Catastrophe at Kadesh-Barnea


Numbers 11-14


When we come to these chapters, we come to the climax of the Book of Numbers. This surprises most of us because we are used to the climax being at the end of the story and not in the middle. For example, if you go see a romantic movie, most of the times the boy gets the girl only at the end of the movie. Everybody leaves the auditorium feeling very romantic; however, what happened to the couple after they got married? Did they stay together or did they separate? The movie doesn’t tell us (with the single exception of the Disney endings: “And they all lived happily ever after”) because it would take away from the climax. Well, Moses places the climax in the middle of the book so that he can show us what led up to the climax (chapters 1-9) and what were the results of the climax (15-36).

In these chapters, we come to a critical moment in the history of Israel. Why is it critical? The root idea behind the word crisis is "to decide." The Israelites are facing a situation in which they are going to have to make a decision whether to follow God or to reject His leadership. Their response to God is going to determine future consequences for their generation—either continued blessing from God or else dire consequences. How important is this episode in Israel's history? To determine that, look at the amount of space Moses devotes to it. If Moses had devoted as much space to the rest of 40 years of Israel's time in the wilderness as he does to the one day in Numbers 14, the Book of Numbers would have totaled over 14,000 chapters instead of the 36 it now occupies.

The episode is important not only for the generation just coming out of Egypt but also for the children who will come after—the generation which made up the second census. The second generation which came out of Egypt would have to face the same situation their parents faced. By looking at the response of their parents, maybe, just maybe the second generation will respond in faith and not in rebellion. Finally, this episode is also important for all subsequent generations of believers, including us. God confronts each generation of believers in they will either have to decide for or against God. For example, how are we going to respond to the situation facing us right now with the sanctuary? Hopefully, we will respond positively to what God is saying and not in rebellion like this first generation did.


At this point in the story, Moses leads the children of Israel northeast to the southernmost tip of the land of Canaan (the Promised Land) to the place called Kadesh or Kadesh-Barnea (remember that they are following the cloud). There Moses sends out 12 spies to survey the land the Israelites are about to attack. He selects a representative from each of the tribes (with the exception of Levi) and directs them to survey the entire land. With great solemnity, Moses lists by name each of the tribes and the representative each tribe sent. Why such a painstaking focus on detail? The event will prove to be so traumatic that Moses remembered almost every little detail of it, including the names of all 12 spies. What happens here will affect not only the tribes; it will affect Moses dramatically as well. Ten of these spies will forever live in infamy because of their report. The spies are gone for a period of about 40 days.

At this point, we need to look at the issue of who initiated the process of sending out of the spies. Based on this section, it appears that Moses under the Lord's leadership initiated the process; however, a look at Deut. 1:22-23 reveals that the people themselves initiated the process. They asked Moses to send out the spies. After God had given him permission, Moses dispatched the spies. As we read in Numbers 9, God had intended all along for the people to follow the cloud. God had never mentioned sending out reconnaissance parties to scope out the situations. He just wanted them to follow the cloud. When we start sending out reconnaissance missions, we are beginning the process of debating what God wants us to do. Unfortunately, God gives us what we request even though what we asked for is not good for us. It teaches us to be careful when we ask for things.

Moreover, compare this episode with the one 40 years later. When Joshua sends out spies, he does not have them report to the entire congregation, nor does he send them throughout the entire Promised Land; he sends them only to the place God wants them to attack. They are not going ahead of God. We don't need to know the entire future. How many of us would have backed out if we had known beforehand all that God was going to lead us through? When the time came to go through the episodes, God's grace got us through; however, God's grace comes only when it is time to go through a situation and not beforehand. We need to keep the focus solely on today and not on tomorrow.


At the end of the 40 days, the spies return with 2 different reports concerning the land and its inhabitants. All 12 spies give a favorable report concerning the land. It is indeed everything Moses described it to be—a land flowing with milk and honey. The land is so fertile that the grapes produced there are so large, a cluster can be carried only when attached to a pole supported by 2 men. Moreover, the men who live there are gigantic in stature. In fact, some of the inhabitants may be descendants of the Anakites (or the Nephilim who were the offspring of the illicit union of demons and women—Gen. 6:4). Finally, the inhabitants do not live in wall-less villages but in fortified cities.

All 12 spies agree on the report so far. They differ in the way they feel like the Israelites should respond to the situation. Ten of the spies feel like the situation is hopeless. The people are so large and powerful, and the cities so well-fortified that the 10 believe that attempting a conquest of the land would be futile. They had lived in Egypt for over 400 years where battles were aged in open field, not against fortified cities. They were not prepared for this kind of battle. Caleb quickly countered with his assessment of the situation. He did not dispute the claim of the 10 that the inhabitants of the land were powerful, nor did he deny that he people lived in well-fortified cities. What he did claim, though, and what did contradict the report of the 10 was that they would be able to possess the land.

Unfortunately, the people listened to the 10. They despaired at the situation. All night long the people wept because of their unfortunate situation. Remember that wailing in the Middle East is not like our moaning and groaning. The women let out high-pitched shrieks which pierced the night. Loud moaning accompanied the wailing. The people had given themselves over completely to despair. They began to regret ever leaving Egypt and coming to the Promised Land. Better to die in Egypt than to be slaughtered in this ridiculous conquest. The sad thing is that returning to Egypt would have definitely resulted in instant slavery and ultimately death; embarking on the conquest might have resulted in failure and slaughter but it might also result in victory. Instead of wanting to "take a chance" with victory, they wanted to return to definite slavery.

Now look at their next statement. What happens next should warn us to be careful what we say. By their own words, the Israelites will condemn themselves. They claim that they had wished they had died in the wilderness rather than face this situation. Too many times in our relationship with God, we make off-handed remarks. The problem is that while we might have been flippant in making these remarks, God sometimes treats them seriously—to teach us a lesson. In fact most of the time God takes us a lot more seriously than we take ourselves.

Despair then turns into anger. They next blame God—the very God who delivered them from Egyptian slavery, they blame this God for their situation. They claim that God has brought them to Kadesh in order to be slaughtered by the sword. Moreover, He has put their children and women at risk also; they too will perish because of this foolish expedition. Instead of being a God of salvation, He is now a God who murders women and children. They decide that for their best interests they should return to Egypt. They reject Moses as their new leader and begin to deliberate about whom should lead them back. Rejecting Moses' leadership amounts to nothing less than rejecting the Lord's leadership.

The horror of the situation forces Moses and Aaron to fall on their faces before the people. They are not concerned about their own position and standing with the people. They are concerned about how God is going to respond to the people's rebellion. Joshua and Caleb in the meantime rend their garments and cry out to the Israelites that God will give them the land if the Lord is pleased with the Israelites. They confidently proclaim this because of the way the Lord had defeated Egypt, the world's super power, just a year earlier. Moreover, they claim that the Lord had removed protection from the Canaanites. Hundreds of years later, Daniel proclaimed the same truth. There comes a time in the history of each nation when God is going to bring it to judgment. If that nation has followed Him, then it will prosper. If it has not followed Him, then God will destroy the nation. Well, the hour of judgment has come upon Canaan. As God had predicted to Abraham over 400 years earlier, the iniquity of the Canaanites was full; destruction was imminent. The people respond by attempting to stone them. Whether the people realize it or not, all is lost for them.

GOD'S RESPONSE (14:11-38)

When the Israelites consider stoning the 4—Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and Caleb, lightning (the glory of the Lord) flashes from the cloud of the Lord which has appeared at the tabernacle. The Lord then communicates with Moses, "How long will this people spurn Me?" He questions Moses rhetorically about how long they will refuse to believe in Him. He has decided to destroy the nation completely with the exception of the 4 and their families, and then start all over again. This new nation will spring forth from Moses' family. Think for a moment how many people would have agreed to this proposal. This congregation has been a thorn in Moses' side from day one; it would have been tempting to tell God to go ahead and destroy the people. Moreover, how flattering it would be to anyone to have an entire nation spring forth from him. To be the father of the nation would surely have appealed to Moses.

Moses, however, appeals to God not to destroy the people. This appeal is first based upon Moses' concern for the Lord's reputation. According to Moses, if the Lord pursued this option, in the end the only one coming out looking bad would be the Lord Himself. All the surrounding nations who knew about God's great deliverance from the Egyptians would follow up this story with the story about how the great and mighty God of the Israelites had been incapable of bringing them safely into their inheritance. The episode would not have reflected so much on the sin of the Israelites as on the utter inability of the Lord to see His purposes through. The appeal is next based on the Lord's own character. God had revealed Himself to be slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness; moreover, God as a God who forgives sins and pardons iniquities. Here is an opportunity for Him to be true to His own character.

God informs Moses that his prayer has influenced Him. He will pardon the people and not destroy them instantaneously, but He also informs Moses that He will see His purposes through. His glory will fill the whole earth one day, and we will see a glimpse of that by what He is going to do next. First, the generation which was 20 years of age and older would not enter the Promised Land. Instead, for the next 40 years they would wander in the wilderness until every one of them had died—(God based the 40 years upon the 40 days the spies had surveyed Canaan—one year for every day). The only 2 exceptions would be Caleb and Joshua who had been true to the Lord in this incident (it is taken for granted that Moses and Aaron would be allowed to enter—although they too will fall in the wilderness).

The people had gone too far. Ten times God had shown His power on the behalf of Israel when He had brought the 10 plagues upon the Egyptians and destroyed their army at the Red Sea. How had Israel repaid Him? By rejecting Him 10 times in the past year. The crisis at Kadesh had been episode number 10. These 10 times had revealed Israel not to be ready to take the land. Now as for the children whom the Israelites said God had intended to murder in the wilderness, they would be the ones who would possess the land. God instructs the people to turn around and head back deeper into the wilderness. As for the 10 spies who had led the people into rebellion, God destroys them immediately with a plague.

True to their nature, many of the Israelites reject this second set of instructions. They decide after all that they will go up and possess the land. Hadn't God promised to be with them and give them the land? Once more the people are in rebellion. Moses warns them that God has forsaken them and will not be with them in this enterprise. The people once more reject Moses as God's leader and plunge foolhardily into Canaan. The result is disaster. The Canaanites rout the invaders. Moses then turns the people back into the wilderness for 40 years of death.

Several things need to be noted here. First, although the lion's share of the responsibility for Israel’s rejection lay right at the feet of the 10 spies, God nevertheless held the people responsible for following the leaders. It's true that the 10 spies died immediately; however, the rest of the nation did die over a period of 40 years. Many times we try to shirk the responsibility for our actions by blaming others who had influenced us to a certain course of action. Well, this episode teaches us that those who influence us do receive a greater judgment; however, we too will be judged. We are responsible even when we allow others to influence us. Remember that the voices of the 10 spies were not the only voices the people heard. They had also heard the faithful 4—Moses, Aaron, Caleb, and Joshua. They could have just as easily responded positively to the 4 as they did to the 10.

Next, notice that God's people are the ones being judged. The pagan Egyptians and heathen Canaanites are not undergoing judgment in this passage. It is God's people undergoing judgment. Moreover, when you read through the entire Bible, you will notice that seldom do we read about judgment befalling the pagans; instead, most of the instances of judgment in the Bible fall upon God's people. For ever pagan Herod Agrippa dropping down dead because of his pride, you've got an Ananias and Sapphira dying because of their sin. Judgment always begin with the household of God (1 Pet. 4:17). Why? Since God has blessed His people more than anybody else on earth, He holds them more accountable than anybody else on earth. "To him who has been given much, must is required."