The Spies: Hard Core Reality
What is God?
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There is a little-known tidbit of information to those who know only the bare outline of the Bible - the famous 40 years of wandering in the desert didn’t have to be 40 years. It could have been about a year. Most of those 40 years were spent in one place, permanently camped out. It was a place called Kadesh Barnea, which is now believed to a bleak spot in the middle of nowhere along the border between Israel and Egypt. Why they spent so much time in this one place, which likely was just as desolate then as it is now, is the subject of the Biblical event called ‘The Spies’.
It sounds like the title of a mystery novel, but it’s really the low point in the entire period of the wanderings in the wilderness. People approached Moshe about sending spies to scope out the Promised Land. The spies returned after 40 days of reconnaissance with a decidedly negative report, stressing that they had no chance of defeating the peoples that lived in the Promised Land and that the whole enterprise was a grand mistake. The rest of the people, the masses who had followed Moshe through thick and thin up to now, revolted. They took up the familiar theme of wanting to go back to Egypt since they were going to die out in the wilderness.
Then Hashem intervened, saying to Moshe that He had had enough with this group and their topsy-turvy attitude towards Him. He pulled out the Golden Calf-like threat of destroying them and making a new nation out of Moshe. Moshe then did the same act of beseeching Hashem to not take this drastic measure because it would make Hashem look as powerless as any false god. The whole mission would be a grand failure since Hashem was unable to make things happen correctly in the world.
Moshe’s beseeching worked once again. ‘Hashem said, “I have forgiven like you spoke. However, as I live, and as the glory of Hashem fills all the earth, all of these men who see My glory and My signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet they tested Me these ten times and did not listen to My voice. They will not see the land that I swore to their ancestors, and all those who angered Me, they shall not see it”’ (14:20-23).
This decree is then repeated for some reason in slightly different words. ‘Say to them, “As I live”, declares Hashem, “Will it not be as they have spoken in My ears so I will do to them. In this wilderness their corpses will fall, and the entire count of their numbers from 20 years old and up that complained against Me.”’ (v. 28-29). The decree goes along these same lines, emphasizing that they will bear the results of the 40 days they spied out the land with 40 years in the desert.
How does God forgive them and then turn right around and punish them to die in the desert? Isn’t forgiveness supposed to be forgiving? Granted what the spies and those who listened to them did was an outrageous affront to God, but if they were forgiven, they should get a chance at redemption. The apparent turn around in Hashem’s speech is introduced by the phrase ‘As I live’. This phrase is repeated a few verses later when Hashem spells out the details of the decree. What does it mean? Is this some classic Biblical phrase that comes with obvious connotations, or is it unique to this story with unique implications?
It turns out that the expression ‘As I live’ is a classic Biblical expression, appearing 16 times in the book of Ezekiel alone. It always carries the connotation of an oath – Hashem is swearing by His own existence that such and such will happen. This is such a common expression and with such a definite meaning that virtually no rabbinic commentators disagree with it. That explanation seems to fit here so there is really no reason to go looking for an alternative. But there is a reason to look a little deeper.
This may very well be a divine oath, but the words that bolster the oath need to be explained. What is this expression anyway? ‘As I live’ – does it mean that ‘as long as I’m alive I’m going to make sure this thing happens’, like the divine equivalent of ‘over my dead body’? That perhaps, is the basic explanation. But it does seem that there is something else going on here, something that may reveal yet another image of God.
After Moshe's beseeching Him, God immediately declared that He would forgive as Moshe suggested. But what is forgiveness? Does it mean that we’ll just forget about the whole thing and pretend that it never happened? Obviously not, because even though that might be the standard definition of forgiveness, God put in a proviso. The key word is ‘however’, an introduction to some fine print. God then says, ‘As I live’. God’s oath is backed by God’s existence. It is as if Hashem is saying, ‘I do still exist and I mean business. I am not some fake version of god that can be bribed or cajoled into doing something that goes against My very existence. My glory fills the earth and that will never change’.
What are the ramifications of the little preamble? The forgiveness comes with fine print. The end goal is not to make people feel good. Nor is it to get to the Promised Land. It is not even to promote Torah among the Israelites. It is the glory of God. The reality of God’s existence is at stake here. That comes first. The Israelites could be forgiven to a point. They would not have to be destroyed but they would suffer a fate that was almost as bad. They would have to live out their lives on the cusp of the Promised Land, knowing that they could have entered had they made different choices. They would spend the next 40 years looking at the northeast horizon and dreaming of what could have been.
This was what had to be because God exists. If it was any other way it would really make God’s existence into mockery. There has to be a consequence. That much we have already seen. The consequence would have to reveal the glory of God filling the earth. To witness God’s glory repeatedly and to then challenge God’s authority again and again is a direct affront to God’s glory. That cannot ever be fully forgiven. God’s very existence is challenged when people witness God’s glory and turn their backs on it. Perhaps such a challenge can be overlooked once or twice. But it cannot be overlooked forever. At some point it must be answered for. The consequence of such a challenge is to live a life of ‘what could have been’.
This is God’s reality. Choices are real. Once made, they cannot be erased. They are not the same as typing something on the screen and getting rid of it before sending it off into cyberspace. A human choice has already been sent as soon as it is made. There is no getting back. It’s out there in the world, unrecoverable, irretrievable. Now the price must be paid. God is this reality - unable to be erased, unable to pretend that it never happened. Perhaps we don’t like things like this. Perhaps we prefer our choices to be reversible and of no permanent consequence. But this is not the world that we live in. This is not the reality that God created. This is not the reality of God.
The image projected by God’s expression, ‘as I live’, is hard-core reality. It conveys that we do not live in a make believe world where nothing really matters and nothing is of consequence. Things matter. Things are of consequence. The choices we make are recorded on the hard drive of the reality. They cannot be reformatted or erased by some other means. There might be the possibility of rectifying them but they can never be deleted altogether. We might even become greater people as a consequence of an unfortunate decision, but that is because the decision was made and could not be unmade, not because it could be ignored or overlooked. This is hard-core reality. When God says ‘As I live’, it means that God demands that we recognize the absolute reality of existence and not pretend that we live in a fairy tale. It is hard to face reality, but it is really the only way to live.
Perceiving the Image
The story of the spies happened over 3,000 years ago. It is ancient history. To many, it is not even ancient history. It is ancient myth, a Bible story that has no veracity or relevance. But there is another angle to this story that is more important than its factual content, more vital than whether it actually happened the way that it is described. This story speaks to us. It is us. We are those spies as they traipse through Canaan looking for problems, looking for a way to back out of taking the necessary next step. We are those Israelites listening to that report and questioning, ‘Why did I ever think I could do this?’ We are all those people witnessing one thing after another that demonstrates that it can be done and still denying it. We may even be those few that stick with the plan and insist that it is possible.
We are also those who hear the voice of God saying, ‘As I live’ and wishing we could shut our ears from that stark truth. We wish that it wasn’t so, that life could be played over again with different choices, different rules, different consequences. We wish that life didn’t really matter all that much, that reality didn’t have to be so real. But we also hear the finality of those words as they are repeated and we realize that God actually does mean it after all. There may be forgiveness, but the reality lives on.
Reality can be disturbingly difficult at times. Everybody is familiar with the frustrating feeling that they want things to be different than the way they are and… why the hell aren’t they different? It is such a common feeling and such a natural question that it almost seems as if we live a good chunk of our lives in this state. It could be the most trivial of problems or it could be the most serious, but we have this knee-jerk reaction to reality that we want it to be different than it is. If we thought about it rationally for even a few seconds we would realize how foolish the feeling is. But somehow, that rational thought process escapes us and we go on wishing and dreaming that things could be different than they are. It is uncanny but it is a basic part of the human personality.
The brick wall that this irrational thought process runs into is this very image of God. God is hard-core reality – the reality that cannot be denied no matter how hard we try to deny it. It is not the usual way of perceiving God’s image. Most people prefer an image that is kind and merciful, or powerful and all-knowing. They may prefer a more human image or they may seek an image hidden in the mystery of creation. Those are wonderful images and they all contribute to our overall picture of God. But so does this image. Sometimes all the beautiful and wonderful and mysterious images have to be laid aside and this image must be recognized. It is an image that is as solid as the God that it represents.
Why is this basic recognition of reality frequently so difficult to accept? Why do we not want to hear this voice?
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