As Chapter 13 starts, the Israelites have FINALLY reached Canaan, the land that God has promised to be their new forever homeland. Hooray! God tells Moses to send an exploration team into Canaan to see where the cities and fortifications are, what the farmland is like, and to bring back some fruit as proof of its fertility. Moses appoints a leader from each of the tribes to form the team and they set out. They explore all of Canaan for 40 days and bring back a big cluster of grapes, some pomegranates and figs to show the land’s bounty.
Extra Info! So, the land of Canaan is basically what is Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon today and here’s a map of how it would have been populated when the Israelites explored it. It was also Phoenecia, so if you’ve studied the interesting culture, economy and innovations of the Phoenecians, well, they were Canaanites.
You’ll see that there are a lot of people already living in Canaan, and the Israelite explorers noticed this as well. While they were excited about the fruit opportunities, they were nervous about all the Hittites, Amorites, and all the -ites in general. The explorers describe the cities as being fortified and large, and the people as Nephilim, or scary giants.
Only one of the explorer/leaders, Caleb, is calm about the situation. In Verse 30 he says, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.” All the other men are freaked out at the idea, and they spread word among all the Israelites that only furthers the out-freakage. In Verses 32-33: “The land we explored devours those living in it. All the people we saw there are of great size. We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”
In Chapter 14, all the Israelites start wailing and weeping in misery AGAIN. Yes, they’ve been down this road before. Yes, God has shown them miracle after miracle. Yes, God has punished them before for their lack of faith and their fear. It doesn’t matter. They start crying out to Moses and Aaron, AGAIN, ‘If only we had died in Egypt, or in the wilderness, why has God led us here only to allow us to be taken by force and plundered, yadda, yadda, yadda.’ Moses and Aaron react badly to all this, falling face down in front of all the assembly of Israelites, who are whipping themselves into a frenzy.
Joshua (thank goodness for Joshua) gets ticked off at this embarrassing display and tries to reason with all of them. In Verses 7-9: “The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. If the LORD is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us. Only do not rebel against the LORD. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will devour them. Their protection is gone, but the LORD is with us. Do not be afraid of them.” So now only TWO of all the Israelite adults (I’m not even counting Moses and Aaron, because they keep messing up as well) have learned from God’s examples.
But we all know how hard it is to calm people who are truly pitching a hissy-fit. The Israelites refused to be consoled. Well, because God is God, He hears all of this and He’s had quite enough, Thank You Very Much. The Israelites have displayed their fear and lack of faith one too many times, and finally, He decides it’s time for their destruction. Moses pulls out his only trump card and reminds God (AGAIN) that if He wipes out the Israelites the Egyptians will hear about it and tell all the other nations that God isn’t that great after all, if He ends up killing all His people. Moses also begs God that He has promised in the past that He will punish them, but not destroy them.
God turns back from his wrath and does decide to forgive them – but there will be a terrible cost paid by the Israelites for their sin. Every single adult Israelite who witnessed God’s miracles and goodness and still cried out in fear at the prospect of the Canaanites will never enter it. They’ll never occupy the land He had promised them. God will honor Caleb, Joshua and their people, as they’ll be brought in to take over Canaan and live in the Land of Milk and Honey. The children of the cryers and complainers will eventually be allowed into Canaan, but first they’ll have to live in the desert as shepherds and wanderers for 40 years – a year for each of the days that the explorers were in Canaan. God then strikes down the explorer team (except for Caleb and Joshua.) with a plague and they all die.
When Moses tells the Israelites of their punishment, they all mourn. And then they do exactly what punished people tend to do, even to this very day – they admit their wrongdoing and are very, very sorry, but then they want their punishment removed as a result of their confession alone. “Yes, Mom, you’re right. I ate that cake you set aside and I’m very sorry I did it. But to punish me by not letting me go to the slumber party is too much. I’ve learned my lesson. I’ll never do it again. So – I can still go, right?” It’s very much like that. The next day, the Israelites start out for a high hill, saying, ‘Yes, we have sinned, but now we’re ready to go into God’s country, as He promised. We’ll do the right thing now!” Moses warns them that God has had enough of their foolishness and His punishment is final, but the Israelites haven’t really listened to God, so they’re not listening to Moses, either. They go up the hill – without Moses and the tabernacle with the Ark of the Covenant – and that detail seals God’s decision. The Amalekites and Canaanites who lived in that hill country swarm them and attack them and the survivors retreat to Hormah.
After all this drama, In Chapter 15 God then tells Moses that the remaining Israelites who are to be allowed to enter Canaan will have some new sacrifices to perform to Him. When they enter Canaan, they are to do their usual food offerings, whether burnt offerings or sacrifices, and then also give grain offerings and wine offerings. Those who will be born in Canaan are to keep up these new requirements and any foreigners who come to live with them must also make the same sacrifices. God also says that if anyone unintentionally fails to keep His commandments, and the community as a whole is unaware of it, they must offer a young bull as a burnt offering and the priest must make atonement. If anyone sins knowingly and defiantly, though, they are to be cut off from the community and must live in their guilt.
Things They Don’t Talk About in Sunday School: so, the unintentional sins bit above. It literally says in Verse 24: “…and if this is done unintentionally without the community being aware of it…” So, how would they know that they are to do the sacrifice? I mean, if I break the law unknowingly but no one else knows about it either, how would everyone know that I’m to pay penance for it? It does not say. I suppose that eventually someone may figure out that a wrongdoing was done, and then we all must admit it, but that part isn’t made clear here.
Meanwhile, an Israelite is discovered gathering wood on a Sabbath day. He’s brought before Moses and Aaron and all the community, and God tells Moses that the guy has committed a mortal sin and so must die. So they all stone him. End of story.
The last part of Chapter 15: God decides that all Israelites in every generation from here on out is to wear tassels on the corners of their clothes, with a blue cord on each tassel. The tassels will remind them to remember God’s commandments. Well, they do need some reminders, it seems.
Fun Facts! The tassels are called Tzitzit in Hebrew, which is fun to say (try it!). Maimonides, Torah scholar and influential Jewish philosopher from the Middle Ages stated that the wearing of tzitzit was one of God’s major commandments, on the same level as those regarding circumcision and observing Passover. Many traditional Jews today still wear tzitzit, and you can find a LOT of them for sale through Etsy. They’re not expensive. They all have a specific number of knots and strings, and for much of Jewish history there were mostly to be worn by men only. Since the 1970s, though, the Rabbinical Assembly has ruled that women can also wear tzitzit.