Viral Fear

Viral Fear in Israel

The most exemplary case of viral fear is retold in Numbers 13, the story of the 12 spies entering the promised land. Here we have God’s chosen people totally debilitated by a rapidly-spreading and particularly destructive virus brought back from a God-appointed scouting mission. We see the way the disease forms, the spread, the symptoms, and the treatment for the disease. As a case study in viral fear, this story has no equal. Here is how the infection begins:

The Infection: Irrational Fear

Viral fear begins as an infection of irrational fear when a normal fear grows to an unmanageable and monstrous size. This overgrown fright is a mutation of a beneficial rational fear. Rational fear becomes irrational.


Then the whole community began weeping aloud, and they cried all night.

(Numbers 14:1)

Viruses require a crowd to thrive. Once a virus has overcome the cell it occupies, it replicates itself by using the constituent parts of the cell to synthesize new viral enzymes — new infectious matter — that are released from the host cell to infect adjacent cells. Sometimes the host cell dies when the virions are releases, sometimes they are left alive but permanently changed.

Symptoms of Viral Fear

Higher blood pressure; disabling anxiety; panic; avoidance of situations and places; disruption of a normal routine; constant distress; irrational behavior; oversensitivity to noise; breathlessness; weakness in muscles; dry mouth; hollow stomach; sighing; avoidance of reminders; crying; treasuring objects; that undeniable pit in your stomach; hallucinations of manifestations of our fear; loneliness…

1. Despair

Their voices rose in a great chorus of protest against Moses and Aaron. “If only we had died in Egypt, or even here in the wilderness!” they complained.

(Numbers 14:2)

Despair is the absence of hope. The Israelites here wondered aloud if death wasn’t preferable to what was to come in facing the warriors of the promise land. Surely, they thought, this will end as badly as can be imagined.

2. Amplification

Why is the Lord taking us to this country only to have us die in battle? Our wives and our little ones will be carried off as plunder!

(Numbers 14:3)

Despair travels the road of the imagination, amplifying the present danger into the unthinkable. Here the Israelites are on the verge of a military conquest and they are concerned about their own children being stolen! They do not pause to consider the news. They do not merely drag their feet or grumble. Within hours the crowd is prepared to call the whole endeavor DOA.

3. Idolatry

Wouldn’t it be better for us to return to Egypt?

(Numbers 14:3)

We tend to think of idols made of wood or stone being the downfall for Israel. Or we think of the golden calf formed from melted jewelry and pots. We do not often think of other nations as idols. Yet many times Israel discards the Lord in favor of other nations, upholding their various comforts over God’s promises or adopting their looser sexual habits.

4. Rejection of Leadership

Let us choose a new leader…

(Numbers 14:4)

A full-throated viral fear rejects authority in favor of new voices. Such rejection has two sources: first, the crowd blames current leadership for their current position, as in “You did this! You brought us to this disaster!” Second, the crowd loses faith in the current leadership to bring about their desired changes.

5. Hatred of the Minority report

Two of the men who had explored the land, Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, tore their clothing. They said to all the people of Israel, “The land we traveled through and explored is a wonderful land! And if the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us safely into that land and give it to us. It is a rich land flowing with milk and honey. Do not rebel against the Lord, and don’t be afraid of the people of the land. They are only helpless prey to us! They have no protection, but the Lord is with us! Don’t be afraid of them!”

But the whole community began to talk about stoning Joshua and Caleb.

(Numbers 14:6–10)

Viral fear is most fatal when it so powerfully seizes the minds and hearts of a person or community that no other voices matter. The latter stages of this disease manifest the symptom of anger against anyone who would interfere with the onslaught of fear. A fear-sick soul screams in hatred at the voice telling them not to be afraid. When the minority report tried again to allay Israel’s fears, the community responded with violence. This was a total breakdown in trust — trust in God, trust in God’s chosen leadership, trust in God’s plan — and a violent reaction against voices for hope.

6. Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

God corrects the fearful ones — we will return to that text in a moment — but even after God issues his punishment, the people of Israel decide to take matters into their own hands.

When Moses reported the Lord’s words to all the Israelites, the people were filled with grief. Then they got up early the next morning and went to the top of the range of hills. “Let’s go,” they said. “We realize that we have sinned, but now we are ready to enter the land the Lord has promised us.”

But Moses said, “Why are you now disobeying the Lord’s orders to return to the wilderness? It won’t work. Do not go up into the land now. You will only be crushed by your enemies because the Lord is not with you. When you face the Amalekites and Canaanites in battle, you will be slaughtered. The Lord will abandon you because you have abandoned the Lord.”

But the people defiantly pushed ahead toward the hill country, even though neither Moses nor the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant left the camp. Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in those hills came down and attacked them and chased them back as far as Hormah.

(Numbers 14:39–45)

The irony is rich here: the people are chastised by God, but rather than turn to God’s leadership, they decide they can fight with their own power. The reject the only source of power that would have cured their fear and in doing so, end up re-creating their own fears. They become their own worst enemy! Their fearful rejection of God’s authority only confirms their fears.


I’d like to talk about a cure here, and I will in a moment, but there is no cure immediately available for these Israelites. Some viruses do not have cures; they must burn through their hosts and then be contained by burning the bodies and thoroughly cleaning the areas where the virus had spread. When Ebola rears its ugly head in sub-Saharan Africa, bleach and fire are the only way to stop the spread. Some viruses can only be contained.

“And the Lord said to Moses, “How long will these people treat me with contempt? Will they never believe me, even after all the miraculous signs I have done among them? I will disown them and destroy them with a plague. Then I will make you into a nation greater and mightier than they are!” Numbers 14:11–12

Moses begs for God’s mercy by appealing to His glory, but God still must contain the virus. “They have all seen my glorious presence and the miraculous signs I performed both in Egypt and in the wilderness, but again and again they have tested me by refusing to listen to my voice. They will never even see the land I swore to give their ancestors. None of those who have treated me with contempt will ever see it.”[6] Only the fear-free faithful leaders, Caleb and Joshua, make it into the land. God contains the fear.

“…when some friends of James came, Peter wouldn’t eat with the Gentiles anymore. He was afraid of criticism from these people who insisted on the necessity of circumcision. As a result, other Jewish believers followed Peter’s hypocrisy, and even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.”[8]

See how quickly irrational fear virally spreads, even among God’s appointed leaders! Paul confronts Peter, effectively denigrating his leadership so as to preserve the integrity of the Gospel, and reminds him of the truth they both know, the truth of hope found in Christ alone.

The Cure

But cutting off fearful people does not heal them, and we would have no good news at all if we fail to help the infected people. A clue to the cure for the fear virus comes at the end of Numbers 14 in the name of the location where the Israelites were conquered: Hormah. The meaning of the city — broken, devoted to destruction, or banned — implies in Numbers 14 that the place was named as such because here the Israelites were defeated. But this is not the time when the city was named. Several times in Scripture an author refers to a given location by a name that is received later on in God’s narrative. The author is using the name of a city that his audience would know, not that the people in the story would necessarily know.

The Canaanite king of Arad, who lived in the Negev, heard that the Israelites were approaching on the road through Atharim. So he attacked the Israelites and took some of them as prisoners. Then the people of Israel made this vow to the Lord: “If you will hand these people over to us, we will completely destroy all their towns.” The Lord heard the Israelites’ request and gave them victory over the Canaanites. The Israelites completely destroyed them and their towns, and the place has been called Hormah ever since.

(Numbers 21:1–3)

So Hormah is a reminder that God is faithful to his people when they fear him and rely on him for provision. This is the site of the first-ever victory by God’s people on their way to the Promised Land. Their victory at Hormah is indication of God’s provision and promise that despite Israel’s many failures, God would remain faithful.


How do we prevent viral fear? Continuing the analogy, we must vaccinate ourselves against fear. Vaccination occurs when a weak version of a pathogen is introduced to a patient so as to trigger the immune system and prepare our bodies in the event of a real infection. Our bodies know how to fight back against a real disease. Vaccines, despite recent controversies, could be said to be the most important discovery in modern medicine after sterilization. Vaccines have saved countless lives from awful diseases.



Pastor, — Boards: Boards: — MDiv SEBTS, BA Duke

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