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B'Midbar/Numbers 13:30 And he said, "We should certainly go up and we will take possession of [the land] for we can surely overcome it."
Speaking to the people after the spies whom Moshe had selected and sent to reconnoitre the Land of Israel from the Israelite camp at Kadesh Barnea returned with their report, Caleb - the representative of the tribe of Judah - quietens the murmuring that had started and in strongly exhortative language tells them to get their act together: you can do this! We'll look at what Caleb says in more detail later, but first let's see how strongly his words are pitched. Notice, first of all, the speech verb that is used: , the Qal 3ms prefix form of the root , to say, with a vav-conversive for past-tense sequential reporting. Caleb doesn't shout or cry out, he doesn't announce or proclaim, he simply says what he needs to say. That doesn't, of course, mean that he didn't raise his voice - after all, how else were all the people to hear - but volume is very different to tone. Dennis Cole phrases it this way: "Speaking firmly with a visionary declaration to the Israelite audience, Caleb issues a three-fold emphatic challenge: 'Let us indeed go up' (as the scouts had done initially), 'and we will posses it' (as G-d had promised), 'for we are certainly capable of it' (by G-d's power)."1
There are three verbs in Caleb's exhortation: , go up, , to take possession of, and , to prevail over or overcome (Davidson). In the first and last case, the verb is present twice, both as an active verb and in its infinitive absolute form: and . Both times, the active verb is the Qal 1cp prefix form, implying future "we shall ..." This syntactical device is known as paronomastic, and has the effect of affirming or intensifying the action of the verb, often translated by an English adverb such as surely, certainly, only, indeed or actually.2 Examples might beHaShem's warning to Adam about eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, "on the day you eat from it, you will surely die" (B'resheet 2:17), or His admonition to the people of Isaiah's time, "Hear, indeed, but do not understand; See, indeed, but do not grasp" (Isaiah 6:9, NJPS). Here, "to go up, we shall go up" becomes "we should certainly go up" and "to overcome, we will overcome" becomes "we can surely overcome". The middle verb is the 1cp affix form with a vav-reversive to render a completed action in the future; this has the implication that taking possession of the Land is something that can and will be accomplished within a set period of time. Taken together, we can how Caleb exhorts and encourages the people three times in the one sentence by his careful choice of grammar and vocabulary.
The classical Jewish commentators agree. TheRamban explains that "Caleb said, 'We should go up at once, for we are well able to overcome it,' meaning, 'It is true that the people are strong, but we shall be stronger than them and their fortified cities.'" The Sforno draws on the Song at the Sea and adds, "It is proper for us to go up, for they will not rise up against us to prevent our going up ... and after we go up there they will flee from our presence, because all the inhabitants of Canaan have already melted away (Shemot 15:15)." Forty years later, Rahab tells the two spies who have come to Jericho at Joshua's command, "I know that the L-RD has given the country to you, because dread of you has fallen upon us, and all the inhabitants of the land are quaking before you" (Joshua 2:9, Bible)NJPS)). The people of the Land can still remember that "the L-RD dried up the waters of the Sea of Reeds for you when you left Egypt" (v. 10, NJPS). This theme is supported by contemporary Christian commentators as well. Dennis Olson suggests that: Caleb is appealing to the strength of the people themselves when he addresses them using the first person plural pronoun 'we'. He writes, "This confidence in the Israelites' own strength is reasonable in the light of the enormous army of over 600,000 warriors who were counted in the first census in chapter 1. The well-organised and orderly military camp should likewise give the Israelites confidence."3
Caleb's vocabulary also connects back to the words used by HaShem in His promises to Israel. Before the Exodus, when they were still in Egypt, HaShem said, "I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey" (Shemot 3:8, NJPS) and "I have declared: I will bring you up from the misery of Egypt to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, to a land flowing with milk and honey" (v. 17, NJPS), both using the verb , to go up. At Mt. Sinai, the verb , to possess, is used when He told the people, "You shall possess their land, for I will give it to you to possess, a land flowing with milk and honey" (Vayikra 20:24, NJPS). Gordon Wenham points out that "'go up', 'occupy' are key words" in many of the promises of the Land, "up to this point, the phrase 'a land flowing with milk and honey' has always been coupled with the promise that G-d would give the land and its inhabitants, often listed as here, to Israel."4 The prophets too use the same words for the promised return from exile: "They shall be brought to Babylon, and there they shall remain, until I take note of them -- declares the L-RD of Hosts -- and bring them up and restore them to this place" (Jeremiah 27:22, NJPS). These words trigger the social memory of the people, reminding them of G-d's promises and the ways in which He had consistently kept them.
Jacob Milgrom observes that "Caleb did not contradict the content of the scouts' report, but only their conclusions." Here is what the scouts said: "We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites there. Amalekites dwell in the Negeb region; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites inhabit the hill country; and Canaanites dwell by the Sea and along the Jordan" (B'Midbar 13:27-29, NJPS). All this was true; just as the Land did flow with milk and honey, the peoples living in the Land were powerful and lived in well fortified cities. Caleb himself was one of the scouts; he had seen this with his own eyes. He didn't - he couldn't - disagree with the facts on the ground. The power of his words was that they too were true; he simply stated the truth. Yes, things looked as if they might be difficult, but if the Israelites went up to take possession of the Land, they would overcome. That was what G-d had said. Just as G-d had brought Israel out of Egypt with great signs and wonders, so He would make good on His promise to "drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites" (Shemot 33:2, before them.
Yeshua warned his disciples about times of persecution ahead, saying, "do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour ... but the one who endures to the end will be saved" (Matthew 10:19-22, ESV). On what basis could He say that? Later on, He explained, "I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father's hand" (John 10:28, ESV). These were tremendous words when Yeshua spoke them, and they connected and resonated with the promises in the Tanakh, but they were essentially forward promises. How did the disciples and Yeshua's wider band of followers know that they were really true? In just the same way that the people of Caleb's time refused the promises and wanted to go back to Egypt, sometimes the crowds walked away from Yeshua: "When many of His disciples heard it, they said, "This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?" After this many of His disciples turned back and no longer walked with Him" (John 6:60,66, ESV).
The proof was in the pudding. Yeshua was crucified by the Romans: hung on a cross until dead, then taken down after physical death was confirmed and buried in a tomb. Then miraculously, three days and nights later - exactly as He had said - He was resurrected and appeared to the disciples and many others. As Rav Sha'ul describes it in what might be a fragment of early creedal liturgy, "He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then He appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all ... He appeared also to me" (1 Corinthians 15:4-8, ESV). This validated all Yeshua's teaching and promises. No longer were they just resonant words and possibly empty promises; they were promises that had been fulfilled and G-d had proved Yeshua's status as Messiah and King of Israel.
1. - R. Dennis Cole, Numbers The New American Commentary, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2000), page 223.
2. - Bruce K.Waltke and M. O'Connor, An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake, IN, Eisenbrauns, 1990) §35.3.1, pages 584-588.
3. - Dennis T. Olson, Numbers Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), page 78.
4. - Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers TOTC, (Nottingham, IVP, 1981), page 134-135.
Further Study: Matthew 12:40; Luke 24:36-43; Acts 13:32-41
Application: What about today? As we look at our individual circumstances and the sometimes crazy state of our world, do we hear with the ears of faith or do we see with the eyes of doubt? We need to hear the promises of G-d, validated time and again in the pages of Scripture and in particular in the life, death and resurrection of Yeshua. Why not ask Him to point out a promise for you today?
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© Jonathan Allen, 2019
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