Numbers 14 Study Notes
14:1-4 The grumbling rebellion against God and his gift of the land reached a climax when the Israelite congregation moaned, if only we had died in the land of Egypt. Persons in fear and depression tend to focus on the negative side of events and circumstances rather than turning their hearts and minds to God, the source of hope and deliverance.
14:3 The outcry of the people turned to the potential loss of their wives and children. This heightened the drastic nature of the complaint.
14:4 The rebellion turned to the rejection of God’s chosen and faithful leaders: Moses, Aaron, Caleb, and later Joshua.
14:5-9 Moses and Aaron fell facedown in humble submission before God at the entrance to the tabernacle where the people had gathered. At the same time they were bowing before the rebellious Israelites, propitiating God on their behalf. The faithful scouts Joshua and Caleb tore their clothes as a symbol of mourning and disdain for the defiant Israelites and their humiliated leaders. The tearing of one’s garments was a gesture of mourning for the dead, for expressing lament over disease or plague, and for introducing a prophetic lament of judgment against an individual or nation.
14:10 God’s dramatic intervention in the history of his people is integral to fulfilling his promise to bless his people. Here, as in 12:5; 16:19; Ex 14:19, the dynamic work of God demonstrates how he will intervene in history when the survival of his people is at stake. The theophany of the cloud/fiery pillar became even clearer to the Israelites as they grumbled against God.
14:11-12 The miraculous signs the Israelites had experienced in their deliverance from Egypt and their wandering in the wilderness were all forgotten. God threatened to destroy the Israelites and start over with a new people through Moses. This was not the first time God threatened this (Ex 32:10).
14:13-16 Moses intervened on behalf of a rebellious nation with an appeal to God’s reputation among the nations (the Egyptians will hear about it) and to the power of God to fulfill his promises. God’s glory was at stake in this crisis.
14:14 Most translations have face to face (lit “eye to eye,”), but neither Israel nor Moses could look upon God’s face (Ex 33:11,20-23). The expression denotes the method by which the will of God was communicated directly through the words of Moses. The “face” of God was his continual presence in the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night.
14:17-18 Slow to anger describes God’s longsuffering character. He was willing to endure the rebellion of the people for an extended period of time and to respond to their waywardness with grace and faithfulness. Later in Israelite history, the prophets responded to Israel’s idolatrous practices of adopting Canaanite gods and goddesses in worship and practicing injustice against their own people by declaring that God’s longsuffering would soon come to an end. His judgment was imminent and came to pass in the Assyrian and Babylonian invasions of Israel and Judah in the eighth and sixth centuries BC.
Abounding in faithful love describes God’s lovingkindness and covenant loyalty to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But in spite of his love, his justice and righteousness would not allow him to leave the guilty unpunished. Moses’s understanding of the balance between the love of God and his righteous judgment came through his close relationship with God.
The phrase bringing the consequences of the fathers’ iniquity on the children meant that stemming the tide of sinfulness within the family structure often took many generations. God does not cause one’s descendants to suffer because of the sins of their fathers (Dt 24:16; Ezk 18; see note at Ex 20:4-6), but he does punish children who keep doing the same sorts of sins as their parents. This passage set the stage for the words of the Shema (Dt 6:4-9), which instructed parents to set an example in the worship of God in the context of family.
14:19 Please pardon was Moses’s way of asking God to show the Israelites his merciful love instead of his righteous judgment.
14:20-23 God’s reputation would be preserved through the meting out of his judgment against the disobedient first-generation leaders, and his mercy would be extended to the generation that followed. In refusing to enter the promised land, the older generation had rejected an essential part of their covenant relationship with God that was set forth in the Abrahamic covenant (Gn 12:1-3,7; 13:14-18; 15:18-21; 17:7-8). God’s judgment did not apply to those who were under twenty years old of the generation that left Egypt (Nm 14:29).
14:24 Caleb, the faithful scout from the tribe of Judah, would join Hoshea (Joshua) of Ephraim as one of only two exceptions to God’s judgment against the ten scouts who had issued the majority report (v. 30). Thus the passage echoes the theme of the book of Numbers—that those who followed God’s instructions faithfully would experience the fullness of God’s blessing in the promised land.
14:25 The wilderness in the direction of the Red Sea was the line of the trade route that connected to Ezion-geber on the Gulf of Aqaba/Elath from Kadesh-barnea through the Zin Wilderness and the southern Arabah. Though Red Sea can be translated “Reed Sea,” the terminology refers to the eastern arm of the Red Sea known as the Gulf of Aqaba (1Kg 9:26-28).
14:26-28 As surely as I live is the language of the court as the Lord, God of Israel, took an oath on his own honor and announced the verdict against the guilty spies. Punishment would be dispensed in a slow and methodical manner. (See the similar statement in v. 35.)
14:29-35 A form of talionic justice (judgment equal to the crime, “an eye for an eye”) was announced: forty days of spying, which led to the negative report, would be matched by forty years of wandering, with an effective death sentence on the first generation of Israelite leaders and militia.
14:36-38 The repetition in these verses forms a chiasm with struck down by the Lord in the center.
14:39-43 Any attempt to launch out in conquest of the land without the Lord’s blessing would be futile. Deliberate disobedience to God’s command not to attack the Canaanites would meet with resounding defeat.
14:44-45 The city of Hormah has been identified tentatively with Tel Masos in the Beer-sheba Valley region. Hormah is also mentioned in the Execration Texts of middle Bronze Age Egypt.