Select Page

The prepared text for today’s sermon at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church in Buffalo, New York, is below.  The sermon audio is available at this link.  For the polity wonks out there, yes, I am alluding to a majority and minority report at Presbyterian General Assemblies.  Indeed, a majority and minority report at General Assembly is an excellent analogy because the majority isn’t always most faithful to the word of God.  Can anyone find the other allusion to Presbyterian government in the sermon?  My commentary on the larger context of today’s passage is available here at this link.  Next week, we will move on to Numbers 15.  That chapter is a collection of laws.  You could check out my commentary that begins with Numbers 15 here at this link.

minority report artwork see:

The Grapes of Canaan by James Tissot shows two men carrying the single cluster of grapes using a pole. The twelve came back with this fruit and their reports. It would be a minority report of two men that God commended as faithful.

Our passage today is a familiar story. It is the story of a scouting party of twelve men—one for each of the twelve tribes—who went ahead of the rest of the army of Israel to see the Promised Land. What they were doing is not unlike what Moses had asked his father-in-law to do for the army in the wilderness. His father-in-law knew the wilderness and where they might camp in it. So Moses asked his family to act as a kind of scouting party for the nation of Israel while they made their way in the wilderness. The Lord worked through those Gentiles to tell Israel where to walk and where to rest. At this point they were getting closer to the Promised Land, so the Lord told Moses to send a chief from each of the twelve tribes of the army of Israel to spy out the land. This was a great honor for these twelve men and the passage goes into some length telling us their names. Undoubtedly, the order of their names in our passage is intentional. As a sign of problems to come, the chief from the tribe of Judah isn’t listed first. Instead, the name of the chief of Israel’s firstborn Reuben and the name of the chief of Simeon are first and second. The chief from Judah is listed third. You may recall the birth-order of Israel’s children begins Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah. As we have seen in other lists of the twelve tribes in Numbers, Levi doesn’t count. Thus the order here is Reuben, Simeon, Judah. But even though Levi doesn’t count, there are still twelve tribes in the list because Joseph’s two sons have full tribal status. Joseph’s firstborn was Manasseh. That is probably why in this list it is called “the tribe of Joseph,” that is, “the tribe of Manasseh.” But the one thing we shouldn’t miss is where Ephraim falls in the list. So far the list of names is the same order as the list of the assistants for the census in Numbers 1. In that list in Numbers 1, Ephraim came before his elder brother Manasseh because Israel (Joseph’s father) had blessed Ephraim over Manasseh. But in our list today Ephraim gets another promotion. After Judah, Leah’s next son was Isaachar. Thus in both of these lists Isaachar follows Judah. But we would expect Leah’s son Zebulun to be next like it was in Numbers 1. Instead, Ephraim is next. The name Hoshea son of Nun from the tribe of Ephraim gets promoted in this list to point forward to his faithfulness. Now we might have been tempted not to make much of the order of these tribes. Thus the author did something else to make sure we don’t miss his “promotion.” After a summary statement in verse sixteen, “These were the names of the men whom Moses sent to spy out the land,” then we are told that Moses called Hoshea the son of Nun “Joshua.” It is a small but significant name change for Hoshea is a more generic name meaning salvation but Joshua clearly means YHWH saves. His birth-name Hoshea encouraged him to believe in salvation generally, but his prophetic-name Joshua encouraged him to believe in YHWH specifically for salvation. All twelve members of the scouting party saw the same things as the story unfolds, but ten interpreted what they saw with eyes of unbelief. There were only two who returned a faithful minority report. Those two were Caleb the son of Jephunneh from the tribe of Judah and Joshua the son of Nun of Ephraim. And now as you hear this familiar story, listen for some of the details about this story that we often forget.

Numbers 13:1-14:45 

  1. The majority report of the ten spies with its irrational unbelief and the grumbling it generated was a devastating failure.

    1. The ten scouts failed the test because of their fearful unbelief. First of all, it was a period of forty days—which is the Biblical number for a period of testing. Their assignment was simple. They didn’t go into the Promised Land in order to decide whether they would be able to conquer it or whether they even wanted to conquer it. No, they went into the Promised Land in order to bring back military intelligence and to retrieve a sample of its fruit. They would see for themselves that it was a good land flowing with milk and honey and cultivated with vineyards and orchards of fruit trees just as the Lord said it was. The final test comes at the end of the forty days. This test was the report they would give. It was a test to see if they believed in the Lord who had promised them that He was giving them this land. The ten scouts were unable to deny that the land flows with milk and honey and produces bountiful fruit because of the sample. I myself wonder if it was the other two scouts who brought back that fruit so that it would be undeniable. The text tells us they cut a branch with a single cluster of grapes that was so large they had to carry it on a pole between two of the men and that they also brought some pomegranates and figs. Nevertheless, the majority report to Moses was that the people of Israel should ignore the fruit and fear the inhabitants of the land. The land was occupied by strong people in large fortified cities and besides, they say, there are giants living in the land. The conclusion that they drew from all of the evidence that they had seen was that Israel was unable to go up against the people of the land for they are stronger than Israel. They didn’t believe. Indeed, they didn’t stop there.

    2. The ten scouts then began inciting the people of Israel to grumble against the Lord and His anointed ones—Moses and Aaron. The text told us that they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out. They persuaded the people that the land eats its inhabitants like bread and that there are giants in the land such that they felt like little grasshoppers. First of all, they left out of their report to the people that the land was flowing with milk and honey and that they brought back bountiful fruit. This people who were sick of eating manna and now quail could have enjoyed grapes and even wine. Instead, the ten scouts whined about the giants living in the land. Unbelief led them to do so because the fruit of unbelief is grumbling and grumbling has a completely negative attitude toward the present. You may recall that two weeks ago we said that grumbling takes on a particular attitude toward the past, present, and future. Grumbling sees the past as a golden age, it can only see the negative in the present, and it is unable to imagine a future. Thus instead of telling the people that the land was flowing with milk and honey they told the people that the land eats the inhabitants living in it. If you think about it, their claim doesn’t make sense. They are saying that the land eats the inhabitants living in it but there are giants living in it. How could there be giants living in the land if that were true? And the unbelief of the people they represented shows the same irrationality. They said it would be better to have died back in Egypt or to have died in the wilderness than to die by the sword in the land of Canaan. That simply doesn’t make sense. But it fits the perspective of grumbling regarding the past and the future. Grumbling says that the past was a golden age and grumbling is unable to imagine a future. Nor does it make sense to think that YHWH had brought them out of Egypt performing signs and providing them with manna and water to sustain them through the wilderness only to bring them into the Promised Land to be slaughtered by giants. But that is what they believed—they didn’t trust YHWH. (So He would give them some of what they asked for—they would die in the wilderness over the next forty years.)

    3. The ten who failed the test died in a plague first, and the rest of those numbered in the census would die over the next forty years including in a battle that they foolishly decided to fight at the end of today’s passage. That final scene is a reminder that faith isn’t presumption. John the Baptist would warn the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, “And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham” (Matt 3:9). But the people of Israel presumed to go up to the hill country expecting the Lord to fight for them and they were soundly defeated and even pursued to Hormah. Hormah is a place meaning destruction, it comes up again in Numbers 21:3 where we read that YHWH obeyed Israel and gave over the Canaanites and they devoted them and their cities to destruction. So the name of the place was called Hormah. A city in Simeon would be called by the same name in Judges 1:17 for the same reason—Judah went with Simeon his brother and they defeated the Canaanites who inhabited Zephath and devoted it to destruction—so the name of the city was called Hormah. In any case, they were pursued to a place called destruction. These were a kind of firstfruits of their grumbling at the report of the ten, but death would come to all who were not faithful to the Lord. (Two people excepted–)

  2. Caleb and Joshua gave a faithful minority report to Moses and to the people.

    1. Before the ten scouts began lobbying the people with their majority report, Caleb summed up the minority report to Moses saying, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” When the people of Israel were demanding the election of a new moderator who would lead them back to Egypt, Caleb and Joshua tore their clothes and told the whole congregation that the land is an exceedingly good land and if YHWH delights in us He will bring us into this land and give it to us. They even told the people not to be afraid of the inhabitants of the land for they are like bread for us—their protection is removed from them and YHWH is with us. And in a pattern that would continue down to the crucifixion of Christ and the treatment of His apostles, the people of Israel said to stone them with stones. It is at this point that YHWH came down in judgment for the glory of YHWH appeared at the tent of meeting to all the people of Israel and the Lord said He wanted to start over with Moses and Moses interceded for Israel. (Let’s put this in perspective. This doesn’t include the tribe of Levi with people like Moses and Aaron and Miriam, for as we’ve said before they don’t count. Nevertheless, the report of Caleb and Joshua was a minority report by every measurement. Aside from the Levites, there was a faithful minority of only two people of the some six hundred thousand people on foot. Only two were faithful. Why those two?)

    2. Caleb and Joshua were faithful to YHWH because they had the gift of faith. They were willing to take courage because of their faith. Seeing the land flowing with milk and honey only encouraged them to grow in faith. Remember that they have the same experience and knowledge as the other ten scouts. The difference is that they looked at the inhabitants of the land and the fruit of the land with eyes of faith. And faith comes from hearing and hearing by the word of God. No doubt, Caleb and Joshua heard the word of God and believed. They heard things like Genesis 13:14-18 where YHWH told Abram, after Lot had separated from him, “Lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are northward and southward and eastward and westward, for all the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever. I will make your offspring as the dust of the earth, so that if one could count the dust of the earth, your offspring also can be counted. Arise, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I will give it to you. So Abram moved his tent and came and settled by the oaks of Mamre, which are at Hebron, and there he built an altar to YHWH.” It isn’t an accident that Numbers says these scouts went up into the Negeb (the Hebrew word for south—meaning in this case the southern part of the land of Canaan) and came to Hebron. These scouts were at the very place where Father Abraham himself lived and worshiped. But only two of them were true sons of Abraham for those of faith are the sons of Abraham (cf. Gal 3:7). Ten looked at the scene Abram saw at Hebron with unbelief, but these two looked at the same scene as Abram and believed. (And thus by faith, Caleb and Joshua were types of Jesus when they gave their faithful minority report.)

  3. Jesus—of the tribe of Judah like Caleb—Jesus—whose name in Hebrew is Joshua—presented the most faithful minority report of all.

    1. The minority report of Jesus was a minority of one. It was a minority report by every measurement. Jesus never rebelled against the Father. He passed all of the tests from the tests of Satan at the end of forty days of fasting in the wilderness to the final test of the cross where He died for us. He willingly laid down the protection of the Father in order to die in our place the death we deserve. By so doing, Jesus mortally wounded the giants of Satan and death. Jesus also did signs and wonders among the people of Israel and yet many in Israel didn’t believe. There is a sense in which while God didn’t start over with Moses as He threatened to do in Numbers 14, but God did start over with Jesus. For those who do not believe in Him will be struck down with pestilence and disinherited and God has made a nation greater and mightier than Israel known today as Christ’s church. But at the same time, for those who believe there is forgiveness of sins in His name. Indeed, the cross is where the mercy and justice of God meet (God who is both slow to anger and abounding in loyal love—forgiving iniquity and transgression—and God who by no means clears the guilty). Moreover, the author of this faithful minority report didn’t remain alive, but He rose from the dead and ascended to the Promised Land. He went ahead of us to prepare a place for us in the Promised Land. It is no accident that the two scouts carried back such an abundance of grapes from a branch with a single cluster. They were bringing it back for a covenant feast with the Lord. From the Promised Land, Jesus gives us the grape juice of His blood whenever we celebrate His Supper. (Yes, there will be some around us who look upon all these things through the eyes of unbelief. They may even far outnumber those who believe. But…)

    2. Rather than focusing on the negative and grumbling about it, we who believe continue to testify to the minority report of Jesus. We help people to understand the difference between overcoming our giants through faith in Jesus and presumptuously fighting a losing battle with those giants. We testify that we are able to overcome any obstacle if God is indeed with us. We tear our clothes and plead with people not to rebel against the Lord in front of abortion clinics. We testify to the world that the Promised Land will soon come down and renew all things for those who believe will inherit the earth. We testify to the glory of God in Christ Jesus and encourage people to respond in faith when they see the signs of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We pray for people. It makes some Christians uncomfortable to see just how much God changes His mind when Moses prayed. But we believe that God hears our prayers and even often acts because of those prayers. I’m not giving you commandments to keep. I’m describing the fruit of faith. These are the kinds of things that God does through us. In all of these ways, we spread the fame of the Lord among the nations. It is our faithful minority report. To God alone be the glory. Amen.

%d bloggers like this: