The Spies’ Report

And Caleb stilled the people before Moses, and said, “Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.”
But the men that went up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.”
And they brought up an evil report of the land which they had spied out unto the children of Israel, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature. And there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come of the Nephilim: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight” (Numbers 13:30-33).

The mission had been completed. But what did it mean?

Moses commissioned twelve spies, one from each tribe of Israel, to go and search out Canaan and ascertain the nature of the land and its inhabitants (Numbers 13:1-20). They went up and saw the land and its inhabitants; they brought back a cluster of grapes, some pomegranates, and figs (Numbers 13:21-26). They even brought back a united assessment of the land: it was a great land, “flowing with milk and honey,” but the people who live there were strong, in great and fortified cities, and the descendants of Anak (the Nephilim, Numbers 13:33) lived there, as well as Amalekites, Jebusites, Amorites, Hittites, and Canaanites (Numbers 13:27-29).

Altdorfer Joshua and Caleb

Caleb, the spy from the tribe of Judah, then encouraged Israel to go and possess the land (Numbers 13:30). But ten of the other spies threw cold water on that suggestion, emphasizing the strength of the adversaries, considering themselves as grasshoppers in comparison (Numbers 13:31-33).

Israel went the way of the ten spies; they went so far as to express the desire to return to Egypt and slavery (Numbers 14:1-4). Caleb, along with Joshua, the spy from Ephraim, begged Israel to reconsider, affirming the goodness of the land and that YHWH would give it to them, confident that if YHWH was with them it would not matter how strong their foes might seem (Numbers 14:5-9). But it was too late; Israelites sought to stone Joshua and Caleb (Numbers 14:10).

Consider Israel’s perspective. The reality “on the ground” is never in doubt: the ten spies recognize that the land is of excellent quality with great produce; Caleb and Joshua recognize that the inhabitants of the land are numerous, strong, and living in well-fortified cities. The Israelites have just left slavery in Egypt; they did not have the resources and strength among themselves to overcome their enemies’ advantages. They, as with the ten spies, assess the situation as it looks on the ground; their response is entirely natural according to such a perspective. If it is their strength versus their opponents’ strength, they will die in battle. Such seems quite realistic.

And then there was the faith motivating Caleb and Joshua. If all Israel could rely on was its own resources and strength then Caleb and Joshua would agree that any invasion was a fool’s errand. But Caleb and Joshua remembered that YHWH had just redeemed them from Egyptian slavery, from the very Egypt which dominated Canaan and boasted the strongest empire of the day. If YHWH could rescue Israel from Egypt, then YHWH could dispossess the strong Canaanite nations from before Israel (Numbers 14:9). No, Israel would not obtain Canaan because of their own abilities. They could only obtain it if they trusted in YHWH.

But Israel was not trusting in YHWH. They were rebelling against Him! He promised that He would bring them into the land; they wanted to go back to Egypt, to abort YHWH’s mission halfway through (Exodus 3:7-9, Numbers 14:1-4). To return to Egypt would be to forsake YHWH and everything which He had done for Israel. They even wished that they had died in Egypt or the wilderness; such is how little they trusted in YHWH or thought of the efficacy of His power in this situation.

To this day there is a place for assessment of the situation “on the ground.” In general there is consensus about the situation of the faith “on the ground.” Its influence, however strong it may have been in the past, seems to be waning. Church membership and participation is declining. More and more people identify as “spiritual but not religious.” Strong secular and spiritual forces attempt to subvert the faith and marginalize those who proclaim it. Following Jesus seems to be a quaint relic of the past, a historical legacy many feel is better to discard. Likewise, there is general agreement that by our own resources and strength it will prove nearly impossible to turn the tide on these trends. We can see the “post-Christian” secular future across the pond in Europe where it has been going on for longer than here. “Realistically” we have reason for lamentation and mourning. “Sober assessments” recognize the seeming futility of our endeavors. “On the ground,” it would seem that we should make sure to ask the last person to leave to turn off the lights.

Yet such assessments, however “realistic” or “sober” they seem to be, do not take into account the existence of God and all He has done for us. They do not take into account that “realistically” Christianity should never have existed, and even if it had been started, by all “realistic” scenarios would have died out a long time ago. Jesus has won the victory; Jesus has overcome the world (John 16:31-33). The forces of darkness in this world are arrayed against us and they are strong (Ephesians 6:12); nevertheless, He who is in us is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4).

Many Christians have fallen into the trap of cynicism and pessimism dressed up as being “honest” or “realistic” about the manifold problems facing Christianity and the church. We do well to remember that the spies and Israel were the people of God, and they were being quite “realistic” and “honest” about the situations they were facing. Yet God punished that generation for rebelling against Him; they ironically got their wish, for they all but Caleb and Joshua would die in the wilderness and would not inherit the land (Numbers 14:10-35). The ten spies died by plague (Numbers 14:36-37). It would be the next generation who would trust in YHWH and obtain the promised land, and Caleb and Joshua would lead them to victory (Joshua 1:1-24:33). We must remember this because what the Israelites thought was “honesty” and “realism” betrayed a lack of faith and rebelliousness (1 Corinthians 10:1-12)! YHWH had already proven Himself by delivering them from Egyptian slavery and providing for them to that moment. Likewise God has proven Himself to us through the life, death, resurrection, and lordship of Jesus His Son (Romans 1:4, Romans 5:6-11, 8:17-25). He is able to do more than we can ask or think (Ephesians 3:20-21). The only reason we have ever had the opportunity to hear the Gospel ourselves is on account of His great power working through His servants; if it were only ever based on the resources and strength of the faithful the message would not get very far!

The world gives many reasons for cynicism, despair, doubt, and pessimism. It always has; it always will. Christians are called to put their trust in God, recognizing that the victory comes through Jesus even in difficult circumstances, and that the ways of the world are folly to God (1 Corinthians 1:19-25, 1 Peter 1:3-9). The decision is up to us. Are we going to give in to the realistic assessment and be driven to cynicism and despair as the ten spies and Israel, proving to have more faith in our perception and the ways of the world than in our Creator and Redeemer, and be found in rebellion? Or will we prove willing to put our trust in God in Christ, aware of the long odds and impossibility of our mission in worldly terms, but ever mindful of God’s strength and faithfulness, and to put our hope in God and His strength, as Caleb and Joshua did? May we maintain faith and hope and not give in to cynicism and despair, and obtain the victory in Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry

In God’s Good Time

And when he had destroyed seven nations in the land of Canaan, he gave them their land for an inheritance, for about four hundred and fifty years: and after these things he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet (Acts 13:19-20).

As Paul begins his exhortation to the Jews and allies in the synagogue of Antioch of Pisidia, he relates some of Israel’s history, emphasizing God’s direction of the people through His leadership and the agents whom He chose, culminating with David and the promise of the Messiah through his lineage (cf. Acts 13:17-23). Having discussed the exodus from Egypt, the wanderings in the wilderness, and the conquest of Canaan, and just before he begins discussing the judges to Samuel, Paul mentions how these events lasted “around four hundred and fifty years” (Acts 13:19 or Acts 13:20, depending on the translation). For that matter, he speaks of the time in the wilderness as forty years (Acts 13:18) and speaks of Saul’s reign for forty years (Acts 13:21). Why does Paul provide these details?

In the Bible, forty years has powerful symbolism: it signifies completeness and fullness. The four hundred and fifty year period is a bit more controversial. Some manuscripts seem to suggest the four hundred and fifty years describes the period between the conquest and Samuel, as the KJV rendering of Acts 13:20 would suggest: “And after that he gave unto them judges about the space of four hundred and fifty years, until Samuel the prophet.” Yet this causes great difficulty, since 1 Kings 6:1 suggests there are 480 years between the Exodus and Solomon’s fourth regnal year; this, and the historical record, do not easily allow for a four hundred and fifty year period for the Judges. There is better evidence for the reading found in the ASV and also in the ESV for Acts 13:20: “All this took about 450 years. And after that he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet”. Four hundred and fifty years for the Exodus through the conquest makes a bit more sense: around four hundred years for the sojourn in Egypt (cf. Genesis 15:13, upward to 430 in Exodus 12:40-41), forty years in the wilderness (Numbers 32:13, Acts 13:18), and thus no more than ten or so years for the conquest described in Joshua 1:1-12:24. Thus it took between 441 and 490 years; “around four hundred and fifty” makes the point well.

But this still does not get to the heart of the matter: why all the numbers? What is Paul trying to communicate?

It is not as if these numbers are new to the Jewish people who have gathered at the synagogue; in fact, if they were new, they would have been detrimental to Paul’s purposes. If the numbers were not familiar to them, they would likely begin mentally questioning the legitimacy of those numbers and therefore get distracted from Paul’s message and what he is really trying to communicate. The Israelites know their story and they know how long it took for the events described to take place. And that is precisely Paul’s point.

When Paul begins his message by speaking about “our fathers” (Acts 13:17), he is not just talking about the Israelites in Egypt, but the Patriarchs who came beforehand. The one to whom all Israelites looked was Abraham and the promises God made to him: he would become the father of many nations, whose offspring would be numerous and inherit the land of Canaan (Genesis 17:4-8). God reiterated these promises to Isaac (Genesis 26:3-5) and Jacob (Genesis 35:10-13) in turn. It would take about four hundred and fifty years, but God would fulfill these promises. Abraham had become the father of the Edomites, Israelites, and many of the tribes of the Arabs; Israel had grown numerous; God was the God of Israel, and had given the land of Canaan to them as an inheritance. It had just been done in God’s good time.

Paul reminds his audience of God’s faithfulness to His promises over time in order for them to accept how God has again proven faithful to His promises over time: of David’s offspring God has brought to Israel a Savior, Jesus, as He had promised (Acts 13:23)! It had taken about a thousand years from the original promise to David (a time-frame which Paul leaves unstated), and actually around four hundred and fifty years from the end of the prophetic period (Malachi 4:5-6). God fulfilled His promise: the throne of David was given to his Offspring forever; the rule of the Messiah had begun; Israel’s hope was satisfied in Jesus. It had just been done in God’s good time.

Forty years; four hundred and fifty years; a thousand years: these are large chunks of time in the eyes of mankind. These days we barely have the patience to wait a few seconds for our technological devices to work! We expect things to be done already; the prospect of having to wait for anything is unpleasant and even provides reason for doubt. We expect God and everyone else to do things according to our time-frame and time scale.

But God has never acted on man’s time scale; time is immaterial to Him (cf. 2 Peter 3:8). He acts in His good time. Things take place within or according to His will, even if we do not understand why or how (cf. Isaiah 55:8-9).

It is good and right for us to seek to align our will to God’s; we do well when we seek to discover what God is doing around us and begin participating in that work (Romans 8:29, Ephesians 3:20-21). But we need to be careful about our interpretation of our actions and our perception of God’s providence and will. We are liable to make snap and hasty judgments; when things do not pan out as we imagine they should, we too easily want to give up or declare that it is all to no avail.

Such is only true according to our time scale. How many times have we been humbled and astounded to see God’s powerful action accomplished in His good time? Sometimes it takes years for fruit to start appearing. Sometimes it takes decades for people to come to an understanding of the truth. Often times we find ourselves under God’s discipline when we thought we were entering His joy, or perhaps vice versa. The list goes on and on.

In all of these things, short-sighted reflection proves less faithful and rather faithless compared to the long-term impact. Such is why we do well to always remember how God works in His good time, and that often takes far longer than we can ever imagine. God is faithful; He makes good on His promises, even if it takes longer than we would like. Let us entrust ourselves to God and seek to glorify Him in His good time!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The God of the Old and New Testaments

Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass (1 Samuel 15:3).

Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:10).

How could God command the death of children and animals just because they were not Israelites? How can God be a “God of love” in the New Testament but command so much death and bloodshed in the Old? The Bible seems like it has two different gods– the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament!

These questions and declarations represent a major stumbling-block for many people. They involve very difficult issues. If we are honest with ourselves, we will confess that there have been times when we have been bothered by these matters even if our confidence in God was not terribly shaken by it. There does seem to be quite the disconnect– in the days of Israel, God told Israel to devote many Canaanites and Amalekites, among others, under the ban, meaning that everything– all people and property– was to be devoted to destruction (e.g. 1 Samuel 15). 1000 to 1500 years later, we read that this same God sends His Son to die on a cross for all men to make the greatest display of love (1 John 4:7-21). At one point, He is ordering execution for humanity; the next, His Son is dying for humanity. How can this be?

It does us no good to pretend that we can come up with a completely satisfying answer; there is none. This is a difficulty. While there are things we must keep in mind, and we can find a way through which to look at these events demonstrating how God is at least consistent, many of the Old Testament stories will remain offensive to modern sensibilities. They remain quite uncomfortable.

Nevertheless, we must remember that there is a very big difference between the old and new covenants, and that there are reasons why the first century of this era, and not before, was the “acceptable time” for salvation to come (cf. 2 Corinthians 6:2). The ancient world, especially the ancient Near East, was not a peaceful place. In societal terms, you killed or you were killed; you overran or you were overrun. Today, we read stories of devoting everything and everyone to destruction and we are horrified. Then, they would hear such stories and understand that they simply reflected reality. If you lost the war and the enemy took your land, and you were an adult male, you would likely be executed quickly. If you had a wife, odds are that she would be first raped, then enslaved. If it was your unfortunate lot to have a virgin daughter approaching the age of marriageability, she would become the wife of one of your enemies whether she liked the idea or not. Any young sons you might have would either become slaves or would be executed (cf. Deuteronomy 20:10-14). This was not something unique to Israel; this was consistent throughout the world of the day.

And there was a logic to it. This was a day and time of vengeance and retribution (cf. Judges 13-16). Adult men who had lost the war and had been humiliated might submit outwardly but would remain rebellious inwardly, looking for any opportunity to obtain vengeance for his loss and humiliation. The same is true with young boys. Yes, they are innocent at the moment of death, but what would happen when they grew up? If they maintained a sense of identity based on their ancestry, they would seek vengeance. As for women, Numbers 25:1-6 graphically displays their seductive and idolatrous influence upon men. While this might not have been a concern for other nations in the ancient Near East, it was of preeminent concern in Israel (cf. Exodus 20:1-6). The Canaanites needed to be entirely obliterated because otherwise they would lead Israel into sin through idolatry (cf. Deuteronomy 20:10-18). Notice that Israel ultimately did not devote all of the Canaanites to destruction, and the Israelites ultimately fell prey to the idolatry of Canaan (cf. Judges 1-2; 2 Kings 17:7-23, 2 Chronicles 36:15-21).

The other reason often given is the great sinfulness of the Canaanites: the men and women directly participated in the sin, thus “deserving” the death, and the children were killed to spare their souls from the destruction to which they were headed by following after their parents (cf. Genesis 15:16). Such logic might be appealing as a reason, but there is little consistency in it– by the same logic, God should have devoted everyone on earth under the same ban, even Israel, and all children should be executed to spare them the stain of sin that is inevitably coming (cf. Romans 3:23).

So even if this all represents reality on the ground during the days of Israel, how can we make sense of it in terms of the new covenant? How come God seems to do quite the 180 when it comes to humanity in general?

It depends on the way in which one looks at the situation. If one is looking in terms of those people who died because they were devoted under the ban, sure, it looks pretty bad. But through the lens of Israel– the people of God– how does it look?

God promises to be the God of Israel, and Israel would be His people (Exodus 6:7). Therefore, God has great care and concern for Israel His people and wants to do for them what is in their best interest to keep them secure. The Canaanites represent a significant spiritual threat, tempting the people away from service toward God in order to serve idols. But Amalek was devoted under the ban more because they dared to attack Israel at its weakest, right after they left Egypt, and God promised then to be at war with Amalek for what they had done (cf. Exodus 17:8-16). In short, God commanded Israel to devote some people under the ban in order to protect and cherish Israel His people. That is the logic presented in the Old Testament.

And if we look at the situation through that prism– God commanding a violent and thorough attack on all which is opposed to His people and the destruction of all that is opposed to His people– we find that such remains the case in the New Testament. Under the new covenant, anyone can be part of the Israel of God if they submit to the Lordship of God the Son (cf. Romans 2:25-29, Galatians 6:15-16). What is the enemy that provides a spiritual threat to the people of God today, the enemy tempting people away from serving God and toward serving idols? What is the enemy that threatens the eternal welfare of every person? Satan, sin, and death (Romans 5:12-18, 1 Peter 5:8)! And what has God done regarding Satan, sin, and death? Through Jesus Christ He gained the victory over all of them, and on the last day, Satan, sin, and death will be devoted to destruction (Romans 8:1-8, 1 Corinthians 15:23-28, Revelation 20:10-15)! The conditions and situations are more parallel and consistent than we would perhaps like to admit!

The God of the Old Testament is the God of the New Testament. God the Son, in fact, can be seen as acting in both (1 Corinthians 10:1-6, Jude 1:5)! In both the Old and New Testaments, God has loved and displayed great mercy toward His people, desiring that they would follow Him while opposing all enemies that would lead them astray. Under both covenants God devoted under the ban all those enemies who threatened the welfare and prosperity of His people. The way that God worked in the Old Testament may offend modern sensibilities, but modern people desperately need the love of God and salvation in Him, and modern people should be as resolutely opposed to Satan, sin, and death as Israel was to be resolutely opposed to Canaan and Amalek. Even though it remains a difficulty, let us appreciate that the essential nature of God does not change, and be thankful that we all can share in His love and be delivered through Him from our enemies!

Ethan R. Longhenry