When Leadership Leads to Unpopularity (Numbers 13 and 14)

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project
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Another challenge to Moses’ authority arises in Numbers 13 and 14. The Lord tells Moses to send spies into the land of Canaan to prepare for the conquest. Both military and economic intelligence are to be collected, and spies are named from every tribe (Num. 13:18-20). This means the spies’ report could be used not only to plan the conquest, but also to begin discussions about allocating territory among the Israelite tribes. The spies’ report confirms that the land is very good, that “it flows with milk and honey” (Num. 13:27). However, the spies also report that “the people who live in the land are strong, and the towns are fortified and very large” (Num. 13:28). Moses and his lieutenant, Caleb, use the intelligence to plan the attack, but the spies become fearful and declare that the land cannot be conquered (Num. 13:30-32). Following the spies’ lead, the people of Israel rebel against the Lord’s plan and resolve to find a new leader to take them back to slavery in Egypt. Only Aaron, Caleb, and a young man named Joshua remain with him.

But Moses stands fast, despite the plan’s unpopularity. The people are on the verge of replacing him, yet he sticks to what the Lord has revealed to him as right. He and Aaron plead with the people to cease their rebellion, but to no avail. Finally, the Lord chastises Israel for its lack of faith and declares he will strike them with a deadly pestilence (Num. 14:5-12). By abandoning the plan, they thrust themselves into an even worse situation—imminent, utter destruction. Only Moses, steadfast in his original purpose, knows how to avert disaster. He appeals to the Lord to forgive the people, as he has done before. (We have seen in Numbers 12 how Moses is always ready to put his peoples’ welfare first, even at his own expense.) The Lord relents, but declares there are inescapable consequences for the people. None of those who joined the rebellion will be allowed to enter the Promised Land (Num. 14:20-23).

Moses’ actions demonstrate that leaders are chosen for the purpose of decisive commitment, not for blowing in the wind of popularity. Leadership can be a lonely duty, and if we are in positions of leadership, we may be severely tempted to acquiesce to popular opinion. It is true that good leaders do listen to others’ opinions. But when a leader knows the best course of action, and has tested that knowledge to the best of his or her ability, the leader has a responsibility to do what is best, not what is most popular.

In Moses’ situation, there was no doubt about the right course of action. The Lord commanded Moses to occupy the Promised Land. As we have seen, Moses himself remained humble in demeanor, but he did not waver in direction. He did not, in fact, succeed in carrying out the Lord’s command. If people will not follow, the leader cannot accomplish the mission alone. In this case, the consequence for the people was the disaster of an entire generation missing out on the land God had chosen for them. At least Moses himself did not contribute to the disaster by changing his plan in response to their opinions.

The modern era is filled with examples of leaders who did give in to popular opinion. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s capitulation to Hitler’s demands in Munich in 1938 comes readily to mind. In contrast, Abraham Lincoln became one of America’s greatest presidents by steadfastly refusing to give in to popular opinion to end the American Civil War by accepting the nation’s division. Although he had the humility to acknowledge the possibility that he might be wrong (“as God gives us to see the right”), he also had the fortitude to do what he knew was right despite enormous pressure to give in. The book Leadership on the Line by Ronald Heifetz and Martin Linsky, explores the challenge of remaining open to others’ opinions while maintaining steadfast leadership in times of challenge.[1] (For more on this episode see, "Israel Refuses to Enter the Promised Land" in Deuteronomy 1:19-45 above.)