The men return with great good news: “The Land that we crossed through to, to scout it, is very, very good” Joshua reports. (Numbers 14:7) “It flows with milk and honey.” Grapes, dates and pomegranates fell into their hands.
Well yes, there’s milk and honey. But there be giants, too.
When word gets out, consternation spreads through the crowd. Caleb tries to quell it. “We will surely go up and take hold of (the land),” he insists. “We will prevail.” (Numbers 13:30)
But no. The mob won’t have it “Let’s go back to Egypt,” they cry.
This sends God reeling. After all that, God has done for them: the freedom, the signs and wonders, the manna, the laws: this? No doubt, this blow lands on God like the cruel comeback of the child who in a moment of petulance or pique snarls, “I didn’t ask to be born”.
Rashi is right I think, to look at this scene and see idolatry at play. If these people, who owed their very existence to a God who had freed them from Pharoah, fought their battles, delivered their food and brought them here—to the perimeter of the Promised Land, had a just measure of faith in that God, there’d be no talk of turning back. They’d blaze ahead, under the motto Adonai Li, V Lo Ira… loosely translated: “Our God Can Beat Your gods Any Day, Nah Nah Nah Nah.”
As the scene plays out, we see Moses and Aaron prostrating themselves, having failed at the One Thing they had been asked to do.
We see the mob stooping to scoop up stones to hurl at Caleb and Joshua.
The people want to return to Egypt, Moses wants to make things right, and God’s disappointment gives way to rage.
How will this stand-off be resolved?
Wait! Isn’t there another matter we have to resolve first? Before we become further hooked on narrative and captivated by the chain of events, the bigger picture ought to concern us.
I mean, why are we reading this story? What is this account of these really unpleasant people, this lousy bunch of moaning miscreants, what is it doing in our canon?
Why and how is it that after multiple authors, editors and redactors have had a go at our scripture, we find our forebears depicted as timorous, entitled, faithless people, set to turn tail at the mere rumour of giants. Why canonise an account of mob rule, in which (spoiler alert!) antiheroes win the day and bring down a generation.
Other peoples have founding myths that root them in a glorious past. Not us: we have Numbers.
Composed and edited over centuries there were, as I mentioned and Biblical Historian William Hallo affirms, plenty of opportunities to “invest its actors with heroic stature, or edit away their human failings.”
But as we’ve seen, the actors are not heroic, and their failings remain in full view. Why?
Heroic origin stories tend to promote moral complacency, nationalism and theories of racial or cultural superiority. Our people have no founding myth; we have a founding cautionary tale. We do not attribute our character or identity as a people to one colossal figure or more, but to a deal brokered between us and God, a deal that makes our survival, our well-being and our happiness contingent upon honouring its terms. Under the covenant, moral complacency is not an option. Honouring its terms takes a conscious commitment to live consistent with its values every day, day after day. Among those values is faith and trust in God.
As we pick up the narrative, our forebears find themselves in a fix because, having doubted God, they’ve squelched on the deal. They are about to learn the consequences. This is in our text because it is meant for our benefit; their fate plays out in ways that speak to us with urgency and passion. The unflattering group portrait serves what I perceive as its canonical purpose, to warn us off dishonouring our founding deal.
Now, not for the first time (Exodus 32:10-11) God threatens to wipe out the lot of them and start from scratch with Moses. Not for the first time (Exodus 32:12) Moses says nope, not going to be Alpha Male in Your eugenics experiment, Lord. As before, Moshe turns the tables and appeals to God’s vanity, quoting God’s own (flattering) self-description: “slow to anger, abounding in kindness, forgiving iniquity and transgressions.”
Yeah. Sure. But this is no small thing. This is The Thing. This is The Land, the whole point of everything that has happened so far; The Land as in “the land that I will show you”, the land where Abraham’s offspring will multiply and become more numerous than the stars; that land, which by their own scouts’ account, flows with milk and honey—it is at long last, just around the bend, and these people, my people spurn it. Worse! They say they’d rather be dead than free. They’d rather retreat to die under Pharoah than advance to fulfil the promise I made to—with—them.
Well, that’s it, then. For them, although not for all. You may recall with some dis-ease, it had been God’s policy to “visit the guilt of the parents upon the children… until the fourth generation of those who reject Me”.
But no longer, or not entirely. “Your little-ones,” God tells the people, “I will let them enter, and they shall come to know the land that you’ve rejected.
But your corpses shall fall in this wilderness.”
An act of spite?
No. This is an act of faith.
Maybe God sees something in those “little ones”, maybe God detects in them some disapproval and disappointment in what their parents have done. And maybe God sees in them a determination to do better. Maybe that is why God has faith in the children of those who had none.
Yet, before those children can justify that faith and stride, unflinching, toward the Land, they have to endure 40 years aimless ambling and witness death after death as their parents’ generation become so much dust for the desert. What did they discuss, parents and children on that torturous trek? Were the parents contrite? Did they express regret or remorse? Or did they double down on what they’d done. Were the children resentful, aggrieved and without pity. Or did they try to understand? Did they show mercy and compassion? Did they learn from one another, the elders so they could die with hope, the younger so they could benefit from the wisdom and the folly of those about to die?
Again: Why do we read this story?
Once again, Number is a compendium of cautionary tales. This one describes in stark terms, where we are today My generation—my peers and I– have blown it. Like the generation of the Scouts, we have flouted the covenant, particularly pertaining to our stewardship of the land. We were meant to look after it, to conserve, to work it, then allow it to rest, to heal. We were meant to take from it no more than we need, but we’ve plundered it for more than we want. We were meant to see that crops would replenish, animals reproduce. But what have we done? We have pushed the planet to its limit for human habitation, and thousands of species are now or shortly will be, extinct. It’s been said that wildlife is “in freefall”, as we burn forests, over-fish our seas and pave over wild areas or convert them from fecund farmland to cattle pasture.
The rising generation had no part in this, and yet they—or those of you who are among them– like the children of the scouts, are suffering the consequences of the premium my generation put on wealth and convenience. My generation will die out before this gets sorted. We will die not a cursed generation, but accursed, for having brought this on ourselves, our children and indeed those parts of the world most affected by a decadent way of life they can’t even imagine. In the meantime our children are condemned to confront along with us, wildfires, flash floods; hurricanes and tornadoes of increasing vehemence and velocity, pandemics and the ongoing loss of species and the consequential ecological imbalances that occur as a result.
We don’t know why God put faith in the children of the scouts. But my peers and I, we know why we have faith in those of you who will follow us. We see that you have recommitted to a covenant that calls for all that we had forsaken with regard to creation. You conserve, re-use, share, and strive to limit your impact on the planet. You are studying physics and environmental sciences, in search of solutions, ways to reverse the damage we—my generation—have done. You are building a growing network of Eco-Synagogues and schools and taking part in peer-led interfaith green alliances.
And you will raise your own children to marvel at a blade of grass, a shaft of sunlight, birdsong, buds on branches, wildflowers in bloom; and they in turn will grow to cherish and protect them.
Diana Shaw Clark, Student
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.