Lectures on the Torah Reading

by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University

Ramat Gan, Israel

Parashat Shelach

A project of Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Sponsored by Dr. Ruth Borchard of the Shoresh Charitable Fund (SCF). Published with assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Parashat Shelah 5758/1998

The Sin of the Spies

Dr. Ephraim Yitzhaki

Department of Talmud

Almost every commentator has dealt with the sin of the spies, yet the nature of their sin remains unclear.

Any military commander about to set out on a mission of conquest needs intelligence to shape his military strategy. He needs to know where the enemy is strong and where weak, where access is easy and hence from where to attack, etc. Therefore every good intelligence officer sends spies to the target country. The spies that are dispatched are given explicit instructions which targets to spy and what details they are to observe.

Moses did likewise when he sent twelve spies from the elite of the nation, "all the men being leaders of the Israelites" (Num. 12:3), and assigned them well-defined tasks (13:17-20):

When Moses sent them to scout the land of Canaan, he said to them, "Go up there into the Negeb and on into the hill country, and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not? And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land."--Now it happened to be the season of the first ripe grapes.

When the spies returned from their mission they related with great precision to the tasks that had been assigned them (13:25-29):

At the end of forty days they returned from scouting the land. They went straight to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community at Kadesh in the wilderness of Paran, and they made their report to them and to the whole community, as they showed them the fruit of the land. 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. However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites there. Amalekites dwell in the Negeb region; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites inhabit the hill country; and Canaanites dwell by the Sea and along the Jordan."

After this expeditious report, Caleb intervened and hushed them (v. 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.'"

Let us compare, one against the other, the tasks assigned the scouts and the answers they brought back:

What kind of country is it?

Assignment: Is the country good or bad? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not?

Answers: It flows with milk and honey.

Assignment: And take pains to bring back some of the fruit of the land.

Answer: They showed them the fruit of the land.

What about the people who dwell in it?

Assignment: Are they few or many? Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak?

Answer: The people who inhabit the country are powerful, and we saw the Anakites there. Amalekites dwell in the Negeb region; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites inhabit the hill country; and Canaanites dwell by the Sea and along the Jordan.

What about the towns they live in?

Assignment: Are they open or fortified?

Answer: The cities are fortified and very large.

We can see that the scouts gave a precise report on what they had seen. Why, then, does Caleb, who was one of them, shut them up? Wasn't the commander who sent out scouts interested in hearing the whole truth? Did Moses only want to hear "good news," that there are no Anakites in the country, that the cities are not fortified, etc., even if that would have been a lie? What sin is there in the commander receiving a true report? Moreover, Moses himself said the same things to the people, and that was not considered a sin on his part, as we see in Deuteronomy (9:1-2): "Hear, O Israel! You are about to cross the Jordan to go in and dispossess nations greater and more populous than you: great cities with walls sky-high; a people great and tall, the Anakites, of whom you have knowledge; for you have heard it said, 'Who can stand up to the children of Anak?'" (Cf. Abarbanel, question eight, which relates to this subject.)

On the contrary, one should actually be surprised at Caleb for hushing them, for Caleb does not deny the facts, rather he says, "Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it." Now Caleb was a spy, not a general. Whether they will be able to prevail or not is a decision to be made by the commander, not a mission assigned the scouts; it is a tactical and operational call, whether the forces at the commander's disposal will be able to conquer the objective or not.

Only after Caleb departed from the dry businesslike report--which followed the original assignment--and made his subjective assessment, "Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it," did his fellow spies present their contradictory assessment, "We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we."

What caused Caleb to depart from an objective report, and to burst forth with the words, "We shall surely overcome it!" thereby turning the report into a subjective evaluation? From Caleb's interjection we must infer that the rest of the spies had already stepped out of line during the original, businesslike report.

If so, wherein lay their sin?

Close analysis of Scriptures shows that the sin of the spies was two-fold:

1. Before reporting to Moses, word had been deliberately leaked to the people, instigating them to rebel and against Moses and against conquering the land, and thus also against G-d.

2. After reporting to Moses, they instigated open rebellion against conquering the land.

Intelligence workers and spies must give their commanders an accurate account of what they saw, without doctoring or enhancing their report. But they are also obliged not to leak intelligence information to unauthorized persons. Leaking information (especially on sensitive matters such as the strength of the enemy or new armaments at the enemy's disposal) to the people or to lower ranks of the army can dishearten fighters and serve as a psychological weapon helping the enemy. For the people do not know the operational plans, or the weapons and forces at the disposal of the supreme command, or the techniques and tactics that will be used against the enemy in the light of the intelligence information received.

Of course one cannot expect the supreme command to tell the people the plan of attack, battle tactics, and surprise maneuvers that have been planned in order to capture the objective; for doing so would aid the enemy insofar as these are precisely the things that enemy intelligence wishes to know.

When the spies sent by Moses returned from their mission, they did not come directly to Moses and report what they saw; rather, first they leaked their report to the people (13:26):

They went straight to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community at Kadesh in the wilderness of Paran, and they made their report to them and to the whole community, as they showed them the fruit of the land.

Twice the Torah emphasizes that all the people heard the sobering report on the Anakites, the Amalekites (whom the people already knew from Joshua's battle against Amalek) and the heavily fortified cities. The people became frightened and began to grumble and have doubts whether they were truly up to the task of conquering the land.

At this point Caleb intervened: "Caleb hushed the people before Moses and said, 'Let us by all means go up, ... for we shall surely overcome it.'" Caleb did not address the spies (who thus far had given Moses an accurate, factual report), rather the people who had gathered around Moses and heard the report along with Moses and, as we have said, became frightened and began to grumble. Therefore Caleb hushed the people, not the spies. For at this stage Caleb had no argument with the spies; he too agreed that Canaan had Anakites and fortified cities. Caleb addressed the people in an attempt to calm the storm that had been stirred up by the report the spies had leaked, for he fearthe beginnings of a revolt against the Lord and against Moses. Therefore Caleb departed from factual reporting and directed the discussion towards an assessment of their abilities: "for we shall surely overcome it" (cf. Abarbanel on this verse).

At first the Bible does not say explicitly that the spies leaked information before reporting to Moses. Indeed, it might seem that the people themselves, seeing the spies return laden with the fruit of the land, gathered around Moses to hear their report. But after Caleb silences the people, the truth is revealed: the spies leaked information deliberately in order to stir up rebellion against conquering the land (13:31-33):

But the men who had gone up with him said, "We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we." 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; 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."

The Torah stresses that "they spread calumnies among the Israelites," not to Moses. It was only to the Israelites that they spoke ill of the land, calling it a land "that devours its settlers," etc.; they did not say this to Moses. Therefore we may conclude that the spies indeed leaked selective information to the people, with their own interpretation, before coming to Moses. Hence all the people gathered around Moses to hear the spies' report and Moses' response. The spies did not wait until the crowd dispersed, but delivered their report for all the people to hear in order to add fuel to the fire of rebellion: "At the end of forty days they returned from scouting the land. They went straight to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community at Kadesh in the wilderness of Paran, and they made their report to them and to the whole community."

At the end of the affair, when the Lord punishes the spies, the Torah indicates explicitly that their sin had been to stir up rebellion among the people against conquering the land (14:36)

As for the men whom Moses sent to scout the land, those who came back and caused the whole community to mutter against him by spreading calumnies about the land...

The spies were punished because they "caused the whole community to mutter against him"; in other words, because they incited the people against Moses and the Lord and took a stand against going up to the land. They were not punished because of what they reported to Moses. The people, on their part, were punished because they went along with the spies in rebelling.