Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Reports and Opinion Pieces

When Israel reached the borders of the promised land, while the mass of the nation continued to camp in the wilderness of Paran, Moses sent twelve men to spy out the land of Canaan.

He did not do this on his own. God gave the instructions directly, and he even insisted the spies be of high caliber: “every one a chief”.

In hindsight, there were probably several very good reasons for this.

Without Excuse

First, had God insisted on twelve entry-level foot soldiers, it would have sent a very different message to the people. It would have said, “These poor schmucks are expendable. Don’t expect to see them again.”

Second, it would have set a very poor example for future leaders, who could then cower in safety behind the advancing troops on the basis of a precedent God himself had established.

Third, and most importantly, it would have given Israel an excuse when shortly thereafter they accepted the bad report of ten of the twelve spies and refused to go up to possess the land. They could have complained to God, “We knew the people you sent to spy on our behalf were not up to the job. We only trusted them because YOU sent them.”

It has always been useful to God to establish clearly that the wicked are “without excuse”. And so he did.

What Shapes What

The ten spies who gave a bad report serve as a good illustration of an important principle, and that is this: facts should shape our conclusions, not conclusions the facts.

Moses gave the twelve spies the following instructions:
“Go up into the Negeb and go up into the hill country, and see what the land is, and whether the people who dwell in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many, and whether the land that they dwell in is good or bad, and whether the cities that they dwell in are camps or strongholds, and whether the land is rich or poor, and whether there are trees in it or not. Be of good courage and bring some of the fruit of the land.”
The words “be of good courage” are notable. It was the only instruction on the list that ten of the twelve spies failed to comply with. The failure was not a small one. It cost Israel 40 years.

The Nature of the Failure

Otherwise, the reporters checked all the necessary boxes. As to the questions of strong or weak and many or few, they answered “strong” and that Canaan’s cities were “large”. As to the question of good or bad, their answer was “good”. As to the issue of camps or strongholds, they pointed out that the cities were fortified. As to the question of rich or poor, Joshua said it was “an exceedingly good land”. The question of trees was presumably settled by the pole on which the spies carried the grapes, but nobody on either side appeared much concerned about the native foliage in any case.

Thus, insofar as the spies had been tasked with reporting on the land, they did a perfectly serviceable job. Their failure was not that they gathered the wrong facts, or brought back an incomplete picture; rather, it was the implications they insisted on drawing from the facts that were all wonky. They had been asked for a report, and they came back with an opinion piece. They were not sent to be strategists or tacticians; they were sent to be finders of facts. That is what they ought to have done. The onus would then have been on God’s people to draw the correct conclusions from the data with which they were presented.

However, the ten spies could not bring themselves to let their fellow Israelites work things through for themselves. They had already decided between themselves that the land could not be taken. That false conclusion dictated how they did their job as reporters.

Constructing a Bad Report

You can see the prejudices of the ten spies contaminating their report in three ways — its order of presentation, the number of facts adduced, and what they left out. When somebody is trying to manipulate you, this is exactly the sort of thing they tend to do:

Order of presentation: When making a case, how you finish is much more important than how you start. The ten spies made sure to start by mentioning at least one positive feature of the land so they couldn’t be accused of biased reporting, but then promptly followed it with a big “however”, after which everything goes downhill fast.

Number of facts presented: The ten spies’ original report has a negative to positive ratio of 7:1, and their subsequent amplification of the report in response to Caleb adds three further negatives, the last of which has clearly wandered into gross exaggeration in their eagerness to make their case: “We seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers.” In contrast, Caleb and Joshua’s counter-report is uniformly positive, despite being based on exactly the same personal experience of Canaan as the ten.

What they left out: As Caleb and Joshua put it, “The Lord is with us. Do not fear them.” If you are going to present facts to make your case, you had better present all of them. This is the one the ten spies omitted, and it’s a huge fact. It made every other statement irrelevant. The size of the enemy, their numbers, the fortification of their cities ... none of these things mattered to God.

Taken together, it is evident the ten spies had reached their conclusions long before they began their report, and that their report was shaped by the conclusions, not the other way round.

Facts and Conclusions

Now, in and of itself, editorializing is not a terrible thing. Preachers do it all the time. They present what the word of God teaches, and hopefully they do it faithfully and accurately. Then they apply it. They say, “Because this, therefore we should do that. Because X, the Christian should not do Y,” and so on. This is a necessary function of public ministry. Facts have implications, and those implications invite further exploration. The Bible teacher who fails to make solid applications from the available evidence often leaves his audience scratching their heads and wondering “What possible use can I make of that?”

In fact, Caleb and Joshua both editorialized without being asked, and while they too were going beyond the mandate they had been given, they were not wrong in doing so. The uniform negativity and selective fact choices of the ten spies made a counter-response obligatory. So Caleb said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” Then they added, “Do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.”

This was not presumption. Not in the least. It was a perfectly logical conclusion to be drawn from an examination of ALL the facts, not just a careful selection of those that seemed to argue for a preferred conclusion. God, who had brought them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea and across the wilderness, was not about to abandon his people at the border of Canaan. The notion was ridiculous.

Going Beyond the Evidence

Editorializing is not in itself a bad thing to do. Facts require both interpretation and application. But cherry-picked facts arranged to support a preconceived conclusion can be made to argue for almost anything. In this case, they were made to argue for the precise opposite of what God had intended.

If we cannot be sure how the Lord would have us interpret the truths he has entrusted to us, we would be more honest (and safer) to simply present them faithfully without unnecessary comment, and allow our audience to respond as the Holy Spirit sees fit.


  1. There is something missing here. If God were to say to President Trump today I am going to give you Russia, that would not really go over very well, would it? So, the difficult task for the Bible teacher is to try and explain why it was OK then but not now to just take over someone's territory. This is of course one of the main reasons why certain groups nowadays look askance at the Bible and tell you that you've got it all wrong. And, of course, this is part of the reason for all of the continual difficulties in the Middle East that we have seen forever (never mind that, objectively, territorial strive and contentiousness between nations has existed over the entire globe forever, no matter who is involved). There are some really difficult problems here that may be nearly impossible to resolve for humanity without help.

    1. It's actually not quite as complicated as is often made out. Israel was the one and only theocracy in human history. Nothing they did or were told to do by God sets any precedent for any other nation or group of people. The burden of proof is on anyone who claims God has called them to annex the territory of another nation, not on Christians to explain what God told Israel to do back when he was their king.

      However, in the unlikely event God is going to give any country to President Trump, I'm totally praying it's Canada.

  2. That is funny. But, as the saying goes, be careful what you wish for :‑X.