B'Midbar/Numbers 13:27-28 We came to the land that you sent us; and indeed she is flowing with milk and honey - and this is her fruit - but to no avail, for the people are strong ...
This is the start of the report that the spies brought back to Moshe, after they had been sent on a reconnaissance trip into the land of what was then Canaan from Kadesh Barnea. Unusually, our text spans two verses, to bring together the two parts that are separated by the verse break. There are three key words that set the tone for the report that runs from verse 27 - 29: , "you sent us", , "and indeed" and , "to no avail". DonAbravanel points out that speaking to all the people and showing them the fruits of the Land before reporting to Moshe was the first of the seven crimes that the spies committed; these three words constituted the second, third and fourth.
The first key word, Abravanel's second crime, is - Qal affix 2ms with a 1cp suffix, from the root , "to send", so here "you sent us". Abravanel says, "instead of 'the land to which you sent us', they should have said, 'the land which the L-rd our G-d is giving us'", while Milgrom adds that, "this is a hint of the attitude of the scounts, even as far as 'this is not the land which the L-rd promised'!" By their choice of words, before the report really starts, the spies are subtly casting doubt that what they have seen is whatHaShem has promised the people: He promised us a good land, but you have sent us somewhere else; this is not it.
The second key word is , here translated "and indeed". Milgrom comments that it means "indeed it is true"; a carefully nuanced phrase that strongly implies a following 'but' to qualify the assertion of truth. Much used by errant children attempting to justify their behaviour, the two words "Yes, but ..." are instantly recognised by parents and greeted with a firm, "No 'buts', did you or did you not ...". Abravanel suggests that introduces the spies' third crime: answering Moshe's questions out of order. When the spies were commissioned, Moshe charged them: "see what the land is, and whether the people who dwell in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many, and whether the land that they dwell in is good or bad, and whether the cities that they dwell in are camps or strongholds, and whether the land is rich or poor, and whether there are trees in it or not. Be of good courage and bring some of the fruit of the land" (13:18-20, ESV), but they told first about the produce and showed the fruit before they answered the questions about the people. By deliberately changing their instructions, the spies step out of their remit and abrogate to themselves the right to make decisions in the matter.
The early Sages also debated the words of the spies. In the Talmud's discussion about the report of the spies, "Rabbi Yohanan said in the name of Rabbi Meir, 'Any piece of slander, which has not some truth in the beginning, will not endure in the end.'" (b. Sotah 35a). Mizrachi1 comments, "Opening with a true statement about the Land's fertility was a prelude to the false report which they had intended from the beginning to bring." A parallel passage in the rabbinic Midrash adds, "Such is the way of those who utter slander; they begin by speaking well of one and conclude by speaking ill" (B'Midbar Rabbah 16:17). The bad report of the land that is to follow is considered to be slander2 damaging the reputation of the Land of Israel. More importantly, though not mentioned by the Sages, the report also damages the reputation of God who had promised the Land to the people; the good land, the promised land - turns out to be worthless or unattainable and G-d's promises are similarly held to be worthless.
The fourth key word is , "to no avail". Combined with the following word - "for, because" - this becomes a judgement that the spies had no right to make. Abravanel lists this as the fourth crime, remarking dryly: "they had no business using that word." Theirs was simply to go and gather facts and information, not to evaluate it or determine policy. Moshe sent them out to collect evidence of the goodness of the Land to support and encourage the people, that they might enter and take possession of what the L-rd had promised to provide for them. Instead he got a skewed and biased report that cut the ground from under his feet.Hirsch sums up the words of the spies: the fruit you see is very good, "but all this is nothing, loses all value for us, for the people are too strong for us." The Sforno explains the spies are really saying, "it is impossible to conquer it because the people are fierce and the cities are fortified and the inhabitants of the land are our enemies".
The Psalmist picks up the story to urge the people of his day not to turn away from G-d: "Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah, as on the day at Massah in the wilderness, when your fathers put Me to the test and put Me to the proof, though they had seen my work. For forty years I loathed that generation and said, 'They are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known My ways.' Therefore I swore in My wrath, 'They shall not enter My rest'" (Psalm 95:7-11, CJB). It seems that mankind has a built-in tendency to question what G-d is doing that manifests itself again and again in each generation. This prevents us from knowing G-d's peace and entering into His rest. The writer to the Hebrew makes no bones about it; attributing the passage from Psalm 95 to the Holy Spirit rather than simply a human author, he comments, "Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living G-d. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called 'today', that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin" (Hebrews 3:12-13, ESV). Questioning G-d, he claims, comes from "an evil unbelieving heart" and is "the deceitfulness of sin".
Do we have that same tendency today? Do we speak against the L-rd or His plans? Do we overestimate the difficulties involved in a task or situation because we don't want to do it or to make ourselves look hardly done by? When we consider what the L-rd is telling us to do, do we speak the truth or do we couch it in terms that already prejudge the matter? It is undeniably true that some of the things the L-rd would have us carry out do take us outside our comfort zones and stress our tastes and preferences. Sometimes there is a pronounced challenge in the path we are called to walk, pushing through cultural norms, stretching our personal boundaries, so that the L-rd can prune and grow us to bear fruit in His kingdom. Geodes don't become gem-stones without a few hard knocks along the way to open them up, chip away the hard coating and expose the sparkling crystals; dull stones don't become beautifully polished coloured pebbles without hours of tumbling in sharp grit and sand to take off their edges and remove the layers of dirt and grime.
Our challenge is to submit to the process of refining and purification so that we may become the precious people of G-d - "And I will bring the third part through the fire, Refine them as silver is refined, And test them as gold is tested. They will call on My name, And I will answer them; I will say, 'They are My people,' And they will say, 'The L-RD is my G-d'" (Zechariah 13:9, NASB) - without complaining or speaking against what G-d is doing. Not only must our hearts be open and soft to the work of the Spirit, but our mouths must not deny what G-d is doing and will yet do in and among us. Otherwise we will turn off the blessing and inhibit the process; otherwise, we too may spend forty years in the desert.
1. - A super-commentary on Rashi's Torah Commentary, by Elijah Mizrachi of Constantinople, 1455-1526 CE, the Grand Rabbi of the Ottoman empire.
2. - The action or crime of making a false spoken statement damaging to a person's reputation.
Further Study: Isaiah 48:10-11; Malachi 3:2-4; 1 Peter 1:3-7
Are you inclined to complain that the pips are always squeaking in your
life and that G-d never seems to be there for you? Break the habit of
bad-mouthing G-d today, before you find that you have wasted the years of
opportunity and blessing.
© Jonathan Allen, 2012
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© Jonathan Allen, 2012
Your turn - what do you think of the ideas in this drash ?Like most print and online magazines, we reserve the right to edit or publish only those comments we feel are edifying in tone and content.