Bar-Ilan University 's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Shelah-Lekha 5765/ June 25, 2005

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan , Israel . A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University 's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University . Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,




The Story of the Spies


 Menahem Ben- Yashar


Department of Bible and Ashkelon College



A.  The list of spies

The classical commentators were puzzled by the order in which the spies are listed. For their tribes are not arranged the way they appear in the roster of tribal chieftains at the beginning of the book of Numbers (ch. 1), nor does the list here accord with the order of the tribal divisions in the Israelite encampment in the wilderness (Num. 2), nor is it identical with the geographic order of land allotment in Canaan at the end of the book (Num. 34:16-29; Deut. 33:6-24).

Nahmanides gave up the attempt to find a tribal order. Instead, he hypothesized that the men who spied out the land were listed in the order of individual traits, the best coming first.   Sforno, following his lead, also suggested that the ordering was a personal one. Yet it could not be quality of character, Sforno argued, since according to that criteria, Joshua and Caleb should have been listed first, considering their righteousness and status:  Joshua was Moses’ second in command, and Caleb was destined to be appointed a tribal chieftain (Num. 34:19).  Therefore Sforno believed the spies were listed in order of age.  At best this is a default solution, since we never find a list according to age in the Bible, with the exception of siblings; furthermore, what would be the relevance of age when dealing with a public mission?

Nevertheless, one could hardly view as incidental the fact that the first four names are from the tribes of Leah, in the order of their birth, and the last four represent the tribes of the concubines.   This order is broken only by the middle four names:  Ephraim, Benjamin, Zebulun, and Manasseh.  In this middle grouping as well, three of the names are sons of Leah, Zebulun being the only exception.

B. An Attempt at Order

Abarbanel, the last of the classical commentators, rose to the challenge of finding a tribal ordering to the names.  He established two criteria for the beginning of the list:  1) the first four sons of Leah, according to the order of birth, with the omission of the tribe of Levi, which did not send a spy; 2) having begun with Leah’s firstborn, Reuben, the next name to be listed was the second tribe in his encampment division, [1] Simeon.  Next listed is Judah, the head of an encampment, and to him was added the second tribe in the division, Issachar.  After them, the head of the third division, namely Ephraim, was listed, and added to him was “the most honored of those in his division, namely Benjamin.”  After them came Zebulun and Manasseh, remaining from the divisions of the sons of the first-class wives. At the  end of the list came the Northern division made up of the sons of the concubines, Dan-Asher–Naftali (see Num. 2:25-31), headed by Dan; added to them was Gad, also a son of the concubines.


* * * * *

Abarbanel tried to cover everything – both the order of birth at the beginning of the list and the order of the encampment divisions; but these two orderings are not consonant with each other, since first in the order of the divisions comes Judah with Issachar, before Reuben with Simeon.   Furthermore, it is hard to see the logic of combining the second tribe in each division with the leader of the division while omitting the third tribe in the division.  The head of the division may have a certain advantage insofar as the entire camp is named after him (degel mahaneh Yehudah, for example), but we can see no advantage of the second tribe in the division over the third tribe.  Nor is there consistency here, because the second tribe in Ephraim’s division is Manasseh, but in the list of spies Benjamin is listed with Ephraim. [2]

C. Our Theory

Of all the theories, what seems to me most likely is that the list is arranged according to a single principle, namely the cycle of births of the matriarchs.  First Leah bore four sons (Gen. 29:31-35), therefore the list begins with Leah’s first four sons; Levi being absent from the initial four, Leah’s next son, Issachar, is listed at the end of this four-some.   After Jacob’s first wife, Leah, who gave birth first, come the two sons of Jacob’s second wife, Rachel.   Her first-born, Joseph, who split into two tribes, is represented by Ephraim, who was the favored one of Joseph’s sons (Gen. 48:17-20).  Then, indeed following Abarbanel’s analysis, the list fills in the names of the tribes of the two primary wives that had not yet been mentioned:   Zebulun, of Leah’s sons, and Manasseh, of Rachel’s sons.  The idea of “filling in” these names explains the additional remark that is made with respect to Manasseh alone:  “from the tribe of Joseph, namely, the tribe of Manasseh” (Num. 13:11); this remark serves to say:  after having listed earlier the tribe of Ephraim, which is only part of the tribe of Joseph, it was necessary to add the tribe of Manasseh to complete the list. [3]

Last-mentioned are the tribes born to the concubines.   Scripture does not list the sons of the concubines in the order of birth; rather, first it lists the three tribes that were in the fourth division of the Israelite camp, to which Gad, also a son of the concubines, is added; but, since Gad was the first-born of Leah’s maidservant, his tribe was included in the division of the second camp of Leah’s sons.

Although we have shown that the spies are listed according to the order of their birth by mother, nevertheless it is still unclear why Scripture should have chosen this particular order.

D.  Who sent the spies?

What led to the grave failure of the meraglim?   Much has been written on this subject, so here we shall try to shed light on aspects pertaining to the society and its leadership.  First off, who sent them?   At the beginning of this week’s reading the Lord says to Moses, “Send men,” (Num. 13:2):  apparently Moses, the leader of the people, is the one who sent them.   But the verse continues, “send one man from each of their ancestral tribes,” with the word “send” (tishlahu) in the plural. Regarding this seeming contradiction, the end of the verse makes clear who sent them:  “each one a chieftain among them”. In other words, each chieftain (Nasi) in those ancestral families, i.e. the tribes, dispatched the appropriate person from his tribe. [4]

Although it is commonly assumed that “each one a chieftain among them” describes the spies themselves, the above explanation is quite reasonable.  The spies were emissaries of the tribes, and clearly the chieftain of the tribe, who is the authority in each tribe, would select as his emissary the person in whom he had trust.

E. Dual Allegiance

Thus we see that there was a duplication of authority here, and certainly a confusion of authorities:  each spy was an emissary of his tribe as well as an emissary of Moses.  Therefore Moses was told emphatically “Send men for yourself” [the Heb. lekha, for yourself, is not rendered in NJPS translation]; see to it that you are the primary one sending out this mission and that you have supreme authority.   All the same, clearly the spies themselves saw their primary allegiance to their more restricted circle, to the tribe.  Hence, upon their return it is said, “They went straight to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community” (Num. 13:26), and Scripture immediately emphasizes, “they made their report to them and to the whole community” (ibid.). 

Imagine the situation:  a reconnaissance mission goes out and brings back information not only to the General Staff and the Minister of Defense, but to the entire people as well!  In so doing the spies exceeded their authority:  a spy must bring information, but analyzing the information and drawing conclusions are tasks that belong to Intelligence and the General Staff.   Here, in this week’s reading, with the spies riding high on the spirit of the masses who attend to their every word, they immediately lay out their conclusions before them:   “it does indeed flow with milk and honey, this is its fruit,” but immediately they hint at the difficulties, “however, the people who inhabit the country are powerful” (Num. 13:27-28).   The people begin to complain and rebel, until “Caleb hushed the people before Moses” (v. 30), [5] and then the spies come out with the explicit conclusion:   “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we” (v. 31).

F. Defining the Mission

The difficulty presented by confusion in authority was compounded by confusion in defining the mission (Num. 13:17-20).  On one hand, it was decidedly a mission for military reconnaissance: “and see what kind of country it is.  Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many?” (v. 18), and “Are the towns they live in open or fortified?”  On the other hand, it was to obtain economic and agricultural information about the land:  “Is the country in which they dwell good or bad?” (v. 19); “Is the soil rich or poor?   Is it wooded or not?” (v. 20). They were also to bring back samples of the fruit of the land to show the Israelite community. 

The agricultural information about the fertility of the land was intended to bolster the people’s spirits; indeed, that is what the spies did, beginning their report to the people as follows:   “This is what they told them [the people]:   ‘We came to the land you [Moses] sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey; and this is its fruit’” (v. 27).   From this positive information about the goodness of the land they proceeded immediately, using the disjunction “however,” to the negative report of the difficulties anticipated in conquering the land – information that should have been reported to the leadership alone.

Thus we see that uncertainty both with regard to the authority dispatching the mission and with regard to the mission’s essence is what caused Moses to lose control over the process, and necessarily led to the sin as well as its punishment, which was a natural outcome of the sin:   a generation lacking in faith and deterred by the prospects of a difficult battle is neither capable nor worthy of conquering the land.



[1] The list of camp divisions (with three tribes in each division) appears in Numbers 2:1-31.

[2] This could be resolved by the inclination not to disadvantage Rachel’s second son, after having already mentioned a son of her first son, Joseph.   Regarding the ordering of the list solely according to the divisions in the wilderness (the first two in each division), see the article by M. Cohen, “Yahad Shivtei Yisrael,” Bi- Sdeh Hemed 40:3 (1994), pp. 9-17, particularly pp. 12-13.

[3] Compare the comment of biblical critics (see BHS on this verse) that the verse “from the tribe of Ephraim”(13:8) was also preceded by the phrase “from the tribe of Joseph,” but that these words were omitted due to a textual error. However, a hint of the phrase remains at the end of the previous verse:   Igal son of Joseph” (v. 7).

[4] According to the Targum ascribed to Jonathan, and (apparently following him) according to Hizkuni.

[5] It is not clear who is the speaker in the continuation of the verse, “and said.”   Commentators ascribe this to Caleb.   Yet it seems the speaker could have been Moses, otherwise why would Scripture not have said “to Moses”?   Also cf. Deut. 1:29-33.