You say you’re bored, hanging around in the wilderness for forty years before God finally lets us move into the promised land?
When I was your age, I was angry at the men who got us stuck here.
We’d finally marched right up to the border of Canaan. The land of our ancestors was just over the ridge—and we’d never seen it. Moses announced that God said: “Send men for yourself, and let them scout out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Children of Israel. Send one man from each ancestral tribe, each one a leader.” (Numbers/Bemidbar 13:2)
Then he started naming the scouts. I couldn’t believe it when Moses said: “For the tribe of Judah, Kaleiv son of Yefuneh.” (Numbers 13:6)
kaleiv (כָּלֵב) = dog; a proper name (Caleb in English).
Was I really a leader? Me, the dog?
My father named me Kaleiv. And in case you’re thinking about a shepherd’s best friend, let me tell you, we Israelites never used dogs that way. Or at all. For us, a dog was a scavenger in the streets, or worse; not fit to enter a decent person’s house.1
My father used to beat me. So did our Egyptian owner. When I was old enough, I ran away for good. I was a real kaleiv then, a scavenger in the streets of the city of Ramses.
I found a cellar under a half-built warehouse to sleep in. One night a bunch of slaves met there and talked about the latest plague. They didn’t notice me curled up in the far corner. They thought all the plagues were caused by their own god, the God of Israel. And they used other names for this god, names I’d heard from my father. He used to drone on about how things used to be a few hundred years ago, back when our people were free. Useless talk, I’d always thought.
But this time when I heard the names of our God, I came out of my dark corner. I was desperate. They saw me and they froze. I told them my genealogy, so they’d know I was a Hebrew too, from the tribe of Judah. Then I asked if I could join them. My voice shook. But they actually welcomed me.
One of them became my friend: Joshua. He told me everything he knew about God and Moses and Aaron. We both decided to pledge our service to God and follow Moses out of Egypt.
When we found out that God was about to send the final plague, the Death of the Firstborn, Joshua brought me home. His father painted the door frame with lamb’s blood, and the angel of death skipped past us.2 In the morning I left Egypt with them. Along with thousands of other Hebrew slaves, and some folks who just wanted to follow us and our God.
Even with the pillar of cloud and fire to guide us,3 our first week of traveling was a mess. We were all right when we were walking. But once we stopped for the night—imagine thousands of ex-slaves, waiting to be told what to do. Joshua helped; he was a good organizer. And I did what I could to help Joshua.
Moses noticed. He made Joshua his battle general and personal attendant. When he picked the twelve scouts to check out Canaan, he named Joshua for the tribe of Efrayim, some popular young men for the other tribes, and for Judah—me. Kaleiv. The dog.
Turns out it wasn’t so dangerous. We were on foot, with no swords, so nobody stopped us. Once we got north of the desert, we just strolled along, munching on fruit. Sometimes we had to scramble off the road to make way for a troop of soldiers: tall men, with swords and shiny armor around their necks. I said we were like grasshoppers compared to them, and everybody laughed. I wondered where the soldiers and the people living in the cities would go after we moved in.
When we walked into camp, everybody cheered. Then they all gathered in front of the Tent of Meeting to hear our report. The first few scouts to speak didn’t sound very enthusiastic. And Joshua was in a difficult position, being Moses’ favorite. So I got brave and said: “We should definitely go up and take possession, because we can definitely conquer it!” (Numbers 13:30)
But the other scouts said: “We won’t be able to go up against those people, because they’re stronger than us!” (Numbers 3:31)
I wanted to say that it didn’t matter how strong they were, because God was on our side. But I couldn’t get a word in. The other scouts were babbling that all the Canaanites were giants. Even worse, they said: “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them!” (Numbers 3:33)
My own joke, and nobody was laughing this time. All the people started milling around, screaming and sobbing. Even Moses couldn’t call the assembly back to order.
In the morning the men came to Moses and said: “If only we’d died in the land of Egypt! Or if only we’d died in this wilderness! Why is God bringing us to this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our children will be carried off! Wouldn’t it be better to go back to Egypt?” And they said to each other: “Let’s pick a leader and go back to Egypt.” (Numbers 14:2-4)
Moses and Aaron fell on their faces, but it didn’t do any good. Then I heard a loud rip. Joshua was tearing his robe like he was in mourning. So I did too, even though it was my only clothing. Somehow that made the men quiet down. I glanced at Joshua. He nodded at me. So I said: “If God is pleased with us, then He will bring us into this land and give it to us—a land that is flowing with milk and honey. Just don’t rebel against God!” (Numbers 14:8-9)
And Joshua added: “God is with us! Don’t be afraid of them.” (Numbers 14:9)
They didn’t believe us. They picked up stones to throw at us. But then the glory of God burst out like fire all around the Tent of Meeting, and everybody ran. Except Moses, who walked right through the fire and went inside to talk to God.
I waited with my fists clenched. Why did people have to be such idiots?
When Moses finally came out, he said God had forgiven the people. But we all had to stay in the wilderness for 40 years, while the men who rebelled died one by one. No man who was over age 20 would live to enter the promised land, except Joshua and me.4
Forty years. It took me one year just to get over being angry about it. Why did I have to wait, just because other Israelites didn’t trust God?
Joshua told me God was being kind. The men were so upset they actually wanted to die in the wilderness. And instead of striking them dead then and there, God let each one live to the age of 60, mostly here in the oasis of Kadeish-Barnea, a particularly comfortable spot of wilderness.5 I didn’t think a bunch of cowards deserved such kindness.
Then it occurred to me that we were all brave when we left Egypt. A slave at least has food, a place to sleep, a familiar routine. But we chose to leave everything we knew, and head toward a land we couldn’t imagine, following God—even though we’d only seen God’s harsh side. We risked everything that day, changed our whole lives.
Maybe one big change was all some folks could manage.
For me, change was easier; staying in the same place was hard. But that was my job now, to wait here with everybody else. So I decided to change myself. I learned how to live quietly. How to cheer up folks who are getting old and regretful. How to teach you young folks. How to stir dates into my manna porridge. How to make friends with a woman. I got married, and we had a daughter,6 so I have even more to appreciate.
And you know what? Sometimes I’m bored, too. But I’ve been counting the years. It’s almost time to go. And I’m not a young dog anymore. At the end of a long walk, I’m worn out and limping. How can I help conquer Canaan when I’m in my sixties?
Now I’m the one who’s afraid. I wish I could just keep living in this oasis with my friends and family. But I have to change again. If I didn’t, I’d let down God.
I don’t know what will happen in the promised land. But I know I want to walk in smiling.
- See Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses, W.Norton & Co., New York, 2004, p. 373, footnote on Exodus 11:7.
- Exodus 12:21-23.
- Exodus 13:20-22.
- Numbers 14:28-35.
- Kadeish-Barnea was an oasis about 50 miles southwest of Beersheva, close to the southern border of Canaan. The people encamp there two years after the exodus from Egypt, and the scouts depart from there (Deuteronomy 32:32:8). “The place becomes the Israelites’ chief base for the next thirty-eight years, until the time of conquest.” (W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, New York, 1981, p. 1109, footnote on 13:26.) In the 7th century B.C.E. the Kingdom of Judah built a fort at the oasis, then on a major trade route. (Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, Simon & Schuster, Inc., New York, 2001, p. 268.)
- Caleb marries off and gives land near Hebron to his daughter Akhsah in Joshua 15:13-19.