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Spies Like Us: Numbers 13

That’s right, one of the greatest espionage thrillers of the 1980s has its basis in the Bible. The classic Dan Akroyd/Chevy Chase film Spies Like Us was indeed inspired by Numbers 13. After, no one qualifies as spies like us better than the dozen men of Numbers 13.

Here’s the story to this point: the people of Israel have come out of bondage in Egypt. They have received the Law of God at Mount Sinai. They are now at the point of entering life in obedience and dependence on God in the Promised Land. Life that comes with a glorious mixture of freedom and responsibility, worship and work. Before they go into that life, they are told to take a look at what it will take to finalize the acquisition.

So, at God’s command a dozen spies are sent out. One is sent from each tribe, except for the Levites. No representative is sent from the Levites—instead we see here the twelve landed tribes sending spies. I do not know that any real meaning should attributed to this, but I find it interesting. It could simply be practical: the Twelve Tribes that will receive land send out spies, perhaps to pick out their land. It could also be spiritually significant: the Levites are going with the Tabernacle, wherever it goes.

These spies go. They explore. They return six weeks later.

And they have given up. Ten of them have seen too much bad to think moving forward is going to be any good. Two of them have seen too much good to think moving forward is going to be bad—but even they recognize the cost. All through the exploratory group, tension about the future resounds.

Then it spreads. The populace of Israel only knows what they have heard, and they have heard that the land is going to be a challenge. Giants. Walled cities. Pain, heartbreak…and work to do. Even the wealth of fruit reflects that there will be some major vine dressing to do when the land is theirs.

Two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, see the future as connected to the past. God has been good so far, so let us go forward with Him. Ten of the spies see the future in the past: we were pressed to hard labor in Egypt, but we could go back and not have to fight our way in. (Also, depending on when you place the Exodus in history, it’s possible there was a dynastic change in Egypt and the Israelites expected a decent welcome. Maybe.)

Both sides are responding to the unknown. Both want to trust in what they have seen before. It is that Joshua and Caleb are willing to trust that the God of the Wilderness, the God of the Mountain, and the God of the Red Sea will also be the God of the Land. The others? They are not so sure.

For those, a stable servitude is better than an uncertain freedom.

This is how they are spies like us.

We fear, it seems, to live in the freedom God has given us. We fear it spiritually, relationally, nationally.

Nationally, we know that freedom can be messy. It can also be hard work, and freedom empowers others. The challenge is that others then are not always willing to use their freedom in moral and ethical ways. So we decide that bondage to laws and bureaucracy is our solution. Is that really the only option?

Relationally, we know that allowing people in our lives to live in freedom can be challenging. People may abuse our trust, wreck our plans, or just generally be pains in the posterior. Yet what is our option? To pigeonhole every relationship away from meaningfulness? To control the behavior of others to suit our needs? Is that really how you want to live?

Spiritually, we know that forgiveness in Christ is effective and complete. There is no condemnation, and only through the love of God driven by the indwelling Holy Spirit do we choose that which is good and right. Through this we are free. Free to do, free to grow and to become. Fear begets legalism, for we build laws to protect ourselves from failing our freedom. Then, we extend that legalism to benefit others and suddenly, rather than walking free in Christ, we live, together, bound with chains of our own making. Is this what Jesus died for? Or are we substituting for His purpose?

Freedom is work. Freedom is messy. Freedom is a gift from God. Will we embrace it?

Or will we show just how truly these were spies like us?

Today’s Nerd Note: Special Problem in Numbers 13: The Nephilim. This term shows up once before the Flood (Genesis 6) and here afterwards. The Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament from 200 BC) does not help us much by rendering Nephilim as “giants.”

The general idea from Genesis is that the Nephilim are a race of warriors and big, bad dudes. We would expect them eliminated by the Flood. Then they show up in Numbers.

We have a few options here. Some are worth mentioning only to discard. Such is the idea that the Nephilim survived the Flood—unless one can demonstrate that one of Noah’s sons’ wives was of that line, which is doubtful—the Nephilim are among the dead from the Flood. It was a universal flood.

Another view is that the Israelites called the larger warriors Nephilim because of the legends from antediluvian times. This would be akin to labeling an opposing force a Legion, because it reminds one of the organization and discipline of the Roman Army. That’s a possibility.

I would look at a third view, though I can find no real substantial support for it. Linguistically, Nephilim is related to the Hebrew for “fallen ones.” While many people build a spiritual dynamic here that has fallen angels and people breeding, I think there’s another possibility. It relates to the above view, but is not a labeling based on size. It’s based on morality.

We, to this day, refer to some people as barbarians. Especially in looking at the treatment of people in warfare, like civilians or prisoners, we see certain behaviors as being wrong, even for victorious groups. You are not supposed to, for example, shoot prisoners or rape and pillage the countryside and its inhabitants. Whether in reality when it has happened or in fiction, those are behaviors that show us that an enemy is not honorable but is instead, barbarian.

I think Nephilim is that type of term. It is not the size that truly intimidates the Israelites, it is the behavior. In 40 days, they have seen both good and bad in the land, and they have, perchance, observed just how the Amalekites, Jebusites, Amorites, and What-Not-Ites behave. It is not simply the fear of the size differential that disturbs the Israelites. It is the imagining of what will happen facing an enemy that has no moral restraint.


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