One of the most significant sins committed by the generation in the wilderness involves the spies sent to scout out Canaan.
God commands Moses to send spies, one from each of the tribes, and to report back on the land and the people there. The spies find grapes so large that a single cluster requires two men to carry it, and they name the location Eshkol in honour of the enormous bounty. After forty days of scouting, they return, reporting that the land is fortified; the Canaanites, strong. In fact, the spies insist that they are too strong, that Israel will not be able to conquer the land. Only Caleb and Joshua affirm faith in God’s promise of the land.
Hearing the spies’ evaluation, the people burst into tears, saying it would have been better to remain slaves. Joshua and Caleb continue to insist that God can bring about the gift of the land, but the people try to stone them, and only the appearance of God’s presence saves them. God threatens to destroy the people, and to make a new chosen nation out of Moses and his descendants. Moses manages to dissuade God, pleading for pardon on their behalf. God insists that none of the naysayers (nor the Israelites of that generation) will live to enter Eretz Yisrael. God then redirects their steps by way of the Sea of Reeds (Red Sea). Frantic, and too late, the Israelites gear up and attack the Amalekites (against the instructions of God and of Moses) and they are defeated at Hormah.
A chapter that provides some laws that will take effect when the children of the wilderness generation enter the land now interrupts the narrative. These laws include the libation accompanying meat sacrifices, the hallah (dough) offering, expiation for unintentional error (either by individuals or the group), the punishment for a man who gathered wood on Shabbat, and the commandment to wear tzitzit (fringes) with a thread of tekhelet (a special blue dye) on the corners of their garments.
Questions for discussion:
1- How can it be that the spies gave such a negative report after seeing such a good land? Can you think of times in our lives when we despaired from great opportunities out of fear for the obstacles ahead?
2- How it is possible that God “changes His mind” because of Moses’ intervention? What kind of God is this that looks so doubtful and angry?
3- Do you see any relationship between the last chapter with laws and the narrative before? Is the place for these laws here just arbitrary?
Rabbi Mijael Even-David