In this chapter, the Israelites send a team of spies to the promised land, and those spies return with a deeply discouraging report.
I don't think this is one of the best known stories of the bible, but I do think it is extremely significant. In some respects, I see this as a parallel to the fall from grace by Adam and Eve in Gen 3. In that case, Adam and Eve sinned and so they were forced out of the perfection of the garden and into a sinful world. The ultimate curse of Adam was death, the destruction of his very life. In this case, God's plan to bring Israel into the promised land was in many respects a redemption from the sinful state. We see many aspects of the curse of Adam reversed by the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants.
Consider this: the promised land, Canaan, is called the "land flowing with milk and honey" (Ex 3:8). The garden of Eden, the original dwelling of humanity, was a land flowing with four rivers and rich with gold and other minerals, all signs of abundant wealth and prosperity. So by bringing the Israelites to the promised land, the LORD is metaphorically bringing humanity back to the pre-fall garden. Granted, only a small fraction of humanity, and only to a small "garden", but I see this as what would have been a first step in a longer process.
Next, consider the many promises of abundant prosperity, beginning at least in Gen 12:2, "I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you...", continuing on through Gen 17:5, "For I have made you the father of a multitude of nations". The promises become even more significant and glamorous in e.g. Lev 26:3-13, which categorically promises them military victory, peace, farming success and abundance, wealth, multiplied children, and ultimately the abiding and presence of God, that he would "walk among you and be your God". In terms of the economic side of things, it is effectively re-establishing the original command to mankind in Gen 1:28 to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it. God is promising them that he will empower and enable them to fulfill that command through the moral structure of the covenant.
Next, consider the divine protection from judgment and the negative effects of the curse. This is a subject I have discussed before, in e.g. Ex 11 (and probably earlier). The general principle is that the plagues of Egypt (and possibly earlier events like the floods of Gen 7 and the destruction of Sodom in Gen 19) were a manifestation that represented the curse of Adam by destroying parts of the natural world. Adam was cursed in Gen 3:17-19 that the ground would be cursed and bring up thorns and thistles (a common biblical trope for barrenness or famine/poverty). This part of the curse is the antithesis of the luxury and prosperity of the garden of Eden, from which Adam and Eve were cast, and that is reversed by the many guarantees of prosperity in the promised land.
The next part of the curse is death, manifested by the death of the firstborn of Egypt, the destruction of the great flood, the destruction of Sodom, etc. The sins of those later generations (the sins of Sodom, Gen 18:20, the sins of mankind, Gen 6:5) is a parallel to the sin of Adam. So just as Adam was cursed with death for his actions, the later generations were punished with death for their sins. The Israelites, however, were spared from death in Egypt because they were protected by atoning blood of lambs and more strongly, by their covenant with the LORD through Abraham, renewed with Isaac and Jacob (e.g. Ex 2:24). Death is antithetical to the tree of life, and so protecting them from death is like metaphorically returning the Hebrews to the tree of life.
The last parallel I want to address is the divine presence of the LORD. We are told (very ironically, given the context) in Gen 3:8 that the LORD was in the habit of walking through the garden, the residence of humanity. This gives us a picture of the LORD abiding with his people, being their God, and dwelling with them. With the sin of Adam, the LORD cast them from his presence and forced the people to live in a place where he did not dwell (as far as we are told). At some point it became "normal" to not dwell with God, and though we are not precisely told when, it is probably when mankind was forced out of the garden. And so by the time of Moses, one of the most significant promises of the covenant is that the LORD would dwell with his people and be their God, dramatically exemplified by the construction of the tabernacle (i.e. residence), ark of the covenant, and statements like Lev 26:11-13: "...I will also walk among you and be your God".
This is a long introduction, but I think it's important for my readers to understand that the significance of the promised land goes way beyond an arbitrary promise to Abraham that just happens to pass down to his children. It is part of the broader redemption of Israel and their redemption from the curse that is destroying all of mankind. It literally represents their material prosperity and national inheritance and symbolically represents the abiding presence of the LORD and the covenant itself (since the covenant is the Promise that gives the Promised Land its name). All of these factors tie together into a consistent story, and now my readers should understand the tremendous significance to the Israelites' coming invasion of this promised land: claiming their inheritance, but also bringing themselves (and by extension, all of humanity) closer to redemption from the curse of Gen 3.
This chapter should therefore be rather alarming to my readers. It begins with a purely military action, sending spies into the land of Canaan so as to scout out good avenues of attack, where to focus their resources and to inform any planning. Like many of their military actions, this one was commanded by the LORD.
They send one man from each tribe, similar to how there was one man from each tribe over the census. The twelve men, while still leaders, are a completely new set of people. This probably reflects the more dangerous mission they are sent on, so these are probably younger figures. One of them, Joshua (who we are told is also known as Hoshea), was leading Israel's military when they fought against the Amalekites in Ex 17. This suggests that the twelve spies are more likely military commanders, while the twelve men over the census were the supreme heads of the family, elders. Not that there's a big distinction (there isn't), but as we can see, there is at least some difference.
Of the twelve names here, only two are worth noting: Joshua, who we have met before, and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who we have not. As we see towards the end of this chapter, these are the only two spies who suggest that the nation can successfully invade Canaan.
The use of twelve men, one leader from each tribe, is very similar to the organization of the census. However, it's hard for me to believe that there is any fear of bias or misreporting by the spies. I would guess that in this case, they use one man from each tribe as a statement of unity. Since each tribe is expected (indeed, required) to invade the promised land, it makes sense that each one would equally spy out the land. Remember that every time you see a statement of unity, it's probably because the various groups don't actually think of themselves as unified.
When Moses commands the spies, we can see two distinct focuses: the first is the military strength of the local peoples (how many are they, how strong are they, and do they live in fortified cities) and the second is the natural richness of the land (is the land good or bad, how about trees, how about food). Of course, the natural richness also plays into military strategy because if you can successfully forage in the land, it makes besieging walled towns much more viable. To those unfamiliar with siege warfare, it can often turn into a race between attackers, who pillage the countryside to gather food, and defenders who have stockpiled as much as they can to survive. When the curses of disobedience in Lev 26 threatened starvation in v. 26 and 29, those are probably related to the siege of v. 25, when the people are "[gathered] together into your cities", which is itself a result of the "sword" of v. 25, i.e. invading armies.
Moses inquires about trees because wood would be used for manufacturing siegecraft, the various weapons of war they would use to attack walled towns.
The economic questions have a military purpose, but they also have a dual purpose of validating the promises of the LORD. As the spies note in their report, the land "certainly does flow with milk and honey", confirming the LORD's promise of the richness of the land.
Some other notable things: it takes two men to carry back a single cluster of grapes? I can see why they think the land is blessed if a cluster of grapes is so large that a single person can't handle it alone.
Also notable is the first mention of the sons of Anak (beginning in v. 22). As we are told in v. 33, the Anakites are "part of the Nephilim" who in turn were first mentioned back in Gen 6 as the men of great renown, children of mortal women and the "sons of God", possibly angels. This is very surprising because we would have presumed that the great flood wiped out all of the Nephilim. There are many wild theories out there, but at the end of the day the bible never addresses this apparent inconsistency, probably because it is not important to the overall story of Israel. Or possibly because the author thought all his readers would know about the Nephilim already.
Whatever the reason, the sons of Anak become a recurring motif in much of the OT, where they come to symbolize the strength of resistance against the Israelites. As with here, the Anakites are a race of giants, both tall and extremely threatening in combat, who populate the promised land in small numbers but fiercely resist the invading Hebrews. For whatever reason, there are very few Anakites and we are usually only told about them when they are being progressively exterminated. I call them symbolic because the Anakites are always in resistance to the Israelites and by their exaggerated size and strength, they represent the great strength that stands against Israel in general. The most famous Anakite of all is Goliath the giant, who faces off against the young King David in the book of Samuel, but even in this chapter we can already see that the Israelites are terrified of the Anakim, and it is primarily their fear of the Anakim that guides their thoughts.
The spies begin by noting the richness of the land and end by noting the extensive opposition they will definitely face when trying to take the land. This provokes two responses: Caleb claims that the people can take possession of the land, while the rest of the spies emphasize the greatness of their foes and their own personal weakness. These two approaches signify two ways of viewing their challenges: Caleb is primarily thinking about the LORD leading them to take the land, while the rest of the people are primarily thinking about their own weakness and the strength of those who stand against them.
Starting all the way back in Egypt, we have seen the impossibility of human action to produce any good result and the LORD stepping in to do the impossible, first by breaking the power of Pharaoh and second by sustaining Israel through the desert. Now the impossibility they face is to defeat a people who are physically stronger than them, more numerous and lead by giants.
But we have to remember that this is the battle over the promised land. Whether they take or fail to take this land is emblematic of the larger story of human redemption through the covenant of Abraham. The reason why the Israelites have faced all of these impossibilities is because human redemption itself is impossible for humans to enact: it must be done by an act of God. In some respects taking the promised land is the final stage in Israel's history, because it completes the process of bringing them back into the metaphorical "garden of Eden", which I discussed above. That they would falter now is both alarming and grievous.
I will continue on this subject into the next chapter, which is closely associated with this one.