The 12 Spies

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“The 12 Spies,” Ensign, Mar. 2002, 35

Old Testament

The 12 Spies

This Old Testament story reminds us to look beyond the walls in front of us and see the promised vineyards of the Lord ready to harvest.

Among all the philosophies one could choose to follow in life, the choice between two basic but opposing approaches—faith versus fear—influences our lives more markedly than any other (see Mark 4:40). These approaches are as old as mankind and are amply found in the scriptures. Perhaps the best example can be found in the story of the spies Moses sent into Canaan after the exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt.

The Report

Moses and the children of Israel traveled from Mount Sinai in hopes of repossessing the land promised to them according to the divine covenants made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (see Ex. 3:16–17; Ex. 33:1–3). Before entering that land, the Lord told Moses to send some men to explore the land of Canaan. Moses chose 12 men, one from each tribe, “every one a ruler among them,” into the land (Num. 13:2). They searched it from the south to the north and back again, a distance of about 250 miles each way, for 40 days. On their way back to camp they stopped by the brook Eshcol near the village of Hebron and cut down “a branch with one cluster of grapes” (Num. 13:23). Two of the men hoisted it upon a pole and carried it between them. The size of the grape cluster was an indication of the goodness of the land. They also gathered pomegranates and figs to show the people.

Returning to the people, all 12 men reported assuredly to the children of Israel that “the land … floweth with milk and honey; and this is the fruit of it” (Num. 13:27). However, 10 of the 12 spies also fearfully reported that “the people be strong that dwell in the land, and the cities are walled, and very great. … We be not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we” (Num. 13:28, 31). A spontaneous murmur echoed through the camp.

Two of the spies, Caleb—from the tribe of Judah, and Joshua, from the tribe of Ephraim—went forward to calm the people. They confirmed the fruitfulness of the land but disagreed that it could not be conquered. “Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it,” Caleb pled (Num. 13:30). “Not so,” replied the 10 other spies as they continued to spread the frightening report among the people. “We were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight,” they said (Num. 13:33).

The Provocation

The people had a choice. Would they direct their attention to the large cluster of grapes and the hope of future harvests in the land the Lord had promised them, or would they focus on the words of the 10 faithless leaders about the height of the walls and the difficulties they might face in conquering the land? The people mourned and wept that night. They talked of returning to Egypt and rebelling against Moses. In vain, Caleb and Joshua tried to kindle some faith in their hearts by assuring them, “If the Lord delight in us, then he will bring us into this land and give it us. … Only rebel not ye against the Lord, neither fear ye the people of the land. … The Lord is with us: fear them not” (Num. 14:8–9). The people chose fear instead of faith, taking up stones to kill Caleb and Joshua. Suddenly the glory of the Lord appeared before them in the camp.

This moment in Old Testament history is what some prophets have called “the provocation, in the day of temptation in the wilderness” (Heb. 3:8). These prophets have used the story of what happened to the children of Israel at this point in their history to teach their people the importance of repenting before it is too late (see Jacob 1:7–8; Alma 12:36–37).

The Lord then asked Moses, “How long will this people provoke me?” (Num. 14:11), whereupon Moses, in his role as a mediator, and as a similitude of the Savior, pled with the Lord for his people, “Pardon, I beseech thee, the iniquity of this people” (Num. 14:19).

The Lord knew the children of Israel did not have the faith necessary to claim their inheritance in the promised land and took them at their word. They had said that it would be better to die in the wilderness than to attempt such a difficult task of conquering the land (see Num. 14:2). As a result, the Lord decreed that the people would sojourn in the wilderness until all those over age 20 who had come out of Egypt had died. The Lord declared He would lead a new generation of Israelites into the land (see Num. 14:23–35). Thus began their 40 years of life in the desert.

Grape Gatherers or Wall Watchers

There are times when we may hear two conflicting reports of what lies before us in life. We have to decide whether to focus on the difficulties in obeying a certain commandment of the Lord or to focus on the “fruits,” remembering the promises He extends to those who trust in Him. Whether we are paying tithing, accepting a Church calling, or dealing with personal challenges in our families, at work, or obtaining an education, we simply must not let the “height of the walls” and the power of opposing forces make us feel “as grasshoppers” (Num. 13:33). The Lord will help us conquer our fears, surmount our obstacles, and enjoy the blessings of faithfulness to His gospel. If we will keep our eyes on the harvest, not on the obstacles before us, we become grape gatherers instead of wall watchers.

President Gordon B. Hinckley is a latter-day example of a grape gatherer. He has said: “We see some around us who are indifferent concerning the future of this work, … who speak of limitations, who express fears. … With doubt concerning its past, they have no vision concerning its future. … I invite every one of you, wherever you may be as members of this church, to stand on your feet and with a song in your heart move forward, living the gospel, loving the Lord, and building the kingdom.”1

Of all the people in the older generation of Israelites, only Caleb and Joshua lived to taste the sweetness of the grapes of the land and the red richness of the pomegranates. How much sweeter the fruits of the promised land must have been to them, for they had known the challenges and had overcome them! The example of the two faithful spies reminds us to lift our eyes over the walls before us and see the vineyards and orchards of the Lord’s promises ready to be harvested.

More on this topic: See Spencer W. Kimball, “‘Give Me This Mountain,’”Ensign, Nov. 1979, 78–79; Edward J. Brandt, “Journeys and Events in the Life of Moses,”Ensign, Oct. 1973, 36–45.
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