Using Deuteronomy to Fill in the Lacunae of Numbers’ Spies Story
Biblical scholars have long realized that the account of the scouts (תרים) in Numbers combines two different sources. The standard explanation—which I support—is that the compiler of the Pentateuch put it together by splicing and lightly tweaking two versions of the story which originated in two different documents, J and P.
The reason for this division has been documented extensively on TheTorah.com in the editors’ essay, “Unscrambling the Scout Story with the Documentary Hypothesis”; I here focus on a subsidiary problem, recovering the missing pieces of the J text in Numbers.
It is especially clear from the beginning of the story that the J version is incomplete; Moses is speaking with the people he is sending into the land, but any record of Moses appointing spies in the first place is absent. To fill this lacuna, scholars have turned to the account of the scouts in Deuteronomy, whose author appears to be familiar with J version of the story.
The Similar Storylines in Deuteronomy and J in Numbers
In Deuteronomy 1, Moses refers to the story of the spies. The details of this story, when they overlap with Numbers, fit only with the non-Priestly (=J) version of the account. The correspondence between the order of the events in J in Numbers and Deuteronomy is especially striking. Both narrate, in the same order:
- A trip to the hill country (Num 13:17; Deut 1:24)
- The Eshkol stream as an end-point (Num 13:23; Deut 1:24)
- Taking some of the land’s fruit (Num 13:23; Deut 1:25)
- Return to the camp (Num 13:26; Deut 1:25)
- Report of the wealth of the land (Num 13:27; Deut 1:25)
- The strength of its inhabitants (Num 13:28; Deut 1:28)
- Its fortified cities (Num 13:28; Deut 1:28)
- Its Anakites (Num 13:28; Deut 1:28)
- The conclusion not to go up to the land (Num 13:31; Deut 1:26);
- Punishment of the entire generation not to see the land that was promised to the patriarchs (Num 14:23; Deut 1:25)
- The exclusion of Caleb and his offspring from this punishment (Num 14:24; Deut 1:36)
- The confession of the sin and an attempt to conquer the land (Num 14:40; Deut 1:41)
- Moses’ warning not to go up as the Lord is not amongst them (Num 14:42; Deut 1:42)
- The people’s attempt to enter the land anyway and their subsequent destruction (Num 14:44–45; Deut 1:43–45)
The Literary Similarities Between Deuteronomy and the J in Numbers
The close connection between the two versions of the story is further emphasized by similar linguistic uses:
|Numbers 13–14||Deuteronomy 1|
|Go up into the hill country (13:17)||
ועליתם את ההר
|They made for the hill country (1:24)|
|They reached the Eshkol stream (13:23)||
ויבֹאו עד נחל אשכֹּל
ויבֹאו עד נחל אשכֹּל
|Came to the Eshkol stream (1:24)|
|And they made their report to them (13:26)||
וישיבו אֹתם דבר
וישבו אֹתנו דבר
|And they gave us this report (1:25)|
|And the cities are fortified and very large (13:28)||
והערים בצֻרות גדֹלֹת מאֹד
ערים גדֹלֹת ובצורֹת בשמים
|Large cities with walls sky-high (1:28)|
|We saw the Anakites there (13:28)||
וגם ילִדֵי הענק ראינו שם
וגם בני ענקים ראינו שם
|And even Anakites (1:28)|
|None of the men […] shall see the land (14:22–23)||
כי כל האנשים […] אם יראו את הארץ
אם יראה איש באנשים האלה, הדור הרע הזה, את הארץ הטובה
|Not one of these men, the evil generation, shall see the good land (1:35)|
|The land that I promised on oath to their fathers (14:23)||
את הארץ אשר נשבעתי לאבתם
את הארץ […] אשר נשבעתי לתת לאבתיכם
|The good land that I swore to give to your fathers (1:35)|
|But my servant Caleb […] remained loyal to Me (14:24)||
ועבדי כָלֵב […] וימלא אחרי
זולתי כָּלֵב בן יפנה […] אשר מלֵּא אחרי ה’
|None except Caleb […] because he remained loyal to the Lord (1:36)|
|And his offspring shall hold it as a possession (14:24)||
ולו אתן את הארץ ולבניו
|To him and his descendants will I give the land (1:36)|
|We are prepared to go up to the place that the Lord has spoken of, for we were wrong (14:40)||
הננו ועלינו […] אשר אמר ה’ כי חטאנו
חטאנו לה’ אנחנו נעלה
|We stand guilty before the Lord. We will go up now and fight (1:41)|
|Do not go up for the Lord is not in your midst (14:42)||
אל תעלו כי אין ה’ בקרבכם
לא תעלו […] כי אינני בקרבכם
|Do not go up, […] since I am not in your midst (1:42)|
|Least you be routed by your enemies (14:42)||
ולֹא תנגפו לפני אֹיביכם
ולֹא תנגפו לפני אֹיביכם
|Else you will be routed by your enemies (1:42)|
|Who dwelt in the hill country (14:45)||
הישב בהר ההוא
הישב בהר ההוא
|Who lived in those hills (1:44)|
|And dealt them a crushing blow at Horma (14:45)||
ויכתום עד החרמה (יד:45)
ויכתו אתכם […] עד חרמה
|And they crushed you at Horma (1:44)|
In the last example, the description of the Israelites being crushed (כ-ת-ת) at Horma appears only in these two texts.
Using Deuteronomy and Numbers to Fill Out Each Other’s Versions
How are the two versions connected? Both the author of Deuteronomy and the compiler of Numbers made use of the J document. The author of Deuteronomy, following his typical pattern, recasts the story as Moses’ first person recollection. The editor of the Numbers story, i.e., the compiler of the Torah, spliced the J story together with the P story, but to make it work, he cut some pieces out. Thus, neither version preserves the J account intact.
Lacunae in Deuteronomy
The author of Deuteronomy skips over a number of details found in Numbers. For example, both versions extol Caleb and spare him from the fate of the rest of his generation (Num 14:24; Deut 1:36), but only Numbers (13:30) describes his courageous stand against the advice of all the other spies. In Deuteronomy, it is assumed when Moses says that Caleb will inherit the land “because he remained loyal to YHWH (יַעַן אֲשֶׁר מִלֵּא אַחֲרֵי יְ-הֹוָה),” but his intervention, i.e., in what way he remained loyal, is not described.
Similarly, Deuteronomy describes the people repeating what the spies said (Deut 1:28), but does not record the spies actually saying it. In fact, when reading the sequence of events in Deuteronomy, from the spies’ positive report to the people’s refusal to go up, the reader gets the impression that the people refused to go up despite the entirely positive report (Deut 1:25-26).
דברים א:כה …וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ טוֹבָ֣ה הָאָ֔רֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְ-הֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽנוּ: א:כו וְלֹ֥א אֲבִיתֶ֖ם לַעֲלֹ֑ת…
Deut 1:25 …And they gave us this report: “It is a good land that YHWH our God is giving to us.” 1:26 Yet you refused to go up…
Only later on, in the description of the people’s complaint, do we hear about how the spies scared the people with their report.
דברים א:כחאַחֵינוּ֩ הֵמַ֨סּוּ אֶת לְבָבֵ֜נוּ לֵאמֹ֗ר עַ֣ם גָּד֤וֹל וָרָם֙ מִמֶּ֔נּוּ עָרִ֛ים גְּדֹלֹ֥ת וּבְצוּרֹ֖ת בַּשָּׁמָ֑יִם וְגַם בְּנֵ֥י עֲנָקִ֖ים רָאִ֥ינוּ שָֽׁם:
Deut 1:28 Our kinsmen have taken the heart out of us, saying, “We saw there a people stronger and taller than we, large cities with walls sky-high, and even Anakites.”
Lacunae in Numbers
The J story in Numbers is also filled with lacunae. The compiler of the Torah attempted to create a cogent narrative from separate versions, and when needed, deleted sections of one story or another. Ostensibly, the main reason for the lacunae is because some parts of the J story that conflicted too extremely with the Priestly version had to be cut. In some cases, however, it is difficult to understand what motivated the deletion, but a careful reading will note that something is missing, and a comparison with the Deuteronomic retelling of the story allows us to reconstruct the missing text.
For example, before he speaks, Caleb hushes the people (Num 13:30) in an attempt to convince them to go up to the land. Yet, J’s version of the story doesn’t indicate that the people said anything at all; in Numbers, Caleb speaks immediately after his fellow spies and seems to be hushing the people and arguing with them before they have said a word. This strange jumping of the gun can be explained when we realize that the people’s original objection was cut by the redactor, and is preserved in Deuteronomy 1:26:
דברים א:כו וְלֹ֥א אֲבִיתֶ֖ם לַעֲלֹ֑ת וַתַּמְר֕וּ אֶת פִּ֥י יְ-הֹוָ֖ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם:
Deut 1:26 Yet you refused to go up, and flouted the command of YHWH your God.
This lacuna is relatively insignificant for understanding the plotline of J in Numbers. Nevertheless, some fundamental elements of the J narrative were also cut, since their inclusion would have directly contradicted the key elements of the Priestly narrative. Luckily, they were preserved in Deuteronomy.
The People Request the Spies
As noted, the J story in Numbers begins in the middle, with Moses addressing the spies:
יג:יזb וַיֹּ֣אמֶר אֲלֵהֶ֗ם עֲל֥וּ זֶה֙ בַּנֶּ֔גֶב וַעֲלִיתֶ֖ם אֶת הָהָֽר:
13:17b And he said to them, “Go up there into the Negev and on into the hill country…”
Deuteronomy’s retelling gives us a clue of how the older story began:
דברים א:כ וָאֹמַ֖ר אֲלֵכֶ֑ם בָּאתֶם֙ עַד הַ֣ר הָאֱמֹרִ֔י אֲשֶׁר יְ-הֹוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ נֹתֵ֥ן לָֽנוּ: א:כארְ֠אֵה נָתַ֨ן יְ-הֹוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֶ֛יךָ לְפָנֶ֖יךָ אֶת הָאָ֑רֶץ עֲלֵ֣ה רֵ֗שׁ כַּאֲשֶׁר֩ דִּבֶּ֨ר יְ-הֹוָ֜ה אֱלֹהֵ֤י אֲבֹתֶ֙יךָ֙ לָ֔ךְ אַל תִּירָ֖א וְאַל תֵּחָֽת: א:כב וַתִּקְרְב֣וּן אֵלַי֘ כֻּלְּכֶם֒ וַתֹּאמְר֗וּ נִשְׁלְחָ֤ה אֲנָשִׁים֙ לְפָנֵ֔ינוּ וְיַחְפְּרוּ לָ֖נוּ אֶת הָאָ֑רֶץ וְיָשִׁ֤בוּ אֹתָ֙נוּ֙ דָּבָ֔ר אֶת הַדֶּ֙רֶךְ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר נַעֲלֶה בָּ֔הּ וְאֵת֙ הֶֽעָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָבֹ֖א אֲלֵיהֶֽן: א:כג וַיִּיטַ֥ב בְּעֵינַ֖י הַדָּבָ֑ר וָאֶקַּ֤ח מִכֶּם֙ שְׁנֵ֣ים עָשָׂ֣ר אֲנָשִׁ֔ים אִ֥ישׁ אֶחָ֖ד לַשָּֽׁבֶט:
Deut 1:20 I said to you, “You have come to the hill country of the Amorites which YHWH our God is giving to us.1:21 See, YHWH your God has placed the land at your disposal. Go up, take possession, as YHWH, the God of your fathers, promised you. Fear not and be not dismayed.” 1:22 Then all of you came to me and said, “Let us send men ahead to reconnoiter the land for us and bring back word on the route we shall follow and the cities we shall come to.” 1:23 I approved of the plan, and so I selected twelve of your men, one from each tribe.
According to this, the original plan was for the Israelites to enter the land and take it. The people expressed a desire for spies to reconnoiter the land and Moses approved; God was not involved at all. The compiler cut this opening, since it contradicted the Priestly version in which the idea of the scouts originated with God.
The second major lacuna in the Numbers version of J, and perhaps the most significant, is conceptually linked with the first. In all three versions of Moses’ death (J, E, P), he dies in the Transjordan. In the Priestly version, Moses was punished for his behavior at Mei Merivah when he hit the rock and showed lack of faith (Num 20:12). The J version explaining Moses’ death in the Transjordan is reflected in Deuteronomy’s recasting of the J spies story:
דברים א:לז גַּם בִּי֙ הִתְאַנַּ֣ף יְ-הֹוָ֔ה בִּגְלַלְכֶ֖ם לֵאמֹ֑ר גַּם אַתָּ֖ה לֹא תָבֹ֥א שָֽׁם:
Deut 1:37 Because of you YHWH was incensed with me too, and He said: You shall not enter it either.
Since Moses approved of sending spies, he bears the burden of the mission’s failure along with the people. The compiler excised this passage from the Numbers account because it made little sense to punish Moses if sending the scouts was God’s command, as the Priestly text states. In addition, in Numbers, Moses is punished as a result of the Mei Merivah story; including this tradition about his punishment for the spies would have created redundancy and confusion.
Appointment of Joshua as Successor
In Deuteronomy, after informing Moses that he will not lead the people into the land, God tells Moses who his successor will be:
דברים א:לח יְהוֹשֻׁ֤עַ בִּן־נוּן֙ הָעֹמֵ֣ד לְפָנֶ֔יךָ ה֖וּא יָ֣בֹא שָׁ֑מָּה אֹת֣וֹ חַזֵּ֔ק כִּי ה֖וּא יַנְחִלֶ֖נָּה אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:
Deut 1:38 Joshua son of Nun, who attends you, he shall enter it. Imbue him with strength, for he shall allot it to Israel.
This too is likely taken from J, but the complier cut it from his narrative when he excised the verses about Moses’ punishment on account of the spies’ failure. If Moses was not punished for sending spies, what reason would there be for God to inform him of his successor at this point in the narrative?
Undoing the Work of the Compiler
And thus, by carefully comparing two versions of the J narrative, we are able to reconstruct the lost storyline of the J spies story, which has been buried in Deuteronomy’s retelling. In J, God never intended the Israelites to send spies; it was their idea. Moses takes a risk by supporting the idea, and the gamble does not pay off. Once the spies cause the people to panic and refuse to go up, God decrees that all of the adults—save Caleb—will die in the wilderness, including Moses.
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June 29, 2016
April 2, 2020
Dr. David Ben-Gad HaCohen (Dudu Cohen) has a Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible from the Hebrew University. His dissertation is titled, Kadesh in the Pentateuchal Narratives, and deals with issues of biblical criticism and historical geography. Dudu has been a licensed Israeli guide since 1972. He conducts tours in Israel as well as Jordan.
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