Shelach-Lekha: Risking vs. Wandering

June 12, 2011 at 10:25 pm | Posted in Shelach-Lekha | Leave a comment

It’s summer of the second year after the Israelites and their fellow travelers fled from Egypt.  In Canaan the grapes are ripening, but the people are still in the wilderness.  Besides listening to long lists of laws and building a portable sanctuary, they’ve been witnessing miracles, grumbing about the food, and insulting their god.  Whenever their insults go too far, God kills some of them with a plague. Then Moses talks God into forgiving the rest, and continuing to lead them toward the promised land.

In this week’s Torah portion, Shelach-Lekha (“Send for yourself”), southern Canaan lies just over the ridge from where the people are camped.  God gives Moses permission to send twelve scouts into Canaan to gather information before the people move in and take over.

They went forth, and they came back to Moses and to Aaron and to the whole assembly of the children of Israel, to the wilderness of Paran near Kadesh; and they brought back  a report to them and to the whole assembly, and they showed them the fruit of the land.  And they gave an account, and they said:  We came to the land where you sent us, and indeed it is flowing with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.  But it’s all for nothing; because the people dwelling in the land are powerful, and the cities are impregnable and  very great, and we even saw the offspring of the giant Anak there.  (Numbers 13:26-28)

Kadesh (קָדֵשׁ= a person or place dedicated to a god, therefore “holy”.  Out of several biblical spots named Kadesh, this one is Kadesh-Barneia,  in the northeast corner of the Sinai Peninsula.

Barneia: bar = son, grain, pure, clean, empty; + neia = wandering to and fro.  Barneia may mean “empty country of wandering to and fro”

Two of the scouts, Caleb and Joshua, remind the Israelites that God plans to give them Canaan, the land flowing with milk and honey.  (The land is so good that even the uncultivated parts are full of wild goats one can milk, and bees that make honey.)  But the people listen to the other ten scouts, who talk as if God will not help them, and tell them they cannot hope to conquer Canaan on their own.  That night the people weep, and wish they were dead, and talk about appointing a leader to take them back to Egypt.

Then Caleb and Joshua remind the people:

God is with us; don’t be afraid of them!  But the whole assembly said to pelt them with stones—and then the glory of God appeared in the Tent of Meeting to all the children of Israel.  (Numbers 14:9-10)

God is enraged by the people”s lack of trust, and Moses talks God down once again.  But this time God declares that the Israelites must wander in the wilderness for forty years, until all the men age 20 and over have died (except for Caleb and Joshua).  It’s clear to God that the current generation of adult men are never going to be able to receive the gift of  the promised land.

Then God kills the ten pessimistic scouts with a plague.

I can’t help wondering what’s wrong with these people.  Don’t they remember how God drowned a whole army of Egyptians to save them?  Are they so used to seeing the glory of God appear in a pillar of cloud and fire that they don’t take it seriously any more?  Why don’t they believe God will give them the land of Canaan, as promised?

One explanation is that the Israelites remember all the times God smote them, as well as the times God saved them.  How can they count on a God who keeps killing them?  Even if they’re careful not to make another golden calf, or complain about the manna, they’re bound to make some other error, and then they’ll find themselves facing the enemy without God’s backing.

I think this is a reasonable fear.  Yet if they don’t go into Canaan, what will happen to them?  Surely it would be better to risk death or slavery in Canaan, if there’s even a chance that God will aid them and they can settle down in the land of milk and honey as promised.  After all, if they turn their back on their god and return to Egypt, they face certain death or enslavement, with no chance of redemption.  The right choice seems obvious.  So why are the people ready to stone the men who urge them to cross over into Canaan?

The answer for the Israelites is the same as the answer for us.  It’s hard to grow up; to take on a new life; to take on responsibility for something we don’t know how to do.  When we are children, someone else feeds us and guides us and takes care of our needs.  When the Israelites are slaves in Egypt, their parent-figure is Pharaoh, an atrocious father.  Then they are adopted and rescued by God, who has a bad temper, but cares about his people’s well-being and teaches them moral behavior.  The Israelites settle into an adolescent relationship with God, rumbling and rebelling occasionally despite their dependence on their father-figure.  They look forward to the promised land the way teenagers look forward to adulthood.

Then it’s time to leave home and make our own place in a world of strangers—giants we cannot hope to compete with.  Suddenly the promised land looks pretty scary.

That’s understandable for an adolescent.  But what about those adults age 20 and over, who refuse to climb the ridge into Canaan?  Why can’t they just take a deep breath and take the risk?

It takes more than one deep breath.  I know that even in my fifties, I keep facing another ridge to climb, another new land to enter.  I don’t know whether I’m strong enough to do something I’ve never done.  I don’t know whether God, or even good luck, will be on my side.

But when the new land is important, and there is no good alternative, the best you can do is to cross that ridge whether you trust in God or not.  Otherwise, you’ll merely linger in the wilderness until you die.

May each of us be blessed with the courage to do what we must, and go forward into the next new land.

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