Spies and the Lie of the Land

by

Numbers 13:35 – 14:25

One of the series of books I enjoyed as a young adult was written by Dorothy Gilman featuring a lady named Emily Pollifax whose dream was to become a spy for the CIA. Who would suspect an elderly lady from New Jersey of being a spy? It seemed like a glamorous occupation but it was fraught with danger and needed all Mrs. Pollifax’s quick wits (not to mention her brown belt in karate) and innocent appearance to pull it off. I never wanted to be a spy myself, but I certainly enjoyed reading those books.

James Bond has given several generations a taste of the world of the spy, or at least, the Hollywood version of it. There’s excitement, romance, adventure and more than a little danger. I have a feeling, though, that the real world of espionage is a rather different; there might not be exceptionally clever gizmos around to help save the day if things get dicey and there might not be a rescue team if the agent is captured. Real spies have to be chameleons, blending into the scene so that they appear to have a very real and reasonable reason for being there while seeing and hearing as much as possible that can be used against the people they are secretly observing.

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Two sets of spies set out from the Israelite camp, each with the commission to find out as much as they could about this promised land they were heading toward. Twelve men, each a representative of his tribe, went out and for forty days (there’s that number again!) they did what good spies do; kept a low profile, took mental notes of what and who they found and avoided getting caught spying. What they found was a good place with good land for growing crops and tending herds. They also found the occupants of the land, and there is where the trouble started. Most of the spies seemed to feel that the occupants were too big, too numerous and too powerful to overcome. They described them as giants and intimated that they, the Israelites, would be squashed like bugs if they tried to take over the land. There was real fear, fear of the unknown and fear of having to prove themselves, even though God had pointed them in this direction and with a promise of success.

Once again the Israelites thought of the comforts of home in Egypt and with much fear, wailing and griping, they were ready to choose a new leader to take them back to the place they had been just escaped. Two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, however, stood up and, ripping their clothes to show their sincerity, spoke to the people about trusting that God had promised them the land, hadn’t brought them all this way for nothing, and wasn’t going to let them be defeated. The news wasn’t met with overwhelming success. If ten people say one thing and two say something to the contrary, it is usually the ten who are believed. The faithless Israelites, despite having seen so many miracles and deliverances, still felt they would be better off returning to Egypt rather than pressing on to the promised land God was giving them. Caleb was being prophetic in his assertions, and prophets aren’t always appreciated or believed.

Prophets are like first responders: they charge in when everyone else is heading out. They tell the truth even when it is unwelcome or unpopular. They point out what is wrong when everyone else feels things are just fine. Caleb’s prophetic testimony was in his reiteration of the promises of God and that God hadn’t let them down yet despite all their own faults and faithlessness. It wasn’t popular and it could have cost Caleb his life right there. Instead, it gained him entrance into the promised land, unlike most of the rest of his spy-companions and most of the people who were ready to stone him.

Courage, I think, is a kind of faith, a belief that one person can make a difference, even a small one and even when the odds seem astronomically the other way. Faith kept Joan of Arc focused on what her visions told her and got a French king crowned even though those visions ultimately cost her her life. Faith kept Paul going even when the Jerusalemites and the Gentiles to whom he went wanted to sever both the connection and the person — permanently. Faith sent Fr. Mychal Judge and firefighters rushing into the Twin Towers when everyone else was trying their hardest to get out. That faith that one person can make a difference, whether it is in an idea, a vision, a goal or even a belief that it is what God wants can sometimes make all the difference in the world.

Spies return to their masters with the information they have gathered along with their interpretations and impressions based on their own experiences. The Israelite spies were no different; their reports reflected their relative courage (or lack thereof), their judgment, their imaginations and their faith. The twelve spies could be any group of twelve — including disciples. Some might see giants while others might see opportunities. Some might see bounty and some might see conflict. Some would have faith that God wouldn’t let them be defeated and others would simply report the lie of the land. The Israelites had to decide for themselves who to believe, who was telling the truth and who was misreporting. Who had faith and whose was a bit shaky?

Where is my faith when I’m offered a glimpse of a promise? Do I believe and move ahead or do I see giants in the way? How do I determine the lie of the land? And do I have enough faith to continue on or am I going to turn back to safer, more familiar paths?

I think I will have to walk with Caleb a bit. It might be a good thing to have his prophetic vision about what lies ahead. I think he’d be a lot more believable than James Bond…

Linda Ryan co-mentors 2 EfM Online groups and keeps the blog Jericho’s Daughter . She lives in the Diocese of Arizona and is proud to be part of the Church of the Nativity in North Scottsdale.

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