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God’s Word for You

Numbers 13:17-20 The spies enter Canaan

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Wednesday, August 18, 2021

17 Moses sent them to scout the land of Canaan and said to them, “Go up this way through the Negev and go up into the hill country. 18 See what the land is like. See if the people who live in the land are strong or weak. See if they are few or many. 19 See if the land that they live in is good or bad. See what kind of cities they live in. See if the cities are camps or fortified places. 20 See what the land is like. See if the land is fertile or poor. See if there are trees in the land or not. Be courageous and bring back some of the fruit of the land.” This happened at the season of the first ripe grapes.

Moses gave the spies the general instruction to enter Canaan from the Negev and then to go up into the hill country. This was not the way that Israel would eventually go in, crossing the Jordan opposite Jericho. We will remember without comment that at that time, Joshua sent in two spies to look over the land and at Jericho in particular (Joshua 2:1).

Negev means “south” in general, but it was also the name of a definite region, just as in America “south” and “the South” are distinct from one another. The Negev is the steppe country south of Beersheba. In some places it is sandy, but there are sections of uncultivated, coarse grassland as well as shrubs and low trees, and even some wild vegetables. It is better suited to grazing than farming, and we might refer to it as prairie rather than desert.

The hill country included three main ranges of mountains. The first was the hill country of Judah. Not far from Hebron, the valleys of the Negev become narrower and steeper, and springs become more frequent (Caleb’s daughter would ask him to give her one of these, Joshua 15:18-19). There are deep natural caves in many places, which were the ancient lurks of the Horites, the cave men who were killed or driven away by the descendants of Esau while Israel entered Egypt under the care of Joseph (Deuteronomy 2:12). Almost every hilltop held a town with walls and narrow streets, easily defended from the cave men and valley-dwellers. The long lists of these towns given by Joshua doesn’t even mention places we would recognize (such as Bethlehem and Amos’ Tekoa), there were that many.

A little way north of Gibeon and Bethel, another hill country is distinct, and of a different character. These mountain heights are not organized like the hill country of Judah, but are irregular, with many steep valleys and defiles. The strategic importance of this region was that it defended Judea; a fence to the north. The mountain passes were key, “since by them Judea could be invaded, and it would be easy to stop any who tried to enter, for the approach was narrow, wide enough only for two at a time to pass” (Judith 4:7). The wide hillsides of this central dome were ranged by the wild ox (Deuteronomy 33:17). Here was the beautiful city of Tirzah, the first capital of the Northern Kingdom, sitting like a diamond on the finger of a new bride (Song of Solomon 6:4). Here are the twin peaks, Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, and between them King Omri would build the fabulous city of Samaria (1 Kings 16:24).

The third height to be noticed in the main part of Canaan (a fourth, Mount Hermon, towers snow-capped year-round in the distant north ) begins with Mount Carmel on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Sheep and goats graze on the slopes of Carmel (1 Samuel 25:2). Shade trees grow there (Isaiah 33:9). North of this, the slopes of Lebanon are lower, and a group of stepped hills climbing northward along the coast are called the Ladder of Tyre (1 Maccabees 11:59). Other notable heights include solitary mountains in Galilee such as Tabor (Psalm 89:12) and the mountains that surround the Sea of Galilee (John 6:15).

The spies entered into this land in late July or early August, the season of “the first ripe grapes.” This was Ab, the fifth month of the Hebrew religious calendar. From this detail and a few others, we can continue our chronology of Israel’s movements since leaving Mount Sinai:

Second year

20th of second month - Cloud lifts; Israel moves (May, Numbers 10:11)
22nd of second month - Cloud settles, Israel camps at Paran (May, Numbers 10:33)
Later: third month? - Quail, “for a month,” begin to fall (June, Numbers 11:19-20)
Fourth month? - Quail cease falling; dead buried at Kibroth Hattaavah (July, Numbers 11:20)
Late Tammuz ? (fourth month) - Israel moves to Hazeroth (July, Numbers 11:34-35)
Late Tammuz ? (fourth month) - Miriam and Aaron rebel (July, Numbers 12:1-2)
Early Ab (fifth month) - Miriam’s week of uncleanness ends (July, Numbers 12:15)
Early Ab (fifth month) - Israel moves to Paran (Kadesh) (July, Numbers 12:16, 13:26)
Ab (fifth month) - Spies set out in the season of first ripe grapes (August, Numbers 13:20)

The spies set out. The nation waited for them to return. At this point, it’s good for us to pull back and consider what’s actually happening here. God had given this land of Canaan to his people. It was occupied by enemies, but God had a plan for dealing with them. It was full of good blessings, springs, rivers, lush valleys, grazing land, farmland, lakes and seas full of fish. There were raw materials, precious stones and useful metals, iron and lead, copper and tin for making bronze,  silver, gold and iron, lumber, clay, quarries of good stone, salt, flint, herbs, resins, incense, myrrh, fruit, olives, grapes, grain (not to mention milk and honey), and many other things.

When one is given a gift, it’s no sin to look at it, delight in it, and praise it like a wife praising her husband’s strength and love (Song of Solomon 2:9-13). The spies were looking the land over, a land already given to them in the eyes of God. The promise was older than the family of Jacob. God had told Abraham even before the covenant was made: “The whole land of Canaan, where you are now an alien, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you, and I will be their God” (Genesis 17:8). Now that promise was a step closer to being fulfilled. God is the Lord who keeps his promises. His love is eternal. His compassion is infinite. And his mercy endures forever.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim Smith

About Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.


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