Spy vs. Spy

  • Rav Zvi Shimon







In honor of Akiva Werber, who has shown so many the way to
 "haAretz haTova me'od me'od"



Spy vs. Spy

by Rav Zvi Shimon



            At the beginning of our parasha, the Israelites find themselves on the verge of entering the promised land. After being delivered from Egyptian bondage and wandering through the desert for over a year, they stand at the entrance to the land, their ultimate destination. Before commencing the conquest of the land spies are sent to explore it, its people and its settlements. The sending of the spies is recounted twice in the Torah, once at the beginning of our parasha and a second time in Deuteronomy. As you read the following texts note the contradictions between the different accounts of the event:


1) (Numbers 13:1-3,17-20)

"The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 'Send out men for yourself to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people; send one man from each of their ancestral tribes, each one a chieftain among them.'  So Moses, by the Lord's command, sent them out from the wilderness of Paran, all the men being leaders of the Israelites....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 fruits of the land.'"


2) (Deuteronomy 1:19-23)

When we reached Kadesh Barnea, I said to you, 'You have come to the hill-country of the Emorites which the Lord our God is giving to us.  See, the Lord your God has placed the land at your disposal.  Go up, take possession, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, promised you.  Fear not and be not dismayed.'

Then all of you came to me and said, 'Let us send men ahead to explore the land for us and bring back word on the route we shall follow and the cities we shall come to.'  And the saying pleased me well, and so I selected twelve of your men, one from each tribe."


            The two accounts are by no means analogous. The following are two of the major differences between them:


1) In our parasha, it is God who commands to send the spies while in Deuteronomy the people request to send them, and there is no mention of God's involvement.

2) In our parasha there is no mention of Moses' attitude towards the initiative of sending spies while in Deuteronomy the Torah states that it pleased him.


            So what really happened? Did God command to send spies or did the people request it? Are the two accounts in any way reconcilable? Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, France, 1040-1105), citing our Sages, offers the following resolution:


"Send out men for yourself to scout the land"(13:2) - "For yourself," by your discretion. As for Me, I do not command you; if you so desire, send. For the Israelites came and said, "Let us send men before us," as is stated "Then all of you came and said, "Let us send men ahead..."(Deuteronomy 1:22).


            According to Rashi, our parasha recounts God's reaction to the people's request as described in Deuteronomy. God did not command to send spies; He simply complied with the request of the people. This is denoted by the clause "for yourself."  God informs Moses that he may send the spies but God does not command to do so.


            The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1274) offers a different explanation of the relationship between the two accounts:


"Now it appears to me from the language of Scripture that Moses did not consult God [whether to send spies] but... the people had decided already to send spies, and it was customary to send two spies secretly... but God, who knows the future, commanded Moses to send one man from each of the tribes of Israel, everyone a prince among them. This is because God wanted all the great men to be represented equally in this matter, so that perhaps they would remember and turn unto God, and if not, so that the decree of punishment would apply equally to the whole people, this being the meaning of the expression [that Moses sent them] "according to the commandment of the Eternal" (13:3), for it was by command of God that they were to be princes and heads of the children of Israel."


            The Ramban agrees with Rashi that the people initiated the request to send spies. However he presents a different understanding of God's response. According to Rashi, God left it to Moses to act on his own discretion. By contrast, according to the Ramban, God actively took part in the sending of the spies. He commanded that, instead of two spies, twelve spies be sent, one from each tribe. Our parasha recounts the appointment of the spies by God, while Deuteronomy recounts the people's original request.


            I would like to propose a third resolution of the conflicting accounts. However, first let us probe a different but yet related question. How are we to evaluate the initiative of sending spies in preparation for the conquest? Irrespective of the tragic outcome of the action, was the initiative itself desirable? We find completely divergent approaches regarding this question. Our Sages offer the following response:


"'Send men.'  Although the Holy One, blessed be He, told him to send men, it was not the wish of the Holy One, blessed be He, that the spies should go.  Why?  Because the Holy One, blessed be He, had already told them the virtues of the land of Israel; as it says, 'For the Lord your God brings you into a good land...' (Deut. 8:7)...


The fact is that it was Israel who asked for this.  When they drew near to take possession of the boundaries, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to them: 'Behold, the Lord your God has set the land before you' (Deut. 1:21).  On that occasion Israel approached Moses; as it says, 'And you came near to me every one of you' (ibid. 22).


R. Joshua says: To what might they be compared?  To the case of a king who secured for his son a wife who was beautiful, of good parentage, and rich.  The king said to him: 'I have secured for you a wife who is beautiful, of good parentage and rich.'  Yet the son said to him: 'Let me go and see her!'  For he did not believe his father.  His father was thus placed in a difficulty and was sorely vexed.  He said to himself: 'What shall I do?  If I tell him, 'I will not show her to you,' he will now think: 'She is ugly; that is why he does not want to show her.'  At last he said to him: 'See her and you will know whether I have lied to you!  But because you did not have faith in me, I swear that you will never see her in your           own home, and that, instead, I will give her to your son!'  Similarly, the Holy One, blessed be He, assured Israel, 'The land is good,' but they had no faith, and     said, 'Let us send men before us that they may search the land for us.'  Said the Holy One, blessed be He: 'If I prevent them, they will say: 'He does not show it to us because it is not good.'  Better let them see it.  I take an oath, however, that not one of them will enter the land'; as it says, Surely they shall not see the land which I swore unto their fathers, neither shall any of them that despised Me see it (Num. 14:23), but I shall give it to their children." (Midrash Rabba Numbers 16:7)


            The approach presented here is in line with the Sages' position, cited above by Rashi, that God did not command to send spies but left it to Moses' discretion. God did not initiate nor desire the appointment of the spies. The sending of the spies stems from a lack of faith in God. The people do not believe that the land is really beautiful and worth conquering. They want to first verify through their envoys that it is indeed a land of milk and honey. After the people's request, God is obliged to comply and send spies lest the people conclude that it is not a beautiful land. However their lack of faith in God's description of the land makes them unworthy of inheriting it. The request to send spies is the sin which seals the fate of the generation. It is not the aftermath of the report of the spies but the request itself which angers God and leads to the prohibition of the people from entering the land and their being relegated to wandering in the desert for forty years. The generation which is incapable of believing God's promise of a beautiful land and must verify it themselves is not worthy of inheriting it. It is clear that with such a negative approach to the appointment of the spies it is impossible to claim that God commanded that they be sent. Thus, our Sages conclude that God left it to Moses to decide whether or not to send spies.


            Can you identify any textual difficulties with this interpretation? The Ramban challenges the approach cited above:


"Here one may ask, if this is so, then Moses himself sinned in this matter, as it is said, 'And the thing pleased me well' (Deuteronomy 1:23)!  And furthermore why did he tell [the spies] to find out about the Land, 'whether it is good or bad' (Numbers 13:19), since he had already been told at the beginning that it is 'a good Land, and a large one?' (Exodus 3:8)


            The Ramban points out two difficulties in the explanation of our Sages:


1) If the sending of spies is a sin, why does the people's request please Moses?

2) If the whole problem with sending spies lies in a disbelief in God's description of the beauty of the land, why does Moses himself tell the spies to appraise the goodness of the land? God had already told them that the land was beautiful!


            In light of these difficulties, the Ramban offers a totally different evaluation of the sending of the spies:


"But the explanation of this subject is as follows: The Israelites wanted [to act] in the way that all those who come to wage war in a foreign country do, namely to send out men to become acquainted with the roads and entrances to the cities; so that when they return [from their mission], the scouts will go at the head of the army, to show them the way, in a similar manner to that which it says, 'Show us, we pray thee, the entrance into the city' (Judges 1:24).  Thus [the Israelites wanted the reconnaissance party] to advise them which city they should attack first, and from which direction it would be easy to capture the Land.  This is what they said explicitly, 'and they [the spies] shall bring us back word of the way by which we must go up, and the cities unto which we shall come,' that is to say, the cities into which we shall come first, and from which we will enter the whole country.  Now this is the correct guidance [to give] to anyone [who plans to] conquer a country.  And so did Moses himself do, as it is said, 'And Moses sent to spy out Jazer' (Numbers 21:32), and Joshua the son of Nun also [sent] two spies (Joshua 2:1).  It was for this reason that [the people's request to send out scouts] pleased Moses, for Scripture does not [allow man] to rely on a miracle in any of its affairs.  Instead, it commands those who go out to battle to arm themselves, to take [all necessary] precautions, and to set ambushes [if needed], as Scripture relates in connection with the battle for [the city of] Ai, which was by command of God, and similarly in many places.  The Moses consulted the Divine Presence and God gave him permission, saying, 'Send men, that they may spy out the land of Canaan and become acquainted with it, and bring back a report to you, and according to their information you should take counsel regarding the conquest.'  Now Moses told the spies, 'Get you up here into the south,' meaning: 'Go up by this road into the south so that you will get to know the people who live in the land of the     south - [this being] the direction from which Israel was [approaching] - [and see] whether they are strong and [the Israelites] when dealing with them will need to be         very much on their guard and well-armed; similarly, [see] the cities, and whether they are fortified so that [the inhabitants] are well-entrenched, and it will therefore be necessary to build forts and ramps, or to come against them from another direction.'  Moses further told them that they should get to know the Land itself, whether it is good or bad, and if it is bad, they should first conquer other parts of it;...


[Furthermore] it is possible that it was because Moses knew that it is a fertile and good land, - as he was told, 'unto a good Land and a large one, unto a Land flowing with milk and honey,' - that he told them to set   their minds ascertaining this [fact], so that [upon their return] they would tell the people about it, and they would rejoice and gain renewed strength to go up there in joy."


            Sending spies is the natural thing to do in preparation for the conquest of the land. The idea pleased Moses since it evinced initiative and a readiness for the task of inheriting the land. It agrees with the fundamental religious principle that man may not rely on miracles. When approaching any task man must prepare himself to the best of his ability. So too, the Israelites, as they approach the promised land, must make preparations for its conquest. The sending of spies is not a sin. It is the desirable and required course of action.


            The question arises, do our Sages disagree with the position advanced by the Ramban? Do they deny the principle that one may not rely on miracles? If not, why do they express such opposition to the sending of the spies?


            A close analysis of the words of our Sages reveals that they had a totally different conception of the motivation behind the Israelite's request to send spies. According to our Sages, the Israelites merely packaged their request in military and strategic terms: "Let us send men ahead to explore the land for us and bring back word on the route we shall follow and the cities we shall come to" (Deuteronomy 1:22). However, their real motive was a lack of faith and a desire to verify for themselves the goodness of the land. The disagreement between our Sages and the Ramban in their evaluation of the sending of the spies is not a philosophical one. All agree that one may not rely on miracles. Rather, it stems from different understandings of the motivation behind the appointment of the spies.


            Which of the two interpretations do you prefer, the Sages' or the Ramban's? Was the sending of the spies a positive initiative or a rebellion against God? In my opinion both approaches are correct. I believe the Ramban is absolutely correct in claiming that the spies were desirable and necessary. This is indeed the reason why Moses was pleased with the people's request and why God commanded to send the spies. On the other hand, our Sages penetrated into the deeper motivation behind the people's request to send spies. The people lacked faith in God, in His promise to bequeath to them a beautiful land or alternatively in His capacity of fulfilling the promise and overcoming the mighty nations inhabiting the land. The Ramban describes why the spies should have been sent and our Sages describe the underlying reasons motivating the people. This distinction might be the key to resolving the discrepancies between the two accounts of the sending of the spies.


            We presented earlier Rashi and the Ramban's approaches in resolving the differences between the two accounts. According to Rashi, the people initiated the sending of the spies and God never endorsed it, but left it up to Moses to decide. According to the Ramban, the people initiated the idea and God accepted the request and commanded that twelve spies, one from each tribe, be sent. The major deficiency in both these interpretations is that they don't explain why the Torah presented two distinct accounts of the same event. While their explanations might help reconcile the different accounts they do not explain the reason for the existence of the differences.


            I would like to propose that the two differing accounts of the sending of the spies represent the different motives which existed for sending them. The discrepancies between the narratives highlight the disparity between God's intention in commanding the dispatch of spies and the motivation behind the people's request that spies be sent. The Torah purposefully separates between the people's request and God's command since they are indeed worlds apart. In our parasha, where the Torah recounts the actual sending of the spies for the first time, the stress is on God's command, on the motivation which ideally should have accompanied the sending of the spies. In Deuteronomy, where Moses recounts the sins of the people throughout their travels in the desert, the emphasis is on the people's failures, on their rebellious motive for requesting spies.


            Moses saw only the positive aspects described by the Ramban, in sending the spies. He interpreted the people's request as a preparation for the conquest of the land. Therefore the request pleased him. He was unaware of its rebellious nature and hence the great disappointment. What should have signaled the beginning of the Israelites' entry into the land of Israel turned out to be the cause for God's refusal to allow them to enter until the rise of a new and more faithful generation. The spies who were meant to facilitate the conquest of the land actually prevented it.  "They rejected the desirable land, and put no faith in His promise. They grumbled in their tents and disobeyed the Lord. So He raised his hand in oath to make them fall in the wilderness" (Psalms 106:24-26).