Parsha: Shelach Lecha (Numbers 13:1 – 15:41)

by Glenn Harris | January 01 1970

Super Spies

Sh’lach L’cha שְׁלַח-לְךָ (“Send Out for Yourself”) Numbers 13:1 – 15:41

The parasha this Shabbat  is called Sh’lach L’cha, meaning “send out for yourself…”. God directed Moses, “Send out for yourself men so that they may spy out the landof Canaan, which I am giving to the sons of Israel…” Moses chose one leader from each tribe, and sent them on a fact-finding mission. This group of spies included Joshua from the tribe of Ephraim and Caleb from the tribe of Judah. I think it’s fascinating and not coincidental that these two – the only faithful ones among the twelve, represent what would eventually be Ephraim in the north and Judah in the south.

The spies returned 40 days later, and there was good news and bad news… The good news was that it was indeed a lovely, spacious and fruitful land; eretz zavat chalav u’d’vash – a land flowing with milk and honey. They brought back from Eshcol a branch with a single cluster of grapes so huge it took two men to carry it! They also brought figs and pomegranates. It was a wonderful land the Lord reserved for us! That was the good news.

The bad news? Well, according to 10 out of the 12 spies this was “mission impossible” They said, “The people there are much bigger than us, much stronger than us, more numerous than us; their cities are enormous and well-fortified, and as if all that wasn’t bad enough, we saw the descendants of the Nephilim – the giants there!” In other words, “We don’t stand a chance!” Joshua and Caleb reminded the people that God had already promised to give the land to us. But the majority held sway over our people – a pattern that has unfortunately continued to this very day. People are far more ready to side with the majority than to do what is right. In this case, the majority opinion was to abandon the mission and turn back to Egypt. We dare not underestimate the seriousness of this. It wasn’t merely a bad decision; it was rebellion against the Lord. An entire psalm was later written to warn us of the perils of unbelief (Psalm 95).

Moses and Aaron fell on their faces and Joshua and Caleb tore their clothes – not that they took it personally, but they understood the gravity of this sin. They reminded the people of God’s promises and power, and urged them to repent. But the people refused to listen, and even threatened to stone the four of them to death!

This, in fact, set another tragic precedent for our people. The Scriptures reveal a consistent pattern of Israel persecuting the very individuals God sent to help us – good men, leaders and prophets who called us to repentance; most of whom our people persecuted and some of whom were put to death. This persistent and callous disregard for God and contempt for His messengers culminated with the premeditated killing of the Messiah Himself, Yeshua of Nazareth!

Numbers chapters 14 and 15 record that God was furious with our people, and had contemplated destroying us. God offered to start over completely, and make of Moses a new nation – an offer that a lesser man, a man of petty ambition might have accepted. But Moses instead pleaded our case, reminding God of His own goodness and forgiveness, and suggested that the Egyptians would certainly interpret it the wrong way. So Moses stood in the gap for us, acting as our intermediary; and for his sake, God relented and we were spared.

But rebellion does not go unpunished. That generation of unbelievers and complainers, that mob, was consigned to wander 40 years (1 year for each day of the expedition), and the promise of the land would be postponed until every last adult (except Joshua and Caleb) died in the wilderness. Their children would inherit the land. And what of the 10 wicked spies, who caused our people to stumble? They were struck down with a God-ordained plague that very day.

At the prospect of spending 40 years in the wilderness, the people decided that perhaps they had been hasty, and maybe they should go in and take the land. Moses warned them not to try it. God had withdrawn His favor and had pronounced His verdict, and to now rebel a second time would certainly bode disaster. Yet again, Israel refused to listen, attempted a military strike against the Canaanites, and many of our people died as a result. Utterly dejected, we turned around and headed back to the wilderness.

So what are we to learn from this sad episode in our history? I suggest the following:

  • First, follow the truth, not the crowd. Generally speaking, crowds tend to behave badly, and even inhumanly. If you’re more worried what other people think of you than with doing the right thing, you are unfit for God’s Kingdom. If you intend to be a man or a woman after God’s heart, be prepared to follow the truth regardless the cost. And prepare to be in the minority.
  • Second, it’s a really, really bad idea to re-interpret God’s directives. Just follow them. The rewards for obedience are wonderful, whereas the results of disobedience are disastrous.
  • Third, faith in the God of Israel requires you to act in the light of His promises, irrespective of what your eyes see and your ears hear.
  • Fourth, we are reminded here of the extraordinary grace of God. He knew Moses would intercede, and in fact He did forgive us. Chapter fifteen outlines various offerings by fire to be made once we entered the land. So despite our collective sin, God was willing to pardon, and ultimately brought us into the land He promised us. Regardless of our failures, God always keeps His end of His covenants.

You know, there’s a very good reason why nobody knows the names of the 10 faithless spies, but just about every Sunday School kid can tell you the names Joshua and Caleb. So how do you want to be remembered? As one who went along with the crowd, a really nice guy who never rocked the boat – or as a Joshua or Caleb, one who in spite of the disapproval and even hostility of the overwhelming majority, took a stand for the truth? Are you looking for the applause of men or the applause of Heaven?

Note: Each Torah portion is named from the first word or first few words of the portion of scripture. This portion is called Shelach Lecha שְׁלַח-לְךָ‎. Other transliterations: Shlach, Shelach, Sh’lah, Shlach Lecha, or Sh’lah L’kha