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Caleb’s Finest Hour

Born a slave, with a name that means “dog.” Imagine:

“Hey there, slave boy, what’s your name?”

“My name is Caleb, sir.”

“Dog … huh, that’s appropriate.”

But God set Caleb and his people free. Most Israelites never quite got the hang of what freedom was all about. They thought it was milk and honey instead of fleshpots and onions. They thought the man with the magic stick was supposed to lead them comfortably to Paradise in no time at all. But when they saw obstacles looming on the horizon, the food and water ran out, or the man with the stick disappeared up a mountain for a few weeks, their freedom became chaos, their taste buds remembered those fleshpots, and they lusted for slavery because that’s what they were: still slaves at heart.

Caleb was different. He knew that freedom was to serve a new, divine Master. Other looked around and complained to Moses, but Caleb looked up to the radiant pillar of cloud and praised the God who had set him free.

Sooner or later, the difference between Caleb’s attitude and that of his people was sure to result in a head-on collision. It happened at Qadesh-barnea, in the Wilderness of Paran, when he returned from spying out the land of Canaan with eleven other chieftains. The spies were unanimous in affirming that the land did indeed flow with milk and honey, and to prove it they brought some sweet fruit, including a gargantuan cluster of grapes.

But ten of the spies accentuated the negative: strong people, fortified towns, giants. Hearts melted and the Promised Land suddenly seemed unpromising. Losing their pre-Christian experience, the Israelites grumbled: “It is because the Lord hates us that he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to hand us over to the Amorites to destroy us” (Deut. 1:27; NRSV here and below). Perfect fear cast out love (contrast 1 Jn. 4:18).

Moses tried to reassure the people, but the clamor of complaining only crescendoed. Then a man stepped forward and cried out, “Has!” which is Hebrew for what it sounds like: “hush!” It was Caleb of Judah. He was not a polished motivational speaker, but his next words should be the motto and mission statement of anyone who desires to enter the Lord’s rest in the better land that he has promised. Caleb urged, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it” (Num. 13:30).

“We are well able.” Unrealistic?! Caleb knew what the fortifications and giants were like because, unlike most of the people, he had seen them. His people lacked the personnel, resources, infrastructure, and budget to overcome the obstacles. But when Caleb said, “We are well able,” he included the Lord in the word “We” because God was with his people.

So why didn’t Joshua, another spy, also make a speech? He agreed with Caleb. But he had been Moses’ assistant. Everyone knew he had vested interests. People who wouldn’t listen to Moses certainly wouldn’t heed Joshua. But Caleb didn’t have this special connection. He could have easily sided with the other ten spies. After all, weren’t they the majority?

It was theocracy, not majority, that ruled Caleb’s heart. Democracy could be a good thing, but not even a landslide vote could budge Caleb’s dogged determination to follow the Lord.

Perhaps for one brief, shining moment Caleb’s courage kindled a spark of hope. But it was quickly quenched when the oral majority took over the podium and began to filibuster. Determined to depress, they badmouthed the land they had earlier praised, saying that it “devours its inhabitants.” They exaggerated, likening themselves to grasshoppers in the presence of the inhabitants of Canaan, and they claimed to have seen Nefilim, descendants of the renowned giants who lived before the flood. Canaan was a jurassic park, inhabited by humansauruses.

All that night the Israelites watered the Wilderness of Paran with their tears, and in the morning they rose up to rebel against their leaders, Moses and Aaron. Joshua and Caleb tore their clothes and plead with the people, but got nothing for their trouble except threats: “the whole congregation threatened to stone them” (Num. 14:10).

So God served the entire adult generation of Israelites a sentence that fitted their crime: They refused to live in Canaan, so they would die in the wilderness, except Caleb and Joshua. The Lord singled out loyal Caleb for special mention: “But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me wholeheartedly, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it” (Num. 14:24).

After mourning again, the people arose the next morning, ready to go: “Here we are. We will go up to the place that the Lord has promised, for we have sinned” (Num. 14:40). This was confession without repentance. Previously unwilling to go where God led, now they wanted to go where he was no longer leading. Against Moses’ warning, they “presumed to go up to the heights of the hill country” (v. 44) and got themselves chased all over southern Palestine.

Lagging behind, rushing ahead, barking up the wrong tree. My home, which we’re starting to call the Land of Canine, has two dogs like that. When we go for a walk, it’s not natural for Shadow and Prince to “heel.” They want to strain at the ends of their leashes in order to be the lead dog, and they are easily distracted by a potential snack of road kill or a deliciously disgusting aroma.

To get some control, Connie, my wife, took Shadow to obedience lessons. As a “sanguine-phlegmatic,” this handsome Golden Retriever prefers affection to discipline. We say he would make a good Seminary mascot because he loves people, has a preacher’s voice, and is dogmatic. However, although he and Connie have had some serious disagreements, he is learning to stay with us when we walk. It takes time.

It took time for the Israelites to learn to stay with the Lord. He trained them by leading them all over the wilderness, away from distractions.

Forty years didn’t make Caleb stronger physically, but neither did they diminish his trust in God. When it finally came time to take the land, 85 year-old Caleb requested the worst possible neighborhood: Hebron, where the most gigantic giants were. As an example to the Israelites, to prove the truth of what he had said at Qadesh-barnea, Caleb volunteered for the greatest challenge and hounded those giants out of town (Jud. 1:20). Because he was following the Lord, giants were his natural prey.

Caleb settled down on his inheritance. But we hear of him one more time. He had a daughter named Achsah, and he wanted her to marry a real man. So, as in some fairy tales, he advertised that he would give her to a man who accomplished a heroic deed. In this case, the deed was to take the city of Qiryat-sepher, which means, “Book Town.” Othniel won the prize and married Achsah, to whom Caleb gave a piece of land.

Now Achsah was grateful for the land, but to thrive on it her family would need water for irrigation. So she urged Othniel to request a field with springs of water on it. But Othniel was reticent to ask any more from his powerful new father-in-law. We can hear Achsah saying, “Go on, Othniel, he’s a nice man. You conquered a city, but you’re afraid to talk to my father?” Achsah ended up asking Caleb herself, and he generously gave her two sets of springs (Jos. 15:19; Jud. 1:15).

So what was Caleb’s finest hour? Perhaps his speech at Qadesh-barnea, when he stood up to the entire Israelite congregation? Or maybe his choice of challenging the Hebron Giants?

I propose another possibility: Caleb’s finest “hour” was the 40 years in the wilderness. This was truly a heroic wait. If anyone had a right to complain, it was Caleb. Because of the mistakes made by others, he was deprived of 40 years of life in the Promised Land, where he could have enjoyed milk and honey while sitting under his vine or his fig tree. He didn’t need all those years of extra training. He was ready to go. But rather than rushing off to conquer Canaan by himself, he stayed with the Lord and his faulty people.

We learn from the later story of Othniel that Caleb had not been idle in the wilderness. He had helped educate the next generation to do as he did: to wholeheartedly follow the Lord, to expect great things, and to be assured that God would provide for his own, just as Caleb provided springs for his daughter. That next generation did enter the Promised Land, and at a time of crisis Othniel because the first of the judges, who led Israel to deliverance.

Here we are in a well-educated, prosperous society, a veritable “Book town”. There have been battles in the past and there will be bigger ones in the future. But right now we are in the position of Caleb during the 40 years. We have to wait. But in the meanwhile we have the awesome responsibility and privilege of telling precious people of how wholeheartedly to follow the Lord all the way, in spite of fortifications, giants, and tribulations, to the place where “the Lamb … will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 7:17).

In Early Writings, at a strategic point just before describing her first vision (p. 14), Ellen White wrote:

I have tried to bring back a good report and a few grapes from the heavenly Canaan, for which many would stone me, as the congregation bade stone Caleb and Joshua for their report. (Num. 14:10.) But I declare to you, my brethren and sisters in the Lord, it is a goodly land, and we are well able to go up and possess it.

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