Israelite Not-so-Secret Service

(Numbers 13, 14:1-10)

 The Mossad, Israel’s secret intelligence service, is recognized as among the world’s most effective intelligence organizations today. The Mossad is less than a hundred years old. The earliest intelligence activities of Israel, however, date back several thousand years and are recorded in the books of Numbers and Joshua in the Holy Bible.

In Numbers 13:1-21, we see Moses sending out the first spying mission to explore Canaan. They were about to enter the Promised Land when large numbers of Israelites came to Moses and said, “Let us send men ahead to spy out the land for us, and bring back a report about the route we are to take and the towns we will come to” (Deuteronomy 1:22).  This, in intelligence circles, is called an “information request”, and many intelligence missions result from such “IRs”.

But if we look closely at this IR, we will exclaim: “What an evil IR!”  Why? Because  it starts with “let us”. Had God not appointed Moses leader of the Israelites?  So it was for God to send, through Moses, a spy mission, if one was needed. The Israelites were raising themselves to the level of Moses, and indirectly rejecting him as their leader, and rejecting God who had appointed him. The rest of their IR was in a similar vein: “for us”, “the route we are to take”, and “towns we will come to”.  A large crowd marching up to the leader of a nation, making demands instead of sending a small delegation to respectfully present their requests, hmmm, is that not a mob of demonstrators disrespectful to Moses, and ultimately to God?

Moses did send out a spy team, but he was clear in his mind that it was not because of the demonstrators. He did it because God had told him to: “Send some men to explore the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites. From each ancestral tribe send one of its leaders” (Numbers 13:1).

The Bible does not record that God had told Moses how to brief the spies. Moses’ briefing went beyond details of the route and the towns that the Israelites demanded. He directed the spies to: “See what the land is like and whether the people who live there are strong or weak, few or many. What kind of land do they live in? Is it good or bad?  What kind of towns do they live in? Are they walled or fortified?” (Num 13:18-19).  From a secular angle, the briefing was fairly good.

However, from the nature of the questions, I suspect that Moses was using human wisdom to ask questions arising from the doubts that had probably crept into his mind. Had God not said from the beginning of the Exodus from Egypt that the Promised Land would be flowing with milk and honey? Yes, He did (Exodus 3:8). So, if Moses did not have some niggling doubts why did he need to know “what the land is like?” and “How is the soil?  Is it fertile or poor? (Num 13:20)”. Since God had promised to drive out the inhabitants from before the Israelites, why did Moses need to ask how strong the people were and whether their towns were fortified? 

I notice that all the 12 spies sent out were identified in the Hebrew Scriptures and the Holy Bible (Num 13:4-15). Can they be called the first recruits of the Israelite Secret Intelligence Service? Well, a secret intelligence service does not publicly identify its personnel, so perhaps we should call it the Israelite Not-so-Secret Intelligence Service?

Moses was not a full-time spymaster, or what people would now call the Chief or Director of Intelligence.  This may explain why Moses made a few apparent mistakes when he sent out the spy mission. Besides identifying the spies, he put all 12 spies in one team to explore Canaan together. Would it not have been more efficient to split them into small teams, each covering a small area? Then the job would have been done in a shorter period. 

Moreover, a team of two or three men would be less conspicuous than a large group. Twelve tough foreigners moving as a group on foot through our country is apt to make our people mighty suspicious, even today, huh? Travelling together, all 12 spies might have been caught if detected. The mission would have been a total failure. If one small team was caught, the loss would have been much less; the other teams might have succeeded, and partial success would have been achieved.

Another area to consider is that of cover. The spies could have gone disguised as a caravan of traders.  That might seem innocent enough to the nations they passed through. However, since two of them “carried on a pole between them” (Numbers 13:23) a large cluster of ripe grapes, pomegranates and figs, it is clear that they did not travel on camels or donkeys, but on foot.

If this is true, then it bears testimony to the fitness and toughness of the spies. They travelled over 800 kilometres in 40 days, an average of over 20 kilometres a day, with long stretches of desert and semi-desert areas. This is an early example of a successful long-range penetration recce.

Now, two of the major branches of Intelligence are Intelligence Collection and Intelligence Analysis. The Intelligence Collection team sent out by Moses succeeded in collecting the information required.  What about the Analysis part? Unfortunately, Moses was either not trained in the spy business in the Pharaoh’s palace where he grew up in, or perhaps he had not been attentive during the relevant Analysis class?  So the Israelites had no Analysis apparatus. 

The spies came back in full view of the Israelite camp, and reported the raw information they had collected to Moses and the crowds that surrounded them.  Both were not in keeping with Best Practice. But wasn’t it Moses’ fault for not drawing them into a tent and moving the crowds out of earshot? Wasn’t it Moses’ error in not having ready a group of experienced elders or leaders to analyse the spies’ reports, make proper sense of them and  work out the implications for the Israelites? This was a failure of analysis. The Israelites thus refused to enter the Promised Land.

In large part it was because the analysis was done by the general population and not by a team of experienced people, trained in objective analysis of collected information, in this case against a background of what God had achieved in the past as promised.  It was also a major failure of belief in God and His ability to fulfill His promises, despite the many miracles he performed in Egypt and during the Exodus. 

Are we as unbelieving today? If so, we need to remember God’s miracles in the Bible and in our lives, and strengthen our belief in our all-mighty, all-powerful, God to whom nothing is too difficult.

Chapel Notes

Chapel this Wednesday, Feb 28 will be taken by Dr David Tan, BGST alumnus, who will speak on "Embrace the personality and gifts that God has given you" (Psalm 139).

Please note the Chapel arrangements for the next few weeks: Dr Augustine Pagolu on March 7, Dr Wong Lea Choung on March 21, and Mr Nicky Chong, Executive Director of Wycliffe BT on March 28: Mr Chong will present the work of Wycliffe.

Our weekly chapels are open to all who would like to attend. Sometimes we have our own faculty preaching. Our students and alumni are also invited to come and share what they are doing so that we can pray for their ministries. And we are happy also to have parachurch ministries present their work at our chapels.

News Bits 

Courses commencing after this week.

¨    Contextual Hermeneutics: Reading the Bible in the Asian Context (HE210, 1.5 credits), starting Fri, Mar 16, 7.30-9.30pm. Lecturer: Dr Augustine Pagolu.

¨    The Psalms through the History of the Church (OT214, 3 credits), Guest Lecturer: Prof James Houston. This intensive course covers 8 double-lecture sessions on Apr 4, 5, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 16; time: 7.15-10.15pm.

¨    Romans: The Gospel According to Paul (NT311, 1.5 credits), starting Sat, Apr 7, 4.00-5.30pm at Bishan campus. Lecturer: Dr Quek Swee Hwa.

¨    *Greek Homiletics (BG252, 1.5 credits), starting Sat, Apr 7, 2.00-3.30pm, at Bishan campus. Lecturer: Dr Quek Swee Hwa.

¨    Zechariah Elective (OT364, 1.5 credits), starting Tue, Apr 17, 7.30-9.30pm. Lecturer: Dr Philip Satterthwaite.

¨    Culture Research (ME257, 3 credits, video), starting Tue, Apr 17, 7.15-10.15pm. Lecturer: Dr Miriam Adeney/Dr Ng Peh Cheng.

¨    *Better Speech for Leadership & Ministry (AT231, 1.5 credits), starting Wed, Apr 18 (new date), 7.30-10.00pm. Lecturer: Rev Ng Seng Chuan.

¨    *Counselling Skills: Pre-Marital Counselling (CO232, 1.5 credits), starting Thu, May 3, 7.15-10.15pm. Lecturer: Mr Song Cheng Hock.

*Courses marked with an asterik are not offered on audit basis. Visit our website for the course descriptions. Registration is open for all courses. You can register on-line or send us an email at

A Blessed Birthday to…

Mrs Jenny Lun  5/3

Mr Wilfred Leow  6/3

Mr Caleb Low  6/3

Mr Oliver Chia  6/3

Mr Liew Cheng San  7/3

Ms Grace Tan  7/3

Mr Sonny Tan  8/3

Rev Yoon Jeong Yong  8/3

Mr Benedict Cheng  8/3

Ms Audrey Tung  8/3

Mr Winston Chong  8/3

Ms Loh Hong Hong  9/3

Mr Ng Kai Seng  9/3

Mr Christopher Loh  9/3

Mr Neo Eng Chye  9/3

Prof. Lim Kian Guan  10/3

Ms Yap Foon Lyn  10/3

Mr Daniel Liu  10/3

Ms Eunice Ong  10/3

Dr Timothy Ng  11/3

Mr Christophe Menon  11/3

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