Perhaps you will remember the time when the Israelites who complained were suddenly, supernaturally electrocuted. At that time the people begged Moses to exhort God to have mercy on them (Num. 11:1-3).
Later, when many died because of eating too much quail flesh, no screaming groups of people came to beg or demand of Moses that he again plead with God for them. Many were too ill to come to Moses, and those who weren’t ill realized that the dead and the sick had brought these conditions on themselves.
Nevertheless, there were some here and there who even later persisted in eating quail flesh that was beginning to spoil. The result was more illness and a few more deaths.
On the route to the promised land Moses again met an Ethiopian woman whom he had known over forty years before in Egypt. Without consulting God, and even though he was already married to Jethro’s daughter, Moses now married the Ethiopian.
Because of these mistakes there developed a strong feeling of envy by Miriam, the sister of Moses and of Aaron. Instead of privately taking up the matter with Moses as she should have done, Miriam, made public issue of it.
“Moses had no business doing that. He is just upsetting everybody,” Miriam complained to Aaron. “Moses should have consulted me.”
Although he realized that Miriam was wrong in being envious and critical, and that she was attempting to exert far too much authority, Aaron was inclined to agree that Moses shouldn’t have made any great decisions without taking at least some of the matters up with him and his sister. But he was for letting the matter drop right there and discussing them in private with Moses. Miriam had no intention of doing that, however.
“I think we should take this matter to the people,” Miriam went on. “Surely God is inspiring you and me as to what should be done. But Moses acts as though he is the only one in touch with God. Unless he’s stopped, he’ll take all authority to himself and do just as he pleases with the people.”
“Perhaps you’re right,” Aaron mused. “The feeling of too much authority could have a bad effect on any man – even our brother Moses.”
Nothing in this world has ever been done or thought or spoken without God knowing about it. Although Aaron and Miriam were chosen servants of their Creator, they displeased Him by their critical, envious and unkind remarks about another chosen servant who was above them in authority.
Alone in Aaron’s tent, the two felt a peculiar sensation, as though someone were very close and watching them.
“Miriam! Aaron!” a stern voice startled them. “Go to the tabernacle!”
Fearfully they looked quickly about, but they saw no one, though the voice seemed to be right beside them.
“Could – could it have been God or an angel of God speaking?” Miriam stuttered nervously. “It must have been one or the other,” Aaron murmured, swallowing with difficulty. “We had better go to the tabernacle right away.”
Outside the tabernacle they met Moses, who also had been summoned there. Aaron and Miriam – especially Miriam – were uncomfortable in Moses’ presence because of talking about him as they had done. The three of them stood in uneasy silence, waiting for something to happen (Num. 12:4).
Slowly the cloud of God descended over the tabernacle. There was a blinding blaze of light from within the curtained inner room. The three Israelites shielded their eyes with their arms and backed away from the unusual brilliance. Then a voice boomed from inside the shimmering doorway.
“Now listen to Me! Lest there be any doubt as to the one through whom I chose to speak and direct in these times. Be assured that Moses is the servant who is to bear the greatest responsibility. Let it be known that I, the Eternal, speak to him directly as one being to another, and not in some mysterious or sly manner, or in dreams and visions, as I speak to ordinary prophets. You, Miriam, and you, Aaron, it is time you know that these things are so. Why, then, were you so foolish as to speak against Moses, my chosen servant” (Num. 12:5-8)?
Aaron’s face was the color of ashes as God concluded His rebuke. Miriam cringed in fear. Moses was both embarrassed and angry to learn that he had been the object of wrong remarks by his brother and sister. Nevertheless, he felt a little sorry for them because he knew that God often acted with terrible swiftness when it was His intention to punish anyone.
Miriam and Aaron were relieved when they saw the blinding light in the tabernacle disappear. They were even more relieved when they saw the cloud float up from the tabernacle.
“God is departing,” Miriam whispered to Aaron. “Surely He wasn’t too displeased with us, or He would have done more than just talk” (v. 9).
“Don’t speak like that!” Aaron warned, glancing uneasily at the departing cloud. “God doesn’t forget. We should get back to our tents and pray for mercy!”
“Why should we pray for mercy if God doesn’t choose to punish us?” Miriam asked.
Irked by his sister’s senseless question, Aaron turned to look searchingly at Miriam. That searching look caused him to draw back in horror. The flesh of his sister’s face, neck, arms and hands had suddenly taken on a sickly white hue! Aaron shuddered as he tore his eyes from her ghastly face. He knew that she had suddenly become a leper (v. 10)!
“Moses!” Aaron called in a quavering voice. Moses was slowly walking away at the moment. He turned and came back because he sensed the despair in Aaron’s tone. When he saw Miriam’s condition, he was very upset. Miriam for the first time noticed her hands. She gave a shriek and collapsed on the ground. Aaron quickly knelt down beside her and looked pleadingly up at Moses.
“Don’t let God take her by this terrible disease!” he begged. “Ask Him to forgive our foolish sin and heal her” (Num. 12:11-12).
Moses knelt down, leaned over with his face to the ground and called out to God. “Make her well now, God!” he cried out. ‘Be merciful and forgive her and Aaron of their sins! Remove this awful disease from my sister now” (v. 13)!
Then God suddenly answered Moses: “Because of her disrespect for authority, Miriam must be shut out of the camp and My presence for seven days.”
To her horror and disgrace, Miriam was led to a distant spot far outside the camp, there to sit and loath herself in utter misery.
Meanwhile, the Israelites were prepared to start out again. But the cloud didn’t move forward, and this obviously meant that God was delaying the march until Miriam would be brought back into camp healed (vs. 14-15).
After a week had passed, she was brought back into her tent. God has answered Moses’ prayers and has healed her. She and Moses and Aaron were very thankful. At the same time, Miriam was sorry for having spoken out so boldly and wrongly against Moses. If she had failed to repent, God would have refused to take away her terrible leprosy, and it would soon have caused her death.
Miriam learned the lesson that all Christians should learn – that speaking evil of the servants God had chosen to work for or represent Him is indirectly speaking evil of the One who created the whole universe and every one of us. Only foolish and ignorant people dare to make unkind or wicked or untrue remarks about the Creator or His servants.
God tells us that wisdom begins with respect for Him (Ps. 111:10 and Prov. 9:10). Those who don’t’ respect God and His rules are actually the most foolish people, regardless of what their stations in life are. On the other hand, any humble, poor, uneducated person – if he or she fears God and obeys Him – is much wiser than all “learned” God-denying people lumped together.
After Miriam had been brought back into the camp at Hazeroth, the people moved northward for several days. Although it was late summer, they journeyed on through the hot desert country to Paran, eventually coming to a mountainous, secluded oasis area called Kadesh or Kadesh-barnea or Sela (Num. 12:16 and 13:26).
It was still many miles to the promised land of Canaan, but at Kadesh the cloud came to a halt for more than a night. The people found several wells and springs in that region, and there was enough grass for their animals. It was evident that God meant the Israelites to camp at that place for at least several days. The tabernacle was erected just as it had been at Sinai, and the various tribes set up their camps in the same positions.
“Choose twelve capable men – one who is a ruler from each of the twelve tribes – for a scouting expedition into Canaan,” God instructed Moses. “They are to bring back a full report on the land. Then the people will learn from their own respected leaders that it is a good land they are approaching” (Num. 13:1-2).
Moses picked twelve outstanding men from the twelve tribes. These included Joshua, a young man who had previously been very helpful to Moses, and a man named Caleb of the tribe of Judah. Joshua and Caleb were chosen as leaders of the expedition (vs. 3:16).
“You twelve are to go up into Canaan as scouts,” Moses told them when they were brought together. “It’s up to you to find the best and easiest route there. Carefully observe everything. Notice whether the land is flat or hilly and what kind of crops it bears. Note the people, to find out how numerous they are, whether they are warlike, peaceful, strong or weak. Find out what their villages and cities are like, and what strongholds they have. Be sure to see where the best forests are located, as well as the best gazing and farming areas. Bring back some of the produce of the land. And don’t fear for your lives, because you can rely on God to protect you as long as you obey Him” (Num. 13:17-20).
Going to Canaan wasn’t simply a matter of packing a few things and leaving. The scouts needed some idea of the general layout of the land. This knowledge came from the Kenites – Moses father-in-law’s family – and from traveled strangers at Kadesh who had joined the Israelites. From them Moses obtained information concerning the boundaries, mountain ranges, lakes, streams, forest and desert areas of Canaan. This was carefully studied by the twelve picked men, and maps were made for them to follow.
When at last the picked scouts had said goodbye to their families and friends, they set out to the northwest from Kadesh or Sela across the narrow Zin desert. They proceeded on through the mountains northwest of the desert. After plodding wearily in the heat over many miles of rugged territory in the region of Edom, they topped a rise to gaze down on a vast expanse of water more than 4,000 feet below them!
Today this body of salty water is known as the Dead Sea. It is almost 1,300 feet below sea level – the deepest chasm on the Earth’s surface. It is forty-seven miles long from north to south, and is nine and a half miles across at the widest spot. It is 1,300 feet deep at its greatest depth. The dimensions were slightly different back when the Israelite scouts suddenly came upon it.
“This must be what is known as the Salt Sea or the Sea of the Plain!” one of the men exclaimed, pointing to the whitish shoreline far below. “You know what that means!”
“It means we have reached Canaan!” Joshua shouted triumphantly. “We know from what we have heard that this large lake is part of the eastern boundary of the Promised Land!”
There was happy excitement among the twelve men. Having some idea of where they were, they felt successful and more secure. That night they camped on the towering areas overlooking the water, and the next morning started down from the mountains to skirt the west shore of the long lake.
For the next few days their progress was fairly easy. However, the midday heat was quite intense, and they found that it was wise to travel only in the mornings and evenings.
At the north end of the Dead Sea they turned eastward to come to the Jordan River, the main stream emptying into the Dead Sea. There in the river bottom region they saw that there were many beautiful farms and that the crops were excellent.
The scouts continued northward, sometimes following the Jordan River and sometimes veering off toward the mountain range to the west. They had purposely avoided the country east of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea because the Promised Land was then from the Jordan River westward. (Num. 33:51-53; 34:1-2, 12 and Deut. 12:10). The people they met stared suspiciously at them, probably regarding them either as wanderings traders, bandits, or vagrants.
A few days later they arrived at another body of water known today as the Sea of Galilee. It was known then as the Sea of Chinnereth. This lake, several miles wide at the north end and thirteen miles long, was the one near which Jesus Christ would spend much of his life. It is about 200 feet to the bottom at the deepest point. The hills back from its east shores jutted up to 2,000 feet. Its surface was about 700 feet below that of the Mediterranean Sea.
The scouts traveled on northward far past the Sea of Galilee to a town called Rehob, on the northern border of the Promised Land, in the land of Aram, known today as Syria. Having knowledge of where they were, the Israelites recognized that they were very close to the northern boundaries of the promised land, and so they turned back southward (Num. 13:21).
Moving down through the fertile regions between the Jordan River and the Great Sea (the Mediterranean), the scouts saw even more people than they had seen near the river. Crops looked even better, trees bore more fruit and there were more signs of prosperity.
The scouting Israelites had been coming to more and more great cities teeming with people and bristling with fortifications. The people continued to stare at the twelve strangers as they trudged along the road. The Israelites made no effort to visit with them. It was wiser to keep to themselves than run the risk of getting mixed up with robbers and violent men. The scouts were well-armed for purposes of hunting, and their rugged, bearded appearance undoubtedly warded off more than one group of bandits who might otherwise have attacked them for whatever was in the Israelites’ packsacks.
Deciding to move westward from the Jordan Valley, the scouts moved to the east shores of the Mediterranean Sea. They had heard awesome tales of how warlike the people were in that region. These Philistines were the ones through whose land God had kept Israel from traveling when they had first left Egypt, even though it would have meant a much shorter trip.
There the scouts were especially cautious. They moved around the towns and villages instead of going through them. Here and there they noticed armed Philistine men who obviously were soldiers or civil officers. Once they spotted a whole platoon of such men at a distance, but the scouts weren’t set upon, stopped or even questioned.
Crossing back to the southeast, they came to Hebron, one of the oldest cities in the world. It had been founded seven years before the founding of Zoan, the first city founded in post-flood Egypt (Num. 13:22). At Hebron the scouts were so curious to get a good look at the people and buildings and bazaars that they considered traveling right through the streets.
“I should like to go through the town as much as any of you,” Joshua frowned thoughtfully, “but I think it’s too much of a risk. If we all go together, we could be looked on as a band of renegades, and officers might stop us.”
“How about splitting up into pairs?” Caleb suggested. “That should help!” Joshua nodded. “But we can’t become too separated. Each couple must be far enough apart that we won’t be regarded as a group, but close enough to be within sight of each other at all times.”
Accordingly, the twelve divided into six pairs and joined a straggling line of all kinds of people approaching Hebron from the north.
Hebron wasn’t a large city teeming with great crowds, but its narrow, stony streets were lined with shops where lots of rather drab humanity bobbed and shuffled in and out. Mixing in with the hodgepodge of people and pack animals, the scouts saw and heard many interesting things. Shopkeepers called out their wares to them. Small, ragged boys begged them for handouts. Grinning, beady-eyed men, spotting them as strangers, slipped up beside them and offered to guide them to various places of amusement.
Intent of getting through Hebron, the Israelites weren’t halted by salesmen, beggars or men who had more than guide service to sell. They moved through the bazaar area and into the southern fringe of town. Joshua and Caleb, who were ahead, saw several armed helmeted men pour out of a nearby building and station themselves menacingly in the street.
“We can’t go this way!” Caleb whispered. “Those soldiers mean to block our path!”
It was obvious that the scouts had at last run into serious trouble, and just when they had almost completed their trip!
Be watching for the next installment of The Story of the Bible…