(an outtake from Once More, From the Beginning. This is one of the bits that didn’t make it into the book.)
When the Hebrews approached Canaan, which The Lord had selected to be their homeland, Moses sent the tribal leaders as spies, to preview the land. They had expected to simply sashay in and make themselves at home, but they came to feel that the residents of this rich land might not leave without a struggle.
Suspecting that The Lord might have cooked up this whole ‘promised land’ thing as a cruel practical joke designed to lead them to their destruction, they decided to rush back to their brick-making jobs in Egypt before the positions were all filled. Only Caleb and Joshua among the leaders sensed that it might seem ungracious to unceremoniously turn their backs on God’s gift. They tried to make a case for staying and fighting, but that argument went nowhere.
God was seriously provoked by the Hebrews’ resistance to his plan and disgusted at their willingness to return to bondage after he’d gone to so much trouble to spring them. Once again he started brewing up a pestilence to wipe them all out. (You’ll notice that he didn’t even consider using a flood this time, in keeping with his promise).
Moses hastened to point out how embarrassing it would be if God were to destroy his chosen people after taking all the trouble of choosing them, then leading them out of Egypt and across endless miles of wilderness. “It might look a little . . . well . . . ridiculous,” he prompted, hesitantly, “and people would definitely talk. Possibly even laugh. Here’s a thought: why don’t you consider forgiving them – yet again! Think how much more noble that would seem!”
But Moses saw that The Lord was in no mood to completely clear the guilty. He offered an alternative suggestion. “. . . Or you might let them off the hook just for now – maybe postpone their punishment indefinitely. Keep them guessing: it’ll drive them crazy! You could even reserve punishment for their descendants . . . for three or four generations, if it makes you feel any better.” This would ease the immediate situation, and Moses was getting tired of dealing with this kind of thing.
“All right,” The Lord agreed, reluctantly. “I won’t kill them all. But I’m going to make them sorry for this constant irritation.”
This time he refused to pass the blame on to the innocent. “The ones who’ve been griping all these years will die in the wilderness without ever possessing the land I promised them, and it serves them right – except maybe Caleb and Joshua, who were willing to fight for it.”
He shooed them back towards the Red Sea, to wander in the desert for a few more decades, giving them time to meditate on the error of their ways and work on their obedience skills. Some of the old-timers attempted to sneak into Canaan when he wasn’t looking, but The Lord wasn’t inclined to lift a finger in their aid, so the inhabitants defeated them without even breaking a sweat. Then, since he’d gotten a dose of the plague all ready, he infected the leaders who had encouraged the people to mutiny and they all died.
Once this rebellion had blown over, Moses figured he had better show the people he was still in control, so he picked some guy who was gathering sticks on the Sabbath, and had him stoned to death. The three leaders who had survived the plague, and two hundred and fifty of their supporters, were totally unimpressed with this lacklustre demonstration of power. They approached Moses, saying “You’re not the boss of us,” or words to that effect. Well, they were wrong, and to teach them a lesson, God implemented an innovative new punishment whereby the earth broke open, swallowing them up with their families, then closed up over them. In case they hadn’t gotten the message, he followed up with a raging fire that consumed their followers.
It was an effective deterrent – not one of them ever rebelled again.