Here we read the famous story of the spies. Twelve men, representing each of the twelve tribes, reconnoiter the Promised Land in anticipation of imminent entry. Ten of them return with fearsome tales of the land and its inhabitants, and only two affirm that the land is a good land and that the people should proceed according to plan. G*d gets angry, Moses argues with him, and G*d decrees that the current generation will continue to wander in the desert for 40 years more, until they all die out, and only their children (and the 2 faithful spies) will merit entering the Land of Israel. Now the people realize their error, and some people try to invade Canaan without G*d's Presence. They are roundly trounced.
Let's look more closely at the evolution of the people's psychology.
27 This is what they told him: "We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. 28 However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites there. 29 Amalekites dwell in the Negeb region; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites inhabit the hill country; and Canaanites dwell by the Sea and along the Jordan."
This is intimidating, but factual, and includes the upside - it is a good land, "as advertised". The proposition does involve a good deal of risk, though -- the land is populated with powerful nations, whose cities are well fortified.
Caleb (one of the faithful spies) attempts to rebut them:
30 Caleb hushed the people before Moses and said, "Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it."
Short and concise pep-talk. However, it backfired, as the other spies intensified their negativity, shifting their focus from risks to fears:
31 But the men who had gone up with him said, "We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we." 32 Thus they spread calumnies among the Israelites about the land they had scouted, saying, "The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size; 33 we saw the Nephilim there — the Anakites are part of the Nephilim — and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them."Now their appraisal is no longer factual, but subjective and sensationalized. And in fact they spark the imagination of the people, who respond with visceral fear:
Chapter 141 The whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept that night. 2 All the Israelites railed against Moses and Aaron. "If only we had died in the land of Egypt," the whole community shouted at them, "or if only we might die in this wilderness! 3 Why is the Lord taking us to that land to fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be carried off! It would be better for us to go back to Egypt!" 4 And they said to one another, "Let us head back for Egypt."
Caleb and Joshua (the other faithful spy, who will later take the mantle of leadership over from Moses and lead the people into the land) now try to restore sanity:
6 And Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, of those who had scouted the land, rent their clothes 7 and exhorted the whole Israelite community: "The land that we traversed and scouted is an exceedingly good land. 8 If the Lord is pleased with us, He will bring us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey, and give it to us; 9only you must not rebel against the Lord. Have no fear then of the people of the country, for they are our prey: their protection has departed from them, but the Lord is with us. Have no fear of them!"But it is too late. The people are hysterical:
10 As the whole community threatened to pelt them with stones, the Presence of the Lord appeared in the Tent of Meeting to all the Israelites.Now G*d appears, and as He and Moses haggle over their fate, the people are shamed into regret:
39 When Moses repeated these words to all the Israelites, the people were overcome by grief. 40 Early next morning they set out toward the crest of the hill country, saying, "We are prepared to go up to the place that the Lord has spoken of, for we were wrong."Moses explains to them that without G*d's favor, such a mission would be doomed, but they ignore him, and meet the predicted failure:
41 But Moses said, "Why do you transgress the Lord's command? This will not succeed. 42 Do not go up, lest you be routed by your enemies, for the Lord is not in your midst. 43For the Amalekites and the Canaanites will be there to face you, and you will fall by the sword, inasmuch as you have turned from following the Lord and the Lord will not be with you."
44 Yet defiantly they marched toward the crest of the hill country, though neither the Lord's Ark of the Covenant nor Moses stirred from the camp. 45 And the Amalekites and the Canaanites who dwelt in that hill country came down and dealt them a shattering blow at Hormah.
What can we learn from this? First, that letting a rational assessment of risk turn into a debilitating fear can have consequences nearly as bad as our fears projected...
Second (though some would say this is first), taking the risk without spiritual backing is a really bad idea. Even if you do not believe in G*d per se, it is clear that the defiant marchers were missing an important ingredient for success. We see this in many enterprises today, where the lack of a vision, a divine mandate to go forth and achieve greatness, can cause people to crumble before the opposition. On the other hand, having the simple faith that "we shall surely overcome it" can give people the fortitude to overcome substantial odds.