The PostBarthian

Karl Barth’s use of Saga in Exposition of Scripture

Karl Barth (source:

Pastor Karl Barth (source:

Karl Barth's Doctrine of Holy Scripture is expounded in the Church Dogmatics Vol. I/2 §19-21, yet for kinetic learners, Barth's Doctrine of Scripture may be bested learned by reading Barth's expositions of Scripture in the myriad fine print sections throughout the paragraphs of the Church Dogmatics, especially at the end of sections. Barth's introduction to his Doctrine of Creation in the Church Dogmatics Vol. III/1 is an extended commentary on the first chapters of Genesis, and exemplifies Barth's Doctrine of Scripture at work, most notably it contains Barth's definition of the saga genre of literature.

I recently read Karl Barth's infamous exposition of the Spies in the Promise Land from Numbers 13-14 in the Church Dogmatics Vol. IV/2 §65.2, and then came across it a second time while reading George Hunsinger's essay in Thy Word is Truth: Barth on Scripture, and took it as a sign that I should share this as an exercise to the reader in observing Barth's ontology of Scripture in practice.

The strength of Barth's exegesis is that he is not paralyzed and thrown into the abyss of 'Bible Difficulties' debates that Inerrancy suffers from while trying to explain how this story has elements from exilic and post-exhilic judaism yet purports to be an eye-witness account of conquest era Israel. Barth also evades the doldrums of demythologization where the complete historicity is consider mythological by more critical, modern scholars. Barth's use of Saga demonstrates how both stories are told of ancient years and of the situation of the redactor in one narrative. The epistemological proof is in how Barth's exposition has the most explaining power and yields the most fruit from the proverbial grapes brought back from the land of Canaan. Particularly in Barth's keen insight in the parallels of Joshua and Caleb vs the ten spies to that of the divided kingdom of Israel and Judah and the ten lost tribes. Also, don't miss the reference to the two witnesses of Revelation in this passage that Barth expands!

Karl Barth's exposition of the Twelve Spies of Canaan (Num 13-14):

Once again a biblical passage will give concretion to our analysis. And this time we turn to Num 13-14 –the history of the spies whom Moses sent to investigate the promised land.

Tissot, The Grapes of Canaan (source: wikipedia)

Tissot, The Grapes of Canaan (source: wikipedia)

We call it a “history” and this calls for a short hermeneutical observations which applies in retrospect to the three preceding excursi as well. The term “history” is to be understood in its older and naïve significance in which—quite irrespective of the distinctions between that which can be historically proved, that which has the character of saga and that which has been consciously fashioned, or invented, in a later and synthetic review—it denotes a story which is received and maintained and handed down in a definite kerygmatic sense. In relation to the biblical histories we can, of course, ask concerning these distinctions and even make them hypothetically. But if we do we shall miss the kerygmatic sense in which they are told. Indeed, the more definitely we make them and the more normative we regard them for the purpose of exposition, the more surely we shall miss this sense. To do justice to this sense, we must either not have asked at all concerning these distinctions, or have ceased to do so. In other words, we must still, or again, read these histories in their unity and totality. It is only then that they can say what they are trying to say. To be sure, the history of the spies does contain different elements. There is a “historical” element in the stricter sense (the persons and cities and localities mentioned). There is also an element of saga (the account of the branch of grapes carried by two men, and of the giants who inhabited the land). There is also the element which has its origin in the synthetic or composite view (fusing past and present almost into one) which is so distinctive a feature of historical writing in Old and New Testament alike. It is to the latter elements that we must pay for they usually give us an indication of the purpose which led to their adoption into the texts. But in relation to them, if we are discerning readers, we shall not overlook the historical elements or even jettison those which seem to have the character of saga. When the distinctions have been made they can be pushed again into the background and the whole can be read (with this tested and critical naivety) as the totality it professes to be.The purpose of Num 13-14 is to show how dreadful and dangerous is the retarding role played by evil anxiety in the transition of Israel from the wilderness to the promised land as an action in the history of salvation. It was perhaps in this way, in the shadow of this particular failing in relation to Yahweh, that at a later period—perhaps at the time of the Exile when it was confronted by a dangerous return to its own land—Israel saw its past. Yet this does not mean that at the earlier period of its existence in the wilderness its attitude was not exactly the same, or very much the same, as reported in the story. We shall now consider the picture which it gives.

The wilderness wandering seems to be reaching its end and goal. Israel is on the steppe of Param (Num 13:1) on the very threshold of the land from which Jacob and his sons had once journeyed to Egype—the country which their descendants had now left far behind them. The will of Yahweh in the great act by the Red Sea, which was their deliverance and liberation, and Yahweh’s covenant with them, had had as their goal that they should dwell in the land which was now before them. Other nations lived there, but it was still, and already again, their land; for Yahweh had promised it to them. In all their march through the wilderness the inhabitation of this land had been their absolutely sure and certain future, guaranteed by God Himself. And now it is to take place. Yet they are not to be brought in blindly and passively. Although led by Yahweh at the hand of Moses, they themselves are to act and dare, knowing where they are going, and knowing the land and its inhabitants and soil and cities (13:18f.). This knowledge is to be given them by trustworthy witnesses who will summon them to joyous action. That is why the twelve spies are selected and sent out, all chosen from among them, one from each of the tribes, and in each case one of the princes or leaders. Caleb from the tribe of Judah and Oshea (whom Moses called Joshua) from the tribe of Ephraim are the representatives of what later become the leading tribes in the south and in the north, and they will be particularly prominent later in the story. These spies are to be eyes for the rest of the holy people, and when they have seen they are to be the mouth of authentic witness to this people. With this commission they are to enter the land which God has promised Israel, which already belongs to it according to His will and Word, and which has only to be appropriated; and they are then to return and tell. This is all arranged by Moses at the commandment of Yahweh (Num 13:1-21). There will, of course, be a certain element of risk in crossing the frontier, both for them and the whole people after them. It will be a venture, as we can see from the exhortation of Moses: “Be ye of good courage.” Note that they are also told to bring back some of the fruits of the land: “The time was the time of the firstripe grapes” (Num 13:20)—not the true grapes, but those of the approaching harvest. The Israelites themselves will actually see these first-fruits. And Moses is confident that these will speak for themselves and kindle the gratitude and joy and courage of the people. In all this we have to remember that there is no question of establishing the glorious content of the promise or the certainty that Yahweh will fulfill it and bring them into this good land. On the contrary, the whole being of this people rests on the promise of Yahweh. The only purpose, then, is to confirm the promise and to remind the people of its content and certainty. The spies can only be witnesses of the promise, and the people is to hear it attested by them and see it attested by the proofs of fruitfulness which they bring.

But it is at this point—quite unexpectedly and incomprehensibly from the standpoint of the story—there comes the invasion of anxious care. It arises first among the spies themselves. Ten of these prove to be fainthearts. They have faithfully and eagerly fulfilled the first part of their commission. They have gone through the whole of the south as far as Hebron. At Eschcol they have cut off the great bunch of grapes “and they bare it between two upon a staff; and they brought of the pomegranates, and the figs” (Num 13:24). And they return and tell Moses and Aaron and the whole congregation about the land, and show the fruits, and say: “We came unto the land whither thou sentest us, and surely it floweth with milk and honey; and this is the fruit of it. Nevertheless…” (Num 13:26f.). After all, there is a serious “But.” It is not for nothing that they were told to be of a good courage. And without courage the promise given to the whole people cannot be fulfilled. There was a risk. A venture had to be made. All the spies had been aware of this. But ten of them had obviously not proved to be very courageous on the journey. It is these ten—the overwhelming majority—who, as is only right, act as the spokesmen. And the second part of their report is as follows: “Nevertheless the people be that dwell in the land, and the cities are walled, and very great: and moreover we saw the children of Anak there.” There then follows a list of all the warlike people they found: the Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, and Canaanites (Num 13:29f.). The report is amplified later: “And they brought up an evil report of the land which they had searched unto the children of Isreal, Saying, The land which we have gone to search it, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of a great stature. And there was saw the giants, the sons of Anak, which come of the gians: and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight” (Num 13:32f.). Even the milk and honey and great cluster of grapes did not compensate in their eyes for this drawback; what they feared was incomparably greater than what they desired. The truth and power of the divine promise to attest which they had been chosen and now stood before the people could and should have been thrown in the scales against those hosts of people and their strong and secure cities and even the giants. But they themselves had not taken the truth and power of the promise into account, and so their report concluded: “We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we” (Num 13:31). They had not really seen as witnesses of Yahweh and therefore they could not speak as His witnesses. They could not encourage His people, but only attest their own anxious care.

We remember that they are speaking to the people of Yahweh—the people to whom the promise and its content and certainty are not something new, for whom they are only to be confirmed, who are to be summoned by them to resolute action. Surely they will unanimously reject as false witness this report and its conclusion. Unfortunately not. Instead we read that when the people of God heard this report there arose a murmuring; the murmuring of the care engendered in the people too. There were, of course, two witnesses who were not anxious and who were therefore true witnesses, Joshua and Caleb. And we are told (Num 13:38?) that Caleb “stilled the people before Moses” with the words: “Let us go up at once, and posses it, for we are well able to overcome it.” But the continuation of the report of the other ten swept aside this word of encouragement. When the people heard of giants, every restraint was cast aside: “And all the congregation lifted up their voice, and cried; and the people wept that night” (Num 14:1). The following day the murmuring was against Moses and Aaron. So that we have good reason to suspect that this was not an accident but a supremely radical refusal which compromised everything. And indeed: “The whole congregation said unto them, Would God that we have died in the land of Egypt! Or would God we have died in this wilderness! And wherefore hath the Lord brought us unto this land, to fall by the sword, that our wives and our children should be a prey? (Num 14:2f.). Thus from the future, in which they do not see Yahweh and His promise and its fulfillment and His faithfulness and power, but only these people and their strongholds, only these giants, before whom the spies saw themselves as grasshoppers, death reaches into their present in the form of this mad desire, and even into their past. They are afraid—their poor wives and children!—of what God promises and tells them to do. They would rather have been long since dead—what is the value of milk and honey and clusters of grapes and pomegranates and figs?—in Egypt or in the wilderness. Better this then meet the obviously gigantic danger of their future. But even if they are terribly anxious they are still alive, and can do something to escape the danger. And so there comes the maddest thing of all—a conclusion which far surpasses the purely negative conclusion of the spies: “Were it not better for us to return into Egypt?” (Num 14:3f.). Absolutely everything is called in question by the care which has now assumed gigantic proportions as a result of this report about giants: their deliverance and liberation; the will and Word of Yahweh in this act; His covenant with them; and naturally the authority of Moses and Aaron. Their will is to choose another leader, to set off in the opposite direction, and to return to Pharaoh and slavery—the very thing which, in spite of the protest and warning of Jeremiah, is finally done by the Jewish remnant after the destruction of Jerusalem, “because of the Chaldeans: for they were afraid of them” (Jer 41:18). “No; but we will go into the land of Egypt, where we shall see no war, nor hear the sound of the trumpet, nor have hunger of bread; and there will we dwell” (Jer 42:14). The madness is complete. Panic knows no limits. This is how the people of Yahweh proves itself. This is the way in which it treats the divine promise and therefore its own history and election and calling.

What follows in face of this situation is quite majestic: “Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembly of the congregation of the children of Israel” (Num 14:5). They did not try to contradict. They did not speak any word of warning or exhortation. When the people of Yahweh holds back, the only hope for this people is Yahweh Himself: the absolute prostration of worship before Him; the intercession of those who know Him for those who do not, of those who persist in His calling and certainty of His promise for those who forget and deny and surrender it. Yet in the first instance we are not told of any intercession, nor is there any express reference to Yahweh. We are simply told that they fell on their faces before this crowd in all madness of its anxiety.

But this is not all. For a lower level, nearer to the people but resisting their anxious care, representing the true cause of the people because the cause of Yahweh, persisting in His calling and promise, there also stand the two faithful and reliable witnesses Joshua and Caleb (the two referred to, perhaps, in Rev 11:3f.). The first thing that we are told concerning them is that they rent their cloths (Num 14:6) as a sigh of their supreme horror at what they recognized to be an act of supreme transgression. There then follows their entreaty in which in all the tumult of that raging anxiety they issue their call, their final appeal, for joy and courage and action: “The land, which we passed through to search it, is an exceeding good land. If the Lord delight in us, then he will bring us into this land, and give it us; a land floweth with milk and honey. Only rebel not ye against the Lord, neither fear ye the people of the land; for they are bread for us: their defence is departed from them, and the Lord is with us: fear them not” (Num 14:7f.). Here again we have the clear line of the obedient human action corresponding to the goodness and certainty of the divine promise and sharing a priori its triumphant character. Yahweh is with us. Hence our enemies, even though they be giants, are impotent, and we shall overwhelm them. The only thing is that we must not fear, i.e., we must not be obstinate against Yahweh or question and therefore forfeit perhaps his benevolence. But this has already happened. The people is already deaf to this last appeal. It is in vain, therefore, that they reacall once more the promise of Yahweh. “All the congregation bade stone them with stones” (Num 14:10). The two faithful witnesses? Or Moses and Aaron as well? Either way, there can be no doubt that raging anxiety now aims to destroy physically the protest made against it in the name of the divine promise, juding its divine Judge in the person of these men, and making this its final word.

It is to prevent this dreadful climax that at this moment the glory of the Lord appears before the tent of revelation in the sight of all Israel, averting the murder of the two witnesses and the irrevocable apostasy of the people, but also as an act of judgment on them. They have made an enemy of the God whose friendship they have despised and rejected. They have evoked death by fearing it. There is now interposed a long section (Num 14:11-20) which tells us how God threatens what they have deserved and how it is averted by the explicit intercession of Moses. We see here how extreme is the consequence of their extreme rebellion against Yahweh. It is nothing less than their destruction and therefore the annulment of the covenant and promise. But this does not take place. For Moses prays: “Pardon, I beseech thee, the iniquity of this people according unto the greatness of they mercy, and as thou has forgiven this people, form Egypt even until now” (Num 14:19). And Yahweh’s answer is: “I have pardoned according to they word” (Num 14:20). This does not mean, however, that what has happened has not happened or has no consequences. The ten false witnesses must die a sudden death (Num 14:37). And there can be no question of an entry into the land, and therefore of the fulfillment of the promise, for the whole generation which has been guilty of the anxious care, first in a childish, and then in a raging form. With the exception of Joshua and Caleb, who “had another spirit with him, and hath followed me fully” (Num 14:24), “they shall not see the land” (Num 14:23). “This evil congregation, that are gathered together against me, in this wilderness they shall be consumed, and there they shall die”—not in Egypt, for the will and act of God cannot be reversed, and the covenant and promise are not annulled, but in the wilderness as they have desired, without experiencing the fulfillment.

The story ends on a dark and unconciliatory note (Num 14:39f.). “The people mourned greatly” when Moses reported what had happened. They suddenly realize that they have sinned. But it does not appear that they are so very concerned about their sin, their care, their obstinacy against Yahweh, and therefore their transgression of the covenant, or that their confession of sin goes so very deep, when early the following morning they come to Moses armed and ready to march northwards into the land: “Lo, we be here, and will go up unto the place which the Lord hath promised.” Has their fear of the death which they desired in the wilderness, and which has been ordained for them, suddenly become greater than their fear of the giants? At any rate, they are not ready to accept the destiny which now impends in consequence of their own guilt. They will march out and fight. But they can do this only in defiance of the command of Yahweh. The courage of those who are anxious is no more pleasing to Him than their cowardice. “It shall not prosper. Go not up, for the Lord to Him than their cowardice. “It shall not prosper. Go not up, for the Lord is not among you; that ye be not smitten before your enemies… . Then the Amalekites came down, and the Canaanites which dwelt in that hill, and discomfited them, even unto Hormah” (Num 14:44f.). Ubi cessandum est, semper agilis, prompta et audax est incredulitas, ubi autem pergendi autor est Deus, timida est, pigra et mortua, is Calvin’s observation on this incident (C.R., 25, 209). Their incredulitas met with the fate which it must always suffer whatever form it takes. The note of comfort at the end of the story—apart from the existence of the little ones about whom they had been so anxious (Num 14:31)—is that in this careless enterprise the care-ridden Israelites did not take with them the ark of God, and therefore it was not involved in the catastrophe (Num 14:44).

Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics Study Edition 25. Ed. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. Trans. G. W. Bromiley. London: T & T Clark, 2010. 96-100. Print. [478-483]

Print Friendly

Posted by Wyatt

Comments (3) Trackbacks (1)
  1. This is good stuff. I encourage you to continue exploring Barth’s doctrine of Scripture. I have been a bit amused at many students of Barth who are perfectly at home with the mainstream SBL pronouncements on the historicity of the OT (which is basically nil until the exile), because, in their view, Barth is committed to a theological variant of an idealist epistemology in order to preserve the otherness of the divine encounter. I’m not convinced by this reading of Barth, to put it mildly.

    In addition to Hunsinger, I think you would also enjoy Donald Wood’s Barth’s Theology of Interpretation. I have only read the first several pages, but it looks very promising. Wood was one of my lecturers at Aberdeen. He’s a sharp guy. He follows Webster closely, which is a very good thing in my book.

    • Kevin, thanks for the encouragement, and I’m still working through Barth’s doctrine of scripture. Blogging is like learning by teaching! I agree with you regards the students of Barth you mentioned. Thanks for the tip, I will look for Wood. I like Webster in addition to Hunsinger. I’ve been reading Berkouwer, and may read his book on Scripture, but he’s more of a synthesis of Barth and the older orthodox Reformed theologians. Great blog by the way!

      • Thanks, Wyatt. In one of our classes, Webster specifically recommended Berkouwer’s book on Scripture. I have the whole Berkouwer dogmatics set (because, a few years ago, I found an awesome deal online of the entire hardback set!), but I have not read the Scripture volume yet. I think you right about Berkouwer being a synthesis, of sorts, of Barth and the older Reformed orthodoxy — and Webster too could fit that description, perhaps even more so, given Webster’s increasing interest in both Thomist and Reformed scholasticism.

Leave a comment