Perhaps a year or less after bringing Israel out of Egypt in miracle-saturated fashion, God has Moses send twelve tribal leaders to spy out the land of promise (Num. 13:1-2). The mission was not to see whether they could conquer the land (that should have been a foregone conclusion), but to see what the geography and its people were like (vv. 17-20). Nevertheless, ten of the twelve return and give a negative appraisal of the prospect of even taking the land (vv. 25-33). We know what they reported, but it is instructive to consider some things they never said.
The spies never said, “There is no God to help us.” Per divine definition, every atheist is a fool (Psa. 14:1), but you can be a fool without being an atheist. These were men who had witnessed the plagues in Egypt and who had walked across the Red Sea on dry land, all within their recent past. The Lord even asks, “how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?” (Num. 14:11). The spies act like practical atheists, in that their minds are not influenced by God. They do not even mention God in their report. Do we ever, without verbally denying the Lord, end up practically denying him by living without his impact in our thoughts and deeds?
The spies never said, “God has not promised us this land.” We could be more sympathetic to their report, had God never explained his intention to give them the land. But Israel knew. They do not doubt God’s bringing them to the land; what they doubt is their ability to survive it. The people ask, “Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword?” and then suggest returning to Egypt as a better option (Num. 14:3). They do not see themselves belonging in Canaan. What of us? Jesus said, “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32, ESV). Are you comfortable in the kingdom? Do you see yourself belonging only there? Would you fight to stay?
The spies never said, “God has abandoned us, so we cannot conquer the land.” They had no evidence of divine abandonment. In fact, “the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud” in the previous chapter (Num. 12:5). The problem was not God’s distance; the problem was their doubt. Despite what the Bible says, do we sometimes act like we are alone? Do we live as though the future depends on our efforts, completely factoring out divine providence and promises? Without accusing God of not being here, do we still live like he is not going to help us?
The spies never said, “We do not believe what God told us.” But, that is exactly the spiritual crime for which God indicts them. “So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief” (Heb. 3:19). Unbelief makes people unable. We can fall into the same pit, our lack of faith robbing us of blessings God would like to bestow.
In truth, the spies did not have to make any of those statements to prove themselves unbelieving and, thus, unable to take the land. God sent a plague to kill the ten faithless spies (Num. 14:37), and banished the nation to forty years of wandering. Ironically, when God was there to make it happen, Israel did not believe she could enter Canaan. But, when God removed his help, Israel then decided it was the right time to go into Canaan, after all (Num. 14:39-45). A fool’s errand, and it did not work—Israel was defeated, humiliated, and still had to wander forty years. May God give us faith that conquers, instead of fear that quakes.