Why is it said that out of the original congregation only Joshua and Caleb entered the land of Canaan, when we read of the death and burial of Eleazar in “mount Ephraim” (Josh. 24: 33)?
The judgment of God against those who followed the evil counsel of the ten spies at Kadesh was that “all that were numbered of you, according to your whole number from twenty years old and upwards, who have murmured against me, shall in nowise come into the land … save Caleb the son of Jephunneh, and Joshua the son of Nun” (Num. 14: 29, 30). And yet, as the questioner says, Eleazar, the son of Aaron clearly crossed the Jordan and settled in Canaan (see also Josh. 14: 1; 17: 4; 21: 1). A superficial answer to the question would be to say that Eleazar was not included in the original census of the children of Israel because he had not yet reached the age of twenty years. However, the Levites were not numbered as the rest of the people were (see Num. 1: 3), but “from a month old and upward” (Num. 3: 39). It is far–fetched in the extreme to imagine that Eleazar was under a month old at the time of the census of the Levites, particularly since the record of this numbering is immediately preceded by a statement that “Eleazar and Ithamar exercised the priesthood in the presence of Aaron their father” (Num. 3: 4). The numbering of the Levites actually engaged in Levitical service was from “thirty years old and upward” (Num. 4: 3) and a presumption can be made that Eleazar and Ithamar would be in this age group.
The real key to the answer can be found in Numbers 2: 33: “But the Levites were not numbered among the children of Israel”. The sense of this is not just that they were counted separately, but that they were viewed as separate and distinct from the rest of the nation. In a word the Levites were unique in Israel. All the other tribes were numbered for military service—“all that went forth to military service in Israel” (Num. 1: 45), and in that numbering every tribe is listed except Levi. Why? Because Levitical service was different. God had said “the Levites shall be mine” (Num. 3: 12), and they were charged “to bear the ark of the covenant of Jehovah, to stand before Jehovah to do service unto him, and to bless in his name, unto this day. Therefore Levi has no portion nor inheritance with his brethren; Jehovah is his inheritance” (Deut. 10: 8, 9). Thus when it says after the return of the spies that “the children of Israel murmured against Moses and against Aaron” (Num. 14: 2), this should not be taken to imply the inclusion of the tribe of Levi. Certainly the “whole assembly” (v36) is said to have taken part in that murmuring, but those who subsequently acted in gross disobedience by going to fight against the Amalekites and the Canaanites (vs 39–45) are similarly described as “all the children of Israel” (v39) where the word all could not include the Levites as they were excluded from military service.
Again, Jehovah had said to Moses “Send thou men, that they may search out the land of Canaan, which I give unto the children of Israel. Ye shall send a man of every tribe of his fathers, each a prince among them” (Num. 13: 2). In verses 4–16 the individuals sent and the tribes they came from are meticulously listed and the tribe of Levi is noticeable by its absence. Not being party to the searching out of the land, they neither brought back a good or bad report of it. Whether or not any of the tribe of Levi participated in the murmuring that followed the return of the spies may be open to conjecture. However, God’s response is significant: “How long [shall I bear] with this evil assembly, which murmur against me? … In this wilderness shall your carcasses fall; and all that were numbered of you, according to your whole number from twenty years old and upwards, who have murmured against me, shall in nowise come into the land” (Num. 14: 27, 29, my emphasis). The reference is to a military numbering (see Num. 1: 3) rather than a Levitical and hence the judgment is directed at Israel’s military assembly.
Now if God’s judgment did not fall on the tribe of Levi because they did not participate in the rebellion against Moses, then clearly they were not excluded from entering the land. Indeed, we know that some of them did enter Canaan: in Joshua 19: 51, for example, Eleazar is specifically said to have been at Shiloh. It is equally plain that God’s word against Israel in Numbers 14 was to be fulfilled to the letter and so it was. Thus at the second numbering of Israel immediately prior to entering the land it says as promised: “And there was not left a man of them, save Caleb the son of Jephunneh, and Joshua the son of Nun” (Num. 26: 65). However, the exclusion of all but these two men applied only to those numbered of the children of Israel, and not to those numbered of the tribe of Levi.