BLOG: (May 9-15) Numbers 11-14, 20-24; "The Lord is with Us: Fear Them Not"
After reaching the land of Canaan, the Lord directed Moses to send twelve men - one from every tribe - into Canaan to discover what the people of the land were like, and whether the land was fruitful. They obeyed, and for forty days they searched the land. When they returned, they had good news and bad news.
The good news - yes, the land was very fruitful. They brought back one cluster of grapes that had to be carried between two of them on a staff. They brought back pomegranates and figs. They reported that the land “floweth with milk and honey.” (Numbers 13:27)
However, the bad news was about the people of the land.
The people be strong that dwell in the land, and the cities are walled, and very great: and moreover we saw the children of Anak there [who] come of the giants: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight. (Numbers 13:28, 33)
In other words, it’s a beautiful place, but we can’t get it, because the people who live there are strong and we are not. That was the report of ten of the spies. But the other two, Caleb and Joshua, saw things differently:
And Caleb stilled the people before Moses, and said, Let us go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.
And they spake unto all the company of the children of Israel, saying, The land, which we passed through to search it, is an exceeding good land.
If the Lord delight in us, then he will bring us into this land, and give it us; a land which floweth with milk and honey.
Only rebel not ye against the Lord, neither fear ye the people of the land; for they are bread for us: their defence is departed from them, and the Lord is with us: fear them not. (Numbers 13:30, 14:7-9, emphasis added)
Who did the people listen to? Did they believe Caleb and Joshua? No. They were afraid, and ready to go back to Egypt again. They still didn’t understand what the Lord was trying to tell them: that He had promised them this land, and He would fight their battles! They didn’t have to do it alone. Yes, the people of the land were stronger than they were, but that didn’t matter - they weren’t stronger than the Lord.
“Let’s go back to Egypt.” That seemed to be the Israelites’ default answer every time things got hard. How often do we do this? The familiar, the easy, can become very appealing when we come up against difficulty, danger, and fear - especially if we are facing an obstacle that feels bigger and stronger than we are. Sometimes it can be very difficult to keep moving forward and to put our full effort into fighting the battles in front of us, rather than reaching back to the known life - good or not - behind us.
A story is told about Hernando Cortez, a Spanish explorer who set out to conquer the Aztecs. He had rebellion among his men, and some of them feared they could not win the battle they were facing. Some were ready to turn back. Cortez resorted to drastic measures to keep his men fully committed to moving forward instead of looking back:
In 1519, the Spanish explorer and conquistador Hernando Cortez decided that he wanted to seize the treasure that the Aztecs had been hoarding. He took 500 soldiers and 100 sailors and landed his 11 ships on the shores of the Yucatan. Despite the large army under his command, he was still vastly outnumbered by a huge and powerful empire that had been around for 600 years.
Some of his men were unconvinced of success, and being loyal to Cuba, they tried to seize some ships to escape to there. Cortez got wind of the plot, and captured the ringleaders. He wanted to make sure that the remainder of his men were completely committed to his mission and quest for riches, so he did something that seemed completely insane to his people: Cortez gave the order to scuttle his own ships.
His men resisted, wondering how they would even get home, and his answer was: “If we are going home, we are going home in their ships!”
The path forward was clear for Cortez – All or nothing, 100% commitment. The option of failure was gone – Conquer as heroes, or die.
The ships were sunk – He kept a single ship to send back the “royal fifth” (the king of Spain claimed 20% of all treasures). By doing this, the level of commitment of the men was raised to an extreme level, much higher than anyone could have imagined.
Incredibly, they succeeded in this unlikely feat. In six hundred years, no one else had been able to conquer the Aztecs and plunder their riches. They were able to do it simply because there was no choice, no fallback – the ships were gone, the only alternative was death.
The lesson is this:
Retreat is easy when you let yourself have the option. Source
Luke Smallbone, of the Christian singing group For King and Country, wrote a song called Burn the Ships that relates this lesson from Cortez to his wife’s struggle with addiction. He shares their story here:
“When my wife was pregnant with our second son, Phoenix, she was dealing with a lot of morning sickness. She went to the doctor, and he gave her some medicine to help with the nausea. I was out on the road a decent amount during that time. I noticed her behavior changed a little bit, but she was pregnant, so that’s not unusual.
One particular day, I was in Austin, Texas getting ready for a show that evening. She called me and said, “I need you to come home. I can’t stop taking these pills.” I asked my other brother, who was in town, to go be with Courtney and make sure she was okay. I got on a plane and came home.
As the night went on, she would start shaking and having these conversations like, “Maybe the doctors want me to just taper off, not stop taking these right away.” She was almost hallucinating. Of all the things I’ve experienced, I think that was the most difficult thing I’ve dealt with, because the next day I had to take her to a mental hospital.
When they called her back, I got up to go back with her, like a normal doctor’s appointment, and they said, “No. You can’t come.” I felt so much grief in that moment. She had outpatient therapy every day. We actually had some amazing memories of that time. She excelled, she was doing great, but she still felt this pull to pills. One day I went home and she said, “Luke, I’ve got to symbolize something, I’ve got to flush these pills down the toilet. I’m done. I’m done with the guilt and the shame. I’ve got to move into a new way. A new life.”
When she was flushing those pills, the analogy of burning the ships came to me: the story of the sailors not wanting to explore the new world, wanting the comforts of their boats. Their leader calls them out and says, “We’ve got to burn the ships. This is a new world.” (Source)
Three years ago, after 15 years as a stay-at-home mom, I had the opportunity to take a work-from-home job with a homeschooling company. I loved the company and the other employees, I enjoyed the work, and the experience enriched my life, but the adjustment from stay-at-home to work-at-home motherhood was HARD. There were many days when I wanted my simple life back. That For King and Country song became a lifeline for me, as I learned to let go of what I thought I wanted and let the Lord lead me on a different path. I still don’t know all the reasons that experience was so important for me, but I do know that it led to wonderful friendships and an incredible amount of growth that I never could have anticipated. It was intense, and it was not necessarily the path I would have chosen on my own, but I learned long ago that the Lord’s plan for me is always better than my plan for myself, and so I chose to look forward and trust that through that experience, He was leading me somewhere I wanted to go.
How would the Israelites’ story have been different if they had been willing to trust the Lord and look forward, instead of constantly longing to go back to Egypt? We can’t fully know the answer to that question, but we do know that there were many blessings the Lord wanted to give them that they were not yet prepared to receive. In this instance, their faithlessness led to a detour in the Lord’s route for them - a 40-year-long detour in the wilderness. Moses was directed by the Lord to tell them what choosing doubt instead of faith had cost them:
Say unto them, As truly as I live, saith the Lord, as ye have spoken in mine ears, so will I do to you:
Your carcases shall fall in this wilderness; and all that were numbered of you, according to your whole number, from twenty years old and upward, which have murmured against me,
Doubtless ye shall not come into the land, concerning which I sware to make you dwell therein, save Caleb the son of Jephunneh, and Joshua the son of Nun.
But your little ones, which ye said should be a prey, them will I bring in, and they shall know the land which ye have despised.
But as for you, your carcases, they shall fall in this wilderness.
And your children shall wander in the wilderness forty years, and bear your whoredoms, until your carcases be wasted in the wilderness. (Numbers 14:28-33)
After all that they had experienced with the Lord in Egypt and in the wilderness, their choice to doubt His promises and rely on their own strength - just one more time - ultimately led to tragic consequences.
What can we do when we find ourselves wanting to turn back? As President Nelson shared in the last General Conference, “[choosing] the covenant path does not mean that life will be easy. This path is rigorous and at times will feel like a steep climb. This ascent, however, is designed to test and teach us, refine our natures, and help us to become saints. It is the only path that leads to exaltation.” (Source) When we choose to embrace the Lord’s plan for us and trust in Him, come what may, then, and only then, are we ready to let Him lead us into our promised land.