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Bible Commentaries

Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary

Numbers 13

Verses 1-35

Num_13:1 Num_16:35 .

At the opening of chapter 13 we find the people had moved northward and were camped on the confines of the Promised Land. From that spot, by the commandment of the Lord, a leading man from each tribe, except the tribe of Levi, was sent to search out the land they were to enter. This command evidently had a twofold bearing. In the first place, it was to act as an encouragement and incentive to the people by allowing their representatives to see for themselves the excellence of the land, and report on it. But in the second place, it was to make them realize that there were mighty opponents; so that they must still rely on the power of God. Their faith was to be tested. If they truly believed that nothing but His power had broken Egypt, and brought them out, they would have no difficulty in believing that His power would break all the adversaries in the land, and bring them in.

Now Canaan does not typify heaven, where Christ is. When we enter that blissful place, all conflict and fightings will be over for ever. It does typify the realm of heavenly blessing that is ours in Christ, and which we enter upon at the present time through spiritual conflict. Hence the Epistle to the Ephesians which opens with an unfolding of those "spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ," ends with the warfare indicated in Numbers 6.0 . It is worthy of note that the recounting of the armour of God in that chapter is followed by the word, "Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit." We too must realize that to overcome we must be dependent on the power of God.

The word, "southward," in verse Num_13:17 may present some difficulty. The solution seems to be that encamped, as they were, close to where the hill country in the south of Judah begins, the spies had to start by going south and then climbing into the mountain region to the south-east of the Dead Sea. Thus, travelling on the east side of Jordan to the far north near to Hamath, and then turning south to return through to Hebron on the west side, they raised no suspicions as to who they were, but appeared to be ordinary travellers.

At this time Hebron was heavily fortified and held by a race of giants, the children of Anak. It was evidently of peculiar strength and antiquity, as the closing words of verse Num_13:22 show. Zoan was a chief city of Egypt, and evidently Pharaoh's seat, for twice in Psalms 78.0 we have reference to the "marvellous things" and the "wonders," that God wrought "in the field of Zoan" (verses Num_13:12 and 43). Hebron became the first seat of the Davidic kingdom that God established. So the closing words of verse Num_13:22 may remind us that what God purposes antedates anything man establishes however great and glorious in his eyes.

For forty days the land was searched and the men returned with ample evidence of the fertility of the land; that it did indeed flow with milk and honey, and bore fruit of exceptional size. The land was fully what God had declared it to be.

To all this the spies bore witness, yet they laid the chief stress upon the walled-up cities and the imposing greatness of the children of Anak. They stated, truly enough, that they were no match for these giants, but being men of no faith they left God completely out of their thoughts: all of them, that is to say, except Caleb and Joshua. In result they measured themselves against the giants and their cities, and communicated their unbelieving fears to the mass of the people.

In verse Num_13:30 , Caleb alone is mentioned, though we know from the next chapter that his faith was shared by Joshua. Faith looks not only at the difficulties but also at God, in whose presence difficulties are nothing. Hence his word was, "Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it." When, on the banks of the Red Sea they sang, "All the inhabitants of Canaan shall melt away . . . Thou shalt bring them in . . ." ( Exo_15:15-17 ), tile people adopted the language of faith in the enthusiasm of the moment, without possessing the faith. How often have we been like them to this extent, that we have sung hymns expressing Christian experience without really having the experience? Such a thing it is very easy to do.

The effect on the people is recorded in the first four verses of Numbers 14.0 . Their weeping and their words were the plainest declaration of their unbelief. They murmured against the leaders that God had set over them, and insinuated that the Lord had let them down by bringing them out of Egypt to place them in an impossible position. The leadership of Moses had recently been questioned by Miriam, as we saw in Numbers 12.0 ; it is now challenged in a far more serious way. They would reject him and elect a captain of their own, to lead them back to Egypt.

In Exo_32:4 , we read of the making of the calf , that they imagined had brought them up out of Egypt. Now they wish to make a captain to take them back. Both these evils are brought together very strikingly in Neh_9:17 , Neh_9:18 , but there the order of them is reversed. It looks as if the provocation in this later case was as great as in the former. To reject a servant, whom God has appointed captain, is tantamount to the rejection of God Himself; though rejecting Him by making a golden calf was a cruder proceeding.

Since the days of the calf no crisis had equalled this in gravity. It threw up into relief four men of faith. Aaron's faith had not the strength of the faith of Moses, but nevertheless with Moses he fell on his face before the congregation. He shared here in the meekness of Moses, since for a man to fall on his face before his opponents is virtually to obliterate himself. As a matter of fact they could not have done a more serious thing. Had they risen to their full height before the people, they would have asserted their authority and accepted the challenge themselves. But the rather, they put themselves out of the matter and left God to take up the challenge. Joshua and Caleb rent their clothes the sign of distress and repudiation and boldly testified to the faithfulness and power of God. God was before their hearts and not the children of Anak. All however to no purpose. The bankruptcy of the people as regards faith was complete.

To this moment Psalms 95.0 refers, quoted in Hebrews 3.0 and 4, and there the point is very clearly stressed that unbelief lay at the root of all. "So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief." It is necessary to note this, for it shows their case was not one of forfeiting the blessing by backsliding, but of entering professedly into a calling for which they never had faith at all. This is the point of the solemn warnings that have so large a place in the Epistle to the Hebrews.

The effacement of Moses cleared the way for God to act, as we see in verses Num_13:11 and 12, which plainly indicate the greatness of the sin and what the people deserved. They had provoked the Lord by breaking His law, by rejecting His captain, by disbelieving Him in spite of all the signs He had shown among them. The wages of sin is death, which would have reached them by a pestilence. If God had cut them all off, and maintained a posterity to Abraham according to His promise, by starting afresh through Moses He would have been doing in principle what He did in destroying mankind by the flood, and yet preserving a posterity to Adam through Noah. But would such a seed through Moses have proved any better than the seed through Noah, or better than the seed through Abraham up to date? The answer, which the New Testament gives, is NO. We read, "So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God" ( Rom_8:8 ).

This offer, which the Lord thus made, must have been a real test to Moses. To become the father of a greater and mightier nation must have been a very attractive proposition. It would have been so to the flesh of any man. This makes his reaction to it very remarkable, and we see his meekness manifesting itself in striking fashion. His main thought was not of himself at all but of God and His glory. The rebellion of the people was primarily against God, but secondarily against himself, yet he thought only of how such a drastic judgment would be interpreted by the Egyptians and other surrounding nations; and in view of this and of the declared longsuffering and mercy of God, he boldly besought pardon. His plea prevailed and pardon was granted, as regards the death penalty.

Yet this grievous sin entailed penalties in the government of God. Verse Num_13:21 begins, "But as truly as I live . . ." which is the formula of an oath. The Epistle to the Hebrews, which records the immutable oath made to Abraham, also records how He sware in His wrath, "They shall not enter into My rest." The men who brought an evil report of the land should never enter it. Moreover the very next day the people were to begin a fresh journey, not into the land but away from it, thus starting a weary pilgrimage of no less than forty years, and verse Num_13:29 says, "Your carcases shall fall in this wilderness." The whole sad story might be graphically summed up by saying They rejected their unseen God by making a calf: they rejected their visible leader in proposing to elect a captain; and in result their carcases fell outside the land of promise.

This solemn sentence applied, as verse Num_13:29 indicates, to all of twenty years old and upwards, and the little ones, on whose behalf they specially murmured, were the ones who would enter the land. Psalms 90.0 , which is a prayer of Moses, alludes to this when he says, "All our days are passed away in Thy wrath . . . the days of our years are three score years and ten . . ." This would apply in very literal fashion to the people we are considering. The judgment on the ten spies fell at once as verse 37 shows.

The verses that conclude our chapter also have a very instructive word of warning for us. The action of God's government produced a revulsion of feeling among the people. They now acknowledged that they had sinned, but they wished to evade the penalty in God's government of them, and they started to go forward instead of going back. This simply meant disaster. Moses and the ark did not leave the camp, and those of the host who acted thus found that God was not acting on their behalf. They were left to their own resources and were heavily smitten.

If God be for us no one can be effectively against us. The converse of this was put most plainly to the disciples by the Lord Jesus when He said, "Without Me ye can do nothing" ( Joh_15:5 ). A striking example of it is found in Samson. Immediately he disobeyed, and broke his Nazarite vow, his strength was gone. But illustrations of the fact are everywhere.

The opening words of Numbers 15.0 are certainly remarkable. The people had just been told that their wilderness sojourn was to be prolonged to forty years, and their self-willed effort to evade this, and push their way in immediately, completely repulsed; and the next thing is the issue of regulations to be effective, "when ye be come into the land of your habitations, which I give unto you." In thus speaking, God made it plain that His purpose concerning them stood firm in spite of all that they had done, and that He would ultimately bring them in. The Lord then spoke particularly of certain subsidiary offerings that were to accompany the major offerings, and also of what was to be offered by way of atonement when anyone sinned through ignorance.

Verse Num_13:30 deals with presumptuous sins, in despising the word of the Lord, and no offering is prescribed for such. Then an example of such a presumptuous sin is given in the case of the man who broke the sabbath by gathering sticks. He was put to death. This was undoubtedly judgment of a drastic kind.

What is our mental reaction to it? Many unbelievers would denounce it as unwarrantably severe, just as they would the disastrous results that followed the sin of Adam, in eating the forbidden fruit. But sin is lawlessness the creature asserting its own will and defying the Creator and the element of defiance is never more pronounced than when the matter involved is only trivial. If Adam had been forbidden every tree save one, instead of being granted every tree save one; or if Israel had been in a cold climate, and had not been given bread from heaven, it might have been possible to offer some excuse for both actions. As it was, in both cases the law of God was needlessly defied. To such a case as that before us Heb_10:28 refers. The law was indeed "the ministration of death."

This episode gave rise to the instruction about the fringes and the riband of blue to be worn on the borders of their garments, with which the chapter closes. It was to be a reminder of the sacredness of the commands of God, and a preservative against the doing of their own wills. As the centuries passed even this was perverted, as Mat_23:5 strikingly shows. The Pharisees, who displayed a false piety by enlarging the borders of their garments, were the men who were setting aside the commands of God in favour of their own tradition.

One of the most serious features of the wilderness journey comes before us in Numbers 16.0 . The fire of revolt that broke out in Numbers 14.0 was still smouldering and broke out afresh in a new way. It was not now the making of a captain and returning to Egypt, but prominent men in the congregation rising up to challenge the mediatorship of Moses and the priesthood of Aaron; thus challenging the Lord, who had appointed both. Korah, being a Kohathite, belonged to the most distinguished group of the Levites, short of being a priest. Dathan and Abiram sprang from Reuben, the eldest son of Jacob, who lost the leadership natural to the firstborn because of his sin. They therefore doubtless felt they had a grievance.

Moreover, if we refer to the order in which the tribes were to encamp round the tabernacle, as given in Numbers 2.0 , and then turn to Numbers 3.0 , which gives us similar details as to the Levites, we find that both the tribe of Reuben and the Kohathites were placed on the south side, and as a result of this were close together to discuss and foment their imagined grievances. In claiming that both Moses and Aaron were upstarts, who had presumed to elevate themselves above the congregation, they denied that they were what they were by Divine appointment, using a specious argument.

It was quite true that all the people were "holy;" that is, they were a people that God had set apart for Himself a fact nevertheless that they were constantly denying in their practices. It was true that the Lord was among them, as the people were very quickly to see in the judgment that followed. They did not realize that in challenging the leaders whom God had chosen, they were challenging God, who had chosen them.

For the second time, as verse Num_13:4 tells us, Moses met the situation by falling on his face standing aside for God to act. Yet he knew what God would do, as we see in verses Num_13:5-7 . Korah and his company would get their answer from God Himself on the morrow. They were to take censers with fire and incense, and present themselves at the door of the tabernacle, as though they were priests. Dathan and Abiram refused to come up and contented themselves in hurling insults and false accusations against Moses. Verse Num_13:19 shows that practically all the people supported Korah in particular. The situation was one of extreme danger.

How God acted is revealed in the middle of the chapter. In the case of Korah the judgment was direct from the hand of God in His dwelling-place. In the case of the others by the providential ordering of the forces of nature. Verse Num_13:32 tells us that the men belonging to Korah perished with Dathan and Abiram. We have to pass on to Num_26:11 to find that the children of Korah were not involved in the overthrow. Hence when we get to the Psalms we find a number that are "for the sons of Korah."

The direct allusion to this incident in Jude is very instructive. He traces the progress of the apostasy that he foretells, under three heads. First, "the way of Cain," which as a way of self-will in approaching God: He ignored God's way and came in his own way Second, "the error of Balaam for reward." This was self-seeking under cover of religion. Third, "the gainsaying of Core" which was self-assertion in the things of God. Jude indicates that when the third stage is reached the opposers will perish. We can see these three stages in the sad history of Christendom. In our day the third has become all too manifest. Prominent religious leaders of our day not only refuse any authority to the writings of Moses and the prophets and the New Testament apostles, but boldly challenge the words of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. The "perishing" that Jude predicts cannot be far off.

Further, it would appear that the Apostle Paul makes reference to this incident in 2Ti_2:19 . In our chapter we have, "The Lord will shew who are His, and who is holy," said by Moses in reply to Korah and his company. In regard to Dathan and Abiram, he had to say, "Depart, I pray you, from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of theirs." These two utterances foreshadow pretty plainly the apostolic instruction for our: selves, when we are brought face to face with error that challenges the foundations of our faith, and has the effect of overthrowing faith in those who fall under the influence of the error. We are neither sovereign nor omniscient. God is both, and in due season He will manifest who are His. We are however responsible to act in conformity with His word, and avoid all complicity in the error and evil.

Here is an illustration of how the Old Testament Scriptures are able to make us wise unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. The fact is, of course, that human nature is the same in all ages. The out-breakings of the flesh, in men three or four thousand years ago under the law, are in their principle the things that the flesh in man will do today, though we are not under the law but under grace.

Being under law, the judgment fell with drastic rapidity in the case we are considering. For Christendom today, being under grace, it is otherwise, and God waits with much longsuffering. Nevertheless of such men, and the state of things they produce, the Apostle Peter has grave things to say, when he writes, "Whose judgment now of a long time lingereth not, and their damnation slumbereth not" ( 2Pe_2:3 ).

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Bibliographical Information
Hole, Frank Binford. "Commentary on Numbers 13". "Hole's Old and New Testament Commentary". 1947.