If one is following the progress of the plot from Genesis to Revelation, Numbers 11-14 stands tall. It is not an overstatement to suggest that from the call of Abraham (see Gen 12:1-3) onward, the biblical narrative has focused on Israel’s entrance into the Promised Land. Tragic is the episode of Numbers 11-14.
Each of the three scenes in Numbers 11-12 is a variegated arrangement of the same elements: complaints from Israelites, Moses’ “complaint” for God’s mercy, and God’s jealous response. This pattern was displayed when the Israelites grumbled about their general hardships (Num 11:1-3) and complained about manna (Num 11:4-35), and when Miriam and Aaron protested against Moses’ authority (Num 12:1-16).
Israel’s pervasive complaining in Numbers 11-12 fostered a culture of unbelief. God commissioned scouts from among the various tribes to survey Canaan (Num 13:1-20). Outstanding was the reflexive instruction for the scouts to be courageous, surveying the land for their own benefit (Num 13:20). Upon their return they gave a favorable report concerning the produce of the land: “Indeed, it is flowing with milk and honey, and here is some of its fruit” (Num 13:27). Yet, in their cowering minds the glory of the land’s abundance was not to be compared with the superlative military strength of the people and cities of Canaan.
The seeds of doubt in the report of the ten quickly produced the fruit of moaning amongst the congregation—even to the degree that they again longed for the days of slavery in Egypt (Num 14:1-4). In the midst of this growing skepticism amongst the spies and the congregation of Israel, four men persevered in faith: Caleb (Num 13:30), Joshua, Moses, and Aaron (Num 14:5-9). God buttressed their faith in His presence at the tent of meeting—even while “the whole community threatened to stone them” (Num 14:10).
Numbers 14 records God’s censure of the complaining and doubt of the people. When God confided in Moses that He was ready to destroy the nation and start over with him (Num 14:11-12), Moses begged for God to yet pursue His glory through His people (Num 14:13-19; see Psalm 90). Nevertheless, the unbelieving members of the congregation were sentenced to life and death outside of Canaan (Num 14:21-23; 26-35). As for the spies, the Lord recompensed Joshua and Caleb for their faithfulness—promising them life in the Promised Land (Num 14:24, 30)—and destroyed the ten unfaithful spies for their hardness of heart (Num 14:36-38).
The scenes of Numbers 11-14 provide a rubric for the storyline of Scripture, resounding in Psalm 95, and the epistle to the Hebrews. In the mind of the author of Hebrews, while Moses had indeed acted faithfully as God’s servant in His household (Num 12:7), “Christ was faithful as a Son over His household” (Heb 3:6). Since his audience thus shared in a special relationship to God unknown by the wilderness generation, he expected more from them. He picked up on the words of the Psalmist, who wrote:
Today, if you hear His voice: “Do not harden your hearts as at Meribah, as on that day at Massah in the wilderness where your fathers tested Me; they tried Me, though they had seen what I did. For 40 years I was disgusted with that generation; I said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray; they do not know My ways.’ So I swore in My anger, ‘They will not enter My rest’” (Ps 95:7b-11; see also Exod 17:1-7).
The author of Hebrews warned his audience to avoid the unfaithful, complaining spirit demonstrated in Israel. The failure of the wilderness generation serves as a warning in the epistle of Hebrews (Heb 3:7-19). Since the audience in view had become partakers of Christ (Heb 3:14), the author encouraged them that a promised rest yet remained, writing:
Therefore, while the promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear so that none of you should miss it. For we also have received the good news just as they did; but the message they heard did not benefit them, since they were not united with those who heard it in faith (for we who have believed enter the rest)…Let us then make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall into the same pattern of disobedience (Heb 4:1-3a, 11).