Wednesday, 13 Jun 2012

Written by Rabbi Professor Jonathan Magonet

This week’s reading comes from the Book of Numbers and tells the story about the men sent by Moses to spy out the promised land of Canaan.   The effect of the mission was disastrous.   All of the spies agreed that the land was indeed fruitful.   But they also reported that the people were strong, the cities were well fortified and there were even giants there.   Ten of the twelve spies were convinced that they would never be able to conquer the land.   But two of them, Caleb and Joshua, argued that they would be able to do so.   This triggered a crisis that nearly destroyed the entire project.   Some people even suggested that they should appoint a new leader, turn round and go back to Egypt.  

When we look at the story in more detail we find that there were actually two stages in the report of the spies.   They were given to different audiences, and in each case there was a different emphasis.   This seeming repetition has led scholars to suggest that there were two different accounts of what happened and they have been edited together.   But whenever there are such seeming repetitions in the Hebrew Bible, it is worth looking more closely at the differences between them.

The sequence is quite clear.   The returning spies brought their report to Moses, Aaron and a selected group of the leaders of the people.   They showed the fruit, praised the quality of the land, but then emphasised the military difficulties involved in conquering it.   It is at this point that Caleb intervened.   He silenced the people and said:  ‘Let us go up and we shall inherit the land.   We can do it!’   But the ten spies contradicted him:  ‘We cannot go up against the people for they are stronger than we are.’

The discussion appears to have been conducted in purely military terms.   Were the Israelites powerful enough to undertake the conquest of the land?   Clearly the ten spies had a legitimate argument.  The Israelites had only recently been freed from centuries of slavery in Egypt.  They probably lacked the necessary military skills.   But above all they did not have the self-confidence to take this kind of risk.   Certainly this group of leaders of the people lacked the willpower to undertake such an adventure.

As so often in the Hebrew Bible between this discussion and what follows something seems to have happened that has not been recorded.    For in the next sentence we are told, even though no reason is given, that the spies leaked their negative report to the people.   Since they were trying to convince the people of their views, the land itself became a problem in their description.   Now it is a land that ‘devours its inhabitants’.   Moreover all of the inhabitants are now giants and the spies felt themselves to be insignificant in their eyes.    It may be that they simply told these stories to their families when they got home and that is how the word got round.   However it is more likely that they spread these tales deliberately.   Despite their misgivings and warnings, Moses must have said that they were going to go ahead with the conquest.   In order to stop Moses they leaked the negative report so as to stir up public opinion against him.

The next chapter describes what happened that night.   The community leaders met together and shouted and argued about what to do.   In contrast the people in the camp wept the whole night long.  In the morning they all turned against Moses and the talk began about appointing a new leader to take them back to Egypt.  

In response Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before the full assembly of the people.   There are various explanations for this action.   Perhaps they were praying to God.   But the act of falling on their face may have been a formal matter in the language of the Bible.   It meant that Moses and Aaron showed that they were willing to accept the authority and decisions of this full assembly of the people.   There would be a public debate and referendum to decide what was to happen next, and Moses was signalling that he would accept the will of the people.

It is in this context that we hear a second report about the land.  But this time it is Joshua who is mentioned before Caleb and we must assume that he is taking the lead in the argument.   They begin by asserting that the land is very good.   But now bring in a different factor.   If God favours them then it is God who will give them the land not their own military power.  Their refusal to undertake the conquest is a rebellion against God.  The people of the land should not be feared because their protecting spirits had departed.   

But despite all they had experienced of God’s power in rescuing them from Egypt and bringing them safely through the Sea of Reeds, the people were unconvinced by these arguments.   They even threatened to stone Joshua and Caleb to death.   It was only God’s intervention that saved the day.

It is noteworthy that throughout the public debate about the report of the spies Moses is silent.   Caleb suggests his military option.   Joshua relies on God’s intervention on their behalf.   The spies themselves are torn by doubts and fears.   The people experience confusion and anger.   But Moses is silent.  

All of these are recognisable reactions to a crisis in the life of the nation.   The Bible offers its own view of who turned out to be right in the end and who had understood the will of God.   Joshua will eventually become Moses’ successor as leader of the people.   But at the time when such life or death decisions had to be made about what to do, no one could have known which option to take or who to believe.   So the Biblical record is painfully accurate in describing all the different voices and opinions at such a time, and the difficulty of making a choice.   The will of God is not so easy to recognise.

This story of the spies inevitably takes on special dimensions today.  The land of Canaan, after two thousand years, is once again in the hands of the Jewish people.   As before there are other people who live there who are perceived as a threat.   There are leaders like Caleb who would offer a military solution to the problems they pose.   There are others who believe that God will fight their battles for them and remove all obstacles.   But these apparent certainties of a few people mask the deep uncertainty of the mass of the nation.

Today a new kind of territory has to be entered.   This territory is not simply a geographical area but an inner landscape, inhabited by two peoples reluctantly struggling to find a way of living together.   There is still a vision, of a fruitful land, flowing with milk and honey, but now it has to be a land shared by both peoples.   What stands in the way of that vision are the same elements that the Biblical spies encountered.   Both peoples who inhabit this inner landscape have a history and experience that make it almost impossible for them to imagine a way of living together in peace.   There are fortified cities to be overthrown, places and attitudes where defensiveness and aggression have become ingrained responses to any change.   And there are giants to be defeated as well, monstrous images of each other, based on past horrors and rumours that haunt the imagination of both peoples.   Such images make it almost impossible to see the humanity and vulnerability of those on the other side.   Any report about this new territory brought by spies is likely, once again, to lead to disaster.

So we are left with conflicting opinions about what to do.   Political leaders meet in all night sessions and shout and argue with each other.   And in their respective encampments both peoples weep in despair and hopelessness.

In the Biblical story, as a result of this crisis, the Israelites had to wander for forty years in the wilderness.   They had to wait for another generation, born in freedom, to have the courage and inner security, to take the risk of entering the promised land.   But today neither side can afford to wait another forty years.   Together they are fated to stand on the border, and together endure the bitterness, insecurity and self-destruction of exile.   Or else together, without spies, without a Moses, and without any divine guarantee, they have to take the risk and enter this new land together.   

Rabbi Professor Jonathan Magonet
June 2012

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.