Scouting For Self-Confidence
The role of the spies was to determine whether they and the Israelites had the confidence and certainty of God's love to enter the land of the covenant.
The following article is reprinted with permission from CLAL: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Before entering the land of Canaan to conquer it, the people want to investigate. Twelve tribal princes are chosen to spy out the land. It seems like a reasonable request. It makes sense to send scouts ahead to prepare for the conquest. The Israelites need to know which approach is best, where the concentrations of people are, and which cities are well fortified. But is that the intent here? A military action should be covert. It would require a couple of good soldiers, not a contingent of twelve princes.
Something else is happening here. It is evident in Moses' address to the spies. They are to report whether the land is good or bad, fat or lean. These aren't a tactician's questions. These are questions one might ask a real estate agent when viewing a property. This entourage is scouting the land to see if it's beautiful enough, if it's safe enough.
It's not the land that is being tested here. It is the people and their sense of adequacy. What the spies reveal has little to do with the land and much to do with themselves. It comes across clearly when they describe the inhabitants of the land: "We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them" (Numbers 13:33). These princes of Israel are presumably most self-possessed and confident of the lot, the least affected by the degradations of Egyptian slavery. Yet even these leaders fail to see themselves as more than insects. The power of self-hatred ingrained in one's youth is not easily overcome.
Truly self-hating people assume that God hates them, too. Moses later says that the people cried in their tents saying that God "hates us... [God] brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to the Amorites to wipe us out" (Deuteronomy 1:27). Only a people certain of God's love, confident of their innate worthiness and strength, can enter the land of the covenant.