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Numbers 13 and the Apostolic Pattern
By Ed Vasicek, Midrash Detective
When scouring the New Testament for Midrashim (explanations, interpretations, and applications) mothered in Old Testament passages, one usually begins with a New Testament text and seeks to trace its origins backward to the Old Testament. Today, I intend to do the reverse, probing an Old Testament text and then postulating New Testament Midrashim.
I am proposing that Numbers 13 certainly was the basis for the Midrash in the book of Hebrews. But this Torah text may have influenced how Jesus went about naming twelve men to serve as apostles as well. In one sense, apart from their application in Hebrews, these verses are not exactly Midrashim because they are not explained in the New Testament. In another sense they might be something akin to Midrashim because they could explain why Jesus behaved as he did in reference to choosing apostles.
Many have observed that the Old Testament books of Genesis, Deuteronomy, Psalms and Isaiah have so much influence on the New Testament (and Paul in particular) that Richard Hays calls them, “…. a de facto canon within the canon…”i
The fact remains, however, that the New Testament draws upon many portions of the Old Testament, and Numbers 13:1-33 [NASB] qualifies as a key passage:
“Then the LORD spoke to Moses saying, ‘Send out for yourself men so that they may spy out the land of Canaan, which I am going to give to the sons of Israel; you shall send a man from each of their fathers’ tribes, every one a leader among them.’ … These are the names of the men whom Moses sent to spy out the land; but Moses called Hoshea the son of Nun, Joshua.
“When Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan, he said to them, ‘Go up there into the Negev; then go up into the hill country. 1See what the land is like, and whether the people who live in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many. How is the land in which they live, is it good or bad? And how are the cities in which they live, are they like open camps or with fortifications? How is the land, is it fat or lean? Are there trees in it or not? Make an effort then to get some of the fruit of the land.’ Now the time was the time of the first ripe grapes…
“Then they came to the valley of Eshcol and from there cut down a branch with a single cluster of grapes; and they carried it on a pole between two men, with some of the pomegranates and the figs…
“When they returned from spying out the land, at the end of forty days, they proceeded to come to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation … and they brought back word to them and to all the congregation and showed them the fruit of the land. Thus they told him, and said, ‘We went in to the land where you sent us; and it certainly does flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. Nevertheless, the people who live in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large; and moreover, we saw the descendants of Anak there. ...’
“ Then Caleb quieted the people before Moses and said, ‘We should by all means go up and take possession of it, for we will surely overcome it.’ But the men who had gone up with him said, ‘We are not able to go up against the people, for they are too strong for us’ …”
Pulling Back and the Hebrews 6 Passage: The Obvious Midrash
The most obvious Midrash on this passage comes from the famous Hebrews 6:4-6 [ESV] passage.
For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.
Just as the Israelites had seen God’s miracles of deliverance from Egypt and received the Law, so those among New Covenant believers had seen evidences of God’s power and grace; some of these professed believers had been indoctrinated and were seemingly convinced that Jesus was truly the Messiah. Just as the ancient Hebrews “tasted… of the goodness of the coming age” [the fruit and produce retrieved by the spies] but could not enter the land of Canaan because of unbelief, so those who taste the firsfruits of the Messianic era – but later shrink back in unbelief -- cannot enter the Promised Land.
In Numbers 14:39-45, the Children of Israel experience a change of heart and decide to attempt the conquest of Canaan. Moses forbids them, informing them that God had tightly closed their window of opportunity. They refuse to heed Moses, make an attempt at attack, but are overwhelmingly defeated. It was impossible to renew them to repentance. Thus the writer to the Hebrews applies the same paradigm to professing believers who do not merely fall away into sin, but deny Jesus as Messiah and view their profession of faith as a farce. Being unconvinced that Jesus is the Messiah crucified and raised for them, they align themselves with the unbelieving soldiers and religious leaders who crucified Jesus because they believed he was a fraud.
The concept that much of Hebrews is a series of Midrashim on Numbers is evident. Less evident is the suggestion I am making: Numbers 13 is the source for some of Jesus’ behavior with his disciples -- and his appointing twelve of them as apostles.
The Tradition of Nick-naming Leading Disciples
In Numbers 13:16b, we read, “Moses called Hoshea the son of Nun, Joshua.”
Since the rabbis tried to base their view of the relationship of a rabbi to his disciples as a continuity of Old Testament practice, what better example is there than that of the relationship of Moses to Joshua? Moses is the model rabbi, Joshua the ideal disciple.
The practice of nicknaming disciples was Rabbinic practice at the time of Jesus.ii So when Jesus nicknamed James and John as “the sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17), or Simon as “Peter” (Matthew 16:18), this practice itself may have been something like a Midrash on Numbers 13:16b. At bare minimum, this Numbers text exemplifies the practice.
In addition, a Rabbi would often single out his leading disciple for special honor, as Moses did with Joshua (perhaps creating the spiritual equivalent of a “firstborn”). David Friedman, in his book, They Loved the Torah comments:
I see Shim'on as Yeshua's Torah-observant.... talmid hakham...a Hebrew technical term meaning the leading student (of a rabbi). Every famous rabbi who daily taught the same students had a talmid hakham, his chief student. This is the student who figured most prominently in narratives about his rabbi. In first-century Judaism, the chief student was trusted by his rabbi to learn and pass on the rabbi's teachings.iii
The Idea of 12 Apostles
The fact that Jesus chose 12 apostles – not 11 or 13 – is significant. The number in itself seems quite reasonable since Israel was made up of twelve tribes (Levi, 10 other “full tribes,” and the subdivided tribe of Joseph, which consisted of the “half tribes” of Ephraim and Manasseh).
In Matthew 19:28 [NASB], Jesus indicates a correspondence between the number of apostles and the number of tribes:
And Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you, that you who have followed Me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on His glorious throne, you also shall sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. “iv
Let me suggest that selecting twelve men to be apostles may also be an idea that Jesus adapted from our text in Numbers. Just as Moses sent twelve men to prepare for establishing the Kingdom of Israel in the land of Canaan, so the Messiah sent twelve men to establish his spiritual kingdom, the church. The Matthew 19:28 text quoted above (“the regeneration”) also suggests a millennial purpose in mind. We could include both the current church and Millennium under the common banner of the Messianic Era.
Perhaps I have missed it, but in my pursuit of Jewish parallels, I find nothing in Judaism that is similar to the idea of apostleship. David Stern prefers to translate the term “apostle “(“sent one”) by the word, “emissary.” Still, Rabbinic Judaism has no apostles in the sense that the 12 experienced the office.
We cannot rule out that Jesus’ plan to name 12 apostles by the Father through the Spirit. But neither can we rule out that this process included Jesus’ study of Numbers 13; if so, we can conceive of an apostle as both a representative authority and as a scout of sorts.
As representatives of both the church (Jesus’ assembly) and the nation of Israel, the 12 laid the foundation of the church (Ephesians 2:20). Yet, once again, the Jewish nation fails to respond in faith and so does not enter the promised land of the earthly, Millennial Kingdom. Just as the nation of Israel experienced a delay in conquering and dwelling in the Promised Land, so the Jewish people are yet wandering in the spiritual wilderness until a generation arises that believes.
The Forty-Year Preparation Period
The unbelieving Israelites over the age of 20 – with the exception of Joshua and Caleb, the two faithful spies – had to die off before the new, purified generation would inhabit the Promised Land (Numbers 14:30, 33).
The new generation, under Joshua’s leadership, would begin the conquest (Joshua 1:1-3). So the Jewish people in Jesus’ day were given one generation – forty years – in which to repent, believe in Jesus, and thus bring down the millennial rule. Acts 3:17-23 [ESV] records Peter’s words. Peter may be, in a sense, the “new Joshua.”
"And now, brothers, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers. But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled. Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago. Moses said, 'The Lord God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers. You shall listen to him in whatever he tells you. And it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people.'”
Just as Yahweh was not surprised at the unbelief of the Exodus Israelites yet held them accountable, so he was not surprised at the unbelief of the Jews in the first century. Jesus came to him own, but his own rejected him (see John 1:11). Both of these events were in the Sovereign plan of God.
We can only take our parallels so far: difference between these accounts surface. If Jesus began his ministry (or was crucified) in 30 A.D., then the people of Israel had 40 years to turn to him before judgment came; the Romans destroyed the Temple in 70 A.D. This also explains an amazing statement in the Talmud (Rosh Hoshanna 31b), “For forty years before the destruction of the Temple the thread of scarlet never turned white but it remained red.” The implications of such phenomenon mesh well with Christian expectations.
When Israel repents and receives the Messiah, the Father will indeed send the Christ to rule. Zechariah tells us that “he whom they have pierced” will first reveal himself to his kinsmen; they will mourn and repent when they see him (Zechariah 12:8-14), and the surviving remnant of Israel will all believe (Zechariah 13:8-9). Because God is sovereign and controls history -- and the human heart, he can make good on seemingly remote promises.
Unlike the conquest of Canaan, which took 400 years to complete, the Messiah will immediately reign over the entire earth when he establishes his kingdom on our planet (Zechariah 14:8-9).
The events in this section of Numbers at bare minimum parallel the structures and plans of Jesus and his disciples. I would suggest that Jesus might have actually structured his kingdom with these passages from Numbers in mind.
Because of the kenosis, God the Son was limited during his stay on earth; the Son emptied himself of the use of his supernatural powers apart from the Father’s permission and the Spirit’s power. While in such a humble state, he did not know “the day nor the hour” when his kingdom would be established on earth (Matthew 24:36). Before he emptied himself he knew; now that he is exalted (Philippians 2:5-11), he knows. The Living Word, I believe, typically relied upon the written Word.
Jesus apparently followed the same pattern that Moses followed, and the people (i.e., the Jewish people) mostly followed the same pattern of unbelief. Caleb and Joshua proved a faithful remnant, so a faithful remnant of Israel chose to believe (Romans 11:5). God was not surprised in either instance, nor were his plans thwarted. Currently God is grafting in gentiles for his glory (Romans 11:17-21) until the time he restore the natural branches.
i Richard B. Hays, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul, p. 162.
ii Rabbis and other spiritual leaders sometimes also acquired nicknames; the use of nicknames is common to many cultures and has always been the case in Judaism. Gideon, for example, was nicknamed, “Jerub-Baal” in Judges 6:32.
iii David Friedman, They Loved the Torah, p. 59.
iv In a practical sense, Israel is made up of 13 tribes. We could argue that, with the addition of Paul, there were – for a time – thirteen apostles! We could also suggest that this is one of several possible reasons why Dan is left out of the list of 12 tribes in Revelation 7.