The account of Caleb and Joshua begins in Numbers 13 with the mission given to the spies of Israel. “Send out for yourself men so that they may spy out the land of Canaan, which I am going to give to the sons of Israel; you shall send a man from each of their fathers’ tribes, every one a leader among them” (Numbers 13:2). The appropriate men for this task needed to be, first, representative of the whole people – so that one tribe one would not determine the future for the entire population – and, second, men with strong leadership characteristics. God did not want men of low rank or ability embarking on such an important mission. “They were ‘heads of the children of Israel,’ i.e., men of position and repute, but also no doubt comparatively young and active, as befitted a toilsome and hazardous excursion” (Pulpit Commentary, Vol. II, 143).
13:3-16 – This section includes a list of the men who were sent to spy out the land of Canaan. Notice 13:11, how Joseph’s tribe is described as the tribe of Manasseh. Elsewhere, it is either a common name for both groups, or is confined to Ephraim alone (Revelation 7:8, Ezekiel 37:16). Levi was not given a place among the spies because, by this time, it would be understood clearly that their tribe would have no claim to any land.
13:17-20 – It would be absolutely necessary for the Israelites to have some idea about the land to which they were going. Moses orders the spies to investigate the terrain, the physical stature of the inhabitants, the soil, the wildlife, and even any significant fortifications that had been built by the Canaanites. None of this took place for God’s benefit, but for the edification and testing of the Israelites. How would they respond to the possibility of great opposition? In turn, how would they deal with weak enemies? God would not want to send in his people unprepared, but also understood that they needed to see the land with their own eyes before investing their lives in it. “And whether the people are strong or weak, whether they are many or few” (13:18). This question may have come into Moses’ mind because some disbelief or a lack of faith. Why would he even need to know how many or how strong their enemies would be? It was God who had promised them the land, and it should never have mattered who their enemies were (Romans 8:31). We too ought to be careful not to ask such questions of our spiritual opponents. As long as we preach and teach the pure Word of God, it should not concern us that our enemies are greater in number than us! “Now the time was the time of the first ripe grapes” (13:20). Moses also asked that the spies bring back a sampling of the fruit of the land, perhaps meant to entice the Israelites and encourage them to undergo the invasion. Indeed, when faced with the rich promises of that bountiful land, what Israelite would even care what kind of enemies awaited them? Is not the reward worth the effort? Like the Israelites, we have been shown a glimpse of the glory of Heaven in the Bible, and we know from only words the unimaginable wonders that await us. But there are enemies in this world (2 Corinthians 11:13-15), and there will be troubles (1 Peter 4:12), but Paul said that all of the suffering of this life cannot compare with “the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18).
13:21-22 – “So they went…” (13:21) Like so many expeditions, they set out with enthusiasm and obedience, sure of their mission and its fruits. One wonders, though, how long they were in the land of Canaan before their excitement dissipated and turned into anxiety and fear! Christ tells us about people like this, who start off their spiritual journey with great zeal, but die away when the road becomes rough (Matthew 13:20-21).
13:23-29 – It took the spies forty days to spy out the land. This number occurs frequently in the sacred writings because it symbolizes completeness or thoroughness. Thus, the forty days that they spent in the land were productive and thoroughly educational; there was not a fact left unfound, or a moment wasted. Upon returning to their fellow Israelites, the spies confirm all of the words of God by declaring that the land certainly was fruitful. “And it certainly does flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit” (13:27). There was certainly no need to exaggerate the loveliness of that region, and even today it is renowned for its natural beauty and fertility. “Nevertheless…” (13:28) Unfortunately, the spies add a “nevertheless” to their report. God is not interested in such words! Indeed, seeing the fruit of Canaan and hearing the promises of God should have been enough for the people! God does not work with “nevertheless”s because His promises always stand, in spite of the opposition! “They are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large.” Why should large cities matter to God? Did all of the Israelites already forget that the Lord Jehovah decimated the entire Egyptian army in one gesture? Although we are not commanded in the Christian era to destroy physical cities or fortresses, Paul does note that God always equips us to defeat spiritual fortresses (2 Corinthians 10:3-6), which should encourage us to never fear the power of our enemies. We should not become afraid just because our spiritual opponents have larger church buildings, more members, or gobs of money to run television programs. We must trust God and depend on Him alone.
“Then Caleb quieted the people before Moses, and said, ‘We should by all means go up and take possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it’” (13:30). It is amazing how the voice of Caleb is able to silence a crowd. He was not afraid of what the people would say in response, and neither was he anxious about saying the right thing. He simply quieted those who had lost faith in God and spoke what any righteous Israelites should have! Essentially, Caleb is saying that the land was theirs for the taking, all they had to do was reach out their hands and grasp it. The fact that Joshua is not named here with Caleb is not strange if we consider this; Joshua was the special aid to Moses, and might have been seen as biased with regard to his report, or his support of the words of Caleb. For that reason, he may have given place to Caleb to show that Moses was not trying to subvert the report of the spies (Winterbotham, 145).
“But the men who had gone up with him said, ‘We are not able to go up against the people, for they are too strong for us’” (13:31). Once again, the faithlessness of the Israelites becomes apparent. They were too concerned with the way things seemed on the outside – obviously, from a purely physical standpoint, they were outnumbered, outgunned, and in no position to mount a major invasion of a heavily fortified region. But what these individuals seemed to forget is that God does not need weapons or even great numbers of soldiers to win battles! Consider the story of Gideon in Judges 7, in which God defeats an army with tens of thousands of trained soldiers with only 300 lightly-armed Israelites. Indeed, He needs even less than that in other times!
“So they gave a bad report…” (13:32-33) Do we ever find ourselves giving a bad report? When we become discouraged, do we try to bring down everybody else with us? It is very tempting to let our fears get in the way of obedience to God, but we must always trust Him, knowing that He is God and we are only small people. In the case of the Israelites, they would have considered the massive walled structures and perceived theirs to be a daunting task. “The existence of numerous walled and fortified towns was (apart from Divine aid) an almost insuperable obstacle to a people wholly ignorant of artillery or of siege operations; and the presence of giants was exceedingly terrifying in an age when battles were a series of personal encounters” (Winterbotham, 145). Notice the phrase “It is a land that devours its inhabitants.” To them, even the land itself seemed to be against them. If they tried to enter it, it would wholly consume them. If one looks at the rocky, hilly terrain of many parts of Canaan, it would be easy to see why the spies felt like the land devoured them. Walking through deep valleys and trenches would make one feel that way.
“And we were like grasshoppers in our sight, and so we were in their sight” (13:33). What an insight into the spirit of these spies! In their own eyes they were weak, and that translated to weakness in the eyes of their enemies! Indeed, if we have a low regard for ourselves and our mission (that is, the Gospel), we will become easy targets for our enemies. Cruel, wicked, and unrighteous people can smell fear in their prey! This verse certainly shows us that how we see ourselves is much more important than how the world sees us.
“Then all the congregation lifted up their voices and cried, and the people wept that night” (14:1). Instead of actually doing something about the situation, the people simply revert to weeping, which accomplishes nothing. They do not pray to God, they do not formulate attack strategies, they do not consult with Caleb any further. All they do is cry! “And all the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron; and the whole congregation said to them, ‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness!’” (14:2) How pathetic for the people to say such a thing! They preferred the possibility of dying as slaves in Egypt, forced into labor and treated harshly, over the promise of Canaan. Even worse, they claimed to prefer death in the wilderness over that bountiful land. Where is the vigor and enthusiasm that they had when they set out from the land of Egypt? Where is the faith? What kind of a person prefers to die in the middle of a wasteland more than dying in a valiant fight for the promised land of God? “And why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become plunder; would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?” (14:3) It is not that God had brought them to that land yet, but they were on the brink of it. What is so strange about this argument is that the Israelite women and children were plunder in Egypt too! In that land of slavery, their women were forced into hard labor and their new born males were slaughtered by order of the Pharaoh (Exodus 1:22).
“So they said to one another, ‘Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt” (14:4). Their sedition has now become apparent. They are desirous of a new leader to lead them back to bondage (ironic?). The same thing happens today to Christians, though in much more spiritual sense. Because of the death of Christ, and our obedience through baptism, we are free from the Law of death (Romans 8:1-2), but so many people choose to return to that bondage because they find true Christianity to be unsatisfying. Thus, Paul wrote to the Galatians not to return to spiritual slavery in Galatians 4:9.
“Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces in the presence of all the assembly of the congregation of the sons of Israel. And Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, of those who had spied out the land, tore their clothes” (14:5-6). This is the best response when any believer is faced with rejection or distress. They simply humbled themselves and trusted the Lord.
14:7-9 – There are several very good lessons that we can learn from this section of scripture. First, they reaffirm their assertion that the land is exceedingly good, and that the Lord is able to bring them into that place in victory. Second, they say, “Only do not rebel against the Lord.” When anybody rebels against a prophet of God, he is rebelling against God Himself. There is no distinction between the revealed words of God through prophets and the Lord behind that Word. Also, notice the unwavering confidence of these men in God. They confidently assert that the protection of the Canaanites is not with them, and that the Lord is on their side.
“But all the congregation said to stone them with stones” (14:10). Thus it is with so many faithful prophets! The history of the Israelite nation is littered with examples of outright apostasy and extremely violent responses to truthful preaching. When given the chance to repent in the time of Jeremiah, the people turned on God’s prophet and dumped him in a pit of mud (Jeremiah 38:6). Christ Himself exclaimed that the inhabitants of Jerusalem had often “killed her prophets” in Matthew 23:37. Into the time of the Christians, Stephen is stoned, as well as Paul the apostle in their defense of the Gospel.
As for Caleb and Joshua, they were rewarded for their faithfulness by being the only two people from among the twelve spies who were allowed to enter the promised land again. God even commends them, especially Caleb, for maintaining the unwavering nature that is characteristic of truly righteous individuals. “But My servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed Me fully, I will bring into the land which he entered, and his descendents shall take possession of it” (Numbers 14:24). We all face similar choices in this life. How will we respond when things seem hopeless? Will we be like the Israelites who lost faith, cursed God, and began to rebel? Or will we choose the path of righteousness and stand for the truth, even if it means standing alone?