One important part of our study of the wilderness and its challenges is to read each portion, each challenge, on its own, understanding that this is not one big experience from which we can over-generalize a lesson or two. There are - to be sure - connections between the episodes, and there are both broader and tailored takeaways. But we must be diligent about getting into each piece of narrative to appreciate the particular within it. In each episode, we must look for the source of the problem, the roles key figures play, the position God takes, how Moses and Aaron react, and the resolution and its meaning. We don’t really learn from the text unless we honor it and give it the credit it deserves.
Always remember that the text is there for good reasons - all of it. Just as we dived deep under the surface of Vayikra to find profound truths that a general or surface reading didn’t reveal, we must do so here as well.
In the arc of the narrative, we’re in the real world, on the ground now. It’s not that God is not available. God is near; God is there. Further, the story of the people is way more complex than “we’re dealing with a bunch of complainers.” Yes, in the words John Milton used in Paradise Lost to describe fallen angels, we see human beings “trespass, Authors to themselves.” And we see how, in so many ways, this can tarnish and damage a community. But we also see God’s reactions as well as those of God-fearing people. And, importantly, from so many different accounts in the wilderness, this Biblical text teaches profound lessons to us in our own time about how best to live as God expects.
But, it’s complex; it’s varied; and it calls for our attention to details. So, let’s get back on the journey with this week’s story. Ready?
I. A. Read 13:1-2 and 17-20.
1. What is God saying to Moses, and what does Moses say to the scouts? Is this scouting needed? Who wants it done? What does it seem to you that Moses is really asking, what does he want them to find out and report back?
(I see God’s suggestion simply as permissive, perhaps, too, as a sort of test that also partly responds to their curiosity. Moses appears to agree that there is a useful purpose to the scouting and helps facilitate it, as does God.
Do know, though, that some commentators are critical of the people’s desire to scout the land in that it perhaps showed a lack of faith that God would deliver it in His time. In Deuteronomy, we get more of a sense of something along these lines. Moses there recalls this moment as one in which the people insisted upon scouting the land, and it appears he is critical of them for it. Of course, in that account, which we’ll study, he may be recalling the whole arc of the sad story of the scouting, especially the tragic outcome of acceding to their curiosity by sending in the scouts. It’s surely complex.)
2. What does Moses seek?
(Moses does what a leader does. He wants all sorts of intelligence that will help him and the people prepare for the challenge of going in, the development of strategy to do so, and some sense of the fruit and bounty of the land, perhaps to show the people evidence of the bounty of the land of promise.)
B. Read 26-29, 31-33. In what forum do the scouts give their report? What did the scouts report? In what way does it respond to Moses’ challenge, and in what way does it not? And what’s the consequence of that?
1. They reported not only to Moses and Aaron but to the whole community. Did they need to do this? They could have reported only to the leaders, which honorable people with a negative report surely would have done. Given what they say, the beginning of their evil was the manner in which they reported, no? This is important to see in 26.
2. They did report factually to start, albeit with exaggeration. They reported on the bounty and the strength of the people and the fortifications.
3. But, after a comment from Caleb that was true to God’s commitment, that they should proceed to the land, the people say further that they are not up to it, that the country devours its settlers, and that they looked like “grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” What’s happening now in the report?
(These are not objective facts scouts find and report in the intelligence work they do. These are not answers to the questions Moses asked, nor are they responses to the leaders scope of inquiry. So, what are they?
a. First, let’s look at some interesting language in the Hebrew. Specifically, in part, those who had “gone up” with Caleb, who are resisting now, say in 31, “we cannot attack the people, for it is stronger than we.” The Hebrew for “gone up” is ahlu. The Hebrew for “attack” is lalalot. Do you see a similarity? The root is ahla, to go up to, ascend, climb. It has the same root as a part of the title of last week’s portion, beha’alot’cha, alo, to mount to light.
What’s the meaning here?
(We’ve talked a lot about going up, ascending. Going up to the land could be seen as ascending to the land of promise. 31 is sometimes translated as: “we cannot go up to the people for it is stronger than we.” In other words, God wants us in so many ways to “go up.” God supports our going up. Yet, here the meaning goes a little deeper with this translation: these scouts are worse than mere cowards; they won’t “go up.” This places them against God and God’s wishes and expectations.
b. Were these matters that Moses asked for the scouts to address in their report? What does their report reveal about them? Why did they act the way they did? Can a case be made that the scouts’ fears were justifiable?
(Perhaps so, but this would be a minority opinion. They appear to reflect mostly a lack of faith in God, certainly an immature faith that does not reach to their will and their action, to their eyes and hands and feet. Further, they are weak in self-image, likely far weaker than would have been justifiable on any objective basis. Certainly, as it wanders from objective observation to opinion or position or statement that either leads or misleads, this suggests a flaw or disease in the soul, manifested in an evil report that turns the report that was requested into a dispiriting message that poisons and weakens the will of the people.To that extent, it surely was a terrible and profound reflection of their lack of readiness. This is obviously the case, as shown in 14:1-4.
Note in 14:1, the only thing that lifts up (the same verb we studied last week, v’tisah) is their voice. It’s not their being to be counted, nor is it their face, or God’s. This is not to be negative about the lifting of voice in other circumstances, but what’s its meaning here?
The lifting up of voice can be the principal way that evil spreads, that dissension and rebellion spread. Certainly, if it’s only voice that’s lifted, there’s no content, there’s no core. There’s certainly nothing of a Divine nature in this, or anything God expects. It’s as if it’s pure voice, with none of those attributes. To God, it surely was noise.
C. 1. We read of a virtually national hysteria provoked by the evil report. It’s virtually unimaginable that the people could say with enough seriousness that they wanted to appoint a new leader who would support their return to Egypt that Moses and Aaron would fall on their faces in despair. How is this even possible? (Verse 4)
(I must admit that before my life in politics, I would never have found this account credible at all. Now it depresses me as only too real!)
2. Read 6-10. What is the significance of all that Caleb and Joshua do here, as well as its timing?
(This is exactly the leadership that we discussed as necessary last week, to stand in the way of wrong as it spreads, even at risk and with courage. One could see how this display on their part triggers or at least calls upon God to come in. Also, it is a sweet and powerful gift to Moses and Aaron, who badly needed support and time to recover and gain strength.)
3. Then after God’s wrath in its wake and yet another of Moses’ saving appeals, we read God’s verdict. Read 20-24, 28-33.
What do we make of this? I’m interested in your views, both as its meaning in the wilderness for these people in the Bible as well as for us in our own time.
(Faithlessness is tantamount to an abandonment of God. It is a departure from God, as we discussed in the text on blessings and curses. When we leave God, we leave God’s protection. This is why the blessing we discussed in the portion two weeks ago is not an easily or cheaply given blessing, one to which all are entitled. Recall our conclusion: this was God’s fulfillment of the covenant, a covenant to which we have duties. The people who rebel here people believed and acted out of sync with God’s promise, obviously with a lack of commitment to the covenant, their God, and their destiny. So, their fate is now tied to their own decision, their own strength (that is, their own weakness).
When we depart our faith, we are alone. And when we are alone we operate without God’s support. For those too weak to go in, they don’t go in!
4. Why do none of this generation (with a very few exceptions) get into the land?
(No one other than Caleb and Joshua rise to protest in righteousness. No one else can see the future in the land. No one else has anything near enough full and mature faith in God. The demanding challenge of taking the land and making it fruitful in all the necessary ways is fundamentally beyond these people, in any form they, even after further growth, could handle. The readiness is so lacking as to force the generational delay. Pretty severe judgment, no? And recall this is the verdict after Moses’ plea for mercy!
And for those who regret what the others do but decide to go into a fight without God’s support, we read 40-45. Faith does not require foolishness, or acting out of self-delusions of strength, just as it does not entail a bloated sense of weakness, due to an inadequate attachment to God.)
D. Before we go on, let’s go back to a single verse that we cannot pass by without comment, 13:16. What does it mean that Moses changed the name of Hose to Joshua, and what’s the consequence of this?
(This is Joshua, Moses’ ultimate successor, of course. The difference in Hebrew in the two names is that the letter yod is added on the front end. Does anyone know what that means?
The yod has the effect of adding God, or ya, to the name, so we now have the notion in the name that it’s not just salvation, but that it is salvation by God. Did Moses make this change to encourage that God be with Joshua in the scouting? Generally? For the later day when Joshua succeeds him? Thoughts?
(This makes God’s role in the salvation palpable and clear in the name, as it must be, in reality. This is essential to the people and ultimate success in fulfilling the covenant, as we have certainly seen in the failure of the other scouts and the people for whom God was missing in their narrative and lives as they approached the land. Moses understands that God is the source of our salvation, that the people are weak in this, and that the “groomed” leader must in all respects, especially through his name, be suffused with this key reality.)
II. Read 15:1-3. There are another 30 or so verses that follow that flesh out many of the procedures regarding offerings. We’ve discussed them before.
A. But the question I want to ask now is: why does the Text bring us back right here to several requirements related to offerings, our manner of drawing near to God?
(It’s really stunning after the drama we’ve just encountered, one the people just experienced, to come to an almost-matter-of-fact account of how offerings will be made when the people enter the land, which will now take almost another 40 years and which will involve virtually none of the Israelites to whom Moses reports these instructions from God.
It is comforting in a way that the promise will be fulfilled. It is comforting that the people who enter will still have the promise and capacity of being able to draw near to God, ultimately to be blessed and live in covenant with the Divine. While it is incredibly disappointing that the faith of some is so weak they cannot make it to the land of promise, it is quite hopeful that the path is still open, and that others, including the next generation, can and will make it.)
B. Is there ever such a thing as a lost generation? Or a people or persons who don’t have and can’t muster the faith it takes?
C. Note the frequent mention that there is the law is for the stranger (who resides within the community) as well as the congregation generally. Thoughts on what this is about?
(This reflects the idea of access for all to the duties and benefits of the covenant for the most part - to be sure. But could it be also that carrying along folks who are not committed and not following/benefiting is not good for a community of God? Have we seen in the last major episodes some evidence of that problem? We’ve seen how evil can start at “the outskirts” and spread through the riffraff and then throughout.
It is dangerous to have an environment in which the good can’t come back after straying (thus, the verses on offerings for atonement when the community or an individual strays from God) as well as one in which the bad can tarnish and spread evil that infects the community (thus, the verses punishing contemptuous idolatry and sabbath violation). This appears to be the purpose of these verses in Chapter 15.)
D. Note 37-41. It’s fascinating to see that God closes out this instruction with a gift of the practice of looking at the fringes of one’s garments, the tzitzit. The idea is that one would look at the fringes on one’s garments as a sign or a reminder that we are to live as God expects, not after our own hearts and eyes that can lead us astray. Any notions of how fringes would serve this purpose?
(It’s telling to me that the fringes are symbolically the part of me that extends toward another, as if I’m to be particularly mindful of how what I do affects others who live just on the outskirts, so to speak, of my being. So, this is duty to God to living with others, who literally are at the outskirts, in contrast to the way of contention and opposition we’ve seen in this and the last portion. Recall, too, the idea that we preserve the corners of the field for others. God has a special interest in what happens - whether for evil or for good - in the outskirts, and so should we.
For me, the notion of the blue thread is a reminder that there’s a stake in heaven in how I live up to the desires from heaven. We must be faithful to the mission of service to God and our fellows for which we were redeemed from Egypt.
So, we’ve seen another form of straying, born out of weak faith and its disastrous effects, when spread. We’re taught about the awful consequences that are paid for that. Yet, we see examples of courageous and powerfully faithful people of God. We see our God always seeking our return when we’re ready. And we see a God constantly instructing us and showing us ways back and giving us tools that help us stay in community with each other and covenant with God. We learn how to build and strengthen up the weakness in us, how to deepen our faith, shore up our courage, live right when tempted, and keep our community protected from the spread of evil. This is how we must grow and show growth during and after our wilderness experience.