Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Shelah 5762/ June 8 (June 1 in Israel)

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.
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Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Parashat Shelah 5762/ June 8 (June 1 in Israel) 2002

Order in the Bible

Menahem Ben-Yashar
Department of Bible

Who were the spies that Moses sent to scout the land of Canaan (Numbers 13:1-16)? Ostensibly they were "leaders of the Israelites," as they are referred to in Numbers 3. There are also called "each one a chieftain (nasi) among them" (v. 2). But were they indeed tribal chieftains? The census in Numbers 1-2, as well as the account of offering made in the Sanctuary by the chieftains in chapter 7, present a different set of names; and these lists were made but a few months before the spies were dispatched. Abarbanel's hypothesis, that all the chieftains died in the plague at Kibroth-hattaavah ("Graves of Craving," Numbers 11:33-34), is not probable. It is equally improbable that precisely the elders of the tribes would be selected for a dangerous and secret mission such as spying. Yet that was what indeed happened: the spies were selected from among the leaders of the Israelites; they were important personages, trusted and accepted by the public, if not actually tribal chieftains.
To understand the reference here to chieftains let us consider the Aramaic translation known as Targum Jonathan, more properly rendered as the Jerusalem Targum.[1] He renders the words, "each one a chieftain among them" (Heb. Kol nasi bahem) as "from before each chieftain among them." This meant, as Hizkuni already understood, that the spies were sent as agents of the chieftains. In other words, when we read, "send one man from each of their ancestral tribes," we must ask who is doing the sending? The end of the verse provides the answer: "all the chieftains among them" were the ones who sent the spies. The chieftain of each tribe knew who in his tribe was qualified to be trusted with such a mission. Therefore it was the chieftain who chose the representative of the tribe to be sent on this reconnoitering mission.

Moses, indeed, is instructed in the beginning of verse 2 to "send men...," and it is Moses who sends them: "So Moses...sent them out" (13:3). However, at the end of verse 2, following the Targum we cited, it is the chieftains who send the scouts. Thus, we see a duplication of authority which does not bode well. Hence, the Lord's words to Moses emphasize, "shelah lekha - send for yourself." See to it that this mission comes entirely from you. Even if the chieftains select the spies, one from each tribe, Moses is to be the sole source of authority.

In the final analysis this is not what happened. When the spies returned they came "to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community ... and they made their report to them and to the whole community" (v. 26). The initiative and the command slipped out of Moses' hands, passing to the "whole community." They sought to plan and wage a war through a democratic process; the results are revealed in the continuation of this week's reading.

Several commentators[2] have remarked on the order in which the spies are listed.[3] The lists of the tribes in the Torah are ordered according to a variety of principles. The chieftains through whom the land is to be apportioned, in Parashat Masei (Numbers 34:19-28) are listed according to the geographical arrangement of the tribal apportionments; similarly, the tribes in Moses' blessing (Deut. 33:7-25). The tribal chieftains at the beginning of Numbers are listed according to the matriarchs, Jacob's wives. In the actual census of the tribes (Num. 1:20-43), the order is changed slightly to fit the division of all twelve tribes into four "banners" or camps, three tribes per "banner," as they encamped around the Tabernacle at the center (ch. 2), in fulfillment of the words, "that I may dwell among them" (Ex. 25:8). In the same way, with but a small adjustment, the tribes are listed in the second census, later in Numbers (26:5-51), as the tribes were about to enter Canaan.[4]

The list of the spies by tribe, in this week's reading, departs from the order in all these other listings and does not readily reveal any systematic arrangement. Nahmanides in his commentary despaired of finding any tribal order here and wrote that the spies were appointed according to their personal importance. Sforno, who often followed Nahmanides, also took the position that personal criteria operated here, but not the criterion of the spies' importance. By this criterion, Joshua son of Nun ought to have been appointed head of the delegation, since he was Moses' young attendant, later became his second in command, and ultimately was his successor. By the same criterion, Caleb son of Jephunneh ought to have been appointed Joshua's second. He, too, was righteous and a lover of Zion, and eventually became chief of the tribe of Judah (34:19). These arguments led Sforno to suggest that the spies were appointed by age. This is a last-resort solution, since nowhere in the Bible have we found people ranked and ordered by age.[5]

Countering the views of these two commentators is the fact that the first four names in the list of spies are arranged genealogically: they all descended from Leah and were listed in order of birth. Likewise, the last four spies were all representatives of the tribes that came from Jacob's concubines. This might be reasonable in terms of Nahmanides' theory, the social status of the tribes from the concubines being lower than the tribes from his primary wives. However this criterion does not explain the order of all the spies. Also, it is clearly not coincidental that the first four as well as the last four spies are listed in genealogical order. Hence, we have yet to find the tribal ordering of the list of spies.

Also Abarbanel sought to identify a tribal ordering here. Reuben, the eldest, was listed first; along with him came Simeon, his second in command, who followed him in the banner of Reuben. In similar fashion, the remaining banners: the leader of the banner of Judah, followed by the second in that camp - Issachar. Then the leader of the third banner, Ephraim, and with him "the most respected of those under his banner, namely Benjamin." Following him, the remainder of the sons of the matriarchs - Zebulun and Manasseh - and at the end, the tribes from the concubines.[6]

The strength of Abarbanel's argument lies in his arranging the tribes by their banners, yet therein also lies its weakness, since this arrangement lacks consistency. To begin with, in the ordering of the camps, and also in the offerings of the chieftains according to that ordering (Numbers ch. 7), Reuben, the first-born (whose is stripped of his status of first-born - cf. Gen. 49:3-4; I Chron. 5:1-2) is not listed as the first banner and tribe, but is superceded by the banner of Judah. Secondly, in the banner of Ephraim, the second in command is his brother Manasseh, not Benjamin. Thirdly, if the banners were the determining factor, why were all three tribes in any banner not listed together? Why list only two tribes, leaving one out, to be listed at the end?

Therefore, it seems we must look for the answer in another tribal criterion: the order in which the matriarchs, Jacob's wives, bore their sons, as told in Genesis (29-30), but with two reservations: 1) Here, too, the wives, Leah and Rachel, precede the concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah. 2) As in the order of the banners, here too, the tribe of Levi is absent, since they do not go out to war and do not receive a contiguous apportionment of land in Israel; to maintain the pattern of twelve tribes, the clan of Joseph is split into two tribes: Ephraim and Manasseh.[7]

This is the resultant order: in her first round of births, Leah gave birth to four sons (Gen. 29:31-35): Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah. Since, as we have observed, Levi is not listed here, the group of four is completed with Leah's next son, Issachar. The matriarch Rachel bore two sons, Joseph and Benjamin, and they are listed next; Joseph, whose offspring were split into two tribes, is represented here by Ephraim, whom Jacob preferred as Joseph's choice son. After them, the Torah completes the list with the two other tribes from the matriarchs - Zebulun, remaining from Leah's children, and Manasseh, from Rachel's offspring.

This arrangement explains a puzzling phrase in the list, where Manasseh is mentioned as being "from the tribe of Joseph, namely, the tribe of Manasseh" (13:11), without a parallel formulation for his brother, Ephraim. In all the other listings of the tribes, the heading, "the sons of Joseph," precedes the two secondary tribes together (as in Numbers 1:32: "Of the descendants of Joseph: Of the descendants of Ephraim, ... Of the descendants of Manasseh"; similarly, Num. 34:23). In one list, this phrase even appears both at the beginning and end: "The sons of Joseph were Manasseh and Ephraim - by their clans" (Num. 26:28); "Those are the clans of Manasseh... These are the descendants of Ephraim by their clans, ... Those are the descendants of Joseph by their clans" (Num. 26:34-37). Why, then, did Scripture mention "the tribe of Joseph" here only in reference to Manasseh? According to the order that we have suggested, the intention would be as follows: Joseph was already mentioned above with the sons of Rachel, represented by Ephraim. One person remained to be mentioned from the "tribe of Joseph," and he was "from the tribe of Manasseh." That person is added here.

As for the order of the concubines' sons, Abarbanel's view, that the order of the banners was the determining factor, seems likely. Since each banner included three tribes, but the concubines had a total of four sons, Gad son of Zilpah, the eldest son of Leah's maidservant, is included in the banner of Leah's sons. Leading the banner of the concubines' sons was the second eldest - Dan, son of Rachel's maidservant Bilhah. They were followed by the tribes in the same order of priority: Asher, the second son of Zilpah, Leah's maidservant, and Naphtali, the second son of Bilhah, Rachel's maidservant.

Likewise, in the order of the banners. In the list of spies, all four tribes of the concubines were listed together, the first three of them being listed as in their banner: Dan, Asher, Naphtali. This is proper, since Dan was the first-born of all the concubines' sons. Gad, who in the ordering of the banners was added to the sons of the primary wives, is demoted to the end of the list here. Thus Gad gained in the ordering of the banners but lost in the ordering of the spies.

The groupings in the listing of the spies turn out to be chiastic, as is frequently characteristic of orderings in Scripture. There are two groupings, one at the beginning and one at the end, each consisting of four elements - first the four sons of Leah, and last, the four sons of the concubines. In the middle are two more groupings, each consisting of two elements -first, Rachel's son, and next, the sons remaining from the primary wives. Thus, in the end, we see that there is a definite order and that sequence in Scripture is deliberate.


[1] The Hebrew letters T.Y. at the head of the commentary stand for Targum Yerushalmi.
[2] It is surprising that many commentators did not ask about the order of the spies. For example, Rashi and Ibn Ezra, from among the earlier commentators; and from among more recent commentators, Moskovitz (Da'at Mikra), Jerusalem 1988; Y. Licht, Perush al Sefer BeMidbar (11-21), Jerusalem 1991.
[3] This is discussed in detail by M. Cohen, "Yahad Shivtei Yisrael," Sedeh Hemed 40 (57) 3, pp. 9-29.
[4] There the banner of Reuben comes first, perhaps because the Torah wished to return to the natural genealogical ordering prior to the Israelites entering Canaan and being divided into tribes. Likewise, the tribe of Manasseh, the elder son, is listed before Ephraim there.
[5] The age of Moses and Aaron is an exception (Ex. 7:6), written as they are for the sake of the chronology of the Israelites' sojourn in Egypt. Likewise, the age of the prophet-priest Ezekiel (Ezek. 1:1): he began to prophesy at age 30, at the age that a priest enters service (Num. 4:3).
[6] This view is shared by M. Cohen (see note 2, above), pp. 12-13.
[7] The reckoning of the tribes is detailed in Joshua 14:1-4.