Sin of the Spies: God’s Ruse to Keep Israel in the Wilderness
Punishment for the Sin of the Scouts
Numbers 13–14 tells how the Israelites panicked after hearing the report of the scouts, and refused to enter the land. In response, God tells Moses to tell the Israelites:
במדבר יד:כח ...חַי אָנִי נְאֻם יְ־הוָה אִם לֹא כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתֶּם בְּאָזְנָי כֵּן אֶעֱשֶׂה לָכֶם. יד:כט בַּמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה יִפְּלוּ פִגְרֵיכֶם... יד:ל אִם אַתֶּם תָּבֹאוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נָשָׂאתִי אֶת יָדִי לְשַׁכֵּן אֶתְכֶם בָּהּ.... יד:לא וְטַפְּכֶם אֲשֶׁר אֲמַרְתֶּם לָבַז יִהְיֶה וְהֵבֵיאתִי אֹתָם וְיָדְעוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר מְאַסְתֶּם בָּהּ. יד:לב וּפִגְרֵיכֶם אַתֶּם יִפְּלוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה. יד:לג וּבְנֵיכֶם יִהְיוּ רֹעִים בַּמִּדְבָּר אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה וְנָשְׂאוּ אֶת זְנוּתֵיכֶם עַד תֹּם פִּגְרֵיכֶם בַּמִּדְבָּר.
Num 14:28 “As I live,” says YHWH, “I will do to you just as you have urged Me. 14:29 In this very wilderness shall your carcasses drop... 14:30 not one shall enter the land in which I swore to settle you… 14:31 Your children who, you said, would be carried off—these will I allow to enter; they shall know the land that you have rejected. 14:32 But your carcasses shall drop in this wilderness, 14:33 while your children roam the wilderness for forty years, suffering for your faithlessness, until the last of your carcasses is down in the wilderness.
According to this passage, the original plan was for Israel to make their way to the Promised Land at the beginning of the second year after leaving Egypt. Redemption from slavery, reception of the divine law, and the beginning of the conquest of the land all would all have taken place within a little over a year, quickly transforming Israel from a nation of slaves to a free nation, living in its own land and ruled by God.
Due to Israel’s sinful reaction to the report of the spies, however, the generation of the exodus was blocked from entering the land, and only the next generation would be permitted to do so. By their lack of faith, even after witnessing all the miracles performed by God on their behalf, the Israelites foiled the original divine plan. The specific correlation between sin and punishment is highlighted in God’s explanation for the length of the punishment:
במדבר יד:לד בְּמִסְפַּר הַיָּמִים אֲשֶׁר תַּרְתֶּם אֶת הָאָרֶץ אַרְבָּעִים יוֹם יוֹם לַשָּׁנָה יוֹם לַשָּׁנָה תִּשְׂאוּ אֶת עֲוֹנֹתֵיכֶם אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה וִידַעְתֶּם אֶת תְּנוּאָתִי.
Num 14:34 You shall bear your punishment for forty years, corresponding to the number of days—forty days—that you scouted the land: a year for each day. Thus you shall know what it means to thwart Me.
In light of the Torah’s explicit reason for Israel's forty-year sojourn in the wilderness, Maimonides’ brief remarks on this subject are startling.
Maimonides: The Sin Was Just God’s Excuse
Maimonides’ remarks come in the context of his discussion of the historical-anthropological reasons for the commandments in The Guide of the Perplexed, where he argues that God issued many of the commandments as an indirect way of bringing the nation to fully apprehend and acknowledge the one true Deity.
The classic example Maimonides uses to illustrate this point are the sacrifices. The Israelites leaving Egypt were accustomed to worship by way of sacrifice. For this reason, God could not forego sacrifices altogether—though they are an inferior manner of worship in Maimonides’ view—and command only the preferable way of worshiping God, namely, prayer. (Even prayer, Maimonides believed, is inferior to pure intellectual contemplation of God.)
Had God not commanded sacrifices, Israel would have abandoned the worship of God and sacrificed to false gods instead, due to their strong ingrained attachment to this manner of worship. God’s strategy, “the Deity's wily graciousness and wisdom […]” (3.32) in Maimonides’ parlance, was to slowly wean the people away from sacrifices in favor of prayer, by limiting the times, places, and individuals who were entitled to perform sacrifices, while not putting the same restrictions on prayer.
In Maimonides’ view, God legislates in accordance with historical circumstances. The Deity does not miraculously change human nature just to achieve the desired objective immediately. God does not take shortcuts in natural or, in this case, historical processes.
Application to the Story of the Spies
One of the examples Maimonides brings to illustrate this idea is the wandering of Israel in the wilderness:
For just as it is not in the nature of man that, after having been brought up in slavish service occupied with clay, bricks, and similar things, he should all of a sudden wash off from his hands the dirt deriving from them and proceed immediately to fight against the children of Anak, so is it also not in his nature that, after having been brought up upon very many modes of worship and of customary practices, which the souls find so agreeable that they become as it were a primary notion, he should abandon them all of a sudden.
And just as the Deity used a gracious ruse in causing them to wander perplexedly in the desert until their souls became courageous – it being well known that life in the desert and lack of comforts for the body necessarily develop courage whereas the opposite circumstances necessarily develop cowardice – and until, moreover, people were born who were not accustomed to humiliation and servitude – all this having been brought about by Moses our Master by means of the divine commandments… (pp. 527-528).
In Maimonides’ view, God never intended that the Israelites enter the land immediately. The sojourn in the wilderness as punishment for their sin was nothing more than a “gracious ruse” to pin upon them the responsibility for this state of affairs. Maimonides implies that if it were not for the incident with the spies, a different incident would have been created to prevent Israel from entering the land immediately.
A nation of slaves cannot truly become a free people in a short space of time, for they cannot easily rid themselves of the mentality which formed their personality. Forty years is not really a punishment for the forty days of spying as it is the period that represents a full generation. Only the younger children growing up free in the wilderness and those born there could develop the necessary mentality for entering the land and conquering it.
Toughened by the Wilderness
Human nature does not change overnight; it must be slowly and properly molded. Israel not only received the Torah in the desert in Maimonides’ view; this wilderness was their training ground to transform them into a free people with the requisite courage and stamina to conquer and settle the land.
Maimonides’ view of the wilderness experience contrasts sharply with many rabbinic midrashim, which depict this period not as one of hardship, but as one in which God miraculously took care of Israel in the best possible manner.
- The manna which God provided them daily (except on the Sabbath) was treated as a food that had a myriad of tastes, each in accordance with what was pleasing to the palette of the individual eater (b. Yoma 75a–76a).
- A miraculous well, the Well of Miriam, also accompanied them, providing them with a steady supply of water (t. Sotah 11:1).
- The Clouds of Glory accompanying Israel not only guided them in their journeys but also performed miracles for them, providing them with protection, an easy, level path to walk, and even laundering services (Numbers Rabbah 1, 2; Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 11, 21).
In short, for many classical rabbis, all of Israel’s physical needs were taken care of in a miraculous manner. The Israelites were like young children who did not need to do much in caring for themselves. They only needed to believe in God and heed the divine commands while living a life of ease in the wilderness. Maimonides substitutes a more realistic picture of a life of numerous hardships that prepare the Israelites for the challenges they are to face ahead.
Maimonides presents here an astonishing theological position. God was inevitably going to “punish” Israel by forcing them to remain in the wilderness for one reason or another, for such a sojourn was necessary. There was no way for Israel to avoid this “punishment,” just as there was no way for them to avoid expressing their fears and reluctance to engage in war to conquer the land, given their psychological makeup.
Why Present It as a Punishment?
Maimonides’ primary goal in this passage is to explain the reason for the commandments of sacrifice, not the story of the spies and its aftermath. We can only try to envision how he would answer the objections to his position. Why did God choose to accomplish this objective by means of “punishment” rather than by simply announcing the divine intention, that Israel must wander for forty years, from the outset?
I think that Maimonides would answer that such an act would be self-defeating. For God to announce in advance that the Israelites were to spend their lives wandering in the desert would completely demoralize them. In this case, too, they would demand to return immediately to Egypt. Hence, God had to accomplish the divine intention in a roundabout manner. Moreover, by treating their wanderings as a punishment for a sin rather than a necessary training period, we learn an invaluable lesson in human responsibility.
Foreshadowed by Midrash: Critique of Divine Intrigue
Maimonides’ position is foreshadowed—and perhaps influenced—by a passage in Midrash Tanhuma that is no less theologically radical. The midrash is explaining why Joseph was brought down to Egypt (Genesis 39:1), and begins by quoting a verse in Psalms:
תהלים סו:ה לְכוּ וּרְאוּ מִפְעֲלוֹת אֱלֹהִים נוֹרָא עֲלִילָה עַל בְּנֵי אָדָם.
Ps 66:5 Come and see the works of God, terrible in his deeds to people.
The midrash brings a number of interpretations of the phrase נוֹרָא עֲלִילָה “terrible in his deeds” (Tanhuma, “VaYeshev” 4, Warsaw ed.):
א"ר יהושע בן קרחה: אף הנוראות שאתה מביא עלינו בעלילה את מביאן. בא וראה כשברא הקדוש ברוך הוא את העולם מיום הראשון ברא מלאך המות. מנין?
Rabbi Joshua ben Korchah said: Even the terrible things [נוראות] that you bring upon us, by way of intrigue [עלילה] you bring them. Come and see. When God created the world the angel of death was created on the first day. How do I know this?
א"ר ברכיה: משום שנאמר וחושך על פני תהום זה מלאך המות המחשיך פניהם של בריות, ואדם נברא בששי ועלילה נתלה בו שהוא הביא את המיתה לעולם שנאמר כי ביום אכלך ממנו מות תמות,.
Rabbi Berakhiah said: For it is stated: “and darkness was on the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:2) – this is the angel of death that darkens the faces of the people. The human being was created on the sixth day. By way of intrigue he was made responsible for bringing death to the world, as it is stated: “for the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17).
מלה"ד למי שמבקש לגרש את אשתו כשבקש לילך לביתו כתב גט נכנס לביתו והגט בידו מבקש עלילה ליתנו לה, אמר לה מזגי לי את הכוס שאשתה, מזגה לו, כיון שנטל הכוס מידה אמר לה הרי זה גיטך, אמרה לו מה פשעי, אמר לה צאי מביתי שמזגת לי כוס פשור, אמרה לו כבר היית יודע שאני עתידה למזוג לך כוס פשור שכתבת הגט והביאתו בידך.
To what is this analogous? To a person who sought to divorce his wife. Before he returned home, he wrote a gett (writ of divorce), and entered his house with the gett in hand, seeking by intrigue to give it to her. He said to her: “Pour me a cup that I may drink.” She poured him. After taking the cup from her hand he said to her: “Here is your gett.” She said to him: “What is my sin?” He said to her: “Leave my house for you poured me a cup that was lukewarm.” She said to him: “You already knew that I was destined to pour you a cup that was lukewarm when you wrote the gett and brought it in your hand.”
אף כך אמר אדם לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא רבש"ע עד שלא בראת עולמך קודם שני אלפים שנה היתה תורה אצלך אמון שכך כתיב (משלי ח) ואהיה אצלו אמון ואהיה שעשועים יום יום ב' אלפים שנה וכתיב בה (במדבר יט) זאת התורה אדם כי ימות באהל אלולי שהתקנת מות לבריות היית כותב בה כך אלא באת לתלות בי את העלילה הוי נורא עלילה על בני אדם.
In a similar manner said Adam to the Holy One Blessed Be He: Lord of the universe, two thousand years before creating the world, the Torah was with You as a confidant, for so it is written: “I was with Him as a confidant, a source of delight day after day” (Proverbs 8:30) – two thousand years. And it is written in it: “This is the torah, a person who dies in a tent” (Numbers 19:14). Had You not already established that humans will die would You have written thus?! But You made me the victim of this intrigue - your intrigues are terrible against human beings.
The midrash goes on to show that God’s intrigue can also be seen in the case of Moses not being allowed to enter the Land of Canaan. Allegedly, this was a punishment for the sin of not sanctifying the name of God in the incident of bringing forth the water from the rock (Num 20:12). Yet in truth it was determined well beforehand.
This is also the case with Joseph being sold to Egypt, the blame of which was placed upon his brothers. In truth, this act was divinely determined beforehand for the sake of humanity, and by God’s intrigue the brothers were led to commit it (Gen 45:5–8).
Maimonides: Not an Intrigue but Gracious Ruse
While the midrash does not bring the Israelite reaction to the report of the spies as an example, Maimonides’ approach to this incident is reminiscent of the midrash, except that in place of the critiquing God’s intrigue in the midrash, Maimonides thinks of the intrigue with the spies as a gracious ruse. For Maimonides, it is an added benefit for human beings to be held responsible for the results of their activities, even when these results were in fact determined beforehand and could not be avoided. Indeed, the wilderness training period successfully transformed Israel from a nation of slaves to a nation of free people, as seen by the successful conquest of Israel in the book of Joshua by the children of those who left Egypt.
This fits with Maimonides’ notion of divine “trials,” i.e., when calamities befall the righteous even when they have not sinned, about which he writes (Guide 3.24, p. 498):
Know that the aim and meaning of all the trials mentioned in the Torah is to let people know what they ought to do or what they must believe.
The righteous become a “model to be imitated and followed” by their steadfast belief in God and loyalty to the divine command, though their circumstances should easily have led them to question divine justice. The generation leaving Egypt, in contrast, serves as a model for future generations of the type of behavior that is to be avoided – namely, an inability to face the challenges coupled with a lack of faith despite all the deeds God committed on their behalf.
“Punishment” of the earlier generation of slaves, who could not help but behave the way they did, becomes in this manner a warning to future generations, who can freely choose the course they will follow. This state of affairs can only be brought about by the Deity’s ruse. But since it serves a positive educational purpose, it is for Maimonides a gracious ruse.
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Prof. Haim (Howard) Kreisel teaches in the Department of Jewish Thought at Ben-Gurion University, where he holds the Miriam Martha Hubert Chair in Jewish Thought and is the Director of the Goldstein-Goren International Center for Jewish Thought. Among his books are Maimonides’ Political Thought and Prophecy: The History of an Idea in Medieval Jewish Philosophy.
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