A creative retelling of the events of Numbers 13-14
The old man shifted position in his discomfort. The cold desert night chilled his body more these last few years. He looked up into the vast expanse of Jehovah’s night sky, the moon shimmering in the heat waves that rose from his only source of warmth. As he positioned himself a little closer to the fire, Shammah wondered if he would live to see the next full-moon.
There had been two of them left. But she was gone now.
Shammah was the last.
Despite the gnawing pain of regret that still ached in the pit of his stomach, Shammah could not help but smile as he watched the little ones begin to settle around his fire, tired from their day’s mischief and play. Men too, ceased from their daily chores and filtered in out of the darkness. Soon the women would come, not to the inner circle, but they would come, they would sit just behind their men; their endless work finding an interlude for a few short hours. Soon another cold desert night would find them all asleep, at the mercy of Jehovah’s grace and protection.
Shammah trembled. The desert was relentless in her torment. While the searing heat of day enveloped you in its crushing grip, the bitter cold of night seemed to extract your very life while you slept. How many more must we endure? Shammah silently whispered, not speaking to any particular person, but to the One he knew who heard his very thoughts.
Forty years is a long time time to wander a desert wilderness.
Shammah’s appearance did little to reveal his true age. His bent back. His slow, lopping walk, all told of a man who had walked this earth for more than 80 years. Yet Shammah had seen only 62 summers. Yes, his youth had been hard as he toiled beside his father in the clay-pits of Egypt, but it had been these last 40 years that had taken its toll.
The endless desert. The monotonous desert meals.
The battles without. The bickering within.
The sorrow of saying goodbye, as one by one his friends, his family, his brethren, fell into the sand.
He trembled again, this time however, not because of the cold desert wind.
Shammah was the last of those whom Jehovah had cursed on the hillside at Kadesh-Barnea.
“40 years. One year for each day that the spy’s wandered the land of promise, until all this generation over the age of 20 have fallen in the wilderness”.
40 years of death and sorrow.
40 years of regret.
As Shammah’s eyes gazed hollow into the flickering embers of the fire, he heard the growing crowd begin to quiet. They gathered every night. They came to hear the stories. Tales of Egypt’s wealth and might. Tales of victory as Jehovah struck their captives. Tales of terror and relief as the blood dried on their door-posts, on the night the Destroyer passed over their house. Tales of escape through the sea.
But tonight, Shammah would tell a tale he had not been able to tell before. This would be a tale of Shammah’s torment and shame.
As the last mother’s hushed their children and the last few men found their place by the fire. As the desert night closed in around them with its oppressive silence. Shammah closed his eyes. With a clear strong voice that denied his age, he began.
I will tell you a tale of giants.
Shammah waited for the children to quieten.
I will tell you a tale of plenty.
Now he waited for the discontented murmuring to still.
I will tell you a tale of two voices.
There was silence. He continued.
40 years ago, to this very year, we were encamped on the hills of Kadesh-Barnea, from which we could look over the land of promise. I was young. My beard was still thin.
We were waiting.
We were hoping.
Our journey there had been hard. Many who had left Egypt were not camped with us now. Many had fallen. All the way we had heard of the land of Promise. The land which would be our own. No more slavery. No more task-masters. We would work our own land. We would have freedom for the first time since before any could remember.
So now we waited.
We waited for word.
We had waited for 40 days. But some now said they had returned. Surely we would hear soon. Surely we would pack our tents for the last time.
Shammah smiled to himself as he realised the irony of his situation. He remembered the impatient complaints of his youth, that he would have to wait 40 days to walk into the promised land.
40 days we waited. But we would be made to wait one more night.
The new day broke clear and fresh as the sun rose out of the desert sands. This was the day we had been waiting for. The day we would hear their report.
From where I stood, I could see Moses and Aaron, standing on a small foothill above the people, in order to address the crowd. With them stood the twelve.
For 40 days we had waited for them. 40 days since Moses had called them out as representatives of the tribes to go into the land ahead of us. Now we would hear their story. Now we would hear their voice. My ears strained to block the noises of the valley… I only desired to hear their voices. To hear of the good land, the land of rest, the land of Promise.
There was movement. Moses had placed his hand on Shaphat ben Hori of the tribe of Simeon, signalling for him to address the people. The crowd grew strangely silent. We had waited so long for this.
A strong figure stepped to the front. A renowned warrior. A mighty man of valour and strength. He was chosen by Moses for this task for these very reasons. Now his voice cried out, echoing off the valley walls.
Shaphat Ben Hori
"Men of Israel."
I looked around me to see if other too were holding there breath.
"My feet have walked the ground you have only dreamed of. My hand has crushed the barley where it grew wild. I have tasted the sweet waters that run from the mountains."
"These last 40 days, my brethren and I walked the length and breadth of this land we have heard so much about. It is truly a land flowing with milk and honey".
As he said these things, two others stepped forward, carrying between them, and across their shoulders, a staff of heavy wood. Entwined around this staff was a single cluster of grapes of the like I had never seen before. The men, strong as they were, strained to lift it high for the entire assembly to see. I could hear excitement growing. I could feel it building in me.
"Brothers, this is but a small sample of what we have seen", continued Shaphat as he gestured to the enormous cluster of grapes. "This is but what we could manage to carry back to you".
The entire assembly erupted in cheering and celebration, I too, was swept up in the excitement. Our dreams of the promised land were materialising before our very eyes, all that we had only dreamed of was now within our grasp.
Shaphat held out his hands to quiet the people, then waited.
"40 days ago we left this camp, in the brightness of the early morning we set out to see the land which we have all longed for. A land of our own. A land to work the soil to feed our children, not the children of the accursed Egyptians. A land that Moses has told us of."
With this he turned and looked back at Moses who stood quietly, his eyes cast down. He appeared to be praying. Silence covered the hillside.
"Night and day we moved across the land, always moving North. As we were few, we stayed within the cover of the hill country, in case of bandits or those who may resist our movement. From our position high in the hills we could see West toward the sea. As far as we could see were the rich fertile plains of the coast. Rivers and streams flowed out from the hills we walked through, traversing the land and bringing life to those plains. Life that would produce a harvest like we have never seen before, even from the rich fields that bordered the Nile in Egypt."
"Heavy forest covered the hills, with good strong wood to build homes for our wives and children; for our children's children. In these forests wandered game enough to feed us all till we grow old and fat."
Many of us now laughed quietly together, shaking one another's hands, nodding and smiling at loved ones.
"For many days we followed a great river that flowed southward. We walked ever North, looking to find its source. This river brings life to the land. At the head of this river, lay a great lake, full of fish and birds of all variety. Truly this is a great sea, life grew up from it's shores, life that one day may even reach the whole world."
"Yes, this land is truly great. A land flowing with milk and honey. A Jewel in the crown of all the lands that have ever existed."
Here, Shaphat stopped.
A voice in the crowd had called out. I could not hear what he said, yet soon, others joined him. Like a mighty wave the cry of, "Let us go up", swept across all the people. With one voice, and with hands held high, we cried out to the heavens, for all to hear, "Let us go up! Let us go up!".
Shaphat raised his hands. I could see him calling out also, but his words did not echo our own. I could not hear his words, only see his mouth. See his face. See the terror in his eyes.
"....... (something) are there".
Someone near the front of the crowd must have heard, and as though a great shroud of death had been thrown over the crowd, all the people, to a person, became suddenly silent. The echo of our cry still resounded across the hillside when I first heard Shaphat's words.
"The Anak are there".
Here, Shammah's story paused.
He opened his eyes, and once again was in the cold desert night, with the flames ebbing and the warmth retreating with them. The terror he saw in the eyes of his listeners reflected the terror his eyes had shown 40 years ago.
All men knew of the Anak.
In the moment of silence that followed, Shammah could see the men of his people tense their jaws, muscles knotting in their strong arms. Shammah knew that the pit of their stomach ached, as his did that day.
The moment was broken with the movement of someone standing to replace the wood that fuelled their fire. The entire assembly seemed to shift toward the renewed warmth. Fire was such a balm. Fire warmed the heart. Revived courage. But they would need more than fire to restore what was lost in that moment when they had heard that dreadful word.
Not much was known about where they had come from. What was known was probably a mixture of truth and legend. But if you were ever unfortunate enough to face the Anak in war, they were no figment of your imagination, they were terror and tragedy combined. The Anak were the giantish descendants of the Nephilim, an ancient race from which myth and folklore sprung. Mighty men of old, peerless warriors, of which stories are still told. Some say they were the spawn of demons who walked the earth, unnatural vessels that carried the venom and fire of Sheol itself. None could be certain where the Nephilim had been birthed from, but their line was mighty. The Anak were a fierce race, giants among men. None could stand before them.
Shammah let the warmth of the growing fire sooth his heart as he recalled again that day, 40 years earlier.
In stunned silence the crowd grew still.
With his arm pointing toward the North, and his face turned now toward Moses, Shaphat cried out again, the despair obvious in his voice.
"The Anak are there."
Shaphat the warrior. Shaphat the leader of men. His great frame seemed to diminish, he was a child, standing alone and afraid with nowhere to run. Now he stood before us with terror in his face. Our joy had turned to sorrow. Our victory to defeat.
"The Anak are there." As if we had not heard him. "The land is rich and great, but the people there are greater still. If the Anak were not enough, every corner of the land is settled by the Amalekites, the Hittites, Jebusites and Amorites. We cannot escape them. The Canaanites have settled by the sea, if we turn to the great river, they are there also."
"Had not my brethren and I seemed like ants and grasshoppers under their feet, we would not have even made it back to bring our report to you; to turn you aside from certain destruction."
Here, Shammah's story paused again. His voice had failed, but his memory did not. Even the cold desert wind seemed to echo the wails of his people that day. The cries that had been joyous were now filled with bitterness and grief, fuelled by their impending doom. Why had Moses brought them here? Why had Jehovah brought them out of Egypt, only to die like dogs in the wilderness?
Some questions linger on, even through the lonely years of the desert.
Shammah wiped his cheeks. The bitter night wind stung the moisture that traced itself across his creased face.
Someone at the fire coughed.
The little children were now asleep.
From somewhere beyond the circle of light, a seasoned voice spoke up. A voice that betrayed its many years, but a voice that carried with it an authority that one could almost feel.
"Old one, you said this was a tale of giants and plenty, of which we have heard both. Yet you said this was also to be a tale of two voices. We have heard only of one... where is the second?"
Shammah lifted his gaze from the fire, searching the darkness for the one who spoke. He could see no one except for the expectant faces of those sitting closest to the fire.
“Yes. The second voice.”
The second voice was different from the first in every way. Caleb's frame and voice did not carry with it the same presence as Shaphat's. But there was something different about him. Something you could not explain. A different spirit.
Shammah nodded, then spoke again
Caleb now stood before the people, his arms raised, imploring the assembly to cease their grief and turn their ear to him. As the noise began to die away, I remember his voice crying out with desperation; yet with power.
Caleb Ben Jephunneh
"Children of the Living God."
"Let us go up at once and occupy this land, for we are God's chosen people, and are well able to overcome it."
Did he not hear? Had he not seen?
The Anak are there.
Caleb's voice was gone. Drowned out by a sea of humanity lost in its own despair.
Men could be seen arguing on the hillside.
Moses on his knees, with his arms outstretched to heaven.
Men rallying behind new leaders.
Joshua and Caleb now on their knees, ripping at their clothes, tearing at their grief.
The sound of despair overwhelmed me. Weeping and wailing filled the air.
Despair soon turned to desperation. Where would we go now? Who would lead us? What would happen if we returned to Egypt?
Egypt. We may have been slaves, but we lived.
Desperation turned to anger once more.
Now Caleb's voice came again. Joshua stood with him.
"Brothers, consider all you have seen. You have heard of the goodness of this land that Jehovah has promised you. You have seen the wealth of it's produce which we have brought for you as a testimony to our report. This is truly a great land."
"The land which our God; the one who brought us out of Egypt with power, the one who saved us at the sea by his hidden pathway, it is this God who has promised us this land."
"If the Lord delights in us... He will bring us into this land and deliver it into our hand."
Now, with a heightened sense of desperation, his voice thundered across the hillside.
"Only do not rebel against the LORD!"
"Attend to His Word"
"We have no need to fear the people of this land. Who are they beside the LORD? Who is the Anak when it is the LORD who fights for us? The LORD is our strength and our helper, in whom should we be afraid?
Jehovah has not chosen the Anak to be His people. He has chosen us. He does not shield the Hittite or the Amorite, or any other who live in this land."
"The LORD is our shield and defender, who is it we should run from?"
"The LORD is with us, do not be afraid!"
"The LORD is with us!"
That was the last time we heard his voice. From that day until now, his voice has been silent.
That day we heard two voices.
One cried out, "The Anak are there!"
The other, "The LORD is with us!"
Only one remained with us.
Shammah looked up from the fire to see the many faces, younger faces than his, staring intently back at him.
He whispered, 'The Anak are there'.
'I am soon to go the way of my fathers', Shammah addressed the crowd who had not yet departed to find their own tents. '40 years have passed, and soon you will return to Kadesh-Barnea. The Anak will still be there'.
His lonely memories retraced their futile footsteps through the desert. He saw his loved ones fall. He felt the pain and regret grip his stomach once again.
They had listened to the wrong voice.
"The Anak are still there", he continued.
"But the LORD is with us, do not be afraid."
"Heed His Word. Trust His voice. Rest in His care."
"Enter the Land. Your Land. The Promised Land."
When the camp set off for Kadesh-Barnea the following morning, Shammah was not with them.
An unmarked grave was left in the sands of the desert. The cold nights would torment him no more.
Yet his voice remained. It lived in the hearts and minds of a new generation, a generation that would once again stand on the brink of the promise, and face the giants.