10 May 2016

Numbers 13:1-27

“We came to the land to which you sent us; it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.” (v. 27)

Psalm: Psalm 89:1-18


This next adventure follows on immediately from Miriam's punishment and recovery (Numbers 12:10-16). It is another story from the wilderness wanderings of the people of Israel as they seek to follow God's guiding light. Indeed, it is the story which, in its conclusion (Numbers 13:28 - 14:25), explains why these wanderings had to go on so long. But that is not the concern of today's passage which focuses on the exploration of the Promised Land that God (through Moses) organises as they reach its borders.

Names - of people and places - can be a stumbling block to those reading such passages aloud in church, and to any of us whose knowledge of Middle Eastern geography is scanty. Noting just a few of the many names mentioned in today's story will help us to navigate ourselves around the wider biblical narrative.

As the company approach the land of Canaan, Moses is instructed to choose 12 men, one from each tribe, and send them into the Promised Land to bring back reports on several aspects: the military strength and readiness of any inhabitants and the quality of the land and its produce. Of the twelve men chosen, two will emerge as important characters: Caleb from the tribe of Judah and Hoshea son of Nun from the tribe of Ephraim, who is later (verse 16) renamed Joshua. The change of name serves to draw our attention to this man whose name is indeed significant; both Hoshea and Joshua mean "God saves" and are the Hebrew forms of the name Jesus. As the eventual successor to Moses Joshua is of paramount importance, so the narrator wants to be sure we have paid attention to the first time he is mentioned. Ephraim is one of the two tribes named for Joseph's sons (the other being Manasseh), and their inclusion brings the total back to 12 after the priestly tribe of Levi has been exempted from the need to produce men of war or (apparently) spies.

It is interesting that the two men who later emerge as God's agents in this story are descendents of the brothers Judah and Joseph. The interplay between these two sons of Jacob weaves a fascinating strand throughout much of Genesis (cf Genesis 37:26; 43:3; chapter 44). It is Judah who saves Joseph from death and later protects Benjamin. Soon Joseph's descendant Joshua will be Judah's new 'saviour' whereas, millennia later, Jesus will be born of the tribe of Judah (Hebrews 7:14).

The setting for this story is Kadesh-Barnea (verse 26) about 50 miles south of Beersheba, the principal town of the Negeb. The Negeb (or Negev coming from a word meaning 'dry') is a large tract of desert and semi-desert land in southern Judah; because of its location sometimes the term is used more generally to refer to "the South". The Wadi (which means 'valley' but thereby sometimes coming to mean 'stream') Eschol ('cluster') is apparently so named because of the enormous bunch of grapes discovered there - so huge that it took two men to carry it back into camp, strung on a pole (verse 23)!

To Ponder

  • How do you react to names and places when you are reading the Bible? Are they unimportant information or vital clues to understanding the story more fully? Why?
  • The writer wants us to understand from verses 23 and 27 that the Promised Land was full of good things. How do you view the abundance of God in today's world with its combination of greed and deprivation?
  • Reflect on the suggestion in the hymn "God of all power, and truth, and grace" (http://cyberhymnal.org/htm/g/a/p/gaptgrac.htm) (StF 498) that it is through God's forgiveness that we are able to "enter into the promised rest, the Canaan of your perfect love". 

Bible notes author

Jill Baker

Jill Baker lives in Glasgow and is glad to be part of the small but distinctive Methodist Church in Scotland. She is a local preacher and local preachers’ tutor in the Strathclyde Circuit, where her husband Andrew is superintendent minister. For Jill, the past 20 years have included all sorts of roles within Methodism – further afield (as a mission partner in the South Caribbean) and closer to home (with WFMUCW, MWiB, leading pilgrimages and as part of various committees and groups) and is currently the Vice-President of the Conference 2017/2018. When not engaged in these ways, Jill enjoys walking in the beautiful mountains of Scotland, gardening and writing; she blogs at www.northoftheborder.wordpress.com and "Thanks, Peter God", her book about the life of her son, Peter, who died in 2012, was published in 2016.