Michael Carasik

Shelach Lecha: One of These Spies Is Not Like the Others

You may remember that when we began the book of Numbers I suggested it should really be called the Book of the Tribes. Over and over again, here as nowhere else in the Torah, 12 tribes are listed. If you look carefully, you’ll notice that the tribes are not always in the same order. The two listings in Numbers 1, for example, start with Reuben, the firstborn of Jacob, who might be expected theoretically to be the leader; in Numbers 2, when the military arrangements are made, everything starts with Judah.

In Numbers 13, listing the 12 spies, they start out once again in birth order, with Reuben first, but the order is not the same as in chapter 1. Something that all the tribal lists in Numbers share is here too, however: After Reuben the firstborn and Simeon, Jacob’s second son, comes Judah, son #4. Levi, the third of the sons, is missing, because in Numbers the Levites are a separate group, not one of the 12 tribes.

How do you still end up with twelve? In Numbers, besides there being no tribe of Levi, there is also no tribe of Joseph. Or, rather, there are two tribes from Joseph, named after the two of his sons who are named in the Bible: Ephraim and Manasseh. The son who gets two shares instead of just one, according to Deut 21:17, is the firstborn. Joseph is the firstborn son of his mother Rachel, not of his father Jacob, yet he is the winner — and the real conflict in the Bible, as in Israelite history, is between Joseph and Judah, not Joseph and Reuben.

One thing that you won’t notice unless you read this chapter in Hebrew — or unless you’ve found a translation that uses “you” for the singular and “y’all” for the plural — is the subtle switch in what YHWH commands Moses in Num 13:2:

Send [שְׁלַח / shlaḥ, singular] yourself some men and let them scout the land of Canaan, which I’m giving to the Israelites. You must send [תִּשְׁלָ֔חוּ / tishláḥu, plural] one man per tribe, every chief among them.

That first, singular shlaḥ is the one this week’s reading gets its name from, but halfway through the verse, YHWH switches from commanding Moses alone to commanding all of the Israelites.

There’s one more thing that you will find out in this chapter only if you look carefully not just at the Hebrew words but also at the punctuation. By “punctuation” I mean what Jews call the t’amim, the cantillation marks — marks that tell you how to chant the text of the Bible when you are reading it in the synagogue.

Amazingly enough. there are some texts of the Hebrew Bible — especially electronic ones — that don’t bother with punctuation. That’s a terrible disaster, because the punctuation both helps you read and understand the text and also constitutes a silent commentary. A lot of meaning is lost if you eliminate it, as we’ll see shortly.

As I explain in Lesson 34 of my Hebrew video course:

  • Every biblical word has a punctuation mark either above it or below it, occasionally more than one.
  • The marks serve three purposes:

– to mark the first letter of the accented syllable of the word

– to group the words into phrases, clauses, and verses

– to indicate how the words should be chanted.

  • The marks are of two kinds: conjunctive (מְחַבֵּר) marks, which tell you to connect the word to what follows, and disjunctive (מַפְסִיק) marks, which tell you that this word is the end of a phrase, clause, or verse.
  • Disjunctive marks can be more disjunctive or less disjunctive (like periods, semicolons, and commas).

Now, let’s move to Num 13:4, where the listing of the tribes and their spies begins:

These were their names — for the tribe of Reuben: Shammua, son of Zaccur.

And here is how that looks in Hebrew:

וְאֵ֖לֶּה שְׁמוֹתָ֑ם לְמַטֵּ֣ה רְאוּבֵ֔ן שַׁמּ֖וּעַ בֶּן־זַכּֽוּר׃

I’ve mimicked the Hebrew punctuation in English by replacing the etnaḥta under שמותם ‘their names’ with a dash, the zaqef qaton over רְאוּבֵ֔ן with a colon, and the tipḥa under שַׁמּ֖וּעַ with a comma. Those marks are “disjunctive,” that is, they tell you to separate the word they are on from the next word, just as the dash and the colon and the comma do.

All the rest of the listings of the spies look exactly like v. 4 after the dash — exactly the same punctuation pattern (or, if you prefer, the cantillation pattern) — with two exceptions:

  • For the tribe of Reuben: Shammua, son of Zaccur.
  • For the tribe of Simeon: Shaphat, son of Hori.
  • For the tribe of Judah: Caleb, son of Jephunneh.
  • For the tribe of Issachar: Igal, son of Joseph.
  • For the tribe of Ephraim, Hosea son of Nun.
  • For the tribe of Benjamin: Palti, son of Rafu.
  • For the tribe of Zebulun: Gaddiel, son of Sodi.
  • For the tribe of Joseph, for the tribe of Manasseh — Gaddi, son of Susi.
  • For the tribe of Dan: Ammiel, son of Gemalli.
  • For the tribe of Asher: Sethur, son of Michael.
  • For the tribe of Naphtali: Nahbi, son of Vophsi.
  • For the tribe of Gad: Geuel, son of Machi.

One of the exceptions is easy to spot. That’s in v. 11, where “the tribe of Joseph” is rebranded as “the tribe of Manasseh.” Their spy, at least, carries the same pattern as ten of the others.

But the spy in v. 8, representing Ephraim — the other “Joseph” tribe, though you wouldn’t know it from here — is different. Instead of

For the tribe of Ephraim: Hosea, son of Nun

like the others, it says

For the tribe of Ephraim, Hosea son of Nun.

Why should Hosea stand out among the spies? Spoiler alert! V. 16 tells us:

Moses called Hosea son of Nun “Joshua.”

Joshua, of course, is the “good” spy, not one of the spies who came back and told the Israelites not to try to conquer the land of Canaan. The representative of Judah, “Caleb, son of Jephunneh,” was another good spy, but Caleb is punctuated in this text just like all the rest of them. Only Hosea / Joshua is given this very distinctive punctuation.

The punctuation marks were added to the text no more than ten or twelve centuries ago, long after the period when the Bible was written. It’s true that when the Bible was read out loud it certainly had to be pronounced and (audibly) punctuated. Still, we have no way of knowing which of the punctuation marks mimic a traditional reading and which may have been decided on by the Masoretes 1,000 years later.

All we have is the evidence in front of us: that Hosea son of Nun (that is, Joshua) was the special one of the spies.

Judah is not being given any pride of place in this chapter — neither in the order of the tribes, where he comes third instead of first, nor in the way Caleb’s name was punctuated, even though Caleb, representing Judah, was one of the two good spies in the story as we have it. Supposedly, an earlier version of the story had Caleb alone as the hero.

Yet when the Masoretic text of the Torah, fixed many centuries after the book of Numbers was written, focuses the spotlight on a single hero, it is not Caleb; it’s Joshua. That’s a biblical mystery that you don’t even know needs solving unless you read the Bible in Hebrew — and with the punctuation marks.

About the Author
Michael Carasik has a Ph.D. in Bible and the Ancient Near East from Brandeis University and taught for many years at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the creator of the Commentators’ Bible and has been a congregational Torah reader, blogger, and podcaster about the Bible. You can read a longer version of this essay at and follow Michael's close reading of Genesis at
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