Naomi Graetz

Carcasses and collective punishment: Parshat Shelach Lecha


“Send agents (anashim) to scout (ve-yaturu) the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people; send one participant from each of their ancestral tribes, each one a chieftain among them.” Moses, by God’s command, sent them out from the wilderness of Paran, all of them being men of consequence, leaders of the Israelites (Numbers 13:2-3).

At the beginning of parshat shelach lecha God commands Moses to send some men to check out the land of Canaan. Moses sends heads of the Israelite tribes telling 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 land 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 (ve-hitchazaktem) to bring back some of the fruit of the land.”—Now it happened to be the season of the first ripe grapes (Numbers 13: 17-20).

Why do they have to be strong (chazak)? Is it because during the grape harvest, there are people guarding the vineyards who might actively oppose their “taking the fruit of the land” which does not belong to them (Chizkuni)? Or is there a hint that they might get drunk with the wine from the vineyards? Are they told to be strong and not be tempted by the young wine? But what if they did drink and were even a bit drunk and had visions, which lead to them exaggerating the dangers of what they saw? And that might be one of the reasons why they were later punished, as perhaps were Aaron’s two sons for drinking on the job, according to the midrash (Leviticus 10: 1-10).

At the end of forty days, they returned from scouting the land. They went straight to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community at Kadesh in the wilderness of Paran, and they made their report to them and to the whole community, as they showed them the fruit of the land. This is what they told him:

“We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw the Anakites (giants) there. Amalekites dwell in the Negeb region; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites inhabit the hill country; and Canaanites dwell by the Sea and along the Jordan” (Numbers 13:25-29).

In other words, there are actual people living there. You can’t just walk in and take the land.  But Caleb takes the minority position, and will have none of that. He says, “We will surely go up and take hold of it, for we will surely prevail over it” (vs. 30). With God on his side, we don’t have to worry if the people living there will protest being conquered. The majority of the spies argued that they should not go to the land and they further badmouthed the land by saying that it “is a land that consumes those who dwell in it” (vs. 32), and there are lots of strong and big people living there. As Robert Alter writes in his commentary: “The land flowing with milk and honey, then, is seen in these words as a kind of death trap: even if the Israelites were to succeed in obtaining a foothold and themselves became dwellers of the land, it would “consume” them through internecine and international warfare.”

But the other men who had gone up with him said, “We cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we.” Thus they spread calumnies among the Israelites about the land they had scouted, saying, “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are of great size; we saw the Nephilim there—the Anakites (giants) are part of the Nephilim—and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (Numbers 13:30-33).

It seems to me that the spies were definitely high on something, if not drunk, when they made this statement. They saw giants and mythical characters and had moments when they were like Alice in Wonderland. But unfortunately, ten spies vs. Caleb did the trick and the collective people were influenced and said the magic words three times which would inflame God for His people’s lack of faith and appreciation for freeing them from slavery:

The whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept that night. All the Israelites railed against Moses and Aaron. “If only we had died in the land of Egypt,” the whole community shouted at them, “or if only we might die in this wilderness!” “Why is God taking us to that land to fall by the sword?” “Our wives and children will be carried off!” “It would be better for us to go back to Egypt!” And they said to one another, “Let us head back for Egypt” (Numbers 14:1-4).


Joshua and Caleb bravely confront the complaining Israelites, the “protesters” and for their efforts Joshua and Caleb are assaulted and but for God’s intervention, they would have been pelted with stones. God as usual is very angry:

“How long will this people spurn Me, and how long will they have no faith in Me despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst? I will strike them with pestilence and disown them, and I will make of you a nation far more numerous than they!” (Numbers 14:11-12).

Moses intervenes and saves the nation from immediate punishment. He appeals to God’s self-image. What will the goyim think if you destroy the nation?

Therefore, I pray, let my Lord’s forbearance be great, as You have declared, saying, God is slow to anger and abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression; yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of parents upon children, upon the third and fourth generations.’ Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to Your great kindness, as You have forgiven this people ever since Egypt.”

And Moses’s intervening words seem to work, because God says: “I pardon, as you have asked.”

But in the end, two generations worth of Israelites are to be punished for their “sinning,” which is a betrayal of God, a lack of trust in the Deity (the Hebrew is actually their whoring–zenuteichem). They will die off while their children wander

for forty years, suffering for their faithlessness זְנוּתֵיכֶ֑ם. The entire nation will suffer for years by wandering around in the wilderness until they all drop dead except for Caleb and Joshua.


Obviously, from the point of view of the redactor of this story, Caleb and Joshua are the good guys, the heroes who take the side of God. I wonder whether we have a right to completely write off the perspective of the people who “voted” for the ten spies and their message of caution. The land we were about to conquer was not empty of people. True, they may have exaggerated, but they were telling it as they saw it. It was Caleb and Joshua who saw the land with rose colored glasses, since they were predisposed to believing that this was the promised land. Their argument was two-fold: Caleb said, “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.” Joshua and Caleb both:

exhorted the whole Israelite community: “The land that we traversed and scouted is an exceedingly good land. eased with us, God will bring us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey, and give it to us; only you must not rebel against God. Have no fear then of the people of the country, for they are our prey: their protection has departed from them, but God is with us. Have no fear of them!”

To this modern reader, especially after October 7th , Joshua’s and Caleb’s words sound like pure hubris! They are unwilling to validate any negative testimony of the spies. They are willing to take risks, because they believe in God’s goodness. They even reduce the people who live in Canaan as unprotected “prey” (lachmenu hem) – literally, they are our bread to be eaten, to be gobbled up.


As I was reading, I thought to myself. We are supposedly God’s chosen people. He has given us a land, a land supposedly filled with honey and milk. From His perspective, we are supposed to be grateful. From our perspective, it is a dubious honor and even a burden. We are expected to behave in an unrealistically higher standard than the rest of the world. Whenever we swerve off the path that has been dictated to us, we are punished. We are the wandering people, with a promised land always in front of us. And then what happens when we occupy this land, we have to fight for it; we find out that it is not full of honey and milk, but full of thorns and thistles. We have to be inventive in order to survive here. We, the inhabitants, have disagreements about the meaning of chosenness – chosen for what? To suffer, to say when your child is born, that you hope there won’t be any more wars and then when your grandchildren go off to war, you hope that their children will not have to be soldiers? Is it possible that these ten spies were prophets, and not sinners? Did they see far into the future and see what would be the long-term outcome of entering a so-called promised land?


I am affronted by a God who speaks to his chosen people without any compassion:

In this very wilderness shall your carcasses drop. Of all of you [men] who were recorded in your various lists from the age of twenty years up, you who have muttered against Me, not one shall enter the land in which I swore to settle you—save Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun. Your children who, you said, would be carried off—these will I allow to enter; they shall know the land that you have rejected. But your carcasses shall drop in this wilderness, while your children roam the wilderness for forty years, suffering for your faithlessness, until the last of your carcasses is down in the wilderness (Numbers 14: 29-33).

Note that God does not even dignify the bodies of his chosen people with proper burials. They will be carcasses who drop dead in the wilderness. There will be no markers for them. Carcasses (פִגְרֵיכֶ֜ם) is a term one would think associated with animals, not human beings. The human body is holy. The human body has to be buried quickly. The human body should not even be left overnight unburied and if human bodies are not buried, it is scandalous. There was a three year period of starvation during David’s reign because of the unburied bodies of Saul and Jonathan (2 Samuel 21:1-14).


I decided to check on the word carcass in the context of our passage and then later to see how the word appears in general in the Tanakh. I wondered if the meforshim (the classical commentators) were disturbed by the word. Did they sense something wrong in God’s referring to his chosen people as carcasses? Did they take an apologetic stance?

Rashi is silent. He has nothing to say. Ibn Ezra cleans up the word and says הגופות, the bodies. A 19th century Italian commentator Yitzchak Shemuel Reggio writes that, carcasses, are bodies without a soul. And that God calls them this in a pejorative manner. And that since the verdict [that they will die in the wilderness] they are to be considered like dead carcasses. A quick look at will reveal that not too many commentators related to this. The nineteenth century commentator, Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin (the Natziv) from Belarus, wrote in Ha-Amek Davar on the verse:

In this very wilderness shall your carcasses drop. Of all of you [men] who were recorded in your various lists from the age of twenty years up, you who have muttered against Me.” These are two things: The carcasses are the edah, the entire wicked community, and the second are the elders who muttered against me. 

This would perhaps justify the idea of collective punishment, because the word the entire group (kol) appears throughout the passages. Rabenu Behayei, a 14th century commentator who focuses on language and allegory writes:

In this desert your carcasses will drop (14:29). It seems that there were three categories of people involved in this sin: those who wept through the night, those who complained against Moshe and Aaron and said “If only we had died in the land of Egypt, and those who said let’s go back to Egypt. And that is why Scripture mentioned “your carcasses” three times. It uses the language “your carcasses” to differentiate it from souls (nefesh). Only the carcasses died and the souls still had a place in the future world. So when God said “in this wilderness, they will die” three times, it refers to the carcasses, not the souls.

A similar comment is picked up by the popular Yiddish Tzena U’reana, from the 17th century: “In this very wilderness shall your carcasses drop” [14:29]. Therefore, it says your carcasses. That is to say, your bodies. This is the body that will disappear, but your soul will have a share in the world to come.


When I searched for the use of the word carcasses/corpses in context, it seems that the word is not neutral. It has a pejorative context and very often is used about Israel’s enemies. One example is from Isaiah:

Their slain shall be left lying, and the stench of their corpses וּפִגְרֵיהֶ֖ם shall mount; and the hills shall be drenched with their blood (Isaiah 34:3).

Another is from the prophet Nahum:

Charging cavalry, flashing swords, and glittering spears! Hosts of slain and heaps of corpses, וְכֹ֣בֶד פָּ֑גֶר dead bodies without number—they stumble over bodies (Nahum 3:3).

Another example is from 1 Samuel:

This very day the LORD will deliver you into my hands. I will kill you and cut off your head; and I will give the carcasses פֶּ֣גֶר of the Philistine camp to the birds of the sky and the beasts of the earth. All the earth shall know that there is a God in Israel (1 Samuel 17:46).

But note that it is not only the enemies of Israel who are going to end up as carcasses; it can be the Israelites as well, when they do not behave:

I will destroy your cult places and cut down your incense stands, and I will heap your carcasses upon your lifeless fetishes וְנָֽתַתִּי֙ אֶת־פִּגְרֵיכֶ֔ם עַל־פִּגְרֵ֖י גִּלּוּלֵיכֶ֑ם. I will spurn you  (Leviticus 26:30).

So we should be less surprised that God uses carcass פגר, usually associated with what will happen to Israel’s enemies, to what will happen to the faithless Israelites who do not behave, as with the curses in Leviticus.


To end on a less depressing note, there is an interesting midrash about Tu B’Av, the fifteenth day of Av. It appears in the Petichta, the prologue of the Sages to Midrash Eikha Rabati. There are many examples of “wonderous” things that took place on this day, worthy of celebration. Towards the end we read:

Rabbi Avin and Rabbi Yoḥanan said: It is the day that the digging for those who died in the wilderness was halted. Rabbi Levi said: Every eve of the ninth of Av, Moses would dispatch a herald to the entire camp, saying: ‘Go out and dig,’ and they would go out and dig graves and sleep in them. In the morning, he would dispatch a herald saying: ‘Rise and separate the dead from the living,’ and they would stand and take themselves out. Fifteen thousand and more were subtracted, *Each year for a total of six hundred thousand. In the fortieth year, the last one, they did so and found themselves intact. They said: It appears that we were mistaken in our calculation, and they did the same on the tenth, the eleventh, the twelfth, the thirteenth, and the fourteenth. When the moon was full, they said: It appears that the Holy One blessed be He abrogated the decree from upon us, and they then rendered it a holiday.

This is the happy ending, but of course, there is no such thing – because we are a sinning nation, and so the midrash concludes thus:

But due to their iniquities, mourning beset this world with the destruction of the Temple twice. That is what is written: “My lyre is for mourning, and my flute is for the voice of weepers” (Job 30:31). “The people wept that night” (Numbers 14:1) – when they were exiled, Jeremiah began lamenting over them: “How does…sit solitary?” (Lamentations 1:1). 

Surely, we wish to have “happy endings” today; that there will be a finite end to our wandering around in the present day wilderness of uncertainty; and that the suffering of our hostages, who are locked in living graves, ends, so that they will get up and out and be freed, before it is too late.


About the Author
Naomi Graetz taught English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev for 35 years. She is the author of Unlocking the Garden: A Feminist Jewish Look at the Bible, Midrash and God; The Rabbi’s Wife Plays at Murder ; S/He Created Them: Feminist Retellings of Biblical Stories (Professional Press, 1993; second edition Gorgias Press, 2003), Silence is Deadly: Judaism Confronts Wifebeating and Forty Years of Being a Feminist Jew. Since Covid began, she has been teaching Bible and Modern Midrash from a feminist perspective on zoom. She began her weekly blog for TOI in June 2022. Her book on Wifebeating has been translated into Hebrew and is forthcoming with Carmel Press in 2025.
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