When I was young, we sang a little chorus in Sunday School. The lyrics went like this:
Twelve men went to spy out Canaan,
(Ten were bad and two were good)
What do you think they saw in Canaan?
(Ten were bad and two were good)
Some saw giants, big and tall!
Some saw grapes in clusters fall,
Some saw God was in it all.
(Ten were bad and two were good)
It was a fun song, and I think it helped teach us something from the Bible— particularly Numbers chapter 13. Still, when the song says that 10 were bad spies and two were good spies, I think it begs the question, “In what way were the 10 bad?”
First of all they were all pretty competent spies. They went into the land, did surveillance, and came back out and gave a fairly accurate picture of the land and its inhabitants. In that sense they were good.
Second, they were probably considered generally good people anyway. They were part of the leadership of their respective tribes. Of course being recognized as a leader doesn’t mean that one is good (far from it). However, Moses probably chose these leaders. Moses had a tendency to be a bit of a micro-manager, after all.
Third, the things they did wrong were not necessarily evidence of true “badness.” At first blush, the main bad thing they did was confuse the purpose of their mission. For Joshua and Caleb, they understood their mission as determining HOW to enter the land. The same understanding was held by the spies years later in entering the land of Canaan via the Jordan River. For the ten spies, it seems as if their understanding of their mission was to determine IF the people should enter the land, rather than how. (Although I will question that view later.) The other thing is that they did their own interpretation of their findings. The passage described the spies as “giving a bad report” (a slander) to the people. They interpreted their findings and then gave the findings a certain… spin… based on their interpretation. Arguably, that makes the ten spies bad in their profession… however, Joshua and Caleb also gave an interpretation, or spin, to their findings. Additionally, since God sought leaders from among the tribes, it seems likely that a certain amount of discernment or interpretation was expected of them. Perhaps from a professional standpoint, they did generally did their job…
But there is a different interpretation.
What if the ten spies had TOO MUCH faith. Or perhaps it would be better to say, too much of the wrong kind of faith. Consider their recent history.
- The Israelites were helpless to leave Egypt, and God miraculously brought them out.
- The Israelites were helpless trapped between the Egyptian army and the Sea of Reeds, and God miraculously brought them to safety.
- In the following months, the people of Israel complained about bitter water, lack of food, and lack of meat. In each occasion, God miraculously solved their problem.
In each case, Israel’s helplessness brought about God’s miraculous response. It is possible that these leaders picked up the pattern all too well. They come back and said, “The task is too big, the enemy is too strong. We are too weak. We can’t do it. We should go back to Egypt.” They expected Moses to come back an say. “God wiped out your enemy, go ahead and enter at your own leisure.” But God did not do things that way. As the figure below shows, God responded positively to grumbling and complaining about 50% of the time during the wilderness sojourn. Here He said, “Too bad. Wander around in the desert for decades.” At that point, it is obvious that the declaration of going back to Egypt was only a ruse. Once that ruse failed, they were all motivated to push forward into Canaan… and failure.
If this scenario is true, the spies were not bad people necessarily. They also were not bad because they lacked faith. Rather, they perhaps were bad because they had the wrong kind of faith.
The bad faith they had was a faith in themselves in knowing what God will do. They believed they had “figured God out.” If they whine and complain and act helpless, God would do what they wanted.
I rather like this interpretation, and it is certainly still a problem we have today. We still want to manipulate God—
- Throwing around pleasant sounding but poorly grounded bumper sticker phrases like, “Let Go, and Let God” or “Expect a Miracle.”
- Taking a Name it and Claim it attitude regarding life as if God is our servant rather than vice versa.
- Grabbing promises that were given to other people and saying that they apply to us. (A strange form of thievery indeed).
There are a lot of books out there on the market that talk about how certain prayers, or certain prayers said the right way, or some other form of spiritual discipline has “power,” — meaning that God will answer the prayer positively when otherwise He might be of a mind to respond negatively A good faith is based on the object of our faith rather than presumptions about our own discernment. As such, the words of Caleb and Joshua seem a better faith. They stated that if they obey God, God has promised victory. This is certainly better than trying to presuming how God would give them victory, or trying to manipulate how.
At the same time, two of those who had explored the land, Joshua (son of Nun) and Caleb (son of Jephunneh), tore their clothes in despair. They said to the whole community of Israel, “The land we explored is very good. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us. This is a land flowing with milk and honey! Don’t rebel against the Lord, and don’t be afraid of the people of the land. We will devour them like bread. They have no protection, and the Lord is with us. So don’t be afraid of them.” Numbers 14:6-9
This same good faith is demonstrated in Daniel 3:16-18. The three knew God and His faithfulness, but did not presume how He would respond in a specific setting.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego answered the king, “Nebuchadnezzar, we don’t need to explain these things to you. If you throw us into the hot furnace, the God we serve can save us. And if he wants to, he can save us from your power. But even if God does not save us, we want you to know, King, that we refuse to serve your gods. We will not worship the gold idol you have set up.”
So maybe the children’s song is correct. Two spies had faith in God that led to obedience, and ten spies had faith in their ability to manipulate God. Indeed ten were bad and two were good.