Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Is the story of the spies, as recorded in the Book of Numbers, really two separate stories that have been woven together? I am not sure, but I agree that the verses can be untangled to present two different accounts:

To help you see what I mean, I've prepared an illustration. You can see it after the jump.

Read the black words first. Then, go back and read the blue words. After the verses, I'll point out a few things

13 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2  “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel. From each tribe of their fathers you shall send a man, every one a chief among them.” 3 So Moses sent them from the wilderness of Paran, according to the command of the Lord, all of them men who were heads of the people of Israel. 4 And these were their names: From the tribe of Reuben, Shammua the son of Zaccur; 5 from the tribe of Simeon, Shaphat the son of Hori; 6  from the tribe of Judah, Caleb the son of Jephunneh; 7 from the tribe of Issachar, Igal the son of Joseph; 8 from the tribe of Ephraim, Hoshea the son of Nun; 9 from the tribe of Benjamin, Palti the son of Raphu; 10 from the tribe of Zebulun, Gaddiel the son of Sodi; 11 from the tribe of Joseph (that is, from the tribe of Manasseh), Gaddi the son of Susi; 12 from the tribe of Dan, Ammiel the son of Gemalli; 13 from the tribe of Asher, Sethur the son of Michael; 14 from the tribe of Naphtali, Nahbi the son of Vophsi; 15 from the tribe of Gad, Geuel the son of Machi. 16 These were the names of the men whom Moses sent to spy out the land. And Moses called Hoshea the son of Nun Joshua.

17 Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan and said to them, “Go up into the Negeb and go up into the hill country, 18 and see what the land is, and whether the people who dwell in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many, 19 and whether the land that they dwell in is good or bad, and whether the cities that they dwell in are camps or strongholds, 20 and whether the land is rich or poor, and whether there are trees in it or not. Be of good courage and bring some of the fruit of the land.” Now the time was the season of the first ripe grapes.

21 So they went up and spied out the land from the wilderness of Zin to Rehob, near Lebo-hamath. 22 They went up into the Negeb and came to Hebron. Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai, the descendants of Anak, were there. ( Hebron was built seven years before Zoan in Egypt.) 23 And they came to the Valley of Eshcol and cut down from there a branch with a single cluster of grapes, and they carried it on a pole between two of them; they also brought some pomegranates and figs. 24 That place was called the Valley of Eshcol, because of the cluster that the people of Israel cut down from there.

25 At the end of forty days they returned from spying out the land. 26 And they came to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation of the people of Israel in the wilderness of Paran, at Kadesh. They brought back word to them and to all the congregation, and showed them the fruit of the land. 27 And they told him [=lo], “We came to the land to which you sent us. It flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. 28  However, the people who dwell in the land are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large. And besides, we saw the descendants of Anak there. 29  The Amalekites dwell in the land of the Negeb. The Hittites, the Jebusites, and the Amorites dwell in the hill country. And the Canaanites dwell by the sea, and along the Jordan.”

30 But Caleb quieted the people before Moses and said, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it.” 31  Then the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.” 32 And they spread an evil report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great stature. 33 And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them."

Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. 2 And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! 3 Why is the Lord bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” 4 And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.”
5 Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembly of the congregation of the people of Israel. 6 And Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had spied out the land, tore their clothes 7 and said to all the congregation of the people of Israel, “The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceedingly good land. 8 If the Lord delights in us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land that flows with milk and honey. 9 Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not fear them.” 10 Then all the congregation said to stone them with stones. But the glory of the Lord appeared at the tent of meeting to all the people of Israel.

11 And the Lord said to Moses, “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? 12 I will strike them with the pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you a nation greater and mightier than they.”
13 But Moses said to the Lord, “Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for you brought up this people in your might from among them, 14 and they will tell the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, O Lord, are in the midst of this people. For you, O Lord, are seen face to face, and your cloud stands over them and you go before them, in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. 15 Now if you kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard your fame will say, 16 ‘It is because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land that he swore to give to them that he has killed them in the wilderness.’ 17 And now, please let the power of the Lord be great as you have promised, saying, 18 ‘The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’ 19 Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now.”
20 Then the Lord said, “I have pardoned, according to your word. 21 But truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord, 22 none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, 23 shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it. 24 But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me fully, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it. 25 Now, since the Amalekites and the Canaanites dwell in the valleys, turn tomorrow and set out for the wilderness by the way to the Red Sea.”

26 The Lord said to Moses and Aaron: 27 “How long will this wicked community grumble against me? I have heard the complaints of these grumbling Israelites. 28 So tell them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Lord, I will do to you the very thing I heard you say: 29 In this wilderness your bodies will fall —every one of you twenty years old or more who was counted in the census and who has grumbled against me. 30 Not one of you will enter the land I swore with uplifted hand to make your home, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. 31 As for your children that you said would be taken as plunder, I will bring them in to enjoy the land you have rejected. 32 But as for you, your bodies will fall in this wilderness. 33 Your children will be shepherds here for forty years, suffering for your unfaithfulness, until the last of your bodies lies in the wilderness. 34 For forty years —one year for each of the forty days you explored the land —you will suffer for your sins and know what it is like to have me against you.’ 35 I, the Lord, have spoken, and I will surely do these things to this whole wicked community, which has banded together against me. They will meet their end in this wilderness; here they will die. ”

36 So the men Moses had sent to explore the land, who returned and made the whole community grumble against him by spreading a bad report about it— 37 these men who were responsible for spreading the bad report about the land were struck down and died of a plague before the Lord. 38 Of the men who went to explore the land, only Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh survived.

39 When Moses reported this to all the Israelites, they mourned bitterly. 40 Early the next morning they set out for the highest point in the hill country, saying, “Now we are ready to go up to the land the Lord promised. Surely we have sinned!”

41 But Moses said, “Why are you disobeying the Lord’s command? This will not succeed! 42 Do not go up, because the Lordis not with you. You will be defeated by your enemies, 43 for the Amalekites and the Canaanites will face you there. Because you have turned away from the Lord, he will not be with you and you will fall by the sword.”

44 Nevertheless, in their presumption they went up toward the highest point in the hill country, though neither Moses nor the ark of the Lord’s covenant moved from the camp. 45 Then the Amalekites and the Canaanites who lived in that hill country came down and attacked them and beat them down all the way to Hormah.

  • The blue and black versions can each be read as separate accounts
  • In the black version, the spies return to both Moshe and Aaron (13:26); both men react to the report (14:2 and 5) and God addresses them both when he delivers the punishment (14:25). 
  • In the blue version, only Moshe is present for those moments. (However, even the black version blames Moshe alone for the "sin" of sending them. In the black version Moshe is alone when mistakes are made, but joined by Aaron for any leadership moment) 
  • In the blue version only Caleb is identified as a hero. He defends the land alone (13:30) and he alone is guaranteed entrance to the land (14:24)
  • In the black version Caleb is joined by Joshua when the rebels are resisted (14:6) and also when a reward is announced for a good spy (14:30 and 38)
  • In the black version, the spies only reach Hebron. 
  • In the blue version they survey the entire land


The official, non-Torah true explanation is that there are two accounts here that were woven together. The blue version came first, and it tells the story of Moshe the leader and Caleb the exceptional spy (This is also the story retold in Deuteronomy (1:24) where Joshua rates a mention, but only Caleb is praised for his performance during the spy episode.)

According to Richard Elliot Friedman, the blue version was later inherited by people from the same tradition, who knew the contours of the same story, but emphasized different leaders. For these people, Aaron was a leader equal in stature to Moshe, and Joshua was also a national hero. To have a spy story that didn't include them was a scandal. So, at some point this community produced an alternative story, a story that de-emphasizes Moshe (by singling him out as the person who dispatched the spies) and elevates Aaron and Joshua  (by making them partners to Caleb and Moshe.)


No. I recognize the observations recorded here are legitimate observations, but the interpretations I've repeated might be wrong. Also, there is one glitch: The mention of Hebron. Richard Eliot Friedman assigns the stop in Hebron to the black version, but I don't think his grounds for doing so are completely firm.

According to the Midrash, Hebron is mentioned because Caleb and Joshua detoured there to pray at Abraham's grave. But aside from being the location of the ancient graves, Hebron has other distinctions. 

In Joshua:10:36-7 Joshua is given exclusive credit for conquering the city. More significantly, Joshua (21:13) tells us that Hebron was an Aaronid city (given to the sons of Aaron as a city of refuge) and this is confirmed in Chronicles (6:57) The group that wrote the black version is the group that insisted on the significance of Joshua and Aaron. Friedman connects Hebron to the black version because he thinks that its likely that the group that elevated Aaron and Joshua would also find utility in reporting that the spies stopped in a city that belonged to one of their heroes and conquered by the other. 

However, there is more to say about Hebron. 

Along with being an Aaronid Ir Miklat Hebron was David's first capital city, from where he ruled for seven years. Hebron is described in Joshua (15:14) as having been personally conquered by Caleb and a city he received as a direct gift from God via Joshua (15:13), as well as a city conquered by the tribe of Judah as a whole (Judges 1:10) These two notations suggest that a group that would find Hebron significant is also a group the would recognize Caleb, a son of Judah, as a national hero. This is characteristic of the blue version. 

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