom we saw in it are men of great stature or the giants and we were like grasshoppers were all terrible exaggerations – meaning they were lies.
i. “Note, too, the exaggerations of terror. ‘All the people’ are sons of Anak now. The size as well as the number of the giants has grown; ‘we were in our own sight as grasshoppers.’ No doubt they were gigantic, but fear performed the miracle of adding a cubit to their stature.” (Maclaren)
ii. F.B. Meyer compared the perspective of the ten unbelieving spies to that of the two faithful spies, Caleb and Joshua: “They saw the same spectacles in their survey of the land; but the result in the one case was panic, in the other confidence and peace. What made the difference? It lay in this, that the ten spies compared themselves with the giants, whilst the two compared the giants with God.”
iii. “The fate they feared they would meet in Canaan actually overtakes them in the desert (Numbers 14:3, 29-34).” (Wenham)
b. The land through which we have gone as spies: The unbelieving spies appealed to their authority as those who had seen the strong cities and people of Canaan themselves. They thought and said that the facts and practical realities were on their side. Yet the most fact-based and practical thing the believer can do is to trust the promises of the living God. Ultimately, their unbelief was not according to the facts, but despite the facts.
i. Significantly, two groups of men could see the same things – the same grapes, the same Canaanites, the same land, and the same cities. One group (Caleb and Joshua) came away strong in faith, and the other ten spies had a sense of certain doom. Ultimately, faith or unbelief is not rooted in circumstances or environment. Faith is rooted in a heart that trusts God and His promises.
ii. “The remarkable fact is that in their report there was no reference to God. They would seem to have lost sight of Him completely for the time being.” (Morgan)
iii. “The evil report prevailed. Ten fearful men can out-shout, and certainly out-scare, two brave men.” (Allen)