The book of Joshua is the Bible’s record of how the Israelites, under Joshua’s leadership, claimed their promised land of Canaan. However, students of the Bible know that four decades earlier a previous invasion attempt had produced disastrous results. The story of that first invasion is loaded with spiritual lessons, and I’d like to use this post to share four of them with you. These certainly aren’t the only four that can be named, but they are four good ones.
Lesson #1: God has a plan.
God had a sweeping, grandiose plan to turn the Israelites from slaves in Egypt to conquerors in Canaan. The plan went as follows:
- He raised up Moses to lead the Israelites in their exodus out of Egypt (Exodus chapters 1-4).
- He parted the Red Sea for them to pass through and then brought the waters back together to drown Pharaoh’s army (Exodus chapter 14).
- He sustained them in the wilderness region between the Red Sea and Mount Sinai (Exodus chapters 15-18).
- He brought them to Mount Sinai three months after the exodus (Exodus 19:1), and there He gave them His law and instructed them to build the Tabernacle as their movable place of worship (Exodus chapters 19-40, Leviticus chapters 1-27, Numbers chapters 1-9).
- He led them to head out toward Canaan eleven months after they had arrived at Mount Sinai (Numbers 10:11).
- He sustained them in the wilderness region between Mount Sinai and Canaan (Numbers chapters 10-12).
All of this shows us that God wasn’t just “winging it” or making it up as He went along. He had a plan, and the plan would work as long as the Israelites worked the plan. The same is true in our lives.
Lesson #2: God doesn’t need our ideas to help Him with His plan.
The Israelites came to Kadesh Barnea (Deuteronomy 1:19) in the Wilderness of Paran, the very brink of Canaan, and set up their sprawling encampment there (Numbers 13:16). This was to be home base for their victorious invasion of Canaan. But then things got murky. Decades later, in Deuteronomy 1:20-46, Moses looked back on it all and recalled how he said to the people, “Look, the Lord your God has set the land before you; go up and possess it, as the Lord God of your fathers has spoken to you; do not fear or be discouraged” (Deuteronomy 1:21).
Okay, that sounds good. No problem there. But how did the people respond? Moses said, “And every one of you came near to me and said, ‘Let us send men before us, and let them search out the land for us, and bring back word to us of the way by which we should go up, and of the cities into which we shall come'” (Deuteronomy 1:22). Uh oh. Rather than boldly marching forward to claim what God had promised them, the Israelites started doing their own strategizing and planning. Even Moses got caught up in it, as he admitted, “The plan pleased me well” (Deuteronomy 1:23).
Now, God could have flown mad and lowered the boom on the Israelites for doing their own planning, but He spoke to Moses and signed off on their plan by laying out specific guidelines for it (Numbers 13:1). The group would consist of twelve men, one man being chosen from each of Israel’s twelve tribes (Numbers 13:2). Why did God do this? He did it because He knew the spies would bring back a scary report, and He would use that report as a test of Israel’s obedience, courage, and faith in Him. The point is, though, that God didn’t originally intend for the Israelites to take that test. But once they made up their minds to “help” Him out with His plan by sending in those spies, they signed up for it. May we not be guilty of repeating their mistake in our lives.
Lesson #3: Disobedience to God’s plan brings disaster.
The twelve spies were chosen and spent forty days in Canaan studying the land (Numbers 13:4-25). Then they returned with the good news that the land was a land of abundance just as God had said (Numbers 13:26-27). The bad news was that the inhabitants of the land were strong people – some of them were even literal giants – who lived in large, heavily fortified cities (Numbers 13:28-29,32-33).
After hearing that report, only Caleb and Joshua, two of the twelve spies, wanted to go take the land (Numbers 13:30, 14:6-9). The rest of the people cried all that night, complained against Moses and Aaron, and started talking about electing a new leader to lead them back to Egypt (Numbers 14:1-5). All of this angered God so much that He told Moses that He would kill the Israelites by way of pestilence, disinherit them, and start over again with Moses (Numbers 14:11-12). (This was actually the second time God had threatened to do this: Exodus 32:1-10.)
But Moses, being the great leader that he was, pleaded for the Israelites and convinced God to spare them (Numbers 14:13-20). This didn’t mean, though, that there wouldn’t be severe consequences for their disobedience. For the next forty years, one year per each day the spies were in Canaan, the Israelites would wander in the wilderness and bury bodies as each Israelite twenty years old or older at the time of their refusal to claim Canaan died off by means of some type of “plague” (Numbers 14:21-32). Only Joshua and Caleb would be spared this sentence (Numbers 14:30,38). We should remember this disastrous death sentence whenever we are tempted to chose the path of disobedience to God.
Lesson #4: Opportunities missed because of rebellion against God’s plan can be gone forever.
After Moses relayed God’s word of judgment, the people spent a night of deep mourning (Numbers 14:39). Then they got up the next morning, went to the top of a nearby mountain, confessed their sin to God, and dedicated themselves to going in and taking Canaan (Numbers 14:39-40). We might think that this was exactly what God wanted to hear and that He would again forego His threat of judgment, but Moses knew that God wasn’t about to do that. He explained to the people that even this new round of “confession” and “dedication” from them was really just more rebellion against God’s command (Numbers 14:41). He also warned them that an attempted invasion of Canaan at that time would not succeed because they would be doing it without God (Numbers 14:42-43).
In typical Israelite disobedience, though, a group of them tried an invasion even though Moses and the Ark of the Covenant remained in camp (Numbers 14:44). And the results were predictable as the Amalekites and the Canaanites attacked them and drove them back (Numbers 14:45). Their failed military effort serves as a sobering lesson that opportunities missed because of rebellion can be gone forever. Here again, let us learn from the Israelites’ mistakes and not miss out on any God-given opportunities in our lives.
In closing, let me just say that God is still in the planning business, and as proof of that I’ll leave you with the familiar words of Jeremiah 29:11. While it’s true that this is a specific promise given to the people of Israel concerning another part of their national history, the general principle the promise conveys can be applied to any of us who fully submit ourselves to God. So, as you keep in mind these four spiritual lessons that we have learned from the Israelites and their failed invasion of Canaan, feel free to claim this promise from the same God who once led them:
“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and now for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.” (New Living Translation)