June 10, 2014

Biblical Studies

This is the final installment of a series of articles focusing upon the book of Numbers—a must-read for those waiting to enter the Promised Land.1—Editors.

Asher was excited. For days people had waited for the return of the men. Now they had finally come. The outlook watching the northern approaches to the camp had seen them first. Word spread like wildfire. Asher’s eyes sparkled when he saw the reconnaissance party enter the limits of the camp. They carried something heavy. “The land that we saw truly flows with milk and honey,” he heard one of the men say as they gathered around Moses and Aaron. Soon they would be in that glorious place. Asher squeezed past the crowd to hear more of the exchange. He was just in time to hear the word “nevertheless”—what did that mean? Asher looked around and saw faces change. There was talk about huge people and—what was that?—fortified cities.

The mood of the crowd changed. Asher heard a disturbing noise he had heard before. He remembered the times people had been so angry about the lack of food and the continuous struggle for water. This was similar. The crowd grumbled and shoved forward. Angry voices shouted: “What are we doing here? Moses, why did you bring us here? Let’s go back to Egypt—we will never be able to conquer the land.” The voices became louder and louder. The crowd roared, and Asher tried to make himself as small as possible. He was scared!

Suddenly a familiar voice boomed above the noise of the crowd. “Stop talking nonsense. Let’s go up at once and capture this wonderful land. We can do it.” It was Uncle Caleb. Like Asher, he belonged to the tribe of Judah. He was not Asher’s real uncle, but everybody just called him uncle. Asher liked his friendly eyes and the way he told great stories.

Caleb stood tall, close to Moses and Aaron. “We can take this land because the Lord is with us,” he heard Uncle Caleb say. “Only do not rebel against God. The inhabitants of the land may be tall and strong and their cities fortified, but their protection has been removed. Do not fear.” If God is for us, who can withstand us? thought Asher. Uncle Caleb was right.

The mood of the crowd became even uglier. People shouted angrily and picked up stones. Suddenly a hand grabbed Asher from behind and pulled him from the front row. As he looked up he saw the worried look of his mother, who quickly marched him to the family tent. This was not a safe place for a 10-year-old. As they entered the tent Asher turned around and saw something he had seen only a couple of times. A cloud covered the entrance of the tabernacle, and the crowd suddenly pushed back. God was there.2

Standing Out

Caleb’s story is one of the lesser-known stories of the Old Testament. While we remember the spies’ discouraging report at Kadesh Barnea, right at the edge of the Promised Land, we may not recall Caleb’s speech.

After the pronouncement of the divine punishment of 40 years in the wilderness we don’t find him complaining or berating his fellow Israelites (or leaders). As his generation is slowly passing away, Caleb is quietly eking out a meager existence—like everybody else. He is not chosen as the next leader of Israel, as is Joshua, the son of Nun. Rather, he stood for what is right—and then trusted God to make it right. Here are four characteristics that modern Calebs can learn from this man of faith.

1. Calebs See Things Differently

Numbers 14:1-10 describes the height of the turmoil following the return of the scouts. “All the congregation” (verse 1)3 is inclusive and does not provide much leeway for interpretation. People are hysterical, fearful, and irrational, and suffer from selective memory—“would it not be better for us to return to Egypt,” they cry (verse 3).

Moses and Aaron fall on their faces in the presence of “all the assembly of the congregation” (verse 5)—a technical phrase that specifically marks Israel’s leadership. Imagine this scene: a wild crowd with their leaders flat on their faces. People in the back may shout: “Where did they go; what happened to Moses and Aaron?” Then two men move forward, rip their clothing—a well-known sign of grief and distress—and start speaking. Like the other scouts they describe the goodness of the land—it is “exceedingly good” (verse 7).

Calebs trust God’s promises—and continue to be part of God’s (often wayward) people.

In childlike faith both Joshua and Caleb go straight to the core of the issue. If God is with us, He will bring us into the land. Don’t you realize that this is not just about a land and huge people? This is a theological issue. It touches our most basic attitude toward God. Trust in God. Have faith!

Joshua and Caleb focus upon the solution and the One who controls the universe. They see the same facts—but look at them through the lens of faith. WYSIWYG—what you see is what you get.

2. Calebs Stick Around

When things get tough, Caleb, and Joshua, do not abandon ship. Threatened by a mob with stones in their hands, they stand their ground. They experience the divine plague hitting Israel’s leadership; they observe how Amalekites and Canaanites repulse Israel; they return with Israel’s tribes to the wilderness. They witness how an entire generation—excluding only two people—dies in the desert. Listen to God’s take on Caleb: “But My servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit in him and has followed Me fully, I will bring into the land where he went, and his descendants shall inherit it” (verse 24).

Calebs trust God’s promises—and continue to be part of God’s (often wayward) people. Even though they may disagree with leadership or rank and file, they still identify with God’s people. Caleb got up every day for the next 38 years and prepared to take the land. He did not separate his family from the “fallen lot” or start his own people. He stuck around and shared the joys and pain of his community.

Caleb’s example challenges us. Naturally we love to point out the errors of leaders or individuals; it often makes us feel better about ourselves. Caleb did not share directly in Israel’s guilt—yet daily he suffered the consequences of rebellion. To use a New Testament imagery: Caleb was part of the body—and he knew it.

3. Calebs Are Willing to Get Their Hands Dirty

Calebs are ready to pitch in when there is a need. More than 40 years have passed since Kadesh Barnea. A new generation has finally entered the land. Jericho has fallen, and Israel is in the process of conquering the land. Caleb is now 85 years old—ready for retirement—yet he is in the thick of the struggle to see God’s promises fulfilled. In fact, he asks for the most difficult portion of the Promised Land. He wants Hebron—the place where the descendants of the Anakim (the big people) live (Joshua 14:6-14).

The circle closes here: Caleb asks for the very piece of real estate that had caused the other 10 scouts to spread a “bad report” among the Israelites. He could have asked for a fertile plain with idyllically spread-out villages and an ocean view—and no military threat. Yet he asks for the hill country and the highly fortified city of Hebron.

Can you imagine this old man among the kids of the younger generation? In his culture age was highly regarded. He could have stepped back and let other people do the dirty work, and nobody would have thought twice.

Here it is again—WYSIWYG—what you see is what you get. Caleb looks beyond the visible and sees God’s possibilities. He is even willing to stake the future of his own family and clan on this.

I dream about a church—my church—that has more Calebs.

, I wonder. Am I willing to take the more difficult road? Am I willing to get out of the limelight and get my hands dirty? Are you? Caleb knows that he is defined not by the respect or deference he can command, but rather by his relationship with God.

4. Calebs Facilitate the Next Generation

Calebs see the possibilities of those who come behind them. Joshua 15:13-19 tells us the story of the conquest of Debir (or Kirjath-Sepher), one of the cities close to Hebron. I am sure Caleb could have easily taken the city—flushed with the victory over the giants of Hebron and leading a strong Judahite clan. Yet he facilitates future leadership and promises his daughter to the one who would capture Debir. Why would he do that?

As a father of three daughters I confess to mixed feelings about this story. My Western worldview and sense of justice make me wonder. But I get Caleb’s point: he wants the best possible husband for his daughter; he wants one who will step out in faith. He is looking for a future leader. And he finds him in Othniel, who captures Debir and wins the hand of Achsah, later becoming Israel’s first judge (Judges 1-3).

Who Inspired You?

In the midst of the noise and busyness of life, take a moment and remember the people who encouraged you in difficult moments of your life. Those who saw something in you and kept on giving selflessly—even though there was no immediate payback on the horizon. Perhaps you remember a parent or a special teacher? Perhaps it was a church member in your small congregation who listened and challenged you to be a leader rather than just a follower.

Caleb was such a mentor. He saw God’s hand and his possibilities in others.

Who Inspired Me?

As I remember people that mentored and facilitated me, I think of my teacher at Bogenhofen Seminary in Austria. Gerhard Pfandl was not only an engaging teacher but also interested in seeing his students grow spiritually and emotionally. I remember a memorable Monday morning class during my first month at Bogenhofen. Following our customary prayer Gerhard looked at our class of six valiant Hebrew students and said: “As future pastors you are all role models and leaders. Please do not forget this as you go to church on Sabbath. I would suggest wearing a tie!”

He did not look directly at me, but I knew he was talking to me. Point made, we moved on to Hebrew vocabulary. After class he caught me as I left the classroom. “Gerald,” he said, “come to my place this afternoon, and I’ll help you choose a tie for next Sabbath.” That’s why the first tie I ever wore at Bogenhofen was a gift from my teacher.

Gerhard was not only concerned about ties and role models. He lent a listening ear to a lovesick freshman; he challenged me academically. Somehow he saw something in me that I could not even see myself. After I left Bogenhofen for South Africa, he faithfully answered my letters. He rejoiced with me when I met my future wife at Helderberg College, and was proud when I completed my doctorate. When we served in the mission field, he invited me to room with him during professional meetings—he knew that I did not have a travel budget. He listened and guided me when I needed to make difficult decisions. Five years ago, when we arrived at the General Conference, he was one of our anchors in the turmoil of transition. In fact, he has now become a mentor to my girls, making a point of encouraging and affirming them every Sabbath in our local congregation.

Calebs are like that. They see what others may overlook. They do not need the limelight. They step out in faith and invite others to do so as well. They don’t wag their fingers “I told you so,” and are willing to get their hands dirty. Somehow, in their big and small ways they show us how God is looking at His wayward children.

I dream about a church—my church—that has more Calebs. People who encourage others, invite those on the sidelines, and are willing to help share the burdens as we walk together toward the Promised Land. I pray for Calebs who are willing to trust young adults and youth. I know that Caleb’s sandals may be too large for me—but I definitely want to try to walk in them.

  1. See “In the Wilderness: Of Tassels, Wanderings, and the Promised Land,” Adventist Review, May 10, 2012, pp. 20-22; “In the Wilderness: The Epidemic,” Adventist Review, Mar. 21, 2013, pp. 26-28; and “In the Wilderness: While They Were Sleeping,” Adventist Review, June 13, 2013, pp. 14-16.
  2. This fictional narrative is based on Numbers 13 and 14.
  3. Bible texts in this article are from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.