Story of the Spies

Story of the Spies

Bemidbar 13-14 & Devarim 1

Interactive Learning Module

The Spies / Gustave Doré

1. Introduction

  • לגרסה בעברית של יחידת לימוד זו, לחצו כאן.‏
  • The story of the spies is told in Bemidbar 13-14 and recounted by Moshe in Devarim 1. Though there are many parallels between the two accounts, Moshe's retelling of the event differs significantly from the original, as he omits certain details and adds others. How are we to understand the variations?
  • An in depth analysis of this issue can be found at The Story of the Spies in Bemidbar and Devarim. As you use this module, you are invited to compare your own analysis with the analysis found there.

2. Identifying the Differences

  • Let's begin by comparing the two accounts. Press here to access the Tanakh Lab which will enable us to view the two units side by side.
  • The Lab highlights all linguistic parallels between the two units. If one prefers, one also has the option to search independently for parallels and differences.
  • To explore on your own, simply erase the highlighted parallels by pressing the garbage can icon in the top left of the Lab. Then, highlight the phrase of your choice, and from the dropdown menu either choose "Highlight Instances" so that any parallel phrases will be marked or press "Color" to mark unique phrases in the color of your choice.
  • Where do the two accounts contradict each other? Which details are recast? What information is found in only one book but not the other? What parts of the story are emphasized in Bemidbar? Which aspects are underscored by Moshe in Devarim?

3. Summary of Findings

  • A comparison reveals that the two accounts differ with respect to many points including: who initiated the mission (Hashem or the people), where the scouts traveled (throughout the land or only in the Chevron area), and what was the ultimate purpose of the mission (to spy or to scout).
  • In addition, in Devarim, the role of the spies themselves is minimized: their names and positions are not mentioned and both their negative report and punishment is omitted.
  • For an interactive chart highlighting these differences, see: The Story of the Spies in Bemidbar and Devarim.
  • What are we to make of these differences?
  • Let's access the Mikraot Gedolot to see how commentators have addressed these questions.

4. Different Agendas

  • We'll begin with R. D"Z Hoffmann on Devarim 1:22, starting towards the end of his commentary, from the words "משה רבינו אינו מזכיר את כל הפרטים הללו".
  • According to R. D"Z Hoffmann, it should be expected that the accounts of Bemidbar and Devarim differ. Why? To what does he compare this?
  • Scroll down to his comments on verse 26. What does R. Hoffmann suggest is Moshe's agenda in telling the story in the manner that he does?

5. Personal Responsibility

  • R. Hoffmann suggests that Moshe wanted to emphasize the fault of the nation rather than that of the spies. What lesson might Moshe have been trying to relay to the people by doing this?
  • Though R. Hoffmann does not elaborate, how might his approach account for each of the various changes that Moshe introduces in his recounting of the story?
  • For other cases in which Moshe recasts past events so as to relay a certain message to the nation, see: Battles with Sichon and Og and Decalogue Differences.

6. A Dual Mission: Scouts or Spies?

  • Let's move to a second approach to our question, one whose roots lie in the commentary of Ramban on Bemidbar 13:2. As Ramban's comments are quite lengthy, we'll access them in the Dual Mode of the Mikraot Gedolot here.
  • Ramban does not attempt to resolve all the differences between the two accounts, focusing instead on the contradiction regarding whether it was Hashem or the nation who initiated the mission.
  • Let's look at the second to last paragraph of his comments, from the words, "וכן נראה עוד, שהם שאלו ממשה".
  • What difference does Ramban note in the language used to describe the mission's purpose as stated in Bemidbar and Devarim?
  • How does he use this to explain the contradiction?

7. Concordance Work

  • Ramban suggests that while the nation asked to send spies for military purposes ("וְיַחְפְּרוּ לָנוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ"), Hashem instead told Moshe to send scouts to appraise the land and note its goodness ("וְיָתֻרוּ אֶת אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן").
  • To evaluate Ramban's suggestion, let's check how each of the roots "תור" and "חפר" are used throughout Tanakh. Click on the word "וְיָתֻרוּ" in verse two to access the One-Click Concordance.
  • Scan the verses in which the root appears. What appears to be the meaning?
  • Now, in the input bar at the top of the concordance, type: חפר and choose verb #1 from the dropdown menu. What does this root mean? Do your findings confirm Ramban's analysis?

8. Different Perspectives

  • R"Y Medan ("בכייה לשעה ובכייה לדורות"‎, Megadim 10 (1990): 21-37) builds off Ramban's comments, suggesting that the distinction between the verbs "וְיָתֻרוּ" and "וְיַחְפְּרוּ" is the key to understanding all of the differences between the two versions.
  • According to him, Moshe sent the leaders on a dual mission, to both determine the best route of conquest and to scout the lands for purposes of tribal inheritance. Each book, though, focuses on only one aspect of the mission – Sefer Devarim on spying and Sefer Bemidbar on scouting.
  • Let's analyze this theory.
  • Frequently, the main message or theme of a unit is highlighted through repetition of certain keywords or phrases. What are the keywords in each of the accounts of the story of the spies? Do these reflect the differing emphases on spying and scouting?

9. Keywords

  • Access the Tanakh Lab on Bemidbar 13-14 here. Click on the "דירוג" column which will order keywords taking into account both the number of appearances of the entry in the unit and their relative frequency in Tanakh as a whole. What word tops the list?
  • How do the keywords in Devarim compare? (Choose Devarim 1 verse 22 through verse 40 from the dropdown menu in the input bar at the top of the lab and press "Display" or press here). As above, click on the "דירוג" column.
  • How often does the root "תור" appear here in Moshe's recounting of the story? What roots serve as keywords instead? Click on the roots "דרך" and "עלה" in the table so that all their appearances in the unit will be highlighted. What is the context of each?

10. Keywords Continued

  • One of the most significant keywords in the Bemidbar story is indeed "תור", a root which appears twelve times there but only once in Devarim.
  • In Devarim, in contrast, the top keywords are "דרך" and "עלה". The unit highlights how the nation focused on finding the best military route ("דרך") through which to enter the land, and forgot that Hashem had been guiding their path ("דרך") through the wilderness.
  • Our keywords, thus, do suggest that there is a difference in emphasis between the books. Which differences between the two accounts might this explain? Which verses might, nonetheless, pose difficulties for this theory?

11. Literary Variation

  • A third approach to our question suggests that the differences between the two accounts are not fundamental, but simply the result of literary variation.
  • Let's access R"Y Kara on Shofetim 13:12, whose starting point is not on our specific story, but the more general question of how to account for differences when a story is repeated in Tanakh. Start from the paragraph beginnig, "דע לך שבכל כ״ד ספרים שהכתוב שונה עליו".
  • How does he explain why sometimes details are found in one version of a story but not in another?
  • Can you think of other examples where Tanakh is lengthy in one account of a story and, as a result, brief in another? Is our case comparable? Does it make a difference whether it is the narrator or a character who is doing the retelling?

12. Summary

  • The many variations between the story of the spies in Bemidbar and Devarim have been explained in multiple ways.
  • R. D"Z Hoffmann suggests that many of the changes were intentionally made by Moshe so as to best get across his message to the new generation. Moshe purposefully recast the story in a way that would emphasize the nation's fault, ensuring that they learned to take full responsibility for their actions. In addition, as Moshe was simply retelling a known story, he did not need to repeat every detail of the original.
  • A second approach, in contrast, suggests that the two books are telling the same story from differing perspectives. Drawing off Ramban's observation that the two accounts point to two distinct goals in sending the spies, one emphasizing scouting and the other spying, R. Medan suggests that the leaders were sent on a dual mission, to prepare for both the conquest and future division of the land. Bemidbar highlights the scouting aspect of the mission, while Devarim highlights the military aspect.
  • R"Y Kara raises a third approach which suggests that the changes are not fundamental and simply reflect a common literary trend in Torah. When recounting events, Torah is often brief in one place and lengthy in another, relying on the reader to fill in the gaps from knowledge of the combined accounts.
  • How might one apply each of these approaches to other cases in Torah where events are recounted twice?

13. Additional Reading