3.38 Numbers -- Spying Out the Land
One man from each tribe, except Levi, was sent to explore the Promised Land. They spent 40 days doing so. This was the defining moment for this generation. Its entire future depended upon the report of the spies. Ten of the twelve spies gave into fear and despair:
"We can't attack those people; they are stronger than we are." And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored (Num 13:31-2).
This created panic in the entire community, which then attempted to overthrow the theocracy and adopt a democratic polity:
"We should choose a leader and go back to Egypt" (Num 14:4).
The old cliche is true -- though God delivered them from Egypt, they brought Egypt with them. They retained the old slave mentality -- fatalism, pessimism, the idea that they were born to fail. The second leg of the three-legged stool of the Exodus project was Identity, and that leg gave way. The Red Sea, Mt Sinai, the pillar of fire and cloud -- all meant nothing to the Israelites at the moment of decision. They did not grasp either the nature of God or His purpose.
Only Moses, Aaron, Caleb and Joshua opposed the multitude:
"Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will swallow them up. Their protection is gone, but the Lord is with us" (Num 14:9).
For their courage, the leaders were threatened with stoning. From an ordered army of God, Israel quickly degenerated into a mob.
God again showed up (Num 14:10) in the presence of all the Israelites. But it was as judge, not as deliverer. For the second time, God was ready to disinherit His newly adopted people (see Ex 32:10 for very similar wording). Again, Moses interceded for Israel, asking God to show mercy to them, so that other nations would not be able to say that God failed in His promise to bring Israel to Canaan. He reminded God of His character as He revealed Himself to Moses on the mountain (Ex 34:6-7).
God's response is puzzling:
a. His first word was that He would forgive Israel.
b. However, the entire generation that came out from Egypt would die in the wilderness, except for Joshua and Caleb.
c. Their children would be shepherds in the wilderness for 40 years, one year of punishment for each day of exploring Canaan.
d. God killed the 10 cowardly spies by a plague.
So in this case forgiveness was only partial. The Covenant remained in force, but the Promise was delayed, and one entire generation would die in the desert. This is not really forgiveness as we understand it, it is just postponed judgment. Instead of destroying the entire people instantly through plague or fire, God let nature take its course, letting them die off gradually. Mercy was extended to the following generation, who were not held guilty for their parents' sin. Yet how much more the New Testament has to reveal of the nature of forgiveness!
In this act of judgment, God cancelled the blessing of Num 6:24-26. He turned His face from them. A door had closed which no man could open. There was no way for the people to undo their faithlessness. The Law does not provide a sufficient sin offering for such apostasy. When some of the Israelites rashly moved against the Canaanites, the Lord did not go with them and they were soundly defeated (Num 14:44-45).