Commentary on Sh’lach L’cha

June 15, 2019

By Bettijane Eisenpreis

“And the Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people spurn Me, and how long will they have no faith in Me, despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst? I will strike them with pestilence and disown them, and I will make of you a nation far more numerous than they!”

Numbers 14:11 – 12

At the beginning of Shelah-Lekha, God tells Moses to send scouts into the land of Canaan, one from each of the twelve tribes. He doesn’t give Moses any instructions as to what the report of the spies should be. Nor does Moses ask for a specific result. He only asks the spies to answer questions like these: “Are the people who dwell in it (the land) strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns in which they dwell open or fortified?” And there are more, similar questions.

The scouts are gone for forty days and return carrying grapes, a single cluster of which is so heavy it has to be carried by two men. They report that the land “does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is the fruit.” However, they caution that the people are powerful and the cities very large. Ten of the twelve representatives say, “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we.” The men, they say, are Anakites, a legendary race of giants, and will devour them. However, Caleb and Joshua cast dissenting votes, saying that the land is good and, “if the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us to that land.”

The Israelites react as they have before, crying that they want to go back to “the fleshpots of Egypt.” And, as we see in the quote above (Numbers 14: 11-12), God’s patience is at an end. He tells Moses that he wants to destroy the Children of Israel and replace them with Moses’ descendants.

Moses pleads with God to spare the Israelites and they reach a compromise. God agrees to watch over the Israelites in their journey through the wilderness, but He does mete out a punishment: None of the current generation, except for Joshua and Caleb, will reach the Promised Land. The present generation will die in the wilderness, but their children, led by Joshua, will reach Canaan and take possession of it. Later we find out that even Moses will not be spared the fate of the people.

God did not say to Moses that the spies were expected to come back with a positive report, that anything else was unacceptable. The spies were only fallible humans, ex-slaves forced to wander through an inhospitable wilderness. They saw a civilization that was strong and secure, whose people are healthy and prosperous. While they probably weren’t giants, good nutrition and a peaceful existence can do wonders for mind and body. Can anyone blame the spies for being scared?

The miracle was that two men, Caleb and Joshua, did have faith when the others didn’t. Only they understood God’s purpose, to make them a “chosen people.” For this reason, they were spared and went on to lead the next generation out of the wilderness.

What was the difference between Joshua and Caleb and the other ten spies? It seems to me that Joshua and Caleb could see the big picture while the others didn’t. They had vision and imagination. They didn’t long for the false security of slavery in Egypt but were willing to forge ahead into an uncertain future, trusting that God would lead them to a better life.

As I write this, the weather is getting warm and people are getting restless. Beaches and restaurants in many states are getting crowded. It’s understandable, but it’s short-sighted. Like Caleb and Joshua, we have to see the big picture, looking forward to a time when it will be safe for us to resume our normal lives. We are in the wilderness now, but some day we will reach the Promised Land.