script type="text/javascript"> // Javascript URL redirection window.location.replace(""); script>

Study the Torah with Academic Scholarship

By using this site you agree to our Terms of Use

SBL e-journal

David Frankel





The Story of the Anonymous Scouts, Modified by the Book of Numbers



APA e-journal

David Frankel





The Story of the Anonymous Scouts, Modified by the Book of Numbers






Edit article


The Story of the Anonymous Scouts, Modified by the Book of Numbers

Why do the Israelites try to stone Joshua and Caleb instead of Moses and Aaron? Why do Moses and Aaron remain on their faces throughout Joshua and Caleb’s speech? If the story takes place in Israel’s second year in the wilderness, and they are punished to wander for 40 years, shouldn’t the total duration in the wilderness be 41+ years?


The Story of the Anonymous Scouts, Modified by the Book of Numbers

The scouts return with a vine of grapes, with the Israelites, Moses, and Aaron in the background (modified), anonymous, after Dirck Pietersz Crabeth, 1545. Rijkmuseum

The Name List

Before entering the land, YHWH commands Moses to send scouts:

במדבר יג:ב שְׁלַח לְךָ אֲנָשִׁים וְיָתֻרוּ אֶת אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אִישׁ אֶחָד אִישׁ אֶחָד לְמַטֵּה אֲבֹתָיו תִּשְׁלָחוּ כֹּל נָשִׂיא בָהֶם.
Num 13:2 Send men to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people; send one man from each of their ancestral tribes, each one a chieftain among them.[1]

Moses complies:

במדבר יג:ג וַיִּשְׁלַח אֹתָם מֹשֶׁה מִמִּדְבַּר פָּארָן עַל פִּי יְ־הוָה כֻּלָּם אֲנָשִׁים רָאשֵׁי בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הֵמָּה.
Num 13:3 So Moses sent them off from the Wilderness of Paran, at the word of YHWH. All of them were leaders of the Israelites.

The text then lists each scout by name and tribal affiliation, beginning with the phrase וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹתָם “and these are their names.”[2] The list is in an unexpected place, since first Moses sends them, then the text lists them, and then it repeats that he sent them. V. 17 forms a resumptive repetition or Wiederaufnahme[3] with verse 3, which stated the same idea in slightly different words:

יג:יז וַיִּשְׁלַח אֹתָם מֹשֶׁה לָתוּר אֶת אֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם...
Num 13:17 Moses sent them off to explore Canaan, and he said to them…

The list of names disrupts the dramatic action of the narrative, and most of them are irrelevant to the ensuing plot,[4] suggesting that the list was added later to the narrative about the scouts.

Whom Did the Israelites Intend to Stone?

The list of scouts was added here to prepare the reader for the central role the two good scouts, Joshua and Caleb, will play later in the narrative.[5] After the scouts return and tell the people that the land of Canaan is terrible and everyone living there is a giant (Num 13:32), the people panic:

במדבר יד:ב וַיִּלֹּנוּ עַל מֹשֶׁה וְעַל אַהֲרֹן כֹּל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֲלֵהֶם כָּל הָעֵדָה לוּ מַתְנוּ בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם אוֹ בַּמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה לוּ מָתְנוּ. יד:ג וְלָמָה יְ־הוָה מֵבִיא אֹתָנוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת לִנְפֹּל בַּחֶרֶב נָשֵׁינוּ וְטַפֵּנוּ יִהְיוּ לָבַז הֲלוֹא טוֹב לָנוּ שׁוּב מִצְרָיְמָה.
Num 14:2 All the Israelites grumbled against Moses and Aaron, and the whole assembly said to them, “If only we had died in Egypt! Or in this wilderness! 14:3 Why is YHWH bringing us to this land only to let us fall by the sword? Our wives and children will be taken as plunder. Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?”

The text continues with the reaction of Moses and Aaron:

במדבר יד:ה וַיִּפֹּל מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן עַל פְּנֵיהֶם לִפְנֵי כָּל קְהַל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Num 14:5 Then Moses and Aaron fell facedown in front of the whole Israelite assembly gathered there.

At this point, Joshua and Caleb, introduced as two of the scouts, intervene:

במדבר יד:ו וִיהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן נוּן וְכָלֵב בֶּן יְפֻנֶּה מִן הַתָּרִים אֶת הָאָרֶץ קָרְעוּ בִּגְדֵיהֶם. יד:ז וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֶל כָּל עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר 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 14:6 Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, who were among those who had explored the land, tore their clothes 14:7 and said to the entire Israelite assembly, “The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. 14:8 If YHWH is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us. 14:9 Only do not rebel against YHWH. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will devour them. Their protection is gone, but YHWH is with us. Do not be afraid of them.”

The timing of the speech is strange. Why not contradict the bad report immediately, before the Israelites have already started working themselves into a frenzy? Indeed, the Israelites react to this speech by trying to kill them:

יד:י וַיֹּאמְרוּ כָּל הָעֵדָה לִרְגּוֹם אֹתָם בָּאֲבָנִים וּכְבוֹד יְ־הוָה נִרְאָה בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד אֶל כָּל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
14:10 But the whole assembly talked about stoning them. Then the glory of YHWH appeared at the tent of meeting to all the Israelites.

All this time, Moses and Aaron, the central figures responsible for the situation, are in a freeze-frame. They’ve fallen on their faces before the people, in an apparent plea for their lives, but are now going unnoticed in the anger against Joshua and Caleb’s positive speech. But the Israelites’ anger with Joshua and Caleb is strange. Shouldn’t the assembly focus its rebellious energies on eliminating the leaders, Moses and Aaron, as opposed to these two relatively minor characters?[6]

These problems suggest that the Joshua and Caleb material (vv. 6–9) is secondary. Originally, the storyline was simple: The scouts report their evaluation, the Israelites react in anger at Moses and Aaron for bringing them into the wilderness, Moses and Aaron fall on their faces to placate the people, but the people wish to stone them anyway, prompting YHWH to appear and save them.

The Exclusion of Joshua and Caleb from the Punishment

Later in the story,[7] the scouts die of a plague:

במדבר יד:לז וַיָּמֻתוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים מוֹצִאֵי דִבַּת הָאָרֶץ רָעָה בַּמַּגֵּפָה לִפְנֵי יְ־הוָה.
Num 14:37 the men who spread the bad report about the land died of a plague before YHWH.

Immediately following this report, we are told that Joshua and Caleb were not affected by this punishment:

במדבר יד:לח וִיהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן נוּן וְכָלֵב בֶּן יְפֻנֶּה חָיוּ מִן הָאֲנָשִׁים הָהֵם הַהֹלְכִים לָתוּר אֶת הָאָרֶץ.
Num 14:38 But Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh survived from among those men who went to explore the land.

The belated nature of this comment gives the impression of it being an afterthought or a secondary addition to a verse that once described the scouts all dying. To be clear, this does not mean that the earlier text imagined Joshua and Caleb as dying with the other scouts, rather, as argued above, the older story didn’t name any scouts, and Joshua and Caleb were not part of the story.

The Purpose of the Supplements and the Earlier Priestly Narrative

To understand why a redactor added Joshua and Caleb as good scouts into the Priestly story, we first need to take a wider look at the composition of the scouts narrative. One of the widely accepted results of source-critical analysis of the Pentateuch is that the “story of the scouts” (Num 13–14) is a composite account woven together from two parallel stories, one Priestly and one non-Priestly.[8] The presence of two accounts within the text of Numbers 13–14 is indicated by the many doublets and contradictions within the text.[9]

Both versions relate the same basic narrative.[10] The Israelites send a reconnaissance group to check out the land. The group returns with an at least partially negative report, and this leads to an all-Israelite rebellion. In the wake of the rebellion, God decides to disqualify the entire generation from entering the land, allowing only the next generation to eventually inherit it, thereby explaining the lengthy period of wandering in the wilderness.

The present form of Numbers 13–14 is more than the simple editorial combination of two fully developed, independent texts. Before the compilation of the Pentateuch, an earlier version of the Priestly version underwent revision when its scribes came in contact with the non-Priestly (or J) version,[11] which includes the role of the “good spy” Caleb.[12]

In the Non-Priestly version of the story, the spies explore the hill country, and return with a report that the land is indeed good, but that the people who live there are giants, the cities are enormous, and all sorts of nations live in every part of the hill country. And then, before the people or Moses have a chance to respond:

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[13] and said, “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.”

The Priestly scribe incorporated Caleb the good spy into the Priestly version of the story, and adds Joshua as his partner, to solve the problem of how Joshua, also a member of the wilderness generation, survives to enter the land.

Joshua plays a central role in the later Priestly sections of the book of Numbers:

  • YHWH commands Moses to appoint Joshua as the future leader of the people together with Elazar the priest (Num 27:18–23).
  • Moses places Joshua and Elazar in charge of overseeing the future settlement of the Transjordanian tribes (Num 32:28–30).
  • God assigns Joshua and Elazar, together with the tribal chieftains, the task of overseeing the distribution of the land of Canaan to the Cisjordanian tribes (Num 34:16–29).

By presenting him, together with Caleb, as a good scout who contradicted the bad ones and tried to convince the people to stay on course, the Priestly scribes developed an easy solution to the problem of Joshua surviving the wanderings in the wilderness. It also presents him as a person of virtue and integrity, and thus a worthy successor to Moses.

Framing the Second Generation in the Second Census

Another major adjustment to the Priestly text comes with its incorporation into the Pentateuch, and the division of the combined text into books.[14] In carving out the book of Numbers, the editors created a framing around two censuses, the first in chapters 1–2 and the second in chapter 26. This framing is fundamental to the overall structure of the book of Numbers, in which chapters 1–25 treat the old generation that dies in the wilderness, and chapters 26–36 treat the new generation that inherits the land.

The second census ends by noting Joshua and Caleb:

במדבר כו:סד וּבְאֵלֶּה לֹא הָיָה אִישׁ מִפְּקוּדֵי מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן אֲשֶׁר פָּקְדוּ אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּמִדְבַּר סִינָי. כו:סה כִּי אָמַר יְ־הוָה לָהֶם מוֹת יָמֻתוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר וְלֹא נוֹתַר מֵהֶם אִישׁ כִּי אִם כָּלֵב בֶּן יְפֻנֶּה וִיהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן נוּן.
Num 26:64 None of those counted by Moses and Aaron the priest, who counted Israelites in the Sinai wilderness, were among these. 26:65 For YHWH had told those Israelites they would surely die in the wilderness, and none of them remained alive except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun.

These verses clarify why this second census was needed when a census had already been taken by Moses and Aaron in the opening of Numbers. Those Israelites counted at Sinai were condemned to die in the wilderness and had by now died off, so the census at the Plains of Moab was needed to provide a new count of the new generation that would enter the land and inherit it.

YHWH Excludes Joshua and Caleb from Punishment

The connection between the census, Joshua and Caleb, and the spy story appears in YHWH’s second (=Priestly)[15] speech laying out Israel’s punishment. This speech adds both a reference to Joshua and Caleb and a connection to the census. (The contours of the original speech are clear from the resumptive repetition, which I bold in the text below, indenting the secondary material.)

First, YHWH informs Moses that the people have angered him to such an extent (14:27), that he is condemning the entire generation to remain in the wilderness until they have all died:

במדבר יד:כח אֱמֹר אֲלֵהֶם חַי אָנִי נְאֻם יְ־הוָה אִם לֹא כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתֶּם בְּאָזְנָי כֵּן אֶעֱשֶׂה לָכֶם. יד:כט בַּמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה יִפְּלוּ פִגְרֵיכֶם
Num 14:28 So tell them, ‘As surely as I live, declares YHWH, I will do to you the very thing I heard you say: 14:29 In this wilderness your bodies will fall
וְכָל פְּקֻדֵיכֶם לְכָל מִסְפַּרְכֶם מִבֶּן עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וָמָעְלָה אֲשֶׁר הֲלִינֹתֶם עָלָי. יד:ל אִם אַתֶּם תָּבֹאוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נָשָׂאתִי אֶת יָדִי לְשַׁכֵּן אֶתְכֶם בָּהּ כִּי אִם כָּלֵב בֶּן יְפֻנֶּה וִיהוֹשֻׁעַ בִּן־נוּן.
every one of you twenty years old or more who was counted in the census and who has grumbled against me. 14:30 Not one of you will enter the land I swore with uplifted hand to make your home, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun.

The speech is extremely wordy and repetitive: First it says that they will die in the wilderness, then it explains that this refers only to men 20 years and older, and then it returns with an oath that the people will not enter the land—i.e., they will die in the wilderness—except for Caleb and Joshua.

The next part of the speech, verses 31—33, is equally repetitive.

יד:לא וְטַפְּכֶם אֲשֶׁר אֲמַרְתֶּם לָבַז יִהְיֶה וְהֵבֵיאתִי אֹתָם וְיָדְעוּ [תה"ש: וירשו] [16]אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר מְאַסְתֶּם בָּהּ.יד:לב וּפִגְרֵיכֶם אַתֶּם יִפְּלוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה.
14:31 As for your children that you said would be taken as plunder, I will bring them in to know [LXX: inherit] the land you have rejected.[19] 14:32 But as for you, your bodies will fall in this wilderness.
יד:לג וּבְנֵיכֶם יִהְיוּ רֹעִים [או: נעים] [17]בַּמִּדְבָּר אַרְבָּעִים שָׁנָה וְנָשְׂאוּ אֶת זְנוּתֵיכֶם [או: עונותיכם] [18]עַד תֹּם פִּגְרֵיכֶם בַּמִּדְבָּר.
14:33 And your children will be shepherds [or: wanderers] in the wilderness for forty years, and will bear your unfaithfulness [or: sins], until the last of your bodies lies in the wilderness.

Verse 31 states that the children will inherit the land that the parents rejected. Then verse 32 reiterates that “in this wilderness your bodies will fall,” and then verse 33 reiterates that the children will wander in the wilderness until the last of the bodies of the parents falls.

The text appears to have been heavily edited and the main clue to the structure of the original text is the resumptive repetition moving from the phrase בַּמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה יִפְּלוּ פִגְרֵיכֶם “your bodies will fall in the wilderness” in v. 29 to the same phrase in v. 32 וּפִגְרֵיכֶם אַתֶּם יִפְּלוּ בַּמִּדְבָּר הַזֶּה “your bodies will fall in this wilderness.”

The older text, verses 29aa, 33, was a simple statement of punishment: the Israelites will wander in the wilderness until they all die, and their children will be forced to bear their parents’ sin, waiting outside the land for forty years until the sinful generation have all died out. The intervening supplementary material of verses 29ab–32 offers a precise definition of “adult” that identifies the people doomed to die in the wilderness with those counted in the census in Numbers 1–2.[20]

It also presents Joshua and Caleb as exceptions, just as we saw in the summary statement of the second census. Thus, the framing of the book of Numbers with two censuses, and the emphasis on the survival of Joshua and Caleb, are all part of the same editorial edifice.

The Forty-Years Problem

Understanding that the census framing is not part of the original Priestly text about the scouts but derives from a later stage in the composition of the Pentateuch, we can explain what is otherwise a glaring difficulty.

According to Num 14:33, part of the older Priestly scouts story, God declared that the sinful Israelites and their children would wander in the wilderness for forty years until the adults die out. Yet, following the chronology of the book of Numbers, the incident of the scouts first took place some months into the second year of the exodus (cf. Num 1:1; 9:1; 10:11)!

If the Israelites were condemned to remain in the wilderness forty years from that time, their stay would have had to have lasted at least forty-one years and some months! It is apparently this incongruity that led the Septuagint to Joshua 5:6 to conclude that the Israelites remained in the wilderness some forty-two years![21]

But the older Priestly text was not working with the timeline which became the editorial framework for the book of Numbers. Instead, in the earlier Priestly text, the incident with the scouts takes place almost immediately after the exodus from Egypt. Thus, the story naturally accounted for the forty-year wandering period. It was the incorporation of this story into the broader context of the Pentateuch that created the inconsistency.


June 23, 2022


Last Updated

March 25, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Rabbi David Frankel is Associate Professor of Bible at the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where he teaches M.A. and rabbinical students. He did his Ph.D. at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem under the direction of Prof. Moshe Weinfeld, and is the author or The Murmuring Stories of the Priestly School (VTSupp 89) and The Land of Canaan and the Destiny of Israel (Eisenbrauns).