Diana Lipton
A Bible scholar on the streets of Jerusalem

‘We were like grasshoppers’: a new reading

American Bird Grasshopper (Wikipedia)

This post presents a new – please correct me if I’m wrong – reading of what the spies in this week’s parsha mean when they say that they were ‘like grasshoppers’ in their own eyes and in the eyes of the existing inhabitants of the Promised Land.

But before that, a request: please add your name to a petition/email campaign here to protect a Palestinian family, the Sumarins, who are facing unjust eviction from their East Jerusalem home. Their case comes to court on 30th June. You can read about their long and complex history here and here.

Surrounded by injustice, actual and threatened, in these terrible times, you may wonder why you should spend even a moment of your time on this single family. I can say only that injustice has many tentacles, but it stings individuals. Please add your name to the petition/email campaign to protect the Sumarins here.

In this week’s parsha, Shelach Lecha (Numbers 13:1-15:41), Moses sends twelve spies, one from each tribe, to scout out the Promised Land. The report they bring back has two main themes, the existing inhabitants of the land and, our focus here, food.

Numbers 13:26 They came back to Moses and Aaron and the whole Israelite community at Kadesh in the Desert of Paran. There they reported to them and to the whole assembly and showed them the fruit of the land27 They gave Moses this account: “We went into the land to which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit.

The fruit the spies show to their fellow Israelites was already mentioned in the brief account of the 40 days they spent touring the land. Their only reported action was to pick a bunch of grapes so large that it required two men to carry.

Numbers 13:23 When they reached the Valley of Eshkol, they cut off a branch bearing a single cluster of grapes. Two of them carried it on a pole between them, along with some pomegranates and figs.

The 2018 season of excavation at a Late Roman synagogue at Huqoq revealed more fascinating mosaics, including this one referencing Numbers 13:23: two Israelite spies sent by Moses to scout out the land of Canaan carrying a pole with a cluster of grapes. Photo: Jim Haberman.

The oft-repeated description of the land as ‘flowing with milk and honey’ occurs twice in this episode, once in the spies’ initial report (above), and again in a speech by Joshua (Numbers 14:8). It’s as though, in the minds of the spies, the whole country was edible.

The theme of food and eating is not restricted to the spies’ report. It runs throughout the parsha. It was a theme last week too, when the Israelites complain about manna and are given a nauseating over-supply of quails, and it will return next week, when the earth opens its mouth and swallows the rebellious Korach and his band.

Directly after his reference to the land flowing with milk and honey, Joshua makes another allusion to food. He tells the cautious Israelites not to worry about the existing inhabitants ‘because they will be our bread’ (Numbers 14:9). I assume that this is something like one meaning of the English idiom, to eat them alive – to decimate them.

The Israelites remain skeptical, and God gets extremely angry:

Numbers 14:27 “How long will this wicked community grumble against me? I have heard the complaints of these grumbling Israelites. 28 So tell them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Lord, I will do to you the very thing I heard you say: 29 In this wilderness your carcasses will fall—every one of you twenty years old or more who was counted in the census and who has grumbled against me.

This is the first of three references to carcasses in this passage. The original Hebrew word peger holds within it the sense of being eaten. For example, the carcasses of the animals that Abraham cut in half during the Covenant of the Pieces are eaten by birds of prey (Genesis 15:11), and David threatens Goliath that he will give the carcasses of the Philistines to the birds and beasts (1 Samuel 17:46). More food.

Finally, back in our parsha, the challah offering that’s specified in Numbers 15 becomes obligatory once the Israelites have eaten their first meal in the land:

Numbers 15:17 The Lord said to Moses, 18 “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land to which I am taking you 19 and you eat the food of the land, present a portion as an offering to the Lord. 20 Present a loaf from the first of your ground meal and present it as an offering from the threshing floor. 21 Throughout the generations to come you are to give this offering to the Lord from the first of your ground meal.

Bearing in mind all this food, let’s turn to the end of the spies’ report.

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 size33 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.”

The report has three parts. Part one continues the theme of food and eating: The land eats its inhabitants. Part two develops the other theme that’s central in the parsha: the land’s inhabitants are powerful: the people we saw there were very large. 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 existing inhabitants of the land, we felt and looked small and inconsequential.

There’s nothing new under the sun, but still I want to offer what to my knowledge is a fresh perspective on the grasshoppers. On my reading, what’s significant about them is not that they are small and insignificant in comparison to the natives, but that they can ravage a land.

There are not many references to grasshoppers in the Tanakh. Until yesterday, I assumed, along with most other readers, that the one that’s relevant to our verse is 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.

Now I see it differently. First, we should recall that in the food laws outlined in Leviticus 11, grasshoppers are grouped with locusts. They and two other species are the only insect-like creatures it’s permissible to eat:

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.

In a speech to King Solomon in 2 Chronicles about the power of prayer, God mentions grasshoppers in a context where we would expect locusts to appear:

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, 14 if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.

Is it possible that the quality the spies see in themselves, and believe that the land’s existing inhabitants see in them, is not their small size but their ravenous hunger?

A couple of factors point in this direction. As noted above, other than the land’s existing inhabitants, the only subject of interest to the spies is food, and the only physical evidence they bring home is edible.

But the most compelling support for my reading comes from other encounters between the Israelites and hostile foreign powers. The verse immediately before the announcement of a new king in Egypt who did not know Joseph describes the Israelites in language that the new king himself might have used:

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 of the word refer to insects, and indeed, the noun associated with this verb, sheretz, means insect. (It’s the term used in Leviticus 11 above.)

More significantly, parshat Balak, which is coming up soon, opens with statements by the Moabites and their king that mirror exactly the sentiment I think the spies have in mind when they describe themselves as grasshoppers. The Moabites fear that Israel will devour the land:

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.”

And King Balak is afraid that the Israelites will cover the face (literally eye) of the land:

Numbers 22: “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.

What are the implications of this new reading of looking like grasshoppers? One that springs to mind is that the spies seem to have been worried in equal measure about being overpowered by the existing inhabitants of the land and being feared by them. This made God furious, which is not surprising. Anxiety about being feared is an inauspicious emotion for would-be conquerors, who should want their enemies to fear them.

But the spies were right to be concerned. God sets the barrier very high. He wants the Israelites to enter the land and conquer it, undaunted by the peoples already living there. Yet by the end of the parsha, he is already including non-Israelites (‘ger’ in Hebrew, often translated ‘stranger’, as below, but best understood as ‘resident alien’) as beneficiaries of, and even, participants in sacrificial offering and associated rituals.

Numbers 15:14 For the generations to come, whenever a stranger or anyone else living among you presents a food offering as an aroma pleasing to the Lord, they must do exactly as you do. 15 The community is to have the same rules for you and for the stranger residing among you; this is a lasting ordinance for the generations to come. You and the stranger shall be the same before the Lord: 16 The same laws and regulations will apply both to you and to the stranger residing among you.’”

We are still grappling with the challenge of how to rule justly a land in which the ‘strangers’ who live among us are the people we once conquered. But one thing is certain: it should not involve injustice and ruthless exploitation that make us feared and hated.

Please add your name to the petition/email campaign to protect the Sumarin family here. Or sign up here to join Sha’alu Shalom Yerushalayim, Seek Peace Jerusalem, religious activists against evictions in East Jerusalem.

Sha’alu Shalom Yerushalayim activists visit the Sumarin family at their home in East Jerusalem, January 2020. My photo.
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. 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. I'm the very proud mother of Jacob and Jonah, and I live in Jerusalem with my husband Chaim. 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. My next book will be on the Bible and the climate crisis.
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