Parshat Shelah: Were the spies set up by Moses?

Thoughts on Parshat Shelah — Was the Meraglim episode a setup?

Parshat Shelah tells the very disturbing and problematic story of the ‘meraglim’, the twelve spies sent at G-d’s behest to tour Canaan and report back “one man from each tribe of their fathers, every one a ruler among them” (Numbers 13:1). Moses then augments the spies’ mandate by authorizing them to report whether the dwellers in Canaan are “strong or weak, few or many” (18),”whether the land in which they dwell is good or bad … whether the cities are tents or fortresses” (19) etc. Before dispatching the spies, Moses singles out Joshua; “…and Moses called Hoshea bin Nun, Yehoshua” (16) which Rashi notes is an indicator that he knew the entire enterprise did not augur well.

Upon their return, the spies fulfill their mandate precisely by providing detailed information per what Moses had requested. First they “show the fruit of the Land” and describe it as “flowing with milk and honey” (27). They then describe the people as “Strong”, the cities as “fortified and large” (28), “Amalek dwells in the Negev, the Hittites, Jebusites and Emorites dwell in the hills, and the Canaanites dwell by the sea and along the Jordan” (29). Thus far their report is merely factual, and no negative or pessimistic word has been uttered.

Nevertheless Caleb finds it necessary at this point to interject; “Let us go up at once and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it” (30) It is only now that the other ten spies turn negative; “And the men who went up with him said, we cannot rise to those people for they are stronger than us” (31). Only now do they shift from fact to hyperbole: “It is a land that eats its inhabitants … all the people are giants” (32). “And we saw there the nefilim sons of Anak (giant)… and we perceived ourselves as grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes” (33).

We can only speculate as to what the ten naysayers would have said had Caleb remained silent. Perhaps they would have been content to conclude with their factual description rather than volunteer their opinion that the land was unconquerable. This we will never know. But we do know the denouement of this sorry story, whereby all the spies other than Caleb and Joshua were doomed, and the Children of Israel were condemned to wander in the desert for 40 year until the last of the refugees from Egypt had died.

This is a classic case of shooting the messenger. But why?

It seems the entire episode was a setup. The very decision to send the tribal chiefs on this mission virtually guaranteed its failure. After all, no one has a more vested interest in maintaining the status quo than the entrenched chieftains. These men had reached the very top of their game – a game best played in the desert. They knew very well that once Eretz Israel was settled and the nomadic life was abandoned they would be lame ducks at best, anachronisms with little to offer and no justification for their continued leadership. Moreover, what government or army sends mature, successful, establishment men on an espionage mission? Reconnaissance is a game for the young, the bold, the ones who are looking for missions and challenges, not for Senators or CEOs of Fortune corporations. And finally, why the need to send such a large delegation? Why was it necessary to have each tribe represented? Couldn’t Moses have sent Joshua and Caleb alone? To argue they were all needed because each tribe would listen only to its own chief lacks credibility. After all, the tribes of Caleb and Joshua did not respond favorably to the positive position of their leaders. They, too, sided with the mob against Moses and Aaron.

To begin with, why was this mission necessary altogether? On the basis of this parsha there is zero indication that the people had asked for it. The initiative was G-d’s, as was the composition of the delegation that was dispatched.

It appears to me that the entire “Meraglim” episode was indeed a setup – a setup intended to achieve one basic goal – namely to postpone the invasion of Canaan until the generation that had been slaves in Egypt had passed on. 
G-d, and perhaps Moses, understood that an entrenched, fortified, established society (“Hebron was built seven year before Zoan in Egypt” – 13:22) would not fall to a ragtag mob of recent slaves with no frame of reference as free men, let alone any battle experience. At the same time, there was no acceptable way to announce this and inform 600,000 Israelites that, no, despite what G-d had promised they would not actually be settling in the Promised Land, after all. The stage had to be set, legitimacy gained in order to justify such a decision to wander until the last of the original Egypt-born Israelites had died. And this legitimacy was garnered by way of the Meraglim.

The stage was set by G-d and Moses. But the match was lit by Caleb. His interjection in verse 13:30 ignited the conflagration by getting the other ten spies to react to his call for immediate invasion. Had Caleb kept his mouth shut it could well be that all Moses would have gotten from his reconnaissance team was factual information. They would defer to him to process this data, which is hierarchically correct. Their mandate did not include making the decision regarding if and when to attack. It is not a spy’s job to determine policy.

Indeed the first to speak out of line was, in fact, a seemingly hot-headed Caleb whose braggadocio is apparent in his words – unless, of course, he was making his declaration in order to trigger the response it elicited, and thus enable G-d and Moses to achieve their goal of putting the invasion of Canaan on hold for 40 years. It could even be that Caleb and Joshua were primed in advance to trigger the turmoil. The adding in of G-d’s name by changing Hoshea to Yehoshua at this point in time (and with no explanation given) might indicate this.

In retrospect it makes perfect sense that this ruse took place. It bought the necessary time to raise a new generation of Israelites not burdened with the defeatism, weakness, inexperience and ghetto mentality of those who had been born in Egypt. Over the course of the next 40 years a new generation would rise, a generation of people accustomed to harsh, independent living; battle hardened and lacking any nostalgia for the shtetls from which they had emerged.

About the Author
J.J Gross is a veteran creative director and copywriter, who made aliyah in 2007 from New York. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and a lifelong student of Bible and Talmud. He is also the son of Holocaust survivors from Hungary and Slovakia.
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