Yossi Feintuch

Moses’ own share in the spies’ historic flop

What went so (tragically) wrong to facilitate the spies-scouts’ fiasco?  According to tradition it must have happened on Tish’ah b’Av (the 9th of Av) even before Av was the name of the fifth month of the (biblical) year. In contrast to what we read in this weekly Torah portion ‘’Sh’lach lecha’’, where it is God who commands Moses to send out the chief of each tribe of Israel – the ‘’odd dozen’’ — on that intelligence collecting mission to the Promised Land, Moses tells a different version in his farewell speech decades after this colossal debacle, whose denouement was a very long layover in the wilderness, rather than an imminent arrival at destination.  

Rather, it is Moses himself who single-handedly – without consulting either God or military mavens — decided to launch that mission by responding promptly to the people’s popular call to do so. To be sure, that demand did not call for sending forth all twelve tribal leaders which is what Moses actually did. Sending off a bigwig from every tribe (except Moses’ tribe, Levi) is where the mission starts to fail before it was even launched, with no one leader in charge at whose desk the buck would stop.

Moses would not repeat that error later when sending spies to the Amorite town Jazer, nor would Joshua, when he sent out ‘’two spies secretly…[to] view the land, and Jericho’’, some four decades later as this weekly Haftarah informs us. Indeed, when these two anonymous spies return to their camp they go straight to Joshua alone, not like the twelve did by having Moses meet them at the public square, instead of reporting to him in privacy. Nevertheless, if the spying on the land was in response to the people’s quest than the public reporting of the findings makes sense, though it was a serious risk that Moses should have considered.  Indeed, there in Main Street the audience would be clueless about what the military findings actually meant, yet the people would be malleable and prone to hasten and draw wrong conclusions. 

In a classical opening gambit of deceit ten of the dozen spies reported in one coordinated version first giving to the people the factual and good news about the land; indeed, it is marvelous, and look, we even brought with us some of its incredible produce.

Moses, however, had deliberately requested the scouts to report their military findings first; whether the local populace was strong-bodied or numerous, and whether they dwelled in fortified cities or in open settlements. Finally they were to report about the goodness of the land and its flora. Moses must have felt that a sanguine ‘’botanical report’’ would mitigate in the eyes of the people whatever worrisome news might stem even from less than a cheerful military report. But Moses’ stratagem would foil if the spies reversed the order of presenting their findings report.  Nevertheless, he did nothing to make the ten men pivot and change the order of their report as he had wanted them to do.

Thus, after asserting that the land was totally cool — ‘’Wow, take a look at these immense grapes!” – the ten spies left no doubt with their hearers that they were faithful to the facts. What a juncture to exploit their quickly established credibility and (ab)use it by immediately switching from the ”emes” (truth) to saying to the people ‘’efes” (but!); woe to us, the land is inhabited by ‘’fierce’’ folks and ‘’giants’’ who dwell in ‘’very large fortified cities’’. And ‘’It is a land that consumes those who dwell in it’’. The ten scouts thus presented their tendentious military report as a ”grand slam” to maximize its discouraging impact in defiance of Moses’ guidelines.

The truth of the matter, however, was that those so-called fierce people sheltered themselves behind fortified city walls not because they felt mighty, but because they were rather anxious and fearful of an imminent Israelite invasion.  Indeed, somehow, they allowed 12 Hebrew politicians to move around and about their land for forty days, without visas or passports, whilst carrying openly a huge cluster of grapes hanging from a pole that required two men to do so; yet, the local ”giants” would not dare and confront them.

Even forty years later those ‘’fierce people’’ were still dreading the Israelites, ”and all the inhabitants of the land [were] quaking before’’ them, as Rahav, Jericho’s ”Madam”, intimated to Joshua’s two anonymous spies whom she sheltered in her house of ‘’ill repute’’.

The ten scouts did not only misread the findings on the ground; without any credentials as intelligence analysts, or being asked to by Moses, they quickly inferred and announced that we the people stood no chance to wrest the land from its current inhabitants, and that a return to Egypt was the only plausible option. What a historical disaster that could have been avoided, yet resulting with a divine punishment barring the Israelites from entering the land for the next 38 years or so.  Perhaps, this sorry comeuppance might have been avoided altogether as Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim of Lontchis noted in his 17th century Torah commentary Kli Yakar where he speculated that had Moses included women in the scouting mission, they would have made the Promised Land more likable for some of their fellow male scouts, and consequently circumvent the calamitous results of the mission that flopped.


About the Author
Ordained a Rabbi by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1994; in 2019 this institution accorded me the degree of Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa. Following ordination I served congregations on the island of Curacao, in Columbia, MO. Currently serving a congregation in Bend, Or. I received academic degrees from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (B.A. in International Relations and History), New York University (M.A. in History), and Emory University (Ph.D. in U.S. History). I am the author of U.S. Policy on Jerusalem (Greenwood Press), and numerous articles on biblical themes in various print and digital publications. I have taught in several academic institutions, including Ben-Gurion University (Beersheba, Israel), and the University of Missouri (Columbia, MO). A native of Afula, Israel. A veteran of the IDF.