Writings / Of Spies and Men

The main episode which takes place in Parshat Shelach is the story of the men sent by Moshe to scout the land. Although these men are referred to in rabbinic literature as "spies,"(1) the Torah never describes their mission in these terms.(2) Moshe appoints them to tour the land, and they are called, quite simply, men. Only later, in Moshe's retrospective speech describing these events, is the word 'spy' introduced.

And you came near me, all of you, and said, 'We will send men before us, and they shall search us out the land, and bring us back word, the route by which we will ascend, and the cities to which we shall come. And I thought this was a good idea; and I took twelve men from among you, one from each tribe. And they turned and went up toward the mountain, and came to the valley of Eshkol, and spied it out. (Devarim 1:22-24)

The twelve appointed men did, in fact, act as spies, although this was not the original mission statement; perhaps this was part of the problem. Their behavior warranted a change in name, a redefinition of their mission after the fact. This stands in stark contrast with an earlier episode in the Torah in which a group of men stand accused as spies, and deny it vehemently:

And Yosef recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. And Yosef remembered the dreams which he dreamed of them, and said to them, 'You are spies; to see the nakedness of the land you have come.' And they said to him, 'No, my lord, your servants came to buy food. We are all one man's sons; we are honest men, your servants are no spies.' And he said to them, 'No, to see the nakedness of the land you have come.' And they said, 'Your servants are twelve brothers, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan; and, behold, the youngest is this day with our father, and one is not.' And Yosef said to them, 'That is what I spoke to you, saying, You are spies. This is how you shall be tested: By Paroh's life, you shall not leave here, unless your youngest brother comes here. Send one of you, and let him fetch your brother, and you shall be kept in prison, that your words may be proven, whether there is any truth in you; or else by the life of Pharaoh surely you are spies.' And he put them all together under guard for three days. (Bereishit 42:8-17) (3)

At first glance there is absolutely no connection between these two sections; in fact, they seem to be opposites. The "sin of the spies" deals with spies who are called men, and Yosef's accusation of the brothers deals with men who are called spies! Nonetheless, appearances notwithstanding, there may actually be a profound relationship between these sections. Let us carefully analyze the elements of each story: The first striking similarity or common theme is the number of people involved. While it is true that Moshe sent twelve men, only ten of them were spies. The remaining two, Calev and Yehoshua, had no part in the slanderous report or its tragic results. Of Yaakov's twelve sons, only ten were accused of being spies: Binyamin was at home and Yosef was the unknown accuser. A more in-depth analysis of the sin of the spies will bring to light other common elements that go beyond this seemingly superficial numerical parallel, taking us to the very core of the issue.

What was the sin of the spies? If we carefully analyze their report and the punishment they were given subsequent to their report, we are able to discern several distinct stages. When they first return from their mission, they say:

They reported to him and said, "We arrived at the Land to which you sent us, and indeed it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. But - the people that dwells in the Land is powerful, the cities are very greatly fortified, and we also saw there the offspring of the giant. (Bamidbar 13:27-28)

The physical attributes of the Land are described in glowing terms, while the inhabitants of the Land are described as frightful; the implication is that military conquest is not feasible. Thus far, the spies do not denigrate or disparage the Land of Israel; they address the technical difficulty that conquest will present. It is this point that Calev challenges: he assures the people that their goal is attainable, that they have the capabilities.

And Calev quieted the people before Moshe, and said, 'We will surely ascend, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.' (Bamidbar 13:30)

When the spies respond to Calev's challenge, they reiterate their previous point and introduce a new argument, a second tier of doubt:

But the men who had ascended with him said, "We cannot ascend to that people for it is too strong for us!" They brought forth to the Children of Israel an evil report on the Land that they had spied out, saying, "The Land through which we have passed, to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants! All the people that we saw in it were huge. (Bamidbar 13:30)

Now they attacked the land itself, and not only the inhabitants or the fortifications; they describe it as "a land that devours its inhabitants." The Torah prefaces their words with an editorial comment describing their response: "they brought forth an evil report." It is this "evil report," this second-tier attack that elicits a response by the people.(4) This second statement sets the chain reaction in motion. The people are demoralized, and the situation soon spirals out of control. They begin murmuring about returning to Egypt,(5) or even staging a coup,(6) before God puts an end to the revolt.

Significantly, when the spies' punishment is meted out, the Torah relates only to this second tier of criticism and not to their earlier remarks regarding the difficulty they would face in conquering the land. Only the slanderous words against the Land itself provoke God's ire.

But as for the men whom Moshe sent to tour the Land, and who returned and provoked the entire assembly against him byspreading a slanderous report against the Land: The people who spread the slanderous evil report about the Land died in a plague before God. (Bamidbar 14:36-37)

It seems that God is willing to "overlook" the questioning of His (or Moshe's) ability to successfully complete the journey and conquer the Promised Land, but a direct attack on the Land itself is unforgivable.

The word used to describe the sin of the spies is dibbah, which implies slander.(7) This is not the first usage of this word; that dubious honor belongs to the episode of Yosef and his brothers. The starting point of the enmity and the point at which the relationship between Yosef and his brothers breaks down is the "evil, slanderous report" that Yosef brought to his father about his brothers:

These are the chronicles of Yaakov - Yosef, at the age of seventeen, was a shepherd with his brothers by the flock, but he was a youth with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father's wives; and Yosef would bring evil reports about them to their father. (Bereishit 37:2)

With these words, the backdrop for the sale of Yosef is painted. Despite the tension that had been percolating just below the surface for some time, Ya'akov sends Yosef to seek out his brothers, to bring back a report. Apparently Ya'akov was not opposed to Yosef's reporting; otherwise, sending him on this mission would have been absurd. On the other hand, given the eventual result and long-term consequences, perhaps Yaakov was mistaken. Can we draw any conclusions, learn any lessons, regarding the mission with which Moshe charged the twelve men? Perhaps if we compare the consequences of Yosef's mission with that of the mission of the spies - each having caused years of wandering and exile - these two seemingly disparate episodes come into closer focus.

Yosef's proclivity for telling tales brings another connection between the two episodes to light - a connection that is alluded to by an anomaly in the verses describing the spies. When the names of the men sent by Moshe are enumerated, only one of the representatives of the tribes of Yosef is attributed in the normal way. When the "tourist" from Efraim is named, no identification with Yosef is offered; when the representative of Menashe is named he is described as being from the tribe of Yosef.(8)

Rashi explains(9) that only the descendant of Yosef who spoke slander - like Yosef himself - is identified with Yosef. Yehoshua was silent; he did not slander the Land of Israel with the other spies, and is therefore not identified as a descendant of Yosef: "From the tribe of Ephraim, Hoshea the son of Nun," rather than "From the Tribe of Yosef, from the Tribe of Ephraim," as is the case with the representative of the Tribe of Menashe: "From the Tribe of Yosef, from the Tribe of Manashe, Gadi the son of Susi."

The Ibn Ezra(10) points out a subtle but important difference between Yosef and the spies: Yosef's reports to his father were accurate, factual accounts - disparaging, but true.(11) Yosef's report painted his brothers in a very poor light, bringing his brothers' deficiencies to their father's attention, but Yosef did not manufacture the content of the report. On the other hand, (according to the Ibn Ezra's reading) the Torah states clearly that the spies were telling lies, fabricating a "slanderous evil report."

Despite the subtle differences, the relationship between these two episodes seems to come to life, beyond the words themselves - "spies" and "slander,"meraglim and dibbah. An additional connection may be found in the geographical description of the spies' journey:

They ascended in the Negev (i.e., the south) and (he) arrived at Hevron, where there were Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai, the offspring of the giant. Hevron had been built seven years before Zoan of Egypt. (Bamidbar 13:23)

There is a peculiarity in the text which is sometimes obscured by the translation: The text indicates that the group, in plural, ascended from the south, while in the same verse stating, in the singular form, that "he" came to Hevron. According to tradition, only one of the men made his way to Hevron, the family home and burial ground of their ancestors: Calev.

And he arrived at Hevron: Calev alone went there and prostrated himself on the graves of the Patriarchs, offering prayer that he might be helped not to give way to the enticement of his colleagues and join them in their counsel; You may see that it was Calev who went there, for so indeed it (Scripture) states, [Devarim1:36] "[Save Calev the son of Yefunneh, he shall see it] and unto him will I give the land upon which he walked!" and it is written, [Shoftim1:20] "And they gave Hevron to Calev." (Rashi, Bamidbar 13:22)

It is not surprising that upon visiting this old/new Land, one of the tourists wishes to see the place where his family had lived. This tradition alone may indicate the different purposes the various travelers saw in their trip. One of the twelve men seeks out a connection to ancient family property and burial grounds; the others are far less emotionally connected. They act as spies.(12)

This particular excursion to Hevron has deeper meaning. The Torah states that they ascended in the south; those familiar with the geography and topography of the land of Israel will know that Hevron is on a mountain. On the other hand, when Ya'akov sent Yosef to seek his brothers, the Torah states that he was sent from the 'Valley of Hevron':

And he said to him, "Go now, look into the welfare of your brothers and the welfare of the flock, and bring me back word." So he sent him from the Valley (depth) of Hevron, and he arrived at Shechem. (Bereishit 37:14)

Rashi explains:

FROM THE VALLEY OF HEVRON- But is not Hevron situated on a mountain, as it is said (Bamidbar 13:22) "They ascended in the south and he arrived at Hevron?" Why, then, does it state that Yaakov sent him from the emek, [the vale, the deep part] of Hevron? But the meaning is that Yaakov sent him in consequence of the necessity of bringing into operation the profound thought of the righteous man who was buried in Hevron in order that there might be fulfilled that which was spoken to Avraham when the Covenant was made "between the parts" (Bereishit 15:13), "your descendents will be strangers, etc": (Rashi, Bereishit 37:14)

Here, Rashi teaches a profound lesson: The sale of Yosef, the exile of the tribes, the slavery of the people, the glorious Exodus and Revelation at Sinai were all part of a larger Divine plan. A covenant had been forged between God and Avraham; slavery was part of the deal, but so were liberation and a return to the Land. Now, Calev returns home, to the place where the exile had begun. As far as Calev is concerned, they have come full circle and it is time for this terrible exile to end. It seems significant that the two renegade men, the two who refuse to be spies, Calev and Yehoshua, were from the tribes of Yehuda and Yosef respectively. These were the main protagonists in the sale of Yosef. After all, it was Yehuda who suggested they sell Yosef in the first place.(13) Perhaps Calev was intent on going back to the place where it all began, and perhaps that is what lay at the foundation of the alliance that was formed between these two great leaders.

The sojourn in Egypt was intertwined with a prophecy of a Promised Land:

And he said to him, 'I am God who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this Land as an inheritance.' And he said, 'Almighty God, how shall I know that I shall inherit it?' And He said to him, 'Bring me a three year old heifer, and a three year old female goat, and a three year old ram, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon.' And he took to him all these, and divided them in the midst, and laid each half against the other; but he did not divide the birds. And when the eagle came down upon the carcasses, Avram drove them away. And when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Avram; and, lo, a fear of great darkness fell upon him. And He said to Avram, 'Know for a certainty that your descendents will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterward shall they come out with great wealth. And you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. But in the fourth generation they shall come here again; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.' (Bereishit 15:7-16)

Now, at the cusp of the fulfillment of that Divine promise made to Avraham, hope is replaced by fear. How ironic that now they become fearful: the hard part was past, the slavery in Egypt had been endured, and now that the prophecy is to be fulfilled, the people break down. The catalyst that brought about their slavery was the sale of Yosef, which in turn was caused by thedibbah, the evil reports that Yosef shared with his father. The report which Yaakov had asked for - about the welfare of his sons and their flocks, was never answered. Instead Yaakov received a different answer, one which took him years to understand: God's promise to Avraham had begun, the wheels had been set in motion, and the slavery would soon begin.

The sin of the spies was that they were spies.(14) They approached the Promised Land with detachment, without the desire to go back to their ancestral roots, without the sensitivity to their destiny that Calev displayed when he traveled to Hevron. Their words cause calamity, fear, dread and depression. They lied about the land and exhibited a profound lack of faith in God, in Moshe, in the Land of Israel, in Jewish history and Jewish destiny. Yehoshua and Calev were men; they retained their faith and fidelity. They understood that the sale of Yosef needed to be healed, and the highly symbolic return of Calev to Hevron indicates this understanding. They were careful of the words they used, careful that no dibbah, no slander, would pass their lips. The time had arrived to go back home. Unfortunately, the other men ceased to behave as men; they became spies. And as one painful chapter of Jewish history, brought on by slanderous speech, came to a close, a new painful chapter was opened - in much the same way.



1. The episode described in our present parsha is often referred to as the "sin of the spies." See Talmud Bavli Ta'anit 29a, Megilah 13a, Sotah 11b,34b, Bav Batra 117b, 118b, Sanhedrin 109b among many other sources.

2. I heard this observation from my teacher, Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik, in a lecture entitled"Het Miriam uMeraglim" (The Sin of Miriam and the Spies), delivered 06/04/75.

3. For an analysis of this section, see "Of Spies and Thieves" in my forthcoming volume, "Echoes of Eden" (Jerusalem: Gefen Publishers).

4. This refers to the masses who are now frightened.

5. See Bamidbar 14:3, "And why has God brought us to this land, to fall by the sword, that our wives and our children should be prey? Were it not better for us to return into Egypt?

6. See Bamidbar 14:10, "But all the congregation said to stone them with stones. And the glory of God appeared in the Tent of Meeting before all the people of Israel.

7. Mishlei 10:18: "He who hides hatred has lying lips, and he who utters a slander is a fool." Rashi, Bereishit 37:2, writes: The word dibbah always means, in old French, [speaking slander]; whatever he could speak bad about them he told to his father. Dibbah has the same meaning as the verb of the same root in the Song of Songs, 7:10: "making speak the lips of those that are asleep."

8. Compare this with Bamidbar 1:10, where the leaders of the respective tribes of both Efraim and Menashe are mentioned as sons of Yosef in one verse: "From the sons of Yosef: of Ephraim, Elishama the son of Ammihud; of Menashe, Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur."

9. This comment is not found in Rashi's commentary on the Torah, rather in his Sefer Hapardes, page 93.

10. Ibn Ezra, Bamidbar 13:32.

11. The text in Bereishit 37:2 says Yosef "brought" slander to his father.

12. The outwardly problematic behavior of Yehoshua has been discussed in my bookExplorations (Jerusalem: Targum Publishers, 2000).

13. Bereishit 37:26-27.

14. Heard from Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik; see footnote 2, above.