Bar-Ilan University

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Daf Parashat Hashavua

(Study Sheet on the Weekly Torah Portion)

Basic Jewish Studies Unit


Parashat Shelach

Spying and Exploring

"Send men to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people" (Num. 13:2).

Rabbi Yechezkel Lichtenstein

Department of Talmud.

The men sent by Moses to travel through the Land return, and in the course of their report declare that no attempt should be made to enter it because it cannot be conquered: "We shall not be able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are" (v. 31). In making this recommendation, which is based on the statement that it is "a land that consumes its inhabitants," were the speakers in fact carrying out their appointed task? Had they been dispatched on a military and tactical mission? Were they actually spies in the accepted sense of the word?

The Hebrew word for spy, meragel, and its root r-g-l, is not found at all in our Portion, but the root tur, which means "to travel with a purpose, explore, make a reconnaissance," occurs twelve times (and only another ten times in the whole of the rest of the Bible). The men sent by Moses should therefore be called explorers and not spies;the two terms are not identical.

A spy's functions can be derived from other biblical passages in which the root r-g-l appears. Just before the city of Jazer is captured, Moses dispatches spies: "Then Moses sent to spy out Jazer, and they captured its dependencies" (Num. 21:32). Joshua also sends "two men, spies, in secret, saying, Go, see the land" (Josh. 2:1), and they come back and report, "...and also all the inhabitants of the land melt away before us" (v. 24).

The function of the men sent by Moses to travel through Israel (Deut. 1:22) is described as follows: "Let them bring us back word on the route which we shall follow, and the cities to which we shall come" Their task was to bring back military information in order to assist the military command in planning the attack: "The route which we shall follow." In this context, the root r-g-l appears: " They made for the hill country, came to the wadi Eshkol, and spied it out[vayeragelu]" (v. 24), and the root h-p-r (search, explore): "Let us send men ahead to reconnoiter [veyahperu] the land for us" (v. 22). These verses indicate that a spy has a military and tactical function to bring back intelligence that can be used in carrying out military objectives and to find the best approach routes.

The men sent out in our Portion are not defined as spies because their function was in fact to travel purposefully and examine the country, and not to act as spies in the ordinary sense. There is clear evidence for our conclusion: First, a mission of twelve men would have great difficulty in maintaining the necessary secrecy. Wherever in Scripture spies (meraglim) are sent out, prominent men are not selected; their names are not recorded; and the mission is clandestine: "Two men, spies, in secret." Here, however, "Each one a chieftain among them" (Num. 13:3), and the fact that their names are given indicates that each one was a public figure, known to all and trusted by his tribe. It is simply not reasonable to suppose that a dozen well-known personalities could be sent on a secret operation to gather military intelligence.

On the other hand, several verses allow us to understand the nature of their function as "explorers." In the preceding Parasha, Beha'alotecha, when Moses urges Hovav, his father-in-law, to guide them in their wanderings in the wilderness, he says: "Please do not leave us, inasmuch as you know where we should camp in the wilderness and can be our guide" (10: 31). Hovav apparently declines, and the outcome is that "They marched from the Mountain of the Lord a distance of three days. The Ark of the Covenant of the Lord traveled in front of them on that three days' journey, to seek out(la-tur)a resting place for them" (v. 33).

In the absence of a human scout, God Himself fulfills the task of the pioneer who must find camping sites and rest periods. We may therefore infer that in our Portion too Moses sends people ahead who will "scout out" a dwelling place for the Israelites. Their mission is to bring back information on places in the country suited to be "the allotted haven that the Lord your God is giving you"(Deut. 12:9).

This explanation for the original purpose of the expedition is also implied by the detailed instructions given to its members by Moses (Num. 13:18-20). He asks them five questions relating to the land itself and to its inhabitants. The central question is the third one: "Is the country in which they dwell good or bad?" As against the other queries, which deal with specific aspects of the country and the people who live in it, this one is comprehensive.

The phrase "good land" (eretz tova) is found in many places in Scripture, as in "The land is very, very good" (Num. 17:7); "To a good and broad land" (Exod. 3:8); "And they said, The land is good" (Deut. 1:2); or "For we saw the land, and behold it was very good" (Jud. 8:9). It is possible, therefore, that "good land" is a coinage that indicates a place fit for settlement. The question about the quality of the soil, "Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not?" is placed at the end of the briefing (13:20)so that Moses can go on to the instruction, "And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land (ibid.). Apparently Moses hoped that the fruit produced as a specimen will convince the people of the land's virtues. He thought that the "explorers" themselves would be excited by the "good land" and that on their return they would encourage the people to take possession of it (compare the behavior of the five men sent out by the tribe of Dan, in Judges 18:9-10).

The upshot of all that we have been saying is that the explorers or scouts were sent by Moses to prepare the people's entrance into the Land, from the point of view of morale rather than strategy. These "explorers" were agents charged with encouraging the public (who stood in need of encouragement); and this is why "men who were heads of the children of Israel" were selected, precisely because each was an accepted leader who enjoyed the confidence of the tribe which he represented.

The distressing outcome of the mission arose from the fact that its members did not act as explorers but rather as spies, giving military advice. In particular they betrayed their task to praise the "good land" and thereby to improve public morale; instead they were directly responsible for doing the exact opposite--demoralizing the people who had come out of Egypt, gone through the desert, and were now approaching the Promised Land.

For further discussion, see Rabbi Joseph Karo, Maggid Mesharim (Vilna ed.), Parshat Shelach 38a; U. Paz, The Complaints of the Children of Israel in Numbers: A Literary Analysis [Hebrew] (Bar Ilan, 1983), pp. 25-69.

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