One of the key moments in Israelite history, a moment that we don’t always place in the first rank, comes with a supreme lack of faith in Numbers 13, when a dozen spies/scouts/explorers are sent to obtain a report on the Promised Land and come with a good news/bad news result.
The land is fabulous, they insist, leading with the good news.
But the people who live there are giants, they quickly continue. “To ourselves we seemed like grasshoppers, and we must have seemed the same to them,” they conclude in Numbers 13:33.
A grasshopper–or a locust, the Hebrew word is the same–is a creature that, on its own, is pretty vulnerable. The biggest locust is no match for the smallest human. If these critters had human-level thinking skills, they’d be just as scared as the Israelites that day.
But there’s another aspect to these insects and actually something that differentiates them from grasshoppers. While both locusts and grasshoppers spend a good part of their lives as solitary beings, jumping around and munching on plant matter, locusts have a gregarious phase when they gather together. National Geographic describes the phase like this:
When environmental conditions produce many green plants and promote breeding, locusts can congregate into thick, mobile, ravenous swarms.
While a single locust is no match for a single foot, millions of these things can wreak havoc. One of the ten plagues of Egypt had been the worst infestation of locusts of all time; thus, the Israelites should have known about them. The prophet Joel refers to an infamous locust plague to speak of the coming Day of the Lord:
What the devouring locust has left,
the swarming locust has eaten;
what the swarming locust has left,
the young locust has eaten;
and what the young locust has left,
the destroying locust has eaten. (Joel 1:4)
To this day, a swarm or plague of locusts is a largely irresistible force in an agricultural setting. In recent years these swarms have posed a problem in Middle Eastern countries.
So did the scouts of Numbers 13 mean relatively solitary and harmless grasshoppers or swarming, devastating locusts? We can’t really know for sure, but clearly they didn’t see themselves as terrifying creatures when they called themselves chagab or locusts/grasshoppers.
As individuals, those Israelites were perhaps no match for the individuals in the Promised Land. But God had not called them to conquer the land as individuals. They were supposed to operate together. As a group together, they would be seen as locusts–a plague of terrifying locusts–by the land’s inhabitants. Sure, the Canaanites, giants or not, might squash a few of them, but the swarm would prevail.
What’s more, this swarm had God on its side. This wouldn’t be some mindless, instinct-driven mob but rather the army of the Lord. These people had seen what God could do without requiring them to take any significant action. Did they believe that they’d become less powerful when they joined in at his guidance?
Those who follow God cannot be ultimately defeated. When we follow Him, we’re, like Paul says in Romans, “more than conquerors.” That’s what Caleb must have known when, in Numbers 13, he urged his countrymen to go on the offensive. But the others resisted and delayed the entry into the land by forty years.
Christians, we’re more than grasshoppers. We’re locusts!