At some point in every believers walk, we have to come to realize that we lack the freedom to control the arbitrariness of life—indeed, there are innumerable things that we just can’t change, nor is our ability the standard of what is possible. The acknowledgement of human finitude also comes with the acknowledgement that self-determination really isn’t self-determined at all. It is certain that we all have encountered things that are unexpected, surprising, or beyond our control. What is not certain is how we respond to those circumstances. And our response is totally contingent not upon what we see but how we see it.
Reality is universally sensed, but perception is individually experienced. What a person perceives has already gone through a filter that incorporates past experiences, people, tradition, ideology, education, mood, self-esteem, and many other such things.
This filter produces a mental impression that ends up being more important than the initial reality itself. Imaginative leaders are so treasured because they have the gift to perceive something that is not visible to everyone else. In other words, seeing (reality) is very ordinary but vision (perception) is extraordinary. Vision sees a reality that does not yet exist, and execution materializes the yet-to-be-achieved future into the tangible present.
In Numbers 13, we meet Moses and the people of Israel in the wilderness outside of the Promised Land. Literally, they are standing at the border of a free gift: the land has already been promised, but not yet inherited. So the people have a receipt for a very nice and very expensive gift, but they haven’t gone to go get it. The gift cannot be delivered, it must be picked up in person. The promise represents a more abundant life as it says it John 10:10, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Note that in God’s plan, He intended to take a very direct route: first, the exodus from Egypt, then the giving of the Law at Mount Sinai, and then entry into the Promised Land. In other words, quick and efficient liberation, preparation, and occupation. But what caused a delay and tarnished God’s pristine plan? The people’s poor perception.
Numbers 13:23, 26-27 says, “Then they came to the valley of Eshcol and from there cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes; and they carried it on a pole between two men … They proceeded to come to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation of the sons of Israel in the wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh; and they brought back word to them and to all the congregation and showed them the fruit of the land. Thus they told him, and said, ‘We went in to the land where you sent us; and it certainly does flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.’”
These verses portray the reality: the land was so bountiful and wonderful that a single cluster of grapes had to be carried on a pole between two grown men. Clearly, the Promised Land represented a “more abundant life.” Yet, from this static reality two dynamic perceptions resulted. One perception focused on the self, led to rebellion, and ultimately death. The other perception focused on God, led to obedience, confidence and a new life.
Numbers 13:28-29 illustrates the resultant self-centered perception: “Nevertheless, the people who live in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large; and moreover, we saw the descendants of Anak there. Amalek is living in the land of the Negev and the Hittites and the Jebusites and the Amorites are living in the hill country, and the Canaanites are living by the sea and by the side of the Jordan.”
On the other hand, Numbers 13:30 describes a God-centered perception: “Then Caleb quieted the people before Moses and said, ‘We should by all means go up and take possession of it, for we will surely overcome it.’”
In the first perception, the goodness of the reality that everyone saw became offset by the perception of those fearful spies who felt intimidated. What cannot be forgotten, however, is that those who perceived the promise as bad are the same Israelites who experienced the reality of Egyptian bondage, the same Israelites who experienced the liberating and supernatural plagues imposed on the Egyptians, the same Israelites who were present at the parting of the Red Sea, and the same Israelites who witnessed God descend on Mount Sinai. The difference, of course, is that in all of those examples, those miraculous feats involved passive observance. Now, the people were being asked to actively obey, and they subsequently folded. This dividing line—between lukewarm believers and the inflexibly devout—still persists to this day. These same Israelites that had spent their entire lives in bondage, although they were now “free,” still thought like they were enslaved by allowing something other than God to define who they were. The Israelites forgot what their name truly means: people of God.
And this narrative actually becomes the Garden of Eden in reverse—God is symbolically re-creating creation. In Eden, our first parents, Adam and Eve, were already in the abundant life, in the Garden, with the promise. In Numbers 13, we have a people outside of the promise, in the barren wilderness, looking in and without. In Adam and Eve’s case, they neglected to see the fruit of the tree as a blessing and instead perceived the fruit they could eat as limited. The Israelites perceived the fruit of another tree as a limitation as well. As Numbers 13:31-33 says, the people decided to act on a lie, turn away from God, and turn toward Egypt: “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are too strong for us.” So they gave out to the sons of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land through which we have gone, in spying it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants; and all the people whom we saw in it are men of great size. There also we saw the Nephilim and we became like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their sight.”
Now, the Anakites (see Numbers 13:28-29), or men of great size, are upgraded into Nephilim, legendary and mighty warriors last mentioned in Genesis 6:4. There is no basis in the text for the Nephilim assertion. Out of fear, their words were becoming increasingly greater exaggerations and distortions, deliberately intended to invoke fear in others. Yet, what the people didn’t realize is that by rejecting God’s promise, they were in fact rejecting God, and forgetting everything that He had done for them.
And look at the results of rejecting God: “Then all the congregation lifted up their voices and cried, and the people wept that night. All the sons of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron; and the whole congregation said to them, ‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become plunder; would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?’ So they said to one another, ‘Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt’ (Numbers 14:1-4).
The frightening words by the faithless led to the mourning of the entire community and to their great rebellion against the Lord. This also illustrates just how irrational faith is when you give up what is promised and good for what is certain and doomed. Numbers 14:12 shows us that God would deal with rebellious Israel the same way He dealt with apostate Egypt: “I will smite them with pestilence and dispossess them.” In other words, God decided to send the same plague on Israel as He did to the Egyptians in Exodus 9:15. Dispossess also means to disinherit, so although God took Israel out of Egypt as an inheritance (Exodus 34:9), He would now grant them their wish to go back and disinherit them, reversing the Exodus.
Ironically, if the Israelites only looked at what they saw, the people living in the Promised Land were more powerful. They were bigger, stronger, more well-equipped, and better fortified. In the same way, if David was going up against Goliath by himself, all the smart money is on Goliath. When Elijah went up against 850 false prophets atop Mt. Carmel, again, the “logical” thing to do would be to vote in favor of the majority. The missing ingredient, of course, is God. To fear anything more than God is a violation of the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). God is not constrained by our reality, so why would anyone ever let their perception limit He who cannot be bound? After all, The Lord made the entire universe out of nothing, so just imagine what He can do with the little something you are working with.
When people complain to El-Shaddai, God Almighty, the Author, Creator, and Master of our universe about how big and strong their enemies are, how do you think that makes God feel? And what, then, is God to think of such people?
Ask yourself: is God worth a good fight? People always criticize the Bible and say there’s so much war and fighting and killing and battles, but a struggle derives its meaning and value from its desired end. One always ought to consider if what you are fighting for—including a more abundant life, liberation, and The Lord’s promise—is worth a good brawl.
The nature of the sin in Numbers 13-14 is the despising or spurning of God’s free gift of the Promised Land, which was Israel’s for the taking. The NT analogy to this is the crucifixion of Jesus. The cross is the sign of the world despising God’s great free gift of salvation in Christ. God’s ultimate fulfillment of Israel’s Messianic expectation is subsequently met by the people’s rejection. So, just as the Israelites then asked, “How can I trust God?” they could look back on what The Lord did for them in Egypt. Now, everyone can look back to Christ and to the cross. And like Moses, who denied himself glory and mediated in order to save Israel, Christ denied Himself and His own glory for the sake of all of us (Philippians 2:1-11).
Death in the desert was God’s just judgment on the old wilderness generation. They would never reach the Promised Land. But out of death came new life. God promised to raise up a new generation of hope who would enter Canaan. The rebels in the story wanted to save their own lives by refusing to stand up to their enemies in Canaan. Jesus, however, tells us that the road of faith moves against the grain: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it” (Luke 9:24). The way of faith is always through death to a new life, through the cross to resurrection.
God always has, and always will, have an eternal fight, and that battle is for you. He never gives up, He never backs down, and He wants you to occupy the land where the abundant fruit grows. But you have to get up and seize it. At the border of the Promised Land, you have to look back at slavery, sin, death, evil, fear, and worthlessness and look forward to new life, new beginnings, and new possibilities with God. And when you turn away from a perspective that only sees what was or is and instead look ahead to Jesus Christ, the one who hung helpless on a cross, the proper perception becomes evident: He could have said, “Father, take me back to a place of safety, take me back to the way things used to be, take me away from the pain and struggle.” Yet, He didn’t. Instead, He continued to fight, He continued to persevere, He continued to push forward, and He continued to fearlessly march ahead. Finally, when sin and death were defeated, He then said, “It is finished” (John 19:30).
Dr. C. H. E. Sadaphal