Valley of the Cluster

Spies Sent To Canaan Hand Towel for Sale by Granger
The spies sent to scout the land of Canaan return with a bunch of grapes so large it takes two men to carry it (Numbers 13: 23-27). Woodcut from the Cologne Bible, 1478-80.

Thus says the Lord,
“As the new wine is found in the cluster,
And one says, ‘Do not destroy it, for there is benefit in it,’
So I will act on behalf of My servants
In order not to destroy all of them.
Isaiah 65:8

I am so fascinated by the fruits of the Bible, especially grapes. It was the Nazirites that first drew me in. I’ve explored in other posts the Gospel of the Nazirites, the weightiness of their vow, its completion and then culmination in Jesus Christ. The role of grapes in the Nazirite vow and some of the Bible’s other symbolic uses of grapes suggest this may have been the fruit Adam and Eve ate.

There’s still much more to say about Nazirites. But there is also more excitement to enjoy about grapes! And the story of the 12 men who went to spy out Canaan has recently captured my attention.

In Numbers 13, Moses calls for Joshua, son of Nun, and tells him to take 12 men, representatives from each tribe, and spy out the land God has promised to them, the land of Canaan.

No doubt this is a story you’ve heard many times. But look closely at the details! Wade into their depths. In the Bible, it matters where things happen, and it matters when they happen.

Moses says the spies are to travel up into the Negev, where Isaac met Rebekah, that same place, full of springs, which Achsah would request as a wedding gift from her father Caleb (Josh. 15). The Negev is a place of extreme beauty, wild with desert and with springs of water, of life, of joy, of love.

Ein Avdat
Ein Avdat in the Negev

But Moses directs the spies further. They are to travel on through the Negev and up until the hill country.

See 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.
Numbers 13:18-20

God has given us places in the text, and here is the timing. He directs our eyes not just to a month (which scholars estimate was the Hebrew month of Av, in July and August). But also forward to the time of the first ripe grapes, that period in Av weighty with joyful significance.

The 12 Spies – Vineyard (2013) 56 x 60, oil on linen by Shany Saar

This is worth a closer look. Av is historically a month of great tragedy (death of Aaron, destruction of the Temple). The prophet Micah records the sentiments of the Jews’ mourning, their longing for the joy of the first fruits.

Woe is me! For I am
Like the fruit pickers, like the grape gatherers.
There is not a cluster of grapes to eat,
Or a first-ripe fig which I crave.
Micah 7:1

But in Av, God moves His people from despair to rejoicing, from death to life. We see this trajectory in the spies’ journey, from the Negev, to Hebron. Here lies the tomb Abraham purchased for his wife Sarah and mourned her death (Genesis 23). Then on to a place named for Eschol, who along with his two brothers joined forces with Abram to rescue Lot and others held captive (Gen. 14).

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.
Numbers 13:23

This is a powerful image, a vine and its fruit, evoking joy and fruitfulness, a promise of abundance. Indeed, the 12 spies in Numbers 13 brought back with them the promise of heaven, carrying the witness that the land “certainly does flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit” (v. 27).

Some scholars believe it was during this same month of Av, month of the destruction of the Temple, that Jesus entered the world in the new Temple of His Incarnate Body.

And He, having drunk the cup of sour wine, symbol of the cup of God’s wrath on the cross, He too hung between two men, then died and rose again, the first fruits we now possess (1 Cor. 15:20).

In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth, so that we would be a kind of first fruits among His creatures.

James 1:18

Like the 12 spies then, we carry the witness of heaven but in the branches of our own bodies, a testament to that same witness Jesus also bore in the Vine of His body, in His death and resurrection. We remember this when we drink the wine of the Lord’s Supper in worship. We look forward to the day when we will cross the Jordan and enter the Promised Land, that place Jesus is now preparing for His Bride. The Queen of Heaven, she whose body wears the cluster of first fruits He has promised to preserve until the end (Isaiah 65:8).

“I said, ‘I will climb the palm tree,
I will take hold of its fruit stalks.’
Oh, may your breasts be like clusters of the vine,
And the fragrance of your breath like apples,
Song of Songs 7:8

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