12 Spies in Canaan (Numbers 13)


Reading: Numbers 13: 1-3, 17-20, 26-8, 30-1; 14: 5-9

The Lord said to Moses, ‘Send some men to explore the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites. From each ancestral tribe send one of its leaders.’ So at the Lord’s command Moses sent them out from the Desert of Paran. All of them were leaders of the Israelites.

17 When Moses sent them to explore Canaan, he said, ‘Go up through the Negev and on into the hill country. See what the land is like and whether the people who live there are strong or weak, few or many. What kind of land do they live in? Is it good or bad? What kind of towns do they live in? Are they unwalled or fortified? How is the soil? Is it fertile or poor? Are there trees in it or not? Do your best to bring back some of the fruit of the land.’ (It was the season for the first ripe grapes.)

26 They came back to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community at Kadesh in the Desert of Paran. There they reported to them and to the whole assembly and showed them the fruit of the land. They gave Moses this account: ‘We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit. But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large. We even saw descendants of Anak there.’

30 Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, ‘We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.’ But the men who had gone up with him said, ‘We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.

Chapter 14 v 5 Then Moses and Aaron fell face down in front of the whole Israelite assembly gathered there. Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had explored the land, tore their clothes and said to the entire Israelite assembly, ‘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.’


When I was a boy in primary (elementary) school, we were allowed to play on the football pitch when the weather was good. Adjacent to the field behind a hedge and separated by a patch of long grass was a golf course.

It was so exciting to crawl through the long grass until I was almost in touching distance of one of the putting greens and spy on the golfers, who knew nothing of my presence!

Over the centuries, countries have sent spies to discover as much information about the ‘enemy’ or ‘rival’ as possible…

  • It can be a dangerous business
  • In WW2, I believe that the average survival rate for spies in France was only a couple of months
  • Sometimes, an attractive lady spy is used to lure a foolish older man into an intimate relationship to discover his business or state secrets, a so-called ‘honey trap’
  • I also read that because of “spy planes’, almost nothing that is said or done openly can go undetected for long
  • Evidence from ‘spy-in-the-sky’ is even being used in Court cases!

And in Numbers 13, we read about another spy ring…the 12 spies in Canaan!

There are two key issues that emerge from the Bible account:

  1. The exercise of faith
  2. The exercise of leadership


Twelve men were chosen to spy out the land of Canaan on behalf of Moses and the Israelites…

  • They were instructed to find out about the people, their strength and numbers; the nature of their defences; the quality of the land and its produce, and so forth
  • We read in Numbers 13 v 3 that the men were all leaders of the Israelites, not just a bunch of young fellows looking for adventure!
  • They were reliable and courageous men

It’s important to bear this fact in mind when evaluating their behaviour and reactions when they reported back to Moses

An old children’s chorus goes … “Twelve men went to spy in Canaan, ten were bad, two were good” … but that’s a distortion of the truth…

  • It’s easy to be dismissive of the 10 spies who advised great caution, as if they were ‘low life’ characters
  • These men weren’t “bad”, nor were they cowardly
  • From a human, rational perspective, their report on the challenges facing the Israelites and the seeming impossibility of the situation was accurate and fair
  • However, the ten men lacked a vital spiritual quality possessed by the other two men, Caleb and Joshua, namely, wholehearted faith (trust) in God

Not every decision and action in life can be determined by weighing up the pros and cons

  • God has given us a mind and expects us to use it… but His commands must always supersede human instinct or reason
  • This is the way; walk in it!” should be the mantra of everyone seeking to follow the Lord

Of course, that principle assumes that “we have the mind of Christ” in the first place!

  • Waiting on God for His command has to precede our actions, not follow them!
  • In other words, if we do not have the mind of Christ, we can only use only human reason … and hope that it aligns with God’s will

Once we are clear about the direction in which the Spirit of God is pointing us, the exercise of faith follows…

  • Note the order… First, God speaks then we exercise faith to obey
  • There is little point in ‘exercising faith’ if we are pursuing the wrong path!
  • So “waiting on God” through prayer, reading the Bible and talking to spiritually mature people is necessary before we take action

Once we are at peace in our hearts, we move with speed and decisiveness

A second point to note is that the notion that some people have faith and others do not is far too simplistic

  • It’s common experience that the faith/trust that we have in God varies according to the circumstances
  • I find that I have great faith for someone else’s problems… but far less when I am in a similar position!
  • It is also true that the faith in God required for a “one-off” event, such as (say) going for an important interview is different from an on-going issue, such as a long-term illness.

When the 12 men returned from spying the land, there was a clear gulf between the ways in which they viewed their experiences…

  • Ten men were anxious and gloomy
  • Two men (Caleb and Joshua) were positive and determined

As far as we can see, the difference between the two groups of men had nothing to do with their personalities (whether ‘optimists’ or ‘pessimists’) and much more to do with their depth of trust in God.

  • All 12 men had some faith in God (and their own abilities) or they wouldn’t have agreed to go on the mission in the first place!
  • The problem arose when they needed to express their trust in God regardless of circumstances!
  • The ten men showed that their faith was less securely rooted than the other two men

“Circumstances” are often the barrier to ‘faith in action’

  • Even when we have sought God’s will, we tend to look at the problems, such as lack of resources, the attitude of others, shortage of funds, our physical weakness… and step back

Scripture shows us that God understands our weaknesses

  • Gideon was allowed to use a fleece to confirm God’s will
  • Barak (Judges 4) received God’s clear command to pursue Jabin, King of Canaan at that time… but he insisted that Deborah the prophet accompanied him!
  • In 2 Kings 20, King Hezekiah of Judah asked for a shadow in the stairway to move back ten steps before accepting God’s healing

 So if you are the sort of person who needs reassurance through a sign from God, you are in good company!

Perhaps we all need to speak and show more active faith in God and use less negative talk and apprehension

Once God’s will had been made clear, the Israelites still needed to take the land, fight battles and subdue godless nations…

  • They didn’t just sit back and do the crossword puzzle!
  • But they could approach the ‘task unfinished’ with confidence that God was in ultimate control and would not let them down

So where are you on the FAITH SPECTRUM? With the ten or with the two… or somewhere in-between!


The other key issue is leadership

  • We usually associate leadership with crisis situations… such as political and military leaders during a time of war
  • But leadership skills have to be sharpened and exercised in the ups and downs of everyday life… and these ten men would have ‘served their apprenticeships’ as leaders!

The late John Stott (d. 2011) said that Christian leadership has 5 main ingredientsclear vision, hard work, dogged perseverance, humble service and iron (self-) discipline

So what can we say about the leadership shown by the 10 men who reported that the task of conquering Canaan was impossible?

  1. They were capable men, who were no doubt chosen because of their personalities, people skills, courage and decisiveness
  2. They were brave men, who accepted the daunting challenge of entering enemy territory … no small thing!
  3. Crucially, however, the ten men, though capable leaders, failed to demonstrate spiritual leadership

In church life, it is normal to select as leaders, people (men and women) who are: (a) willing and available and (b) capable of ‘getting a job done’…

  • Such people may well be optimistic, outgoing, personable, articulate and hard-working… highly necessary qualities
  • However, spiritual leadership is needed alongside general leadership (organising, managing and advising, etc.)
  • That’s why some churches have a system of deacons and elders

Caleb and Joshua were just ‘one of the bunch’ until crunch time came!

  • When ‘the decisive moment’ came, they were the only two to express deep faith and trust in God
  • Their leadership was rooted in hearing from God… believing God … and acting accordingly

There is much to learn about leadership from this event…

Leadership comes in many forms… but the ideal leader is someone with organising skills, vision, grittiness to see a job through and spiritual depth

Caleb seems to have been an example of this ‘ideal’… He was articulate, positive and active… but he also believed God and didn’t doubt that what God says, He means!

We find that the leaders’ spiritual limitations had profound implications for those who follow… Moses, Aaron, Joshua and Caleb ‘tore their clothes’ with anguish about the crushing effect that the ten spies’ negative report had on the Israelites

Leadership is a vital and demanding task … Failure to show faith-driven leadership will hinder progress and frustrate more spiritually minded followers

The fulfilment of God’s word to us depends on our belief and trust in Him… The depth of our faith is directly related to the move of God’s Spirit to bring about His purposes… In other words, the fulfilment of His promises are dependent on our obedience

I have focused on leadership and faith/trust in God because the Bible passage exposes these issues… But the spiritual qualities required of leaders should be present in all of us to a large degree…whether leader or follower

  • We are all called to a life of faith

We may not have the self-confidence and upbeat personality found in most leaders… But we are all called to a life of faith and holiness:

  • We are all invited to walk in step with the Spirit and respond to His promptings
  • We are all ‘leaders’ in as much as each one of our lives is a testimony to the grace of God
  • We are all ‘leaders’ in as much as we are called to “lead” others in the path of righteousness and to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ

At a time when it seems that the world is full of “giants”…

  • Attacks against Christians and the authority of the Bible
  • A mad pursuit of wealth, pleasure and possessions
  • Collapse of God’s plan for families

We need to remember that God will have the final word in all matters

They can mock us, deride us, accuse us and try to intimidate us… but God is not impressed by their posturing…

  • He only asks that we stand firm and despite setbacks and failures, we say with Caleb: ‘We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.’
  • For God says to us today: “I know the plans I have for you” … I’ll let you know them if you ask me… then it’s your job to pursue them with faith and determination

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