A plea to forgive the spies

The time to press the rest button on the millennia of heaping blame and outrage against the majority of the spies sent by Moses (on a mission to scout out the land of Canaan) as described in the parasha of Shelach (which we read this year on June 17) is long overdue.

To quickly summarize, Moses sent 12 spies, at God’s command, to scout out the land of Canaan before a military incursion. This incident occurred at a point when Israel was poised on the doorstep, just across the Jordan River, and were nearly ready to assume sovereignty of the Promised Land. As instructed by Moses, the spies stealthfully crossed over to Canaan.

When the men returned to the camp it was with a mixed report, acknowledging the land’s beauty and fertility, its ability to produce bountiful fruits and produce, but also adding a disheartening note. They said that the inhabitants were “fierce” and the cities were “fortified and very great.” They concluded that “we are not able to go up against them, for they are greater than we are,” famously adding that “we were like grasshoppers in their eyes.” (See Numbers 13:28-33.)

Only the encouraging reports of two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, stood in stark opposition to the accounts given by the other 10 members of the group.

Yes, the spies’ majority report was morale-drained, and it was not what Moses (or God, for that matter) wanted to hear. As a result of that report, the people were punished by God. They had to wait a full 40 years, until a new generation arose, for God’s blessing to go forth into the Promised Land. That’s when God’s promise to deliver the land to the nation of Israel was fulfilled.

But the question remains — was the spies’ behavior so treacherous, so vile, that it merited their near-universal condemnation?

This letter argues that it does not. Further, it is my view that the prevailing feeling against these men is not only unwarranted by the facts, but it is grossly disproportionate to whatever their offense was.

Firstly, the spies were not treacherous men seeking purposely to foment rebellion or sabotage Moses’ leadership. Not by a long shot. In fact, the men chosen to scout out the land were described in the Torah as “Na’asim.” They were princely, one man — one prince — from each tribe. (Numbers 13:2.) In fact, all 12 were in character the proverbial “few good men.”

The 12 therefore were seasoned and proven leaders of their people. They were not the type of men who would be induced to change their spots abruptly, and to wreak discord or sow seeds of unrest against Moses — or God, for that matter. Their message was designed, in their eyes, to protect the Israelites from what they perceived as a suicidal mission.

Furthermore, the spies were merely doing their job. They did exactly as Moses asked, to “see the land, bring of its fruit, note whether the people were strong or weak, few or many (Numbers 13:17-20). In other words, the true nature of the beast — both environmental and human — were to be reported on by the spies.

This strategy was deemed by Moses — and rightly so — as essential information. As military intelligence it was a proper strategy, and it is still used universally to determine the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy and retrieve essential intelligence. It was essential to provide the Israelites with basic intelligence before they marched westward unknowingly into harm’s way.

Further, it was God himself who commanded Moses to send the spies into Canaan. “Send thou men that they may spy out the land of Canaan” (Numbers 13:2).

Perhaps most important of all, the unmitigated and widespread criticism of the spies ignores the basic fact that they were right all along. The time just was not right for an Israelite military incursion, as further borne out by the later events described below.

Strangely, the clear evidence upholding the accuracy of the spies’ report has been all but ignored and nearly lost in the onslaught of the conventional and all-too-easy criticism of the spies’ “evil report” (except of course the contrarian reports of both Joshua and Caleb).

For further proof of the merit of the spies’ discouraging report, especially that it was the wrong time for any military incursions, we need look no further than the middle of Shelach, which describes a renegade band of Israelites who took it upon themselves to ignore the spies’ warning (and even Moses’ warning) and take part in their own unblessed military advance into Canaan. Unfortunately, that ill-time incursion had disastrous results for those Israelites involved. They were vanquished, proving to be no match for the Canaanite and Amalekite alliance waiting for them. (See Numbers 14:40-45.)

Further, the merit of sending out spies to explore the layout of the land before engaging in what could be a disastrous military incursion is underscored by the fact that in the haftarah (Joshua 2:1-24), Joshua, some 39 years later, does the same thing. He sends out spies (including himself) into Canaan before going into the land seeking military conquest. Unlike earlier, now the time is right. The people are a generation away from a slave mentality.

Parashat Shelach does say that the spies’ report caused extreme repercussions — a huge panic, murmurings of rebellion, and all kinds of mischief, all of which once again resulted in the need for Moses’ heroic intercession by praying for the salvation of his people, and once again successfully stemming divine wrath and threatened retribution. Nowhere in Shelach is it written that any of those repercussions were intended by the 10 spies. They delivered an independent report, as requested by Moses, based on their real perceptions, and arguably to protect their people from imminent military disaster.

Yes, the 10 men may have been spiritually flawed people, but they were not detestable or evil. The level of vitriol hurled against them is unwarranted and undeserved. It is time — it is past time — to forgive the spies.

If Joseph was able to forgive his vengeful brothers for their active and intentional act of wrongdoing against him, which can be described, with a modern spin, as criminal kidnapping, assault, and even attempted murder, then certainly we finally can start embarking on the road to forgiveness for the largely misunderstood spies of Shelach.

Sam Z. Mallin

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