Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

Seeing Ourselves as Others See Us — In the Parasha and at the Protests (22)

Autumn (The Spies with the Grapes of the Promised Land), 1660-1664, Nicolas Poussin, Louvre, Paris. Wikiart

This is my 22nd consecutive blog post connecting the parasha to Israel’s pro-democracy protests.

This week’s parasha, Shelah Lekha, includes a rare example from the Torah (maybe the only one?) of what is sometimes called meta-empathy. The spies sent to spy out the land of Canaan in advance of the Israelites’ arrival do not simply look at the world through other people’s eyes, they see themselves as others see them.

Numbers 13:30 Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.” 31 But the men who had gone up with him said, “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.” 32 And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the land they had explored. They said, “The land we explored devours its inhabitants. All the people we saw there are of great size. 33 We saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak come from the Nephilim). We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.”

Their report to Moses has three parts. Part one focuses on food and eating. This theme was present last week (manna and quail) and will continue next week (the earth swallows Korah and his band). The land we explored eats its inhabitants, claim the spies.

Part two develops the other theme that’s central in the parasha. The land’s inhabitants are powerful; the people we saw there were very large, say the spies.

Part three, as traditionally interpreted, is simply an elaboration of part two: We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes and in theirs. That is, next to the inhabitants of the land, we felt and looked small and inconsequential.

Three years ago, I wrote a more detailed post offering a different interpretation of what the spies meant when they said they were like grasshoppers. On my reading, they did not mean that they were small and insignificant in comparison to the natives. They meant that they saw themselves, and were seen by the Canaanites, as people who would ravage the land.

I used to assume that the grasshoppers in the Tanakh that are relevant to ours appear in Isaiah.

Isaiah 40:21 Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded? 22 He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in.

As people appear to God looking down from the heavens, so the Israelites looked to the existing inhabitants of the promised land. Or so I thought. Now I see it differently.

In the food laws outlined in Leviticus 11, grasshoppers belong in the same category as locusts.

Leviticus 11:20 “‘All flying insects that walk on all fours are to be regarded as unclean by you. 21 There are, however, some flying insects that walk on all fours that you may eat: those that have jointed legs for hopping on the ground. 22 Of these you may eat any kind of locust, katydid, cricket or grasshopper. 23 But all other flying insects that have four legs you are to regard as unclean.

Grasshoppers, locusts and two other species are the only insect-like creatures it’s permissible to eat.

In a speech to King Solomon in 2 Chronicles about the power of prayer, God mentions grasshoppers in a context where we should expect to find locusts. God will send grasshoppers to devour the land.

2 Chronicles 7:12 The Lord appeared to him [Solomon] at night and said: I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a temple for sacrifices. 13 “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command grasshoppers to devour the land or send a plague among my people…

The quality the spies see in themselves, and believe the land’s inhabitants see in them, is not, I think, their small size but their ravenous hunger.

Here’s more evidence. The verse immediately before the announcement of the new king in Egypt who did not know Joseph (Exodus 1:6) describes the Israelites in language that evokes insects.

Exodus 1:7 The Israelites were exceedingly fruitful; they multiplied greatly, increased in numbers and became so numerous that the land was filled with them.

The Hebrew word translated here as ‘multiplied greatly’ is more often rendered ‘swarmed’. Almost all other occurrences refer to insects, and indeed, the noun associated with this verb, sheretz, means insect. That same noun was used in the Leviticus list (above) of edible insect-like creatures.

More significantly, parshat Balak, coming soon, opens with statements by the Moabites and their king that reflect exactly what the spies seem to have in mind when they describe themselves as grasshoppers.

Numbers 22:2 Now Balak son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites, and Moab was terrified because there were so many people. Indeed, Moab was filled with dread because of the Israelites. The Moabites said to the elders of Midian, “This horde is going to lick up everything around us, as an ox licks up the grass of the field.”

The Moabites fear that the Israelites will devour the land, and King Balak is afraid that they will cover the face (literally eye) of the land.

Numbers 22:5 “A people has come out of Egypt; they cover the eye of the land and have settled next to me. Now come and put a curse on these people, because they are too powerful for me. Perhaps then I will be able to defeat them and drive them out of the land.

The idiom ‘to cover the eye of the land’ occurs twice in Exodus 10 (verses 5 and 15), where it refers to locusts:

Exodus 10:4 If you refuse to let them go, I will bring locusts into your country tomorrow. They will cover the face of the ground so that it cannot be seen. They will devour what little you have left after the hail, including every tree that is growing in your fields.

Both the Egyptians and the Moabites see Israel as a ravenous horde who would devour their lands. In both cases, this horde is described in language used elsewhere in relation to locusts. The terms for locusts and grasshoppers appear interchangeably in the Tanakh.

It’s at least worth considering, and perhaps even more plausible, that the spies who entered the land of Canaan saw themselves, and suspected themselves as being seen, as the people who would devour Canaan, not as people smaller than the Canaanites.

So why don’t we consider both readings? Maybe because the spies did something so challenging we can barely imagine it (all the more because it could affect our own self-perception). They scrutinized themselves using the lens through which their enemies saw them. Instead of plucky underdogs about to pull off a shock victory in search of a home of their own, they were ravaging hordes who would invade foreign territory and leave nothing standing in their wake.

I’m guessing I’m not alone in feeling like an underdog when I go out with my placard to the weekly post-Shabbat demonstrations. The other side seems so powerful, and so determined to destroy democracy and trample over the rights of all who uphold it.

Yet at the same time, I know I should emulate the spies, as I understand them. I should acknowledge that supporters of judicial reform see themselves as the underdogs. They see people like me as members of a privileged elite determined to grab back the power that was finally wrested from them. I know I should internalize that my values seem as threatening to the lifestyles of many Israelis as theirs seem to mine. Seeing ourselves as others see us may not get us far, but if we hope to continue to live together as one people, it must surely be a step in the right direction.

About the Author
Before I moved to Israel in 2011, I was a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge (1997-2006), and a Reader in Hebrew Bible and Jewish Studies at King's College London (2007-2011). In Israel, I've taught Bible at Hebrew University's International School and, currently, in the Department of Biblical Studies at Tel Aviv University, where I am a Teaching Fellow and chair the Academic Steering Committee of the Orit Guardians MA program for Ethiopian Jews. I give a weekly parsha shiur at Beit Moses home for the elderly in Jerusalem. I serve on the Boards of Jerusalem Culture Unlimited (JCU) and Hassadna Jerusalem Music Conservatory, and I'm a judge for the Sami Rohr Prize. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim Milikowsky. My last book was 'From Forbidden Fruit to Milk and Honey: A Commentary on Food in the Torah'; proceeds go to Leket, Israel's national food bank. The working title of my next book, co-authored with Micha Price, is 'A Biblical Guide to the Climate Crisis'.
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