The Scout Story: A Guided Reading
The evocative Hebrew title of the book of Numbers, Bemidbar, “In the Wilderness,” captures the scenario of recently liberated slaves sojourning in uncultivated lands. The wilderness landscape mirrors the collective anxiety, fear, and resentment harbored by the people of Israel that burst out in a series of rebellions narrated in Numbers 11-16.
The Social Hierarchy in Numbers
Leviticus prescribes properly performed rituals as outlets for Israel’s unruly tendencies. Numbers provides a social structure enacted through a census and a system of encampment. The tabernacle stands at the center of the camp encircled by the Kohanim (Priests), Levites surround the Kohanim, and the tribes of Israel assume a set location on one of four external flanks. As in all social structures, the system of encampment establishes a hierarchy.
The rebellions in Numbers 11, 12, and 16 oppose the hierarchy in the name of equalizing these different groups or at least expanding the non-priestly, non-levitical base of power. (These are from different sources—note especially how different rebellions of Korah, and Dathan and Abiram are combined in ch. 16.) None of them is successful. Each concludes with a grotesquely miraculous punishment that silences the transgressive parties.
The social structure of Numbers, like the ritual laws of Leviticus is, a product of the Priestly scribal school, which thinks in terms of binary oppositions – holy and ordinary, clean and unclean, kohen and Israel – that can be mediated by forces like the priesthood, water, and the Levites. Because the Priestly school recognizes this structure in creation (Gen. 1:1-2:4a—a Priestly text), it assumes that reproducing it in the social world will ensure that God supports Israel and upholds the categories of creation, yielding blessing rather than chaos.
Taming the Rebellious Forces
Just as the Priestly creation account involves a series of boundaries – the sunset, the horizon (raqia), the seashore– that make order out of chaos, so the book of Numbers provides a social structure intended to tame the chaos of the wilderness. With the rebellion sequence, the Priestly writers show the structure’s inability to order the internal landscape of Israel’s collective psyche and the divine will to nevertheless uphold it using any means possible.
The form of the book of Numbers reflects the theme of containing rebellion. Biblical scholars have noted how the Priestly writers incorporate other traditions from J and E as they depict the establishment of Israel’s social order. Adriane Leveen compares the book to a textile where the “priestly vision” intentionally leaves the “seams exposed” between composite texts as a record of struggle among different parties.
Three Versions of the Rebellion
Numbers 13-14 is comprised of at least two traditions, commonly held to belong to the early J (or non-P) source associated with southern Canaan (Judah) and the Priestly source. The discrepancies between the two traditions become evident in the two itineraries: J sends the scouts through the Negev, up the Judean mountains, and into Hebron (13:22), while P sends them all the way to the land’s northernmost border. In addition, God pledges to bring Caleb alone into the land in the J version, while God admits both Caleb and Joshua in the P version. (In the redacted story, P is the dominant but not exclusive voice.)
Yet another version of the story in Deuteronomy 1:19-46 contradicts both accounts in Numbers by having the people rather than God initiate the sending of spies. Caleb opposes the majority report in Numbers, while Moses refutes it in Deuteronomy. Jacob Milgrom finds continuity between the account in Deuteronomy and events in the book of Joshua (14:6-15).Each account of who belongs in the land and who thwarted its attainment comes with its own political sensibility.
Challenging God’s Narrative
The redacted story of the scouts in Numbers 13-14 is not a rebellion against the social order, but a more fundamental questioning of the journey’s purpose. The people of Israel move through the wilderness in order to reach a land about which they know little. Their information comes from a story told by God at three instances (Exod. 3:6-8/3:16-17, 13:5, 33:1-3) and composed of three elements: the land was promised to the ancestors, flows with milk and honey, and is populated by other peoples. The motif of ancestors constitutes Israel’s claim to the land and indicates that it is a site of legitimate Israelite memory and aspiration. Milk and honey signify the land’s abundance and portray it as a place of nourishment and nurture. God intends the land to represent the antithesis of Egypt. The presence of other peoples implies that Israel will have to conquer it by military means.
Does Moses Doubt the Goodness of the Land?
In Numbers 13, representatives of Israel reverse God’s story by transforming the elements of milk and honey, inhabiting peoples, and ancestors into their binary opposites. God initiates the storytelling event by instructing Moses to send twelve men into Canaan. Yet Moses elaborates on the command by asking a series of questions:
Is the nation that dwells in it strong or weak? Is it few or many? Is the land on which they dwell good or bad? Are the cities in which they live encampments or fortresses? Is the land fertile or barren? Is it filled with trees or not? Reach out and take some fruits of the land (Num. 13:17-20).
Moses’s desire to know what the land looks like and what its produce tastes like reveals how little Israel knows about its destination. In addition to an eyewitness account, Moses requests evidence of the land’s alleged bounty. The description that it flows with milk and honey does not tell Moses whether the land is “good or bad” (13:19). Only by eating “from the fruit of the land” can Israel make this distinction (Num. 13:20). His perfectly legitimate questions fracture the coherence of God’s story and commission the people to compose their own.
The Scouts Reverse God’s Message
The scouts gather their story by exploring the land. Instead of discovering their ancestors in their burial place of Hebron, the scouts run into giants (13:22) and gather fruit (13:23). Forty days later they return to the camp and bring a report accompanied by a giant cluster of grapes to Moses, Aaron, and the people (13:26). Their story begins by corroborating God’s story, but goes on to invert each element.
The scouts mention four of the six nations from God’s story and match them with a geographical region. However, in place of the Perizzites and the Hivites, the scouts speak of two other enemies, “the sons of Anak (giants)” and the “Amalekites.” The sons of Anak are a subset of primordial giants who populate the land until heroes of Israel fell them (Josh. 11:21-22, 1 Sam. 17, 2 Sam. 21:18-22). Amalek stands as Israel’s typological opponent, an ancient, resilient nation related through the line of Esau (Gen. 36:12; 1 Chr. 1:35-36) that besieges Israel at its most vulnerable moments (Exod. 17:8-16, Num. 14:43-45, Deut. 25:17-18) and persists as an indefatigable enemy.
Caleb interrupts the story. Concluding with a rallying cry, he exclaims, “Let’s go up and claim it, we will overcome it!” His cohorts reject his amendment and go on to tell a second version of their story, cast in darker terms. As the scouts tell it, the land is not a place where Israel will eat milk and honey, but rather “a land that devours (lit. “eats,” ochelet) its settlers” (13:32). The peoples of Canaan are no ordinary nations, but Nephilim, a race of demigods born from the union of the sons of God and the daughters of Adam (Gen. 6:2-4), that predate Israel’s ancestors as the inhabitants precede Israel in the land. In the land of giants, Israel’s forefathers are nowhere to be seen.
In contrast to the giant Nephilim, the Israelites see themselves as grasshoppers and project this vision onto the inhabitants. A midrash imagines God taking particular exception to this component of the scouts’ report: I forgave you for saying we saw ourselves as grasshoppers, but so we must have appeared to them! How could you know how I made you appear to them? Who says that you didn’t appear to them as angels? (Bemidbar Rabbah 16.11).
Numbers 14—in the P text—adds Joshua’s voice to Caleb’s insisting that it is indeed a “very, very good land,” “flowing with milk and honey” to which God would deliver them if only the people would not rebel (Num. 14:7-9). They reverse the cannibalistic description of their cohorts by referring to the people of the land as “our food (lachmeinu)” (14:9). Furious at the telling of this story in the midst of their grief, the people are ready to stone Joshua and Caleb.
God’s Reaction to the Reversal of God’s Narrative
Now that Israel no longer accepts God’s story, God wants to annihilate them and recreate the nation in the image of Moses (Num. 14:12): the divine narrative must stand. Moses dissuades God by having him imagine the kind of story that would afterward circulate among the nations (14:14-16), so God rests at punishing Israel in proportion to their deeds. The people wished for death in the desert (14:2), so God visits death on the desert generation (14:29); the scouts roamed the land for forty days, so the people wander the wilderness for forty years. (Though only expressed as a general principle in rabbinic literature, measure for measure is frequent in the Bible.) It is not the land that will devour them, but rather the wilderness through which they must carry the baggage of their transgression until their “corpses drop in the wilderness” (Num. 14:29,32).
The scouts’ overturning of God’s story results in the loss of the land and reorients the plot of the exodus. The only hope for the future is that the next generation will tell a different story.
Conclusion: The Laws of Chapter 15 as a Sign of Hope
The laws contained in Numbers 15 reiterate the Priestly investment in law and hierarchy. Not only does the chapter of laws interrupt the rebellion sequence, but God also speaks of enacting the laws “when you enter the land that I am giving you to settle” (15:2). The placement of the new set of laws serves as an assurance that the Priestly legal and social structure must and can endure even the most widespread rebellion.
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June 10, 2014
September 19, 2019
Dr. Rachel Havrelock is Associate Professor of Jewish Studies and English at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Rachel’s book, River Jordan: The Mythology of a Dividing Line combines biblical studies, literary and political theory, and the politics of interpretation. Rachel’s current book project, The Joshua Generation: Politics and the Promised Land, focuses on the structure and meaning of the book of Joshua and its interpretation. Her co-authored book, Women on the Biblical Road, was the beginning of her work on gender and the Bible.
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