Thursday, September 27, 2012

What a Cluster! (Numbers 13:23)

What did the Israelite spies bring back from Canaan, from the brook of Eshcol? A cluster of grapes [pomegranates and figs] (Numbers 13)

Before the Israelites invade Canaan, God instructs Moses to enlist a representative from each of Israel’s twelve tribes to explore the land (Numbers 13:1-2). After securing these delegates (Numbers 13:3-16), Moses gives his scouts instructions (Numbers 13:17-20). After surveying the typical tactical objectives (topography, military, fortification, etc.), the last of Moses’ instructions is to obtain a sample of the region’s fruit (Numbers 13:20).

Do your best to bring back some of the fruit of the land.” (It was the season for the first ripe grapes.) (Numbers 13:20b NASB)
The seasonal time stamp included indicates that the reconnaissance most likely occurs in July, but potentially as late as early September.

The advance team does as they are told and secures an excellent specimen.

Then they came to the valley of Eshcol and from there cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes; and they carried it on a pole between two men, with some of the pomegranates and the figs. (Numbers 13:23 NASB)
The spies retrieve grapes, pomegranates and figs; all fruits indigenous to Canaan but not Egypt where the Israelites are leaving and certainly not the Sinai wilderness where they are living. No one could deny the fertility of the Promised Land. As promised, Canaan is a land characterized as flowing with “milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8, 17, 13:5, 33:3; Leviticus 20:24).

The most noteworthy souvenir is a cluster of grapes so substantial that two men and a pole are needed to secure it. Specimens as large as twelve pounds (five kilograms) have been found in the area.

Martin Noth (1902-1968) explains:

In order to carry it undamaged, they had to lay it on a pole carried by two bearers (most likely a kind of wooden bier such as is envisaged in Numbers 4:10, 12 for the carrying of the sacred lamp and other sacred vessels) and which they brought back along with a vine-branch and a few pomegranates and figs taken as samples from their reconnoitring. (Noth, Numbers: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 106)

David L. Stubbs (b. 1964) adds:

The image of the scouts bringing back a cluster of grapes so large that it hung on a pole supported by two men is a wonderful symbol of the fruitfulness of the promised land. Grapes, pomegranates, and figs may have been mentioned simply as part of the historical difference between the crops of Canaan and Egypt (see Numbers 11:5 for the fruit that people missed). Or these luscious and celebratory fruits of Canaan might be a subtle indication that God’s purposes are even better than what the people imagined in their unfaithfulness. The cluster of grapes and other fruit become a symbol of the faithfulness of God to his covenant promises. The land is indeed a good land; and the faithful God has brought them to a good place of not simply manna and water, but of grapes, wine, celebration, and feasting. (Stubbs, Numbers (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible), 128)
This massive vine leaves an indelible picture of the abundance of Canaan. In fact, even today, centuries later the image supplies the logo for the Israel Ministry of Tourism (pictured).

The valley of Eshcol, though geographically unidentifiable, is actually named for this produce. Timothy R. Ashley (b. 1947) dissects:

The word nahal (here valley) refers to the wadi or seasonal torrent-valley in the dry land. This valley was named for the cluster (’eškōl) of grapes found there. Since Numbers 13:24 makes clear that the spies themselves call the valley Eschcol, it is not surprising that the actual site is unknown. Some scholars have assumed that Eshcol was in the Hebron area, perhaps around Ramet el-Amleh. The biblical text probably means that the spies left Hebron and went on their way, coming to Eschcol at some point north of the town, but how far north is unknown. (Ashley, The Book of Numbers (New International Commentary on the Old Testament), 238)
R. Dennis Cole (b. 1950) speculates:
The name of the valley, Eshkol, means “cluster (of grapes)” and was also the name of the brother of Mamre the Amorite, an associate of Abraham and the one for whom the town on the northwestern outskirts of Hebron was named (Genesis 14:13). Hence the valley may have been named originally according to the family name of Eshkol, and then developed as a prime region for viticulture. On the other hand, the Valley of Eshkol may have been so named by the scouts who explored the region somewhere north of Hebron according to the magnificent cluster of grapes growing there. (Cole, Numbers (New American Commentary), 221)
The word used to describe the pole on which the cluster is carried is also used sacramentally. Gordon J. Wenham (b. 1943) notes:
They brought back a selection of the fruits of the land, grapes, pomegranates and figs, which they carried back on a pole: though pole is the traditional rendering of Hebrew môt, it may mean something more elaborate like the frames for carrying the tabernacle in Numbers 4:10, 12. (Wenham, Numbers (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries), 118)
Roy Gane (b. 1955) adds:
When the chieftains return to the community, they stage a much anticipated “show and tell.” “...Most impressive is a gargantuan “cluster” (’eškol) of grapes that two scouts carry between them on a pole (Numbers 13:23), the way Kohathite Levites carry sacred objects belonging to the sanctuary (Numbers 4:6, 8, 11, 14, 7:9). (Gane, Leviticus, Numbers (The NIV Application Commentary), 599)
The procession of the grapes is intended to have a dramatic, religious ambience.

This fruit sampler platter also functions as a foretaste of the meals awaiting the Israelites in the Promised Land. These grapes serve as tangible irrefutable evidence of the land’s goodness (Numbers 13:27) and the implication is that there is more where that came from.

Billy Graham (b. 1918) illustrates:

One of New York’s leading grocery stores exhibited a basket of choice and beautiful grapes in the window. A notice appeared above the basket announcing: ‘A whole carload like this sample basket is expected in a few days.’ The grapes were a ‘pledge’ of what was to come. The firstfruits are but a handful compared with the whole harvest.” (Graham, The Holy Spirit: Activating God’s Power in Your Life, 86)
Seeing is believing and God graciously allows the Israelites a glimpse of their inheritance. Richard N. Boyce (b. 1955) relates:
Knowing us better than we know ourselves, God is aware that words alone are difficult to trust. While some few can believe without seeing, most would prefer to see and even taste (cf. John 20:24-29). No one who has read the New Testament, where Christ is the Vine who offers up the fruit of the kingdom through his death on the cross can help but see sacramental language bubbling over as the spies return from the Wadi “Eschol”...with a single cluster borne on a pole between two people (Number 13:23). God provides not only forewords and foresights, but foretastes as well. (Boyce, Leviticus and Numbers (Westminster Bible Companion), 157)
Like the ancient Israelites roaming the wilderness, modern Christians do not dwell in their eternal Promised Land. But like our spiritual ancestors, we are blessed with the occasional “foretaste of glory divine” in hopes that it will produce “blessed assurance”.

Since the text has already established that God is with the Israelites in their mission and that the land flows with milk and honey, why is it necessary to scout the Promised Land? What produce/food is your region known for? What is the most oversized produce you have ever witnessed? What might be the equivalent symbol of national wealth today? When have you experienced a foretaste of things to come? Why do the spies retrieve a single massive cluster as opposed to many small samples? Was this expedition an effort to build morale?

Like the grapes, the Promised Land is ripe for the picking. Unfortunately, the mammoth cluster is not enough to convince the nascent nation. The cluster creates a cluster. Amazingly, the colossal specimen does not even prove a conversation piece. After acknowledging the land’s goodness (Numbers 13:27), the conversation quickly shifts with a giant “but...”.

Grapes are not the only thing giant in the area. Like Texas, everything is bigger in Canaan. The majority opinion is negative as ten of the twelve spies focus not on the size of the grapes but on the size of the farmers who grew them. Only Caleb (Numbers 13:30) and Joshua (Numbers 14:6-9) maintain faith that God will deliver the land.

Instead of focusing on the promise, the Israelites see only the obstacles, the risk not the reward. The people become so downtrodden that there is no record of the grapes ever being eaten. They disregard the fact that they have safely scouted the land for forty days without incident. There is good news and bad news and the nation dwells on the bad.

In suggesting that they abandon their mission in Canaan, the Israelites are actually considering giving up on God. Not coincidentally, when the Promised Land is finally secured, Joshua and Caleb are the only ones from the period alive to see it (Numbers 14:30, 38, 26:65, 32:12).

Which two spies do you think carried the produce? Would these have been more likely to focus on it than the enemy? What would you have been consumed by, the obstacles or the objectives? Do you focus more on God’s blessings or your problems?

“The majority see the obstacles; the few see the objectives; history records the successes of the latter, while oblivion is the reward of the former.” - Alfred Armand Montapert (1906-1997), Distilled Wisdom, p. 173