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B'Midbar/Numbers 13:18 And you shall see the land - what is it?
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This question, given to the party of twelve spies sent into the Land of Israel by Moshe from Kadesh Barnea, is the first of a set of questions to discover the qualities of the Land. Moshe's central words are:
"Go on up to the Negev and into the hills, and see what the land is like. Notice the people living there, whether they are strong or weak, few or many; and what kind of country they live in, whether it is good or bad; and what kind of cities they live in, open or fortified. See whether the land is fertile or unproductive and whether there is wood in it or not. Finally, be bold enough to bring back some of the fruit of the land." (B'Midbar 13:17-20, CJB)
We should notice that this is a comprehensive survey of the Land: its qualities, its people, its cities, its fertility and its crops or produce. The questions end with an instruction to bring back some of the fruit. The answers to the questions will provide firm evidence of the goodness of the Land and the goodness of G-d in giving it to His people Israel. The fruit will encourage and inspire the people before they go up and take the Land. We should also notice that the spies were not invited to express their opinion as to whether Israel was capable of taking the Land; that was not open for discussion. That question was not asked and was - or should have been - already answered and beyond any doubt. The answer was already clear: Israel, by and of itself, only recently freed from slavery in Egypt, could not take the Land. But there was no intention that they should. HaShem had already told the Israelites that He would push the peoples of the Land back before them and clear the Land at a pace that they could handle: "I will not drive them out from before you in one year, which would cause the land to become desolate and the wild animals too many for you. I will drive them out from before you gradually, until you have grown in number and can take possession of the land" (Shemot 23:29-30, CJB).
The Sages of the Talmud date the sending out of the spies to the 29th Sivan (b. Ta'anit 29a), Sivan being the third month of the biblical year, about three weeks after the giving of the Torah at Sinai. On the Gregorian calendar, this is approximately late June or early July: approaching the hottest time of the year. The biblical text tells us that "the days were the days of the ripenings of the grapes" (B'Midbar 13:20). The spies were told to go up from the south, through the Negev, probably the poorest part of the Land; it is still largely desert today.Rashi, quoting from Midrash Tanchuma comments, "For such is the practice of merchants: they show the inferior goods first and afterwards they show that of high quality". The spies were to see both the hottest and driest part of the Land, followed by the richness and fullness of the grape and wheat crops in the peak of the summer; then, on their return, they were to bring samples of the best produce not just to tell but to show how good the Land was.
TheSforno goes through each of the questions in turn and shows how it proves HaShem's words: "Is it good? - with plentiful, good water, as it says 'For ADONAI your G-d is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams, springs and water welling up from the depths in valleys and on hillsides' (D'varim 8:7, CJB) ... Are there trees? - fruits for which the Land was praised, 'It is a land of wheat and barley, grapevines, fig trees and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey' (v. 8, CJB)". He also points out that by bringing back samples of the produce, the spies were taking a token harvest and so making a legal act of possession. They were not spies, they were the rightful landowners, inspecting the quality of what was already theirs, because the L-rd had promised to give them the Land. And a promise from the L-rd is as certain as facts on the ground - "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1, NASB) - their 'harvesting' was simply an actualisation of that reality.
RabbiHirsch thinks that the spiritual qualities of the Land were also to be inspected. The Talmud records that "Rabbi Zera said: From this one may deduce that the climate of the land of Israel makes one wise" (b. Bava Batra 158b), and Hirsch therefore re-words the questions to ask "after the value of the Land as the planting ground of national development, whether, in this respect it is 'good or bad', whether it would further or hinder the spiritual and moral cultural life of the nation". He wants to know if the Land itself is an environment where the people can grow in holiness and righteousness, whether it is spiritually as well as physically fertile and watered. Are there spiritual resources in the Land that will encourage the people in their obedience to G-d and the Torah in the same way as the physical resources, such as trees, forests and water supplies that will feed their bodies and provide the raw materials for artisans and craftsmen.
As believers, we have all received promises from the L-rd. We know that He has spoken words of blessing and encouragement over us and that He has plans and purposes for our lives. Walter Brueggemann speaks of "the purposes of G-d that will not relent"1 and in the spirit of the quote from Hebrews 11:1 above, we cling to those promises and keep badgering away at the L-rd to bring them to pass. I believe that we often find ourselves in the same position as the spies that were sent into the Promised Land. We are allowed temporary access to some or all of the promise, both to accomplish some immediate purpose of G-d at that instant in time, and also to confirm and strengthen our faith in the promise and vision that G-d has given us. We are allowed some experiences of both the worst and best of life in the promise, so that we can look forward with positive anticipation to what is to come, and we are expected to retain some of the fruit of the promise as a down-payment of that which is later to be ours.
Perhaps the most obvious example is to be found in the gospels: "Six days later, Yeshua took Kefa, Ya'akov and his brother Yochanan and led them up a high mountain privately. As they watched, He began to change form - His face shone like the sun, and His clothing became as white as light. Then they looked and saw Moshe and Eliyahu speaking with Him" (Matthew 17:1-3, CJB). This event, known as the Transfiguration, is usually seen as an opportunity for the disciples to glimpse Yeshua in His glory, or as a symbolic event uniting the Torah, the prophets and Yeshua. These are the immediate purposes of G-d. Could it also be that as His earthly ministry was starting to draw to a close, the opportunity to be temporarily free from His earthly limitations and to have conversation with these two great servants of G-d in past days was a powerful reminder to Yeshua of who He was, of the Father's pleasure in Him and an encouragement to push on faithfully to the cross so that He might gain the promise of the Father - His victory over sin and death - and so bring many sons to glory?
Rav Sha'ul draws another example in his letter to the community at Ephesus: "But G-d is so rich in mercy and loves us with such intense love that, even when we were dead because of our acts of disobedience, He brought us to life along with the Messiah - it is by grace that you have been delivered. That is, G-d raised us up with the Messiah Yeshua and seated us with him in heaven, in order to exhibit in the ages to come how infinitely rich is His grace, how great is His kindness toward us who are united with the Messiah Yeshua" (Ephesians 2:4-7, CJB). The promise is that we are already seated with Yeshua in heavenly places, we have been spiritually raised from the dead, and that we will continue to experience His grace and kindness for the ages to come. The reality now is that we remain in our earthly bodies, but have been given the Ruach "who guarantees our inheritance until we come into possession of it" (1:14, CJB). While here, we have flashes of the promise in moments of worship, when we feel the Spirit's anointing to share the gospel with someone and lead them to Messiah, in the silent prayer watches of the night as we know the assurance of sin forgiven and G-d's love towards us.
At times of challenge and trial, G-d tells us to ask the same question, so that He may provide each of with His answer: See the land - what is it like?
1 - Walter Brueggemann, Prophetic Imagination (2nd Ed.), Fortress Press 2001, page xviii
Further Study: Nehemiah 9:25; Acts 20:32; John 16:24
Application: What is the land of your promise like? Have you asked the question and do you have an answer to encourage your faith? If you don't have that answer, then perhaps you haven't asked or didn't listen for the reply. Why not try asking today and then listen carefully!
© Jonathan Allen, 2011
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