I remember the year my father harvested the first crop from his new vineyard of Red Globes. It was a new variety no one had seen before. I was teaching at Fresno Pacific at the time, and I remember jokingly carrying a bunch of them on a branch with another colleague across the central quad to the cafeteria. Just like the spies carrying the abundance of Canaan back into the wilderness of Paran. These grapes are HUGE – each berry about the size of a kiwi or small plum! My father sold most of his in Asia, where they peel them and freeze them and sell them as popsicles. I see them in the stores once in a while and I usually buy some as a delightful reminder of this story.
Forty days (or years), as we have come to know, is used as a metaphorical time period in the Bible. A significant amount of time in which something significant happens. It has deep spiritual significance, a time of preparation, cleaning out, purifying, getting to the bottom of what is happening in the soul, so that God can do God’s work.
This forty days of spying is like that, with some interesting differences.
1. This forty days is a group experience. Twelve spies go through it together. And how it will shape the future depends on the group task and the group response. Could they become of one heart and mind as a people and be ready to enter the land?
I wonder if serving on the session of our church is a little bit like this. In the Presbyterian Church, we work by teams, by committee. We don’t have people working as Lone Rangers. It takes time. And sometimes it is frustrating. We need to talk about things, process them, and discern the way together. Trying to build a consensus, or at least a willingness to move in the same direction, takes time. It takes a lot longer, but we are stronger together.
So God gave them more time. Forty years without a home to forget the past and stew in the yearning for God’s promise, to let the yearning for the future outweigh the yearning for the past.
2. This forty days appears to be unsuccessful. The group could not come together as God had hoped. They could not understand that the land was their gift, because God was giving it to them. They could not buy into the dream that was set before them. And because of this, it is followed by another forty – forty years in the wilderness. Because their hearts were not changed by the forty days of spying, they lived forty years of wandering homeless.
Everything they experienced in the spying was larger than life! The story of the produce of the land is exaggerated. Imagine a bunch of grapes so large it required two people to carry it! They felt like grasshoppers compared to the giants of the land. The land flowed with milk and honey – another grand and beautiful exaggeration.
The way the twelve spies experienced the forty days divided them. It did not bring them together. It apparently was not like the bonding which so often happens in a week of camping and living in the same tent. They came back deeply divided. All twelve said: Oh this is an amazing land! Flowing with milk and honey! Amazing abundance! And then ten added: But it is out of our league! The land is peopled by giants. We felt like grasshoppers among them. (I wonder if any of the basketball teams playing the first round of the NCAA tournament feel this way?) The David and Goliath story is evidence of what the spies reported – that there were people in the land who were huge, strong and belligerent.
Caleb and Joshua, the minority voice, were like Don Quixote, imagining being able to defeat windmills. They did not deny that there were giants in the land. But they did believe that the people and God were big enough to stand up to them. Their dreams and visions enabled them to see themselves as part of something much bigger than themselves.
But what was real? Which perspective was true? The limitations we assume, or the possibilities within the Spirit? Cervantes, author of Don Quixote suggests: “Maybe the greatest madness is to see life as it is, rather than as it could be.” Israel and the ten spies were stuck seeing only life as it is. The spying was to give them a vision of life as it could be. And they just couldn’t see it. So they chose to stay with life as it was.
Be careful when you go spying. What you look for will likely be what you will find.
Sara Sturtevant, artist entrepreneur, writes like the minority report: “I was a dreamer of dreams…. I shared this dream and instead was told that it was one in a million artists who actually ‘made it,’ whatever that meant. Why couldn’t I be one in a million? Impossible, they said. Ultimately, my resolve broke down and my heart began to believe them. Just like Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right.” https://sarasturtevant.com/about/
3. This forty days was not particularly a contemplative experience. I know that I lean toward the mystical and contemplative as spiritual practice. When I look at these forty days experiences, I see soul change, epiphanies, empowerment from within, ecstatic faith-building experience. Not so much this time. This was an active forty days.
The spies were to immerse themselves in the land. Feel it, walk on it, smell it, taste it, listen to it. When God first sent Abram to the land, God made him walk all through the land, to put his feet on it, as if to draw a circle with his feet around the land what would be his (Genesis 13:17). So, too the spies. Be in the world. Feet firmly planted. This is your land. Live in it and thrive!
But from the perspective of the grasshopper spies, the wilderness seemed safer. Far away. Isolated. A place where they would not have to compete with or cooperate with others. The promised land was wonderful, but they could not imagine it as home for their feet or their souls.
Are there giants in our land too? Yes, I think so. Who are the giants in our land?
My thoughts go first to the world of power-mad leaders, building bigger bombs, and appearing more and more like giants on the horizon. Yes. There are giants in our land.
What about closer to home? Where are our church’s giants? What are the challenges that seem larger than life?
Think about it for a minute. In the world of church, all the news is of a declining institution. Another book I reviewed yesterday documented the grasshopper-like smallness of the church in decline. Our culture is a giant, dismissive, unfazed by the grasshopper.
I hear all sorts of dismay at the strength in numbers of the generation outside the church. The largest generation ever born are now young adults, and they have no experience of church. Their parents left before they were born. They will never come back to church because they were never in one. How can we, sixty people on the corner of 55th and Belmont in Portland Oregon – how can we take on a whole generation who does not know church? It is easy to take the 10 spies route, stay put, live on the fringes.
When I look at it this way, I feel like a grasshopper, too. But this is not the end of the story. It took another forty years. God was still with the people, God’s chosen and beloved. It would take more time than even God imagined, but God would bring the people home.
Maybe the question for us is: how can we love a whole generation who does not know church?
It is interesting to note that Moses brought this same argument to God. When the people sided with the ten spies who were afraid to enter the land, God was furious! One more rejection from this stiff-necked people. Again, God threatened to destroy them all and start over with Moses. But Moses asked God to remember God’s own words. You are “slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression” (Numbers 14:18). Moses called on God to remember love. God, act our of your own steadfast love and forgive them, spare them. For the sake of your own reputation if nothing else!
Hmmm. Love them. For the sake of your own reputation, if nothing else. Maybe Moses is onto something. For us as well as for God. Really, what more can we do than to love each other? To let our spying out the land, to let our ambitions and perceptions divide us, will get us only more wandering in the wilderness. Maybe our job is not to conquer the land, but to love it, for the sake of our own reputation, if nothing else. Once beloved, the land, the people, the Spirit will show us the way.
So what is the spiritual discipline of spying? Try it out. Go spying this week. Take a walk in the land. Open your eyes. Take notes. Taste the fruit. Smell the rich damp earth and the new flowers. See the people with love. That’s all. Spy out the land with love. And come back to the tent of meeting, to love the people here with the same love. And let God do the rest.
You see, Caleb and Joshua knew that the task was not theirs alone. Rather it was God doing the work through them. And God is enough, no matter how big the task.
Jesus faced his final days with this same faith. That if he just loved the people with his whole life – body and soul – the breath of life would win. And so it was, and so it shall be.