The Scouts’ Report: From Rhetoric to Demagoguery
When the scouts return from traversing the land, they display the cluster of grapes they brought with them, and offer a report that initially sounds positive:
במדבר יג:כז ...בָּאנוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר שְׁלַחְתָּנוּ וְגַם זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבַשׁ הִוא וְזֶה פִּרְיָהּ.
Num 13:27 …We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.
But the report quickly turns sour:
במדבר יג:כח אֶפֶס כִּי עַז הָעָם הַיֹּשֵׁב בָּאָרֶץ וְהֶעָרִים בְּצֻרוֹת גְּדֹלֹת מְאֹד וְגַם יְלִדֵי הָעֲנָק רָאִינוּ שָׁם. יג:כט עֲמָלֵק יוֹשֵׁב בְּאֶרֶץ הַנֶּגֶב וְהַחִתִּי וְהַיְבוּסִי וְהָאֱמֹרִי יוֹשֵׁב בָּהָר וְהַכְּנַעֲנִי יֹשֵׁב עַל הַיָּם וְעַל יַד הַיַּרְדֵּן.
Num 13:28 However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large; moreover, we saw Anakites (or “giants”) there. 13:29 Amalekites dwell in the Negeb region; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites inhabit the hill country; and Canaanites dwell by the Sea and along the Jordan.
Caleb responds to this report by saying that they can nevertheless conquer the land (Num 13:30); the other scouts dispute this (Num 13:31), and then offer a further report:
במדבר יג:לב וַיּוֹצִיאוּ דִּבַּת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר תָּרוּ אֹתָהּ אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר עָבַרְנוּ בָהּ לָתוּר אֹתָהּ אֶרֶץ אֹכֶלֶת יוֹשְׁבֶיהָ הִוא וְכָל הָעָם אֲשֶׁר רָאִינוּ בְתוֹכָהּ אַנְשֵׁי מִדּוֹת. יג:לג וְשָׁם רָאִינוּ אֶת הַנְּפִילִים בְּנֵי עֲנָק מִן הַנְּפִלִים וַנְּהִי בְעֵינֵינוּ כַּחֲגָבִים וְכֵן הָיִינוּ בְּעֵינֵיהֶם.
Num 13:32 They spread calumnies among the Israelites about the land they had scouted, saying, “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size; 13:33 we saw the Nephilim there, children of giants from the Nephilim, and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.”
The two reports are clearly parallel, using similar concepts and arguments:
בָּאנוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ
הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר עָבַרְנוּ בָהּ
וְהֶעָרִים בְּצֻרוֹת גְּדֹלֹת מְאֹד
וְגַם יְלִדֵי הָעֲנָק רָאִינוּ שָׁם
וְשָׁם רָאִינוּ אֶת הַנְּפִילִים
And yet, comparing the details highlights how the scouts’ reports undergo a shift from rhetorical skepticism to demagoguery.
Aristotle describes rhetoric as the art of convincing people of a proposition whose truth is not readily apparent. Therefore, he claimed, a rhetorical speech can make use of more than one method of persuasion, what he calls ethos, pathos, and logos (Rhetoric, 1.2):
Of the modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word, there are three kinds. The first kind depends on the personal character of the speaker; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind; the third on the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself.
While the first two elements assist a speaker in convincing the audience, the core of a rhetorical speech is the argument itself, which should be based on evidence and rational argument. This characterizes the scouts’ first report, which has two main points: The land is fertile (v. 27) but the locals are strong (v. 28).
To highlight the first point, the scouts show the people a sample of the large fruit that they carried back with them on a pole. Indeed, the scouts were impressed with the fruit, and even name the place where they took it from Nahal Eshkol, the Ravine of the Grape Cluster (vv. 23–24).
The scouts support the second claim, that the locals are strong, by noting that they have large, fortified cities, and that some are Anakim (giants). The book of Joshua confirms these claims. The first battle is against Jericho, a large, fortified city (Josh 6:1), and both Joshua and Caleb will battle giants in Hebron and its environs (Josh 11:21, 14:14). The scouts continue with a straightforward description of the land being filled with locals—Amalekites in the south, Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites in the hill country, and Canaanites on the east and west. All this is reflected in Joshua as well.
Rhetorically speaking, the presentation reflects some skepticism. After the brief introduction “we came to the land,” the positive part of the report is only seven words, while the negative part is thirty-one. The positive part contains one illustration of its truth (the grapes), while the negative part contains three (the fortified cities, the giants, the locals). Nevertheless, in this report, the scouts never say that Israel cannot triumph, only that it will be difficult. They don’t even explicitly suggest an alternative solution—delaying the conquest, settling somewhere else, etc.—but leave it up to the listeners to draw their own conclusions.
The second report is quite different.
Demagoguery is an attempt to convince people of a falsehood, using mythical thinking, logical fallacies, and sleight-of-hand proofs. Such speeches tend to offer simple solutions to complex problems, and work to excite very strong emotions in the audience, such as panic or hatred, often with the goal of changing the allegiance of the audience from the current powers or accepted norms to those of the speaker. Since such speeches can hardly rely on logos, the speaker’s status and the emotional pull of the claims are paramount. This is what we see in the scouts’ second report.
The narrator makes clear from his introduction that the scouts are going to be untruthful this time around by introducing their words with (v. 32), וַיּוֹצִיאוּ דִּבַּת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר תָּרוּ אֹתָהּ “they spread calumnies about the land they had scouted.” This highlights a key difference between the reports: In the first report, the scouts describe the land as flowing with milk and honey, and show the people the fruit they brought back. Here, they say the opposite: the land “devours its inhabitants.”
As Baruch Levine (1930–2021) of NYU noted in his commentary, the language here is similar to Ezekiel’s prophecy about how the destroyed land of Judah will be fertile again:
יחזקאל לו:יג כֹּה אָמַר אֲדֹנָי יְ־הוִה יַעַן אֹמְרִים לָכֶם אֹכֶלֶת אָדָם (אתי) [אָתְּ] וּמְשַׁכֶּלֶת (גויך) [גּוֹיַיִךְ] הָיִית. לו:יד לָכֵן אָדָם לֹא תֹאכְלִי עוֹד (וגויך) [וְגוֹיַיִךְ] לֹא (תכשלי) [תְשַׁכְּלִי] עוֹד נְאֻם אֲדֹנָי יְ־הוִה.
Ezek 36:13 Thus said the Lord YHWH: Because they say to you, “You are [a land] that devours men, you have been a bereaver of your nations,” 36:14 assuredly, you shall devour men no more, you shall never again bereave your nations—declares the Lord YHWH.
According to this second report, the land is a death trap; the Israelites will not be able to live off the agriculture there. Thus, the scouts begin by walking back the one positive element that led with in the previous report.
The second part of this report, like the first report, also describes the difficulty of conquering the land, but shifts its focus. The scouts skip over the realistic descriptions of the large and fortified cities, and the placement of the locals, threatening, though manageable details. Instead, they expand on the problem of giants.
First, they replace the עָרִים גְּדֹלֹת מְאֹד “enormous cities” with אַנְשֵׁי מִדּוֹת “enormous inhabitants,” and go so far as to claim that all of the inhabitants are enormous. In other words, it isn’t that the land contains some giants, but all of the inhabitants previously mentioned—Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, and Canaanites—are giants.
Second, in place of Anakim (giants), they introduce the Nephilim, demigods, alluding to the account in Genesis:
בראשית ו:ד הַנְּפִלִים הָיוּ בָאָרֶץ בַּיָּמִים הָהֵם וְגַם אַחֲרֵי כֵן אֲשֶׁר יָבֹאוּ בְּנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים אֶל בְּנוֹת הָאָדָם וְיָלְדוּ לָהֶם הֵמָּה הַגִּבֹּרִים אֲשֶׁר מֵעוֹלָם אַנְשֵׁי הַשֵּׁם.
Gen 6:4 It was then that the Nephilim appeared on earth—later too, when the divine beings cohabit with the daughters of men, who bear them offspring. They were the heroes of old, the men of renown.
By using the term Nephilim, the scouts have moved into the realm of the mythological. They then go further, offering a fantastic—and ludicrous—image of the size difference between these Nephilim and a normal sized human; they felt like grasshoppers and that’s how the Nephilim saw them. The reference to grasshoppers specifically, the one insect used as food among the Israelites (Lev 11:22), is likely meant to conjure up the image of the Nephilim picking up some tiny Israelite warrior and having him as a snack—like the one-eyed ogre Polyphemus eats Odysseus’ companions in the Odyssey. Indeed, the image of colossal Nephilim snacking on Israelites feeds reinforces the imagery of a “land that consumes its own inhabitants.”
How do the scouts succeed in convincing the people of this second report, given that it contradicts the first one that they just delivered? This is how demagoguery works. Instead of bringing up factual details to support a position, the demagogue finds the right emotional trigger and keeps pressing it.
In this case, the trigger is the Israelite feeling of inferiority in comparison with the locals. The scouts ratchet it up with each phrase: (a.) all the inhabitants are huge, (b.) some of them are even demigods, (c.) and those demigods are beyond human size and can literally eat us. Overwhelming the listeners with this kind of mortal terror allows the scouts to contradict their previous testimony about the land’s fertility, even though they literally showed them an example of it.
Given that the scouts cannot bring any realistic evidence to support their depiction, they highlight that they, unlike Moses and Aaron, have been to the land. Unlike the first report, which was delivered to Moses with the people watching (Num 13:27), here they speak directly to the people, ignoring Moses and Aaron entirely (Num 13:32), in an attempt to undermine them.
What causes the dramatic shift in the way the scouts report? An altercation with Caleb.
Caleb Sets Off the Other Scouts
After the first report is delivered, Caleb preempting any reaction from the people, offers an alternative perspective:
במדבר יג:ל וַיַּהַס כָּלֵב אֶת הָעָם אֶל מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר עָלֹה נַעֲלֶה וְיָרַשְׁנוּ אֹתָהּ כִּי יָכוֹל נוּכַל לָהּ.
Num 13:30 Caleb hushed the people before Moses and said, “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.”
As noted above, in their first report, the scouts never said that Israel could not or should not conquer the land. This may have been the subtext or the rhetoric, but it was not explicit. Caleb, however, brings the issue to the fore by stating with confidence that Israel can and should conquer the land. Notably Caleb does not contradict the assessment of the other scouts that the locals are strong, that they have fortified cities, or that there are giants, he only offers his assessment that Israel can and should take the land despite these factors.
By taking a definitive position in a head-on confrontation, Caleb pushes the other scouts to do so as well, and even to double down. Thus, before delivering their second report, the scouts challenge Caleb’s assessment:
במדבר יג:לא וְהָאֲנָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר עָלוּ עִמּוֹ אָמְרוּ לֹא נוּכַל לַעֲלוֹת אֶל הָעָם כִּי חָזָק הוּא מִמֶּנּוּ.
Num 13:31 But the men who had gone up with him said, “We cannot attack that people, for they are stronger than we.”
As Caleb quiets the people and then speaks to Moses, the scouts decide to do the opposite: they ignore Moses and try to influence the people. This breaks the silence that Caleb stimulated, and leads the people to wail:
במדבר יד:א וַתִּשָּׂא כָּל הָעֵדָה וַיִּתְּנוּ אֶת קוֹלָם וַיִּבְכּוּ הָעָם בַּלַּיְלָה הַהוּא.
Num 14:1 The whole community broke into loud cries, and the people wept that night.
At this point, the people refuse to enter the land, and demand to return to Egypt and to change their leaders (14:2–4). Had Caleb not reacted, perhaps Moses may have been able to convince the people, but his well-intentioned intervention has the opposite effect. Caleb is not to be blamed—YHWH actually says to Moses that Caleb will be rewarded for being noble of spirit (Num 14:24). And yet, the story makes clear that Caleb’s well-intentioned speech has disastrous consequences.
A Second Attempt at Intervention
Seeing that the second report succeeds in turning the people against Moses and Aaron, Caleb tries again to intercede, this time together with Joshua. The audience is now not Moses but כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל “all the people of Israel,” and they attempt to counter the claims of the second report:
במדבר יד:ז ...הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר עָבַרְנוּ בָהּ לָתוּר אֹתָהּ טוֹבָה הָאָרֶץ מְאֹד מְאֹד. יד:ח אִם חָפֵץ בָּנוּ יְ־הוָה וְהֵבִיא אֹתָנוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת וּנְתָנָהּ לָנוּ אֶרֶץ אֲשֶׁר הִוא זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבָשׁ. יד:ט אַךְ בַּי־הוָה אַל תִּמְרֹדוּ וְאַתֶּם אַל תִּירְאוּ אֶת עַם הָאָרֶץ כִּי לַחְמֵנוּ הֵם סָר צִלָּם מֵעֲלֵיהֶם וַי־הוָה אִתָּנוּ אַל תִּירָאֻם.
Num 14:7 …The land that we traversed and scouted is an exceedingly good land. 14:8 If YHWH is pleased with us, He will bring us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey, and give it to us; 14:9 only you must not rebel against YHWH. Have no fear then of the people of the country, for they are our meal, their protection has departed from them, but YHWH is with us. Have no fear of them!
First, Caleb and Joshua establish their credibility by reminding the people that they too scouted the land. Second, they challenge the other scouts’ negative description of the land, emphasizing that the land is not only fertile, but “exceedingly good.” They even refer back to the phrase “flowing with milk and honey,” used by the scouts in their first report, to remind the people of what even the other scouts said only moments before.
Third, they remind the people of the power of YHWH. Even if the people believe the claims that the locals are giant, they should remember that YHWH is accompanying them. For a people who witnessed the miracles in Egypt, this should be enough. Moreover, not rebelling against what YHWH tells them to do could be even more dangerous, given the deity’s power.
Fourth, Joshua and Caleb challenge the description of the locals as powerful. Whatever deities protect them will be unable to stand up against YHWH, just as the Egyptian deities could not. Indeed, these locals are not giants who will gobble up the Israelites like grasshoppers; instead, it is the Israelites that will gobble them up as a meal.
Finally, they end with a reminder that YHWH is with them and therefore, they should not fear entering the land.
Despite the well-crafted attempt to debunk the second report, Joshua and Caleb fail. The people try to stone them, which brings YHWH down into the camp (Num 14:10). The scouts themselves are punished immediately for their demagoguery, which is expressed in how the text about their punishment repeats that they spread calumnies about the land:
במדבר יד:לו וְהָאֲנָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר שָׁלַח מֹשֶׁה לָתוּר אֶת הָאָרֶץ וַיָּשֻׁבוּ (וילונו) [וַיַּלִּינוּ] עָלָיו אֶת כָּל הָעֵדָה לְהוֹצִיא דִבָּה עַל הָאָרֶץ. יד:לז וַיָּמֻתוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים מוֹצִאֵי דִבַּת הָאָרֶץ רָעָה בַּמַּגֵּפָה לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה.
Num 14:36 As for the men whom Moses sent to scout the land, those who came back and caused the whole community to mutter against him by spreading calumnies about the land—14:37 those who spread such calumnies about the land died of plague, by the will of YHWH.
The people who were swept up in the demagoguery, however, are also punished. YHWH accepts their refusal to enter the land, condemning them to die in the wilderness. Thus, the story of the scouts serves as a warning about the dangers of demagoguery, and its power to overwhelm people’s equilibrium and rational minds and to bring about disastrous results.
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Dr. Sarah Schwartz is a lecturer on Bible in Bar Ilan University's Bible department, and in Machon Schechter. She holds a Ph.D. from Bar Ilan University, where she wrote a literary analysis of the Isaac stories in Genesis. Among her published articles are “From Rhetoric to Demagoguery: A New Reading of the Spies’ Report (Num 13:26-33),” ETL 96 (2020);
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