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Are the twelve men Moses sends into Canaan spies, scouts, or tourists? And what did they do that resulted in such an extreme punishment? Perhaps we can get an idea of this by looking at their mission and examining how they fulfilled it. Moses asks the men to “see what kind of country it is,” determine if its people are “strong or weak, few or many,” assess whether the towns are “open or fortified,” and report on the condition of the soil and crops (cf. 13:17 et seq.). So are they spies? In the sense of their assessing the military strength of Canaan’s peoples, they are. But the Torah never uses the word meraglim, spies, in this story. In vss. 13:2, 17, 25, 32, and further in ch. 14, variants of the word latur are the only words used to describe what the men are asked to do. Latur means “to scout,” “to search,” “to seek,” “to travel about,” and even “to tour,” but not “to spy.” In fact, latur is used in last week’s sidra to describe the movement of the Ark, which traveled ahead of the camp to seek (latur) a place to camp (Num. 10:33).
Argument may be made that the mission of the twelve was not “spying” in the military/espionage sense. First, who names spies’ names (apart from the Valerie Plame fiasco)? Yet here every person’s name and tribe is given. Second, when are the leaders of a nation sent out as spies?
...[S]end one man from each of their ancestral tribes, each one a chieftain among them… (13:1)
Third, spies seeking military information would report their findings to the military leadership, not to the entire population! Clearly, this is more than a spy mission.
How does this mission compare with the other famous spying mission mentioned in the Bible? In Joshua, which happens to be our sidra’s haftarah, Joshua sends two men, clearly described as “spies,” meraglim, to Jericho:
Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two spies from Shittim, saying, “Go, reconnoiter the region of Jericho” … Then the two men came… to Joshua son of Nun and reported to him all that had happened to them. (Josh. 2:1, 23)
This is a clear use of spies for military purposes. The men, identities undisclosed, went in secret and reported their findings only to Joshua, the commander, a situation very different from how the mission of the group sent in Numbers is described. Joshua’s men were military spies sent to help him plan Jericho’s conquest. Moses’ twelve men served as members of a exploration team, sent in part to determine facts about the Land.
Thus there were two principal reasons for sending people to scout the Land. The most obvious reason was to determine the strength of the Canaanites and to decide if the Israelites’ coming would be opposed, and if so, how much force could be brought against them. An equally important reason was to determine the ability of the land to support the Israelite people. There was an important motive involved in choosing tribal leaders to scout Canaan and report to the entire public—a report by their leaders would be accepted by the people as being accurate, and Moses clearly expected that a favorable report about the Land’s fertility would make the people enthusiastic supporters of any military action needed.
Unfortunately this plan backfired. All of the group were agreed that the Land was fertile:
We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey… (13:27)
Ten of the men, however, were convinced that the strength of the inhabitants was such that they could not be defeated, and rather than being supporters of an invasion, actively spoke against it:
Thus they spread slander among the Israelites about the land they had scouted… (13:32)
So it would seem that the second objective of the scouting mission, if successful, would focus the thoughts of the Israelites on the future—a future where the people would be occupying a very desirable area of real estate—and in doing so, stop their constant murmurings against Moses. It’s clear that the result of the negative reports of the majority of the scouts was devastating to Moses. The reports, of course, had a devastating effect on the scouts (who were slain by God’s wrath), and on the people (who were sentenced to spend the rest of their lives in the desert).
What could have provoked God to be so angry? The people had rebelled against Moses and God before; witness the golden calf episode as direct disobedience of a Commandment. Did God’s anger stem from the scouts’ lack of belief in God’s ability to assist in the Israelites’ conquests? That’s the most common interpretation of their sin, but a sin of not believing is itself insufficient to explain God’s fury. The sin was not one of disbelief, it was one of lying, slander, and hyperbole. Leaders are responsible for ensuring that the people they lead can aspire to their destiny—and certainly must not block the path to its realization. The ideal leader puts personal feelings aside and considers the situation in an objective manner. In the case of the ten leaders who advised against proceeding into the Land, not only did they discard any objectivity, they lied about what they saw.
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 giants [nephilim] there…and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them. (13:32–33)
The Torah refers to these comments as dibah, slander. These words were a slander against the Land, against what the scouts actually saw, and by extension, a slander against God’s powers. These men knew that God had enabled all of the Israelites’ achievements. Instead of encouraging the people to believe in God’s active protection, they spread false information in their report and encouraged the people to deny their destiny. And the people, deprived of strong tribal leaders, lost their own objectivity and faith and succumbed to the lies and hyperbole of the scouts. God punished the scouts for abandoning their role as leaders and the people for their weakness.
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