The People Rebel
14 That night all the members of the community raised their voices and wept aloud.
The children of Israel were confronted with two reports regarding the Promised Land. Two of the twelve spies (Caleb and Joshua) say Let us go up at once and take possession, for we are well able to overcome it (Numbers 13:30), but the other ten spies said, “what God promised about the land is true; nevertheless, the natives of the land are too mighty, and we cannot overcome them, despite what God has promised.” The unbelief of the ten spies truly represented the unbelieving heart of the nation. Israel wept that night upon hearing that the enemies in Canaan were formidable. They were mourning because God had not made it “easy”. It was mourning that was resentful towards God filled with fear and unbelief. So here, Israel stood barely a year out of Egypt, on the threshold of the Promised Land. Over the first ten chapters of Numbers they had been fully prepared to walk into the promised land– they had been ordered and organized; cleansed and purified; set apart and blessed; taught how to give and how to function as priests; had been made to remember judgment spared and deliverance brought; and had been given God’s presence as a guide and the tools needed to lead the people. Now God invited them to take the land – and they rebelled through their mourning.
2 All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness! 3 Why is the Lord bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” 4 And they said to each other, “We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”
Their murmuring was directed first towards Moses and Aaron, but since these were the LORD’s leaders, they were murmuring against the LORD. The vision of Moses and Aaron to lead these people into the Promised Land is the LORD’s vision. Their complaint is against the LORD, even if they want to hide it by directing to Moses and Aaron. Joshua and Caleb knew: Only do not rebel against the LORD (Numbers 14:9), and the LORD Himself knew: How long will these people reject Me? (Numbers 14:11)
The challenge of faith before the people seemed so great – and so grievous – that they would rather have died than go on with what the LORD has for them. Why has the LORD brought us to this land to fall by the sword: Here, they directly accused the Almighty with sin and evil towards them. They were angry with God, accusing Him of plotting the murder of them and their wives and children. The unbelieving among Israel justified their unbelief on the basis of concern for their wives and children.
Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt: This was not better. In the first ten chapters of Numbers, God led Israel through a process intended to change them from a slave-minded people to be a “promised-land” people. Here, they completely revert back to their slave mentality, preferring slavery under cruel, murdering masters than the walk of faith God has for them.
Let us select a leader and return to Egypt: This was pure rebellion. They said that they did not want God’s plan, they did not want God’s leaders, and they did not want God’s land. They believed that they knew better than God.
This rebellion was man centered. They discussed these things among themselves. They decided among themselves that they wanted different leaders than the ones God had chosen for them.
5 Then Moses and Aaron fell facedown in front of the whole Israelite assembly gathered there. 6 Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had explored the land, tore their clothes 7 and said to the entire Israelite assembly, “The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. 8 If the Lord is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us. 9 Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will devour them. Their protection is gone, but the Lord is with us. Do not be afraid of them.”
Moses and Aaron were older and wiser and therefore knew how bad the situation was. They simply prostrated themselves in prayer and said not a word to the people, they knew that they must cry out to God for a miracle if Israel is to be spared.
Joshua and Caleb, the two faithful spies, are younger and more optimistic, so they attempt to persuade the people.They tore their clothes, a show of utter grief and mourning; acting as if someone had died – or was about to die. They reminded the people of the faithfulness of God’s promise. He promised the land would be good, and it was – they saw it with their own eyes. If God promised we could take possession of it, they could trust that promise also. Their fear and unbelief were willful rebellion. Therefore, Joshua and Caleb appealed to their will of the people, asking them to decide to give up their rebellion and return to the LORD. The people of Israel didn’t have to give in to their feelings of fear, of anger to the LORD, of unbelief. By God’s grace they could choose to submit to Him and trust Him.
10 But the whole assembly talked about stoning them. Then the glory of the Lord appeared at the tent of meeting to all the Israelites.
The response of the people was to kill Joshua and Caleb by stoning them.
Then the glory of the LORD appeared. This was the response of the LORD. We are not yet told what the glory of the LORD would do. The people’s actions and feelings were not consistent with the glory of the LORD.
11 The Lord said to Moses, “How long will these people treat me with contempt? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs I have performed among them? 12 I will strike them down with a plague and destroy them, but I will make you into a nation greater and stronger than they.”
The Lord speaks to Moses, He doesn’t even speak with the nation; He knows they are past hearing Him. He will speak with Moses, and Moses alone. God asks, How long will these people reject Me?: God had been only good to Israel and had demonstrated His loving strength towards them countless times. God says He will destroy them and make a greater nation through Moses.
13 Moses said to the Lord, “Then the Egyptians will hear about it! By your power you brought these people up from among them. 14 And they will tell the inhabitants of this land about it. They have already heard that you, Lord, are with these people and that you, Lord, have been seen face to face, that your cloud stays over them, and that you go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. 15 If you put all these people to death, leaving none alive, the nations who have heard this report about you will say, 16 ‘The Lord was not able to bring these people into the land he promised them on oath, so he slaughtered them in the wilderness.’
Moses did not entertain God’s offer for a moment. Instead, he pled for the nation and loved them despite their rebellion. Moses’ zeal for God’s glory was evident. He knew that if God wiped out the present nation and started again with Moses, it would be a black mark on His reputation before the nations – especially Egypt. Perhaps then the nations could claim that the LORD was not able to bring this people to the land. It could be said that the sin and rebellion of man was greater than the power and goodness of God.
Moses brought God’s promise before Him. He begged God to not give the nations any opportunity to think God has not been true to His word.
17 “Now may the Lord’s strength be displayed, just as you have declared: 18 ‘The Lord is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.’ 19 In accordance with your great love, forgive the sin of these people, just as you have pardoned them from the time they left Egypt until now.”
Moses glories in the power of God but asks that God would use His power by showing mercy and long suffering to a rebellious Israel.
The list of Numbers 14:18-19 is almost a quote from the words of self-revelation God spoke to Moses in the dramatic encounter Moses had with God in Exodus 34:6-8. Long-suffering… abounding in love… forgiving sin and rebellion… by no means clears the guilty… mercy: Each of these are mentioned first in Exodus 34:6-8. Moses knew God’s power and appealed to it; Moses knew God’s promise and appealed to it, and Moses knew God’s glory and appealed to it. This was a spectacular example of intercession from Moses’ heart.
20 The Lord replied, “I have forgiven them, as you asked.
Moses’ intercession was successful. God forgave Israel as Moses had asked.
21 Nevertheless, as surely as I live and as surely as the glory of the Lord fills the whole earth, 22 not one of those who saw my glory and the signs I performed in Egypt and in the wilderness but who disobeyed me and tested me ten times— 23 not one of them will ever see the land I promised on oath to their ancestors. No one who has treated me with contempt will ever see it. 24 But because my servant Caleb has a different spirit and follows me wholeheartedly, I will bring him into the land he went to, and his descendants will inherit it. 25 Since the Amalekites and the Canaanites are living in the valleys, turn back tomorrow and set out toward the desert along the route to the Red Sea.[a]”
God’s response to Israel would be full of and reflective of His glory. He would show mercy and pardon, but in a way consistent with His glory.Therefore, those who put God to the test and rebelled against His promise, would not see the Promised Land. But the faithful like Caleb would inherit the land. God gives high praise to Caleb for his spirit and for following God wholeheartedly and promises to bring him to the Promised Land.
God had brought Israel to the threshold of the Promised Land, but they rebelled against Him, and did not enter – so God will send them back to the wilderness.
26 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: 27 “How long will this wicked community grumble against me? I have heard the complaints of these grumbling Israelites. 28 So tell them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Lord, I will do to you the very thing I heard you say: 29 In this wilderness your bodies will fall—every one of you twenty years old or more who was counted in the census and who has grumbled against me. 30 Not one of you will enter the land I swore with uplifted hand to make your home, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. 31 As for your children that you said would be taken as plunder, I will bring them in to enjoy the land you have rejected. 32 But as for you, your bodies will fall in this wilderness. 33 Your children will be shepherds here for forty years, suffering for your unfaithfulness, until the last of your bodies lies in the wilderness. 34 For forty years—one year for each of the forty days you explored the land—you will suffer for your sins and know what it is like to have me against you.’ 35 I, the Lord, have spoken, and I will surely do these things to this whole wicked community, which has banded together against me. They will meet their end in this wilderness; here they will die.”
God gave the message to the nation – this generation must die in the wilderness and would never see the Promised Land. Except for Caleb and Joshua, they would enter into the land of promise because they have the hearts and minds of new men.
Israel had claimed concern for their children (Numbers 14:3), accusing God of wanting to murder them. Now, ironically, their children would inherit the land, while they perished in the wilderness. A year for each day they spied the Promised land, and only their children would inherit the land.
36 So the men Moses had sent to explore the land, who returned and made the whole community grumble against him by spreading a bad report about it— 37 these men who were responsible for spreading the bad report about the land were struck down and died of a plague before the Lord. 38 Of the men who went to explore the land, only Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh survived.
So the men who Moses sent to explore the land and returned with a bad report were struck down and died of a plague. Only Joshua and Caleb survived.
39 When Moses reported this to all the Israelites, they mourned bitterly. 40 Early the next morning they set out for the highest point in the hill country, saying, “Now we are ready to go up to the land the Lord promised. Surely we have sinned!”
41 But Moses said, “Why are you disobeying the Lord’s command? This will not succeed! 42 Do not go up, because the Lord is not with you. You will be defeated by your enemies, 43 for the Amalekites and the Canaanites will face you there. Because you have turned away from the Lord, he will not be with you and you will fall by the sword.”
44 Nevertheless, in their presumption they went up toward the highest point in the hill country, though neither Moses nor the ark of the Lord’s covenant moved from the camp. 45 Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and attacked them and beat them down all the way to Hormah.
Moses reported the deaths to the Israelites and they mourned greatly. They were indeed sorry for the consequence of their sin. Admitting their sin they decided to go up to the highest point in the hill country. Moses warns they about again disobeying God’s command, telling them it would not succeed and that the Lord would not be with them. He warns them that they will be defeated. Nevertheless they went up to the highest point of the hill country, though Moses nor the ark of the Lord’s covenant moved from the camp. The Amalekites and the Canaanites attacked and beat them down to Hormah. They made a futile attempt in the flesh to accomplish what they had rejected by faith, and it ended in defeat. It was now back to the wilderness.