And Moses sent to call Dathan and Abiram the sons of Eliab, and they said, “We will not come up. Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also make yourself a prince over us? Moreover, you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards. Will you put our the eyes of these men? We will not come up.” – Numbers 16:12-14

But on the next day all the congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and against Aaron, saying, “You have killed the people of the LORD.” – Numbers 16:41

I’m really glad the people of Israel brought this issue—Moses’s apparent culpability for their suffering and death—into the open, because I don’t think I would have chosen to bring it up on my own.

But first, a word about spies.

The espionage thriller is one of my favorite genres of fiction. I prefer them wordy, historical, and without too much action. The 1979 BBC miniseries adaptation of John LeCarre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy starring Alec Guinness (with a Patrick Stewart cameo, no less! Obi-Wan and Picard in the same room!) is the kind of thing I have in mind. I like when a story requires me to strain to hear every whispered word and to scrutinize every sideways glance and arched eyebrow to try to keep up with what’s going on and figure out who the mole is, or what the Russians are planning, or who killed our operative in Biafra and why. I always thought the spy story was a modern invention, possibly dating to the 1700s at the earliest but lacking any ancient counterpart. So much of a spy’s motivations seem to depend on what Rudyard Kipling called “the Great Game,” the attempt by every great empire or nation to stay one step ahead of its rivals. I suppose ancient empires and medieval courts both had their spies, but spy fiction, I assumed, could be no more than a couple of hundred years old.

So I was surprised to come across a veritable espionage saga right in the middle of the book of Numbers. And just as I was starting to lose hope that anything interesting would happen in this book, too.

God is the spymaster, and commands Moses to “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel” (Numbers 13:1-2). The spies’ names are Shammua, Shaphat, Caleb, Igal, Hoshea (called Joshua), Palti, Gaddiel, Gaddi, Ammiel, Sethur, Nahbi, and Geuel. Someone should write a spy story in which these are the code names. (Wouldn’t it be awesome if the Mossad or something had already used them as code names in real life?) Anyway, this group of spies is tasked with pre-invasion reconnaissance. They’re supposed to scope out the lay of the land in Canaan and determine the strength of Canaan’s current inhabitants, since the nation of Israel plans to move in and dispossess them in accordance with their divine mandate.

The plot thickens when the spies come back with conflicting reports. The spy Caleb tells the Isralites that Canaan is fruitful and ripe for the taking. But the other spies “brought to the people a bad report.” According to them, Canaan “is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height.” Of such great height they were that the spies had felt “like grasshoppers” in comparison (Numbers 13:32-33).

The people react badly to the spies’ “bad report” and nearly riot, at which point Hoshea (called Joshua) changes his story and sides with Caleb. So now it’s two spies against ten.

With his intelligence community publicly divided, Moses faces an intense backlash from the people. Some of his most high-profile critics accuse Moses of wielding arbitrary power and suggest that he lacks a long-term plan for the welfare of the nation (see first quote at the top of this entry), and soon they and their families meet violent deaths. This incident only makes the people angrier, and they openly blame Moses for his critics’ deaths (see second quote at the top of this entry). When I got to this part I thought to myself, “Thank goodness somebody said it.”

You see, ever since Exodus I’ve been struck time and time again by how creepily similar Moses is to typical, modern-day religious cult leaders. He appoints his closest relatives advisers, consults in secret with God, and oversees the occasional execution at God’s bidding. When people die, he says it’s because they were disobedient. It’s not hard to imagine this kind of society existing today in a remote desert community—in fact, it DOES happen today in remote desert communities. Eventually Child Protective Services comes in and the cult leader goes to jail for polygamy, rape, fraud, and sometimes murder. Now, believe me, I’m not reading the Bible in order to go on rants about how absurd it all seems from my atheistic perspective. I’m reading it to increase my knowledge of this important text and to find fun and unexpected things to write about, like the spy story. I was NOT going to bring this Moses-as-cult-leader thing up, even though I couldn’t help but think it. Then the people of Israel brought it up for me, and I felt I had to acknowledge it.

Of course, believers have an easy response to the my and the Israelites’ skepticism and accusations: God himself always comes to Moses’s rescue and burns, buries, or sets a plague on the people who are challenging Moses’s leadership. So you see, even if Moses SEEMS like an early David Koresh or Jim Jones, he’s obviously not, because he REALLY has God on his side. It says so right here in print.

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