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The Sin of the "Spies"

  • Rav Elchanan Samet

Parshat HaShavua
Yeshivat Har Etzion



The Sin of the "Spies"

By Rav Elchanan Samet




In introducing his discussion of our parasha, Prof. M.Z. Segal writes (Masoret U-Bikoret, p. 90):

"The sin of the nation in the matter of the spies was, like the sin of the golden calf, an enormous act that changed the whole course of the history of that generation. For just as the sin of the golden calf involved a breach of the covenant... so the sin involving the spies was a breach of the covenant and a rejection of God's promise that the land of Canaan would be an inheritance for Israel... Therefore we find that only in the case of these two sins did God desire to punish the nation with complete annihilation, and to establish a new generation from the seed of Moshe... (Bamidbar 14:12; Shemot 32:10). Likewise, only in relation to these two sins did Moshe claim in his prayer... that this (the destruction of the nation) would involve a desecration of God's name...

The results of these two sins differ: In the case of the sin of the golden calf Moshe managed, through his great efforts, to obtain forgiveness for the nation and to remove their punishment, as well as to renew the covenant that was breached because of the sin. Through the building of the mishkan and the acceptance of the statutes, he restored the previous relationship that had existed between God and His nation. But after the sin of the spies the forgiveness was not complete, and the sinners were not absolved of their punishment. It was decreed that they would die in the desert, and only the next generation would achieve a renewal of the intimate relationship between God and His nation, Israel, via Moshe, God's servant."


Many questions have been asked throughout the generations concerning the narrative itself, its mention in other places in Tanakh, and – particularly – Moshe's description of the event at the start of his great monologue in Sefer Devarim (1:20-2:2). We shall focus here on the story as told in the parasha itself. Methodologically it would seem proper to analyze our story independently without any relation to its mention elsewhere. Only when studying those sources should the student address the difficulties presented there, with the analysis of the narrative in our parasha serving as a basis for further discussion.


The story is divided into two halves as follows:

Part A: "the sin" (13:1-14:10);

Part B: "the punishment" (14:11-45).

Let us examine the composition of the narrative according to the breakdown of its units, which will reveal its structure:


a. 13:1-20 God's command to Moshe, and the entrusting of the mission to the princes.

b. 13:21-25 The princes' journey in the land and return.

c. 13:26-33 Their report and the argument between them and Kalev.

d. 14:1-10 The nation's rebellion.


Turning point: "And God's glory appeared in the Ohel Mo'ed to all of Bnei Yisrael."


e. 14:11-25 The proposed punishment, Moshe's prayer and its acceptance, punishment that they would not inherit the land.

f. 14:26-35 Specification of the punishment: forty years of wandering in the desert and the death of that entire generation.

g. 14:36-38 Punishment of the spies: death by plague.

h. 14:39-45 The defeat of the "ma'apilim."


At the heart of the story we find the parallel between unit d. – the nation's sin – and units e.-f., which both deal with the nation's punishment. These three units together constitute the bulk of the story and also its most historically significant section.


The nature of the next parallel – i.e., between units c. and g. - is similar: the sin of the spies themselves in contrast with their punishment. Their sin, in having led the nation astray, is more grave than the sin of the nation, and their punishment is correspondingly more serious: they will die immediately in a plague.


The outermost parallel, between units a.-b. and unit h., is unlike its predecessors. Here there is no sin and punishment, cause and effect, as existed in the previous parallels. This time there is an inverse correspondence between a positive "ascent" to the land, executed by God's command and concluding in peace, and a negative "ascent" executed in opposition to God's command and concluding in disaster. The root "a-l-h" (ascent) appears four times in each half.




According to the Ramban (13:1 and 13:27) and the Akeidat Yitzchak (77) it appears that the sin of the spies lay in overstepping the bounds of their authority, in their transition from being faithful reporters – which was the mandate given to them - to becoming advisors with their own independent views and evaluations – which lay outside the bounds of their mission. Indeed, such a distinction exists in modern intelligence bodies, where the function of the information gatherers is to report on what they have seen or heard, and that of the intelligence evaluators is to evaluate the situation or even to provide advice, on the basis of that information. In the transition from one function to the other they did indeed overstep their authority, but ultimately this was no more than a formal sin. Is this really what constituted the true sin of the spies?


The Ramban's explanation is based on an assumption he makes at the beginning of the parasha (13:2) – that the purpose of sending the spies was for military reconnaissance. Thereafter the Ramban explains the series of questions which Moshe presents to the spies (verses 17-20) in terms of this assumption – all are aimed at preparing for the military conquest of the land. The first report of the spies is therefore mainly within the framework of their mission, as Ramban explains, and only with the word "only" (efes - 13:28) do they start to overstep their authority (although it is still a military report, but of a different type). Let us, however, reexamine the Ramban's assumption that the entire mission was military in nature.




There are some literary units in Tanakh possessing a singular linguistic feature: a word may be repeated within that unit many times in close succession, while it may be rare – or non-existent – in the rest of Tanakh. The appearance of this word in that literary unit – usually serving as a "leading word" – gives it added significance, sometimes even critical significance, for an understanding of the literary unit as a whole. In other words, because that word is generally so rare, it cannot always be easily interpreted just within the context of that literary unit without reference to its appearance in other, more varied contexts.


This is the case in our parasha: the root "t-u-r" (to tour, survey) appears twelve times, corresponding to the number of the princes sent to tour the land. The significant number of its appearances, its equal distribution throughout the story (it is absent only from units e. and h., where we would not expect it to occur) and its rarity indicate that this root indeed serves as a "leading word" in our narrative.


This root appears in three other places in the Torah, in each case connected directly or indirectly to our story. We find it later on in parashat Shelach, in the mitzva of tzitzit:

(15:39) "And you shall not seek (taturu) after your hearts and after your eyes, after which you go astray."

The connection between the mitzva of tzitzit and the story that preceded it arises not only from their juxtaposition in the parasha. The sin of the generation is defined in our narrative as "going astray" (zenut):

(14:33) "And your children will wander in the desert for forty years, and will bear your going astray...."

The mitzva of tzitzit therefore hints that the spies, sent to seek after THE LAND, in fact sought after THEIR HEARTS AND THEIR EYES, after which they went astray. The mitzva of tzitzit is a correction for the sin that preceded it and protection against it repeating itself.


In parashat Beha'alotekha, in the description of tfirst journey from Har Sinai, the root "t-u-r" appears for the first time in Tanakh:

(10:33) "And they traveled from God's mountain on a journey of three days, and the ark of God's covenant traveled before them at a three-day distance, TO SEEK REST FOR THEM."

The ark of God's covenant is therefore the first "seeker" that travels before Israel in the desert, even before they reach the border of the land.


A comparison of our narrative with Moshe's monologue in Sefer Devarim reveals many obvious discrepancies. One of the most important is that the root "t-u-r" does not appear in connection with the twelve spies sent by Moshe. Other words appear there instead:

(Devarim 1:22) "Let us send men before us that they may search out (yachperu) the land for us..."

(ibid 25) "And they came as far as the river of Eshkol and spied it out (va-yeraglu)."

Strangely, it is this root "r-g-l," which appears only in this speech of Moshe – and only once – that gives this story its name (the story of the spies – meraglim), and that forever labels the twelve emissaries, in the discussions of all the commentaries, as "spies" – meraglim. But this root does not appear even once in our narrative! It seems that this results from two unconscious processes: one is the difficulty in interpreting the root "t-u-r," which – as we have mentioned – is rare in Tanakh; it is much less clear than the root "r-g-l," which appears in various places in connection with revelations of enemy secrets and preparation of battles of conquest. The other process involves an attempt at creating harmony between our narrative and the story as retold in Moshe's monologue in Sefer Devarim. This attempt facilitates a transfer of words and terms from one place to the other. But in truth, the distinction between "spying" in Sefer Devarim and "seeking out the land" in Sefer Bamidbar is a very important one for the clarification of the relationship between the two sources.


The root "t-u-r" does appear in Moshe's speech in Sefer Devarim, but not in relation to the twelve emissaries and their function. Rather, in appears in relation to God:

(Devarim 1:29-33) "And I said to you, do not dread nor be afraid of them. Hashem your God, Who goes before you, He shall fight for you... And in the desert, as you have seen, that Hashem your God bears you as a man carries his son, in all the way that you have walked until you came to this place. But in this matter you did not believe in Hashem your God Who walks before you on the way, TO SEEK YOU OUT (la-tur lakhem) A PLACE TO ENCAMP...."


These words are clearly connected, both thematically and linguistically, to the verse at the beginning of parashat Beha'alotekha, and connect this verse to our narrative. What may be hinted at in this connection is that God, who has "sought out" for Israel their places of encampment and rest in the desert thus far, will certainly "seek out" the land of Canaan as the place of their prolonged rest at the conclusion of their journey through the desert, and therefore Israel need not fear the nations currently dwelling in the land. (See also Yechezkel 20:6.)


What, then, is the significance of the root "t-u-r"? Is it identical – or similar – to the root "r-g-l"? It cannot be, for in the parshiot that deal with spying this root does not appear. There are other words: "r-g-l," "ch-f-r," "ch-k-r." It cannot be coincidental that our narrative systematically avoids any use of these verbs commonly used in an instance of spying and chooses rather to use a specific verb that is special and rare.


In Akkadian the root "taru" means "to wander" (le-shotet). This, or something close to it, is indeed the intention in the parasha of tzitzit: "You shall not wander after your hearts and after your eyes...." But it seems that this root also has other more varied and more specific meanings as used in Tanakh.


The ark of God which travels at a three-day distance before Israel to "seek them out rest," and God, Who "goes before you on the way to seek you out place for encampment," are not merely "wandering": they move before Israel in order to locate the best place to serve as a place to encamp and rest. Thus we find that even if the significance of the word "la-tur" is related to movement, it does not refer to movement in general, but rather to an action aimed at the purpose of choosing. The significance of God's command at the beginning of our parasha, "Send you men that they may seek out the land of Canaan which I give to Bnei Yisrael" could be, "that they may walk in the land and choose it," or "that they may select it for Israel."


This command involved neither military preparation for conquest nor a preparation for the division of the land and its settlement, but rather something quite different: this command reveals God's wish that His gift to Israel, "the land which He sought out for them," which He chose for them as an inheritance, should be given to them according to their mortal choice as well. Hundreds of years had passed since the forefathers of Bnei Yisrael had left the land, and the generation that had now left Egypt, even though they heard about it from their fathers and from Moshe (who likewise had not seen it with their own eyes), was not familiar with it. This generation was familiar with different scenery: the landscapes of Egypt and of the desert, and these were very different from the scenery and nature of Canaan.


Israel had therefore just reached the border of an unknown land that was about to be given to them, and God commanded them to send representatives, "one man from each tribe of their forefathers shall you send, each of them a prince," in order that they would confirm the goodness of God's gift and so that they would choose it themselves on behalf of the nation whom they represented. The mission of the twelve princes sent to seek out the land of Canaan "which I give to Bnei Yisrael" was therefore entirely religious in nature. What was required was neither a report nor an evaluation, but rather their human enthusiasm for the Divine choice.


The sin of these representatives, and thereafter of the nation as a whole, lay in their deviation from the Divine choice and their rejection of it. No exegetical hair-splitting is needed to understand their sin: they simply rebelled against their mission and turned it upside down. Instead of "seeking out the land" to choose it, they sought a way to reject this gift of God with various excuses, diverting the course of Divinely ordained history from its planned course. Could there be any sin greater than this?




A sensitive reading of the beginning of the parasha reveals ceremonial, festive opening, reminiscent of the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar:


Bamidbar 1:

(1) And God spoke to Moshe... saying

(2) Count all the congregation of Bnei Yisrael by their families, by their fathers' houses, by the number of names, every male...

(4) With you there shall be one man from every tribe, each one the head of the house of his fathers.

(5) And these are the names of the men who shall stand with you... (list of names until verse 15)

(16) These were the respected men of the congregation, the princes of the tribes of their fathers, heads of thousands in Israel.


Parashat Shelach, Bamidbar 13:

(1) And God spoke to Moshe saying:

(2) Send you men that they may seek out the land of Canaan which I give to Bnei Yisrael,

one man from each tribe of his fathers shall you send, each of them a prince

(4) And these are their names (list of names until verse 15)

(16) These are the names of the men whom Moshe sent to seek out the land.


The similarity is not coincidental: in both these places we find ourselves at a historical crossroads in the history of the generation that left Egypt. At the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar we find ourselves a few days prior to the first journey from Chorev towards Canaan. The purpose of the census is as preparation for their departure on this journey. This is a ceremonial census in which the entire nation participates, and the twelve princes represent the participation of the twelve tribes in the preparations already underwfor the journey.


And then the journey reaches its conclusion, at the borders of Eretz Canaan, at Kadesh Barnea. A new chapter is beginning in the history of that generation: here start the preparations for the imminent entry into the land. The most important preparation at this moment is that Israel should receive a realistic idea of the nature of the land in order that they will appreciate it. Again a ceremonial an public act is undertaken (like the previous census), in which the twelve princes are sent, representing the twelve tribes, in order to familiarize themselves with the land and to transmit their impressions to their brethren so that all of them may willingly choose the land with joy as they enter into it.


The princes are not sent "secretly," as would have been proper had they been spies (see Yehoshua 2:1). And twelve men in any case are not a reasonable spying delegation. It is too large a group; they could not easily hide if necessary when faced with danger (as Yehoshua's two spies did). It seems that because of the very size of the group and the fact that they walked innocently on the highways, quite unlike secret spies, they did not arouse attention or suspicion.


When Israel again completed their journey, at the end of forty years, and again encamped on the borders of the land (this time in a different place – on the plains of Moav), they were similarly commanded:

(34:16-29) "And God spoke to Moshe saying, These are the names of the men who will share out the land for you... one prince for each tribe shall you take to divide the land. And these are the names of the man... (here follows a list of names of the princes), those whom God commanded to divide (the land) for Bnei Yisrael in Eretz Canaan."




One of the main justifications for defining the mission of the twelve princes as a military spying mission is the list of questions presented by Moshe to the emissaries as they depart to seek out the land, in verses 17-20:

"Go up here from the south, and go up to the mountains and see the land, what it is, and the people who dwell therein: a. whether they are strong or weak, b. whether they are few or many, c. and what the land is that they dwell in: is it good or bad, d. and what are the cities in which they dwell: are they in tents or in fortifications?

And what is the land: a. Is it fat or lean? b. Are there trees in it or not? c. And strengthen yourselves a take of the fruit of the land."


The instruction begin with a double heading which includes both components that they need to view during their trip: the land, and the nation dwelling in it. Thereafter follows a list of the specific questions relating to each component. What is the purpose of these questions? The numerous questions regarding the nation, and particularly the nature of the opening question - "are they strong or weak," and of the concluding question – "do they dwell in tents or in fortifications," give the impression that the intention is in the direction of the war of conquest. The questions regarding the land must also be related to the plan of conquest – such as from which area to begin the conquest and what economic possibilities exist for survival during the war.


However, the literal meaning of the questions can lead us in another direction. Bnei Yisrael are not about to enter a country empty of inhabitants, but rather a country that at this point is already mostly inhabited. This is something of a blessing, as Moshe points out in his speech in Sefer Devarim:

(Devarim 6:9-11) "And it shall be when God your God brings you to the land which He promised... great and good CITIES which you did not build. And HOUSES full of all good things which you did not fill, and hewn-out WELLS which you did not dig, VINEYARDS AND OLIVE TREES which you did not plant, and you shall eat and be satisfied."


Therefore someone who wishes to know the land, from the point of view of both its strength and its appearance, must describe it using a description of the situation of the "nation dwelling upon it." The situation of the NATION – whether strong or weak, few or many – reveals the quality of the LAND and its influence on the size of the population and their physical properties.


In any event, the response of the emissaries - (28) "The nation that dwells in the land is powerful" – has nothing to do with what they were asked, "Are they strong or weak?" They turned the discussion to the question of war, which had not been mentioned until then.


At this point we should refer to the Ramban at the beginning of the parasha, suggesting a different interpretation than the one he discusses at first, and which accords with what we have suggested so far:

"The people requested ... a military spying mission (Devarim 1:22), ... but God commanded, 'that they may seek out Eretz Canaan,' meaning to choose it, like people who come to buy something, as in the verse (II Divrei Ha-yamim 9:14), 'besides that which the TRADERS (tarim) and merchants brought' ... Therefore Moshe told them to specify whether 'it is good or bad... fat or lean,' etc. – all in order to make them rejoice, for it is 'an ornament for all the lands,' so that they would ascend to it with great fervor."




The sin of the emissaries and of the generation that left Egypt lay not only in their fear of war. In the words of the Akeidat Yitzchak:

"It was not fear alone, but a rejection (of the land), as the text explains (14:31), 'And your children, concerning whom you said, "They will be prey" – I will bring them in, and they will know the land THAT YOU HAVE REJECTED.' And in Tehillim (106:24) we find, 'They despised the pleasant land.' This (the rejection of the land) was what troubled their Father in Heaven, leading Him to swear that [that generation] would not enter the land, for they were not worthy."


It is unheard of for a nation to despise and reject its land even before entering it, and we need to understand the meaning of this. Lest we say that this quality existed only in the generation that left Egypt, who had never lived in their land, the Ba'al Ha-Akeida continues as follows:

"Crying was established for Israel for all generations, for the rejection of the land was as we have described; it is the reason for which we face destruction in all generations, and because of it we were exiled from our land and removed from it, becoming a mockery to our neighbors and a source of derision to those around us. There is no other way of returning to our completion other than by returning to it..."

(Translated by Kaeren Fish)





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