The Turning Back Of Israel From The Promised Land
( Originally Published 1921 )
Have you ever visited a military camp? If you have, and the soldiers had marched for months through dust and heat, often going for days with little or no water, and had just reached a place where water was plentiful and they could pitch their tents and rest, you have seen a camp something like that of Israel. The Israelites were on their way to a land where they could be free, have their own laws, and practice their own religion. After more than twenty months of marching with their children, their wives and sisters, old people and babies, cattle and household goods, they had at last come to the border of the promised land.
For hundreds of years the people of Israel had been slaves of the Egyptians; then, not being able to endure further cruelty, they had left Egypt. They were guided by their leader, Moses, who was teaching them how to be free and taking them to a beautiful country where each one of them could have a home of his own. Just think of it ! After all their years of suffering, to have such pleasure waiting for them as soon as their journey was ended ! And now their journey was over, the weary march ended, and the new country close at hand.
But they were not happy. Did you ever see people in our own country who were getting just what they wanted—in fact, getting just what they were going after—and yet were unhappy and faultfinding? Each day since they had left Egypt these Israelites had found something to complain about. When every-thing was going on well, they were glad they had started. But the minute anything went wrong and they had to wait a little for food or water, or were disturbed in any way, they found fault with Moses and blamed themselves for being so foolish as to have listened to him and left Egypt.
You can't understand such actions? Why not? Have you never seen girls and boys, and some grown people, too, just like these Israelites? I knew a girl who was all smiles until she learned that she had to ride backward during a delightful automobile trip, and then there was something wrong every mile of the way. Another girl I knew sang happily at the piano until she discovered her sister had loaned her favorite song; then the piano closed with a spiteful bang and the singing voice became a scolding one.
All these twenty months not a word of thanks had these people spoken to Moses for his care of them. I suppose they felt as many people feel today, that as soon as there was nothing more to complain about they would give thanks. Of course there were some among these many marchers who, all the way through the desert, had helped Moses by thinking and talking of the beautiful country they were going to, instead of the trouble they had in getting there. They were like travelers paying a visit to our wonderful mountains; some look at the time cards and circulars and picture the beauty they soon will see, while others find nothing but dust and heat, and noisy, crowded cars.
It was a lively scene on the evening when they camped for the last time before entering the land which was to be theirs. The patient camels slowly chewed their cuds as they sleepily blinked at the moon just rising over the mountains. The thirsty cattle were eagerly drinking water and sighing with content as they lay down to rest.
Little Benjamin pulled at his mother's skirts, asking if they were going to walk any more that day. Dear little boy, he had been a baby wrapped in his mother's shawl the night his parents had hurried out of Egypt, and now he was a jolly little fellow trotting by her side. And his sister Sarah's hair, that had been short bobbing curls, now nearly reached her waist. Camp fires were being built, tents set up, and the heavy burdens laid aside in preparation for the long night's rest.
What was behind those dark mountains and across the silent sea? Was it a land big enough for them all? Did it have plenty of wood and water, and could they grow large crops of grain and fruit? They kept asking one another these questions until Moses told them that in the morning twelve men, each one a ruler of one of the twelve tribes of Israel, should go and spy out the land for them.
Moses advised the scouts to be very particular to look at everything, and be able when they returned to tell the waiting people just what kind of a land it was. He did not want his people to be disappointed, but he wished them to know what to expect when they entered the land, and what they must do to enter it. He told the twelve scouts that they must be very brave, for without courage their trip would be useless.
Tell us, he said, all about the people that are now in the country. Are they strong or weak, and are there a great many of them? Do they live in villages or cities, and are their cities fenced? He also asked them to bring back some of the fruit which grew in this wonderful country God had promised to give them. Moses told the Israelites the land had been given to them. All they had to do was to take it.
"That's easy enough," you boys and girls say. " Almost any people would take what was given to them, especially something good." Would they? Wait and see.
Early in the morning the camp was astir, and the scouts were as eager to start as the people were to have them. The people were tired of marching day after day over hot sands or jagged rocks which burned or cut their feet. Nor did they want to be hungry or thirsty any more, for the desert over which they had come did not give them much to eat or to drink. And the children, whose little legs must have been swollen from much walking or from being doubled under them as they journeyed along on a camel's or donkey's back, soon could caper about and be happy at play in their own land. Those hot, weary days followed by nights often as stifling, were now past, and home and its comforts lay just ahead of them.
I am sure the Israelites were very happy as they spent the forty days the scouts were exploring the new country in telling one another what kind of homes they were going to have, the cattle they would raise, and the grains they would grow. Some must have thought they would rather live on the seacoast. It would be cooler, and, besides, they could send ships to other countries. Others preferred the silent mountains, or green hills where fine olives or delicious grapes could be grown. And some, like our western farmers, wanted the plains where wheat would grow and the sheep and cattle could find rich pasture. It was a small country, very small; but in one thing it was like ours—it had rivers, lakes, mountains, seacoast, plains. Some parts of this country were cold and others hot; some of it was barren and some had very rich soil. In fact, one who could not find something to his taste in it was hard to please.
At the end of the fortieth day some little lads ran in great excitement into the camp with the news that the scouts were in sight. They said two of them were carrying between them something large hung on a pole. The people hurried from their tents and cheered as the scouts entered the camp. Joshua and Caleb, two of the scouts, looked happy as they proudly showed Moses and the people the great bunch of grapes they were carrying between them. They had gathered this bunch at Eschol, they said, for it was the beginning of the grape season, and these were the first ripe grapes.
The people were so glad to hear all the good news that Caleb and Joshua had to tell that they had not noticed the sad face of Moses as he watched the other ten scouts, who lingered behind, their faces dark and scowling. Finally the ten spoke and said that Caleb and Joshua had told the truth. The land was very rich and beautiful, with everything in it that they wanted, but there was no use talking longer about taking it. They might just as well turn back into the desert, for they would never be able to enter the country.
What a difference between the two reports — Caleb and Joshua urging Moses to enter with the Israelites because the people of Canaan (the name of the country lying behind the silent mountains) could easily be conquered, while the other scouts were telling Moses that it was impossible. Perhaps you think these ten men were not as wise as Caleb and Joshua, or perhaps that they were not warriors, while Caleb and Joshua were. But remember that the Bible expressly states that each one of them was head of a tribe in Israel. That meant that each man was a warrior, had fought battles, and won the right to be head. In those days people had to fight to win anything; and afterward they had to fight to keep it. No, all the men sent out had been well chosen, and that was the shame of it. For of twelve heads of Israel ten returned badly frightened, and their fright kept growing as they told again and again the dangers in the way. Their fears made them lose their good sense, their strength, and finally their truthfulness.
"The cities are fenced," they said. Fenced cities, you know, mean walled cities. Some-times there were thick double walls around them, and oftentimes on these walls there were watch towers that were large enough for people to live in.
The Israelites began to murmur. The fear of the scouts roused their fears, and soon they were thinking with the scouts that they had made their journey for nothing, that they might better have stayed in Egypt or have died in the wilderness.
Finally Caleb quieted the people, saying, "Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it."
But the other scouts answered, "We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we."
Then in their fright they began to slander the land which they had but a few moments ago so highly praised, and their stories of danger grew worse.
The only difference between our two brave scouts and the ten cowards was that two of them kept thinking of and looking for all the good things, while the ten, giving all their attention to the dangers in the way, at last believed there was nothing else. Moses had seen both sides, for had he not said when they started to explore Canaan, "And be ye of good courage." He knew that faith and courage could win, but that the people would be helpless if their leaders were afraid.
Then again spoke the ten scouts, saying, "We were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so were we in their sight."
Of course they were. Anyone who loses his self-respect as these men had done, has lost the respect of others. Everything that was good was small in their eyes, even themselves. They thought their people and their God were small and weak and naturally their enemies agreed with them.
The people were now in a foolish panic. The orderly camp was in an uproar with people running aimlessly about asking one another if they had not better turn and go back to Egypt.
"Let us make a captain, " they said, "and let us return into Egypt."
As Moses heard these words do you wonder that, heartsick and discouraged, he and Aaron the priest "fell on their faces before the congregation of the children of Israel?"
"But," you say, "we thought God had given them the land, and all they had to do was to take it."
Certainly, but can you take anything with-out making an effort? Suppose your father wants to give you a college education. Can he give it to you unless you study? Or perhaps you wish to take music lessons. Can anyone give them to you if you will not practice? If food were put into your mouth you would have to chew it. No, our people of Israel had never been promised that they could slip easily into a land waiting for them. They knew better. They had fought their way through the wilderness; they must fight their way into the promised land.
Caleb and Joshua rent their clothes as Moses fell upon his face—in that country these two acts meant they were in great distress—and spoke to the people, saying, "The land, which we passed through to spy out, is an exceedingly good land. If Jehovah delight in us, then he will bring us into this land, and give it unto us; a land which floweth with milk and honey. Only rebel not against Jehovah, neither fear ye the people of the land; for they are bread for us: their defence is removed from over them, and Jehovah is with us : fear them not."
Caleb and Joshua saw the weakness of the people of Canaan; and to them, with their faith in God and their courageous spirit, it was their enemies and not themselves that looked like "grasshoppers." But it is always useless to argue with those who fear. The frightened people would not listen and commenced to stone the two brave scouts.
Moses was hurt and for the moment discouraged. Was there any use in trying to do anything further for these people? They were thankless and unbelieving. No matter what God did for them or what wonders he showed them, every time they were in trouble they doubted His power and, His promise to help them. You may think they were very stupid and say there is no one like them today. But look at them more closely. Is n't it like seeing your own self in the mirror as they pass before you with their doubts and fears? Don't we all feel happy when everything goes well? How many of us can say that we have the same faith in God when everything goes wrong?
Moses kept thinking. Had he better not leave these people? He and his family and his friends were strong enough; they would inherit the blessings God had promised. Let the people go back into the desert without him and die there. Of course they would sicken and die without his guidance. But if they were too much afraid to try to get into the promised land with him, they were too weak safely to cross the desert alone. He went over in his mind the many times Jehovah had helped him deliver these people from danger. How often, as he lay on the ground at night and looked up at the stars, he had heard God's voice in his heart urging him to "go forward" and save his people! At last he felt less angry and less bitter toward them, and instead of wishing to leave them to their own destruction he said, as he listened for God's voice, "Pardon, I pray thee, the iniquity of this people according unto the greatness of thy loving-kindness, and according as thou hast forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now."
Moses knew that fear and unbelief could never meet and master any danger that lay between his people and the land before them. Besides, they did not all think alike. Some wished to return to Egypt, others believed it best to do nothing at all, and a few insisted on marching at once into Canaan. He was leading them and he could not go in half a dozen directions at once. To do so was impossible. Only a few had any courage or faith in their ability to conquer the enemy. There was no use in going back to Egypt. After all that had happened there, the Egyptians would no more allow them to return than the people of Canaan would permit them to enter their land. Only one thing was possible—to turn back into the wilderness from which they had come, to go back to its burning heat, its choking dust, its hunger and pain and thirst until, weary with wandering about in it, the Israelites should have faith enough in the promises of God to march with the strength of courage and a united purpose into the land which He had given them.
Moses knew then what we all know now, that the door which will not open is unbelief. Believing a thing possible, one tries to do it; having no faith that it can be done, one never makes the effort. So God said to Moses concerning the people, " Tomorrow turn ye, and get you into the wilderness by the way to the Red Sea."
But that, you may think, was for people not a bit like us and who lived so long ago that nothing about them interests us. But you are mistaken. People are the same wherever you find them; and I have discovered in my travels that girls and boys in other lands are just the same as girls and boys in my own country.
Let us do a little thinking. America was an old continent, much older than Europe, when it was discovered. But it lay unknown on this side of the sea until Columbus believed that by sailing west he could reach India. In this faith, backed with courage, he set sail on the stormy ocean determined to find it. He sailed into his promised land even though it was not the India he sought. His faith gave the world a new country. Hannibal could have flown over the Alps as easily as it is done today instead of taking months to cross them on foot, but he did not believe he could, so he walked. The Wright brothers believed man could fly, and believing it, they made a machine that flew.
I knew a little fellow whose promised land was swimming. Was anything more delightful, he thought, than plunging and rolling about in the ocean? But he didn't believe he could learn to swim because he was afraid of the big waves, and sharks might be near, or rocks hidden under the water might hurt him. So he stood on the beach and envied the other children. He was somewhat like Israel peering over the mountains at the land they believed they could not conquer, was he not?
Two young men applied for a position. The head of the firm said to both of them, "I can see you only at four o'clock in the morning."
One boy replied, "But you live outside the city, and there is no train after midnight until six in the morning."
The other quietly answered, "I'll be there, sir, at four o'clock in the morning."
He took the midnight train, waited in the station the remainder of the night, and called the old man out of bed at four in the morning. Yes, he got the position and in after years became the manager of the fun. There was no promised land too hard for him to enter. The other young fellow did not even think of waiting in the station. The first thought which entered his head was, "It is impossible." Perhaps for the rest of his life he kept waiting for something that he believed it was possible to do.
We must go back to our poor frightened people sadly packing their goods, folding their tents, and putting their babies who were too little to march, on the backs of the camels or donkeys. Little Benjamin again asked his mother if they were going to march any more, and why they went back where they had just come from. His sister Sarah took him by the hand, and together the two little ones followed their mother and father out into the barren land where even the little children feel tired most of the time. Poor little lad and little lass ! They did not know that the next time they stood on the border of the promised land they would be old and gray-haired, with children of their own, while their mother and father would have perished in the wilderness.
Forty days the scouts had been looking at the land of Canaan, and forty years, a year for each day, were they to wander in the wilderness. Of all the grown people, only Caleb and Joshua who had brought back a good report of the land, and who had believed that God was with them and would give it to them if they trusted in Him, were allowed to enter the promised land.
What unreasonable things fear and unbelief make people do! These people had refused to go forward, but as soon as Moses told them he would not insist on their entering Canaan, but would go back with them to the desert, at once they decided that they would go into the land and fight the inhabitants. Was Moses pleased? No, he knew it was not faith that they could conquer their enemies, but fear of the desert which influenced them, so he said, "Wherefore now do ye transgress the commandment of Jehovah, seeing it shall not prosper? Go not up, for Jehovah is not among you; that ye be not smitten down before your enemies . . . . ye shall fall by the sword: because ye are turned back from following Jehovah, therefore Jehovah will not be with you."
By this time you boys and girls know, with-out my telling you, that the people paid no attention to Moses, but went out in their weakness to fight the enemy and of course were defeated. To the end of the story they refused to believe what their leader told them and as usual met the consequences of their disobedience. Some people are fond of calling these consequences punishment. Had these people been able to understand, Moses could have told them what was told many years afterward to a little maid in Nazareth : "Blessed is she that believed; for there shall be a fulfilment of the things which have been spoken to her from the Lord."