Numbers 13-15 and how not to spy out the Land

(Photo: Unsplash/Soliman Cifuentes)

Jewish academic and Hebrew scholar Irene Lancaster reflects on the spies who were sent out to explore the Promised Land and what we can learn from them today.

We have recently studied the Sedra of Shelach (Numbers 13-15) which contains the story of the famous 'spies' who are sent out to explore the Land of Israel in advance of the entry of the Jewish people.

This was the Torah reading on Sunday. But we also studied it as a group with the rabbi beforehand and some amazing new insights were gleaned from that communal learning session.

This is one of my favourite Sedras of the Torah. In June 2007 I was asked to give a talk on this very Sedra at a Jerusalem synagogue. Naturally I was apprehensive – for one thing I had to give the talk in Hebrew to a congregation of very learned scholars. What on earth could I impart that was new?

However, I tried my best, and only had to speak for five minutes max, so not a long talk. In the event, the congregation were very kind and encouraging.

However, one thing had struck me at the time. The Hebrew word for 'explore' was tor, which to me sounded much like Torah, or Jewish teaching. In addition, in modern Hebrew we have the concept of 'toranut', which means 'rota duty', i.e. carrying out your work or activities in an orderly fashion and taking your turn.

Tor also means queue – not that there is much of one in Israeli society. But the impact of toranut in Israeli society is nevertheless very strong indeed. So why is tor often translated as 'spy out', 'scout', 'reconnoitre', or similar? After all, the modern Hebrew word for tourism is also link to the Hebrew tor.

As way of explanation, there is a second version of this spy story, related in Deuteronomy chapter 1:22. There, Moses summarizes the events depicted in Numbers, but adds the phrase 'Then all of you approached me and said: 'Let's send men ahead of us to dig out the land for us and bring back word on the route we'll ascend and the cities we'll enter.''

There are two points here. In this telling, the initiative to send out a group in advance lay with the community itself, and this explains the decision taken in Numbers to send out the men. Secondly though, the word tor used in Numbers for 'explore' is exchanged in Deuteronomy for another word, hapor, also meaning to explore, but whose root indicates 'digging', or even 'excavating'.

Sadly, in many translations from Hebrew, these two words with different connotations are both translated as 'spy out' or 'reconnoitre'. However, the meaning of tor in Numbers is to look around and see things in an orderly fashion, as well as in a positive way. In the Deuteronomy version, by contrast, we have the connotation of hapor, digging under the surface of things, as if there is a real problem. This is to go further than sticking to the original plan, which was simply to tour around the Land to gather factual information in order to facilitate entry.

Tragically however, by 'digging around' the spies convey fear rather than confidence, and are overly concerned about what others may think of them. They regard themselves as 'grasshoppers in our own eyes' (Numbers 13:33). Therefore that is also how others see them - not the qualities needed in the leaders of a people at the start of their new lives in a new Land!

The great 11th-century French Bible scholar, Rashi, has a very interesting comment on Deuteronomy 1, which exchanges the word hapor, dig, for tor, dutiful exploration. In contrast to the way the heads of the tribes and the elders approached G-d in Deuteronomy 5:20-21, with youngsters showing respect to elders, and elders to the heads of the tribes, here in Deuteronomy 1 'you approached me, all of you, in a crowd, the young pushing aside the elders, the elders pushing aside the heads of the tribes.'

In Hebrew the word for 'push' is dahaf. This is the word used by Rashi for the unruly way in which the people conducted themselves in order to obtain permission to spy out the Land. This explanation appears to have solved a mystery first encountered during an Ulpan lesson in 1984.

Our Jerusalem Ulpan teacher told us that modern concepts posed challenges galore for the intrepid people who reintroduced Hebrew as a spoken language for the first time in the late 19th and 20th centuries – something that is of course ongoing well into the 21st century.

One example cited of remarkable out-of-the-box thinking by translators into modern Hebrew was the word for 'bulldozer'. What on earth is a bulldozer, you might ask? The teacher explained that the bulldozer is a combination of pushing and digging, and thus the new word, dahpor was born in Israel. Dahpor is a combination of dahaf, push, and hapor, dig. Put together, they produce a new concept of pushing and digging at one time – hence bulldozer.

I explained this week to the group led by the rabbi in our synagogue that I was quite sure that this wasn't a coincidence. On the contrary, the early Hebrew language translator would have known his Bible and Rashi very well indeed. Therefore, it is highly plausible that this very passage we are currently studying on the spies, with the dual concepts of digging and pushing as examples of an unruly attitude to exploration, might well have sown a seed in the minds of some of these geniuses, who put two and two together to coin a new word for the modern State of Israel.

This idea was greeted very positively by the group.

But to get back to the main positive teaching of the Sedra of Shelach. Shelach is translated as 'send out'. Sending people out to discover what is there may bring back unexpected results. Much will depend on one's prior attitude. In the Wilderness, the children of Israel had been infantilized, dependent on miracles, with Moses to lead them. In the Promised Land, they would have to fend for themselves and deal with the weather, as well as build up communities, engage in agriculture, fight wars, organize a welfare system (very much including equal treatment of the ger, which appears in Numbers 15) and generally come to terms with living in the real world.

However, if we have confidence, then we inspire. The word confidence means 'having faith together'. Rather than preaching self-fulfilling prophecies of doom, we should rather take responsibility and look up to the heavens above (as it so beautifully states in Psalm 121). Maybe the spies even feared success. Maybe they preferred to remain cocooned in their own little bubble. However, as the Jewish people have demonstrated time and time again, G-d wants us to live up to what is expected of us, in a restrained and disciplined way, never resorting to panic, but preparing for all outcomes through thick and thin.

Even the best known prophets of doom, Amos and Jeremiah, offered hope to the Jewish people. It is never too late. As long as we pay scant attention to what others think, remain strong in community, pray, learn and build, then we still have a hopeful future.

For as the 13th-century Spanish Bible scholar and communal leader, Ramban, states on Numbers 15:28, 'no ifs or buts'. As I stated in 2007, if only the present-day 'spies' to Israel become 'pilgrims' instead, a similar word in Hebrew, then that is the best way to enter the Promised Land, whether thousands of years ago, or today. Bulldozers certainly have their place, but only after the Land has been successfully entered in the first place. First enter the Land, then begin to work it.