There are tow great sins that mar the journey from Egypt to Israel: the sin of the Golden Calf and the sin of the Ten Scouts. But which was worse?
Even though the sin of the Ten Scouts resulted in a punishment of forty years of travel (derived from the French travail, hardship) through the wilderness, arguably the sin of the Golden Calf was worse. At the very foot of Mount Sinai and while God was giving the Torah to Moses, the people Israel compelled Aaron to construct an idol to be worshipped. As a result of this sin, 3,000 Israelites were killed (Exodus 32:28) while the sin of the Ten Scouts only cost them their lives (Numbers 14:37).
Yet to Rabbi Yitzhak Samuel Reggio (1784-1855), the sin of the Ten Scouts was worse. Rabbi Reggio comes to this conclusion by analyzing the language the Torah uses in describing Moses’ prayer for the people in both incidents. Following the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses intercedes with God and prays for the people Israel he leads. Twice his pignant prayer refers to the people Israel as God’s people, His inheritance (Deuteronomy 9:26, 29). But following the sin of the Ten Scouts, Moses’ intercessory prayer does not refer to the people Israel that way at all. In fact, six time Mose refers only to “this people” (Numbers 14:13, 14, 15, 16, 19 twice), as if they are no longer God’s people or inheritance.
Rabbi Reggio suggests that there is good reason for Moses to consider the sin of the Ten Scouts as far more serious than the sin of the Golden Calf. The sin of the Golden Calf was a mistake in the way God was to be worshipped. To neophyte monotheists that were the people Israel at that time, a physical representation of their God was required. When Aaron finishes the image he fashioned out of gold he does not proclaim the image to be another God. Rather, he announces that this is the same God who brought the people out of Egypt (Exodus 32:8). This was wrong but understandable. After all, the only form of worship the liberated slaves knew was the form they saw in Egypt. And Egyptian religion included physical representations of the deity. To worship one God was acceptable. To worship one God who is invisible was alien.
But the sin of the Ten Scouts was a more profound and unforgivable sort. It was the sin of a lack of faith in God and that is inexcusable. This was not an understandable mistake in the way God was to be worshipped. This was a fundamental rejection of God and a denial of trust in his power. Hence, for those who reject God, there can be no appeal for “God’s people.”