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You just cannot get the people….

August 5, 2015

Numbers 13: 1-45, 14: 1-35             Wednesday 5th August 2015

If you look at the reference for the first reading today, taken from Chapters 13 and 14 of the Book of Numbers, you will see that there are chunks left out (13: 3 – 24 & 14: 2 -25, 30 – 33). I’m always a bit suspicious of that, so I’m going to tell you about the bits they left out as well. It probably makes for a more interesting read and gives us a bit of background to give us a fuller picture.

So, we have reached the point where Moses has led the people to the borders of the Promised Land. This is two years into their journey – a very exciting time for the emerging nation of Israel. Remember, two million of them being formed into one people, rediscovering their faith. This is a journey when they are having to learn about their faith and how good God is. And they seem to repeatedly forget how good He is, and the miracles he works.

A very exciting moment.

[I was trying to think ‘when would this be for me?’ I think it was when I was a young lad and Apollo 11 had started circling round the moon and they were on the point of the first moon landing. I think it’s that sort of moment.]

Moses, under God’s instruction, arranges for one member of each of the twelve tribes of Israel to go out and spy out the land, to see what is there.

[Verses 3 -24 is just a list of everybody who went, what they were looking for (there sealed orders, if you like), and where they went. So it’s quite detailed history. Then the reading starts again….]

After forty days they came back. Ten of the spies were defeatists. They had seen the wonderful place, but they also described things that frightened them, and they were frightened off. They had no vision. They trusted only in their own human abilities and said, ‘We can’t be taking on these people, even though the country is really attractive.’ There were only two people out of the twelve spies who actually said, ‘This is worth going for….. don’t worry about these giants, don’t worry about these ferocious armies, these fortified cities. It’s worth it!’

Why is it worth it?

The two replied, ‘Because God is on our side. We know from the evidence that God is on our side! What’s the matter with you?’

But the people were not having it. Two against ten. They didn’t trust in God. They all argued. They all started raising their voices….. ‘and the people wailed all night.’

[Then there’s a missed out bit. It’s detail. It is summarized in the edited reading, but it really emphasizes what was happening – the people started complaining again. And they were complaining about dying in the wilderness: ‘Oh no, look where we’ve ended up now! We can’t move forward! We can’t move back! We’re all going to die here, and our children are all going to die here! What a nightmare!]

It’s a rebellion against Moses. Caleb and Joshua were the two spies who wanted to go for it, but there’s a rebellion. A God speaks to Moses. And God is exasperated….. in fact they have ‘tidied it up’ for us to make it less complicated, but there is one line where God says, ‘This generation…..’ Why does God not finish the sentence? We don’t know whether it’s something missing, or what it could be. Jewish interpreters of the Torah and Christian biblical scholars differ on this, but it may be a sign of God’s exasperation if you like, a sort of representation of how frustrating it is. These people! He is just speechless! What can you do? ‘You just cannot get the people’, as they say!

And God tells them via Moses, ‘OK then. You talk about dying in the wilderness. This generation, you are going to die in the wilderness – anybody over the age of 20 (remember they did the census?), any of that generation, all of them, you are going to die. You are not going to get in the Promised Land.’

This is year two. There are another thirty-eight to go. A whole generation must pass, and God says there are only two people who are going to get into the Promised Land from this generation – and they are Caleb and Joshua, the ones who trusted in God.

So for thirty-eight years they were to remain in the wilderness, wandering around, dying off, dying off, dying off. It was the next generation that went into the Promised Land.

There is a little message there: the Holy Spirit, inspiration, how we trust in God – these things cannot depend upon votes. I’m sorry, ladies and gentlemen, but The Church is not a democracy! I think you know that already, don’t you! People consult within The Church – we can see that with the Synod on the Family and Evangelisation, coming up at the end of the year. What people have to say is very important, but ultimately we are in the hands of God, and sometimes that means that we get decisions that we don’t understand and we may not like. And we have to be very cautious…. again, repeating what we were saying yesterday about the dangers of rebelling against those who are given authority by God. You either believe it, or you don’t. The secular world would have us work by votes. Well, that’s based sometimes on the people who make the loudest noise; it’s not necessarily the best arguments, and not necessarily the wisdom.

Just a few thoughts about who Caleb was. He is a major figure in the Old Testament, a major figure in the history of Israel. We don’t really get to know much about him. I did baptise a child called Caleb – what a marvellous name! Caleb is the Hebrew word for ‘dog’. That’s a weird name for him to have, isn’t it. And it’s an onomatopoeic word. The English equivalent would be ‘Woof’! Caleb was an outstanding character. He was forty years old at the time he was there being a spy – at the peak really of his life in terms of fitness etc. – presumably that is why he is chosen to go of reconnoitering. He was from the Tribe of Judah. Interestingly, he may have been of gentile ancestry: if you go back to the Book of Genesis you can trace back, and he was not from the family of Abraham; he was adopted as a Jew into the Tribe of Judah (which again, is significant for us, is it not?). A key character, very early on, was not a Jew by ancestry but by adoption (like us, for we are God’s children by adoption). Caleb was bold, impetuous, courageous, consecrated to God. Vigorous. Faithful in his old age – Caleb is there, forty years later, at the age of 85, he was a general like Joshua: at the age of 85 he is still defeating the enemy. And he was promised by Joshua (who went on to be Moses’ successor – more of that in a few days time – but Caleb was promised by Joshua that he would give him land, and he did: it was Caleb who became the ruler over Hebron and the neighbouring hill country. So Caleb became a farmer at the end of his life. Not the City of Hebron, but the surrounding area. And the City of Hebron is still in the news today.

We then return to our reading. The Lord spoke to Moses, ‘I have heard the complaints of the sons of Israel.’ And God says, ‘I’ll deal with them according to the very words you have used in my hearing.’ He is saying that they are going to die in the wilderness. All of them except for Joshua and Caleb. He repeats it.

And what are Joshua and Caleb showing us here, for us now, and how we pursue our faith? They are showing us how to face up boldly to life’s challenges. Not reckless, that would be foolish. No, but boldly. Based on the evidence we make our decisions, and sometimes we can make our decisions based on our faith, we can pray and ask for inspiration by the Holy Spirit. This is open to us. They trusted in God, even when all hope seemed lost…. when the majority are saying, ‘This is a waste of time, and we can’t do it.’ Oh yes we can! They stand firm in the assurances God has made. God has promised them they are going to go to the Promised Land – it’s the ‘Promised’ Land! People just waver in their faith.

So the faithfulness of Joshua and Caleb teaches us we are to stand for God even when others will not. And when we do, God may choose to bless us in ways that will extend for generations and generations. And that is what happened with Caleb.

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