Why did God have Moses send spies into the land of Canaan? The immediately obvious answer is, of course, to check it out – see what the situation was, get advance intelligence before the invasion. But was this the real reason? If we consider the matter, God certainly knew what the situation was in the land occupied by the Canaanites and could easily have conveyed that information to Moses, with whom the Bible tells us he spoke regularly. We see a number of instances where God gave Moses advance information on the kingdoms they were about to pass, or pass through, en route to the Promised Land. Yet it was God’s idea to send the spies (Numbers 13:1-3), although earlier He did not have Moses send out scouts to see if the way to the Red Sea was clear, to report on what the conditions were in the Red Sea, or in the area between the Red Sea and the Promised Land. God simply told the people to go here or go there. So why the spies in the Promised Land?
In his book The Craft of Intelligence, Allen W. Dulles, the first civilian head of the CIA, actually examines this situation and points out that although the purpose of sending the twelve spies was ostensibly to check out the land, the real purpose of this intelligence operation was likely not for the people of Israel to see what the conditions were, but for another, very different, reason. With the perspective of an intelligence director, Dulles points out that if it were to just gather information, there would have been no need to send such a large (and noticeable) group as twelve men picked from the leaders of the tribes of Israel. There was also no real need to risk the leaders when younger fighting men could have been sent. Coupled with what we have already mentioned regarding God’s ability to simply tell Moses what the situation was in Canaan, the suggestion that Dulles makes regarding the spies seems very plausible.
In this view, the spies were not sent to provide information for the people, but as God’s way of seeing if Israel was ready to enter the land in faith despite the problems they might perceive. Hence the men selected to be the twelve spies were the leaders of each tribe – men who not only represented all the people, but also who would actually lead them in taking the land. When only two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, demonstrated that they had faith to enter the land, God postponed the operation till that whole generation (apart from Joshua and Caleb) had died out. God then carried out the taking of the Promised Land with a new generation that was more willing to trust Him and to follow His directives.
Dulles’ reconstruction of this story makes very good sense. God did not need intelligence of the land of Canaan – He already had it. What God needed was “humint” or human intelligence regarding His own people, to test their readiness to follow His directions despite the apparent difficulties they might face. Genesis 22 tells us that God did exactly that with Abraham by testing him before delivering great promises to him, and God allowed Job to be tested before doubling his blessings (Job 42:10-17). In all these cases, the test came before the gift or the confirmation of things God was desirous to give (Genesis 22:17-18 and Numbers 14:23-24, 30).
There is a lesson here. We know that God does “test” his people: “In this way I will test them and see whether they will follow my instructions” (Exodus 16:4b); “The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul" (Deuteronomy 13:3 ). Rather than seeing His “testing” as an arbitrary checking of our dedication to Him, we see in the examples we have considered that God’s tests often may be to see if we are ready to receive His gifts. It’s a good lesson to remember next time we face a decision whether to do something we know is right, but difficult.