Why the Book of Numbers is not about numbers
What’s in a name?
The book of BeMidbar suffers of somewhat of an identity crisis. It is easy to determine the identity of the other books of the Torah. Genesis is about the creation and the life of the forefathers, Exodus is about the exodus and the tabernacle, Leviticus deals with the laws of the Levites and the Kohanim, and Deuteronomy, as its names suggest, is the repetition and review of law and history. But what is BeMidbar about? Numbers? Is it really חומש הפקודים – the Book of Census, as it was known in Rabbinic literature, a travelogue, or a collection of unrelated data, laws, and history?
I believe that BeMidbar’s story conveys an extremely important message to humanity, which is that the most sophisticated and detailed program could fail, even if it is Divine, without the engagement and commitment of the humans in charge of carrying it out.
Perfect Society, Perfect Hierarchy
BeMidbar starts with the description of a perfect society, with clearly drawn boundaries and set roles. The Israelite camp is presented as a center of holiness surrounded by concentric circles in descending order. The order is as follows: The Holy of Holies at the center; the Holy; the Tabernacle’s courtyard; the Levites and Aaron, in descending order: Aaron and family, Kehat, Gereshon, Merari; and finally, the Israelites. After the inner order of the camp has been established, the Torah calls for spiritual and hygienic boundaries: lepers, people who suffer from sexually transmitted diseases, and those who were in contact with a corpse must leave the camp. Their exile is temporary, and each one of them must wait the symbolic seven-days period before rejoining the camp.
The Torah also singles out the deviate woman and the Nazir as two extremes. The deviate woman lets herself be controlled by desire while the Nazir decides to detach himself from society and abstain from wine. Both are conceptually, if not physically, ostracized. The Torah suggests that they are outside the camp because their behavior is not healthy, and that it is preferable to reach a balance between pursuing of spirituality and enjoying life.
Between the two sections, the one which deals with lepers and those who suffer from spiritual contamination, and the one dealing with the Nazir and the deviate woman, there is a paragraph which seems out of place. It speaks about paying back financial obligations, and it also states that an unpaid obligation to another person is considered an offense towards God. According to the theory offered here, not only this paragraph belongs here, but it is an excellent example of how the Torah considers transgression against others to be a religious offense. The Torah declares that in order to maintain the camp clean and holy, it is not enough to send away those we consider unholy because of diseases, but also those whose business ethics are flawed.
Following the clarification of boundaries and the cleansing of the camp, the divine blessing is bestowed upon the people, offerings are brought, the Tabernacle is inaugurated, and the Israelites start their first journey: ויסעו בראשונה על פי ה’ ביד משה – they traveled, for the first time as an organized camp, by the word of God, delivered through Moshe!
Perfect Society, Imperfect Individuals
Within three days, the people complain for no reason, and then cry for food. Moshe is willing to quit his job, and when he is told by God that everyone is going to get meat, he appears to be incredulous. Two men prophesy without Moshe’s permission, Miriam and Aaron speak against Moshe, the scouts start a rebellion… the list goes on and on.
Thus, we see how a perfect plan fails without the commitment of individuals to put aside their pride and sense of entitlement and carry the plan out.
David Brooks writes in The Social Animal:
You can siphon money to poor areas, but unless a culture develops self-control, social mobility is unattainable.
You can raise or lower taxes, but without trust and confidence, corporations and institutions will not form, and people will not invest in each other.
You can declare elections, but without responsible citizens, democracy will not flourish. Criminologist James Q. Wilson, who devoted his life to shaping and writing public policy, finally arrived at this fundamental truth: “…at the core, in almost every field of public engagement we seek to encourage people to act morally and ethically, whether we deal with students, people applying for government aid, potential criminals, voters, or elected representatives.”
The narrative of BeMidbar teaches us that same idea, as valid today as it was millennia ago in the desert.
The Inverted Nunim
At the end of chapter ten of Numbers (verses 35-46), the following, very famous paragraph, is framed by two inverted נונים:
וַיְהִ֛י בִּנְסֹ֥עַ הָאָרֹ֖ן וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֑ה קוּמָ֣ה׀ יי וְיָפֻ֙צוּ֙ אֹֽיְבֶ֔יךָ וְיָנֻ֥סוּ מְשַׂנְאֶ֖יךָ מִפָּנֶֽיךָ. וּבְנֻחֹ֖ה יֹאמַ֑ר שׁוּבָ֣ה יי רִֽבְב֖וֹת אַלְפֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל
When the ark traveled, Moshe would say: “Rise, YHWH, let your enemies scatter and your adversaries flee You!”
When it rested, he would say: “Return, YHWH, the myriads of thousands of Israel!”
In the synagogue, the first part of this paragraph is recited when the Torah is taken out of the ark, and the second part when the Torah is returned. The paragraph could simply be explained as a battle hymn. The ark used to travel with the Israelites when they went to war (see Num. 14:44 and I Sam. 4:3-4), and this was a prayer for victory in battle and safe return home. However, the inverted letters before and after the paragraph have granted it an enigmatic nature, generating many commentaries and extensive literature (See Torah Shelema by Rabbi M. M. Kasher)
I believe that the inverted Nunim are a commentary on the Torah, a commentary so ancient that it was recorded on the scroll itself. The idea that those inverted letters are a rabbinic addition is supported by a Midrashic compilation known as מדרש חסרות ויתרות:
מה ראו חכמים ליתן נוני”ן הפוכין? – why did the rabbis decide to place inverted נונים around this paragraph?
The answer of the Midrash is that these two verses are not part of the prophecy of Moshe but were rather said by Eldad and Medad, the two elders left behind in the camp (11:26-29). I will return to this answer later, and turn to tractate Shabbat of Talmud Bavli (104:1):
אמרי ליה רבנן לרבי יהושע בן לוי: אתו דרדקי האידנא לבי מדרשא ואמרו מילי דאפילו בימי יהושע בן נון לא איתמר כוותייהו:… נו”ן כפופה נו”ן פשוטה – נאמן כפוף נאמן פשוט
The rabbis told R. Yehoshua ben Levi, children came today to Bet HaMidrash and said things, the like of which was unheard of even at the time of Yehoshua bin Noon:… bent nun and straight nun (נ,ן) represent the bent loyal person and the upright loyal person…
The commentary about the two forms of the letter nun is part of the presentation of the children, who offered symbolic interpretations for all the letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Though their presentation is interesting, it is hardly anything more than wordplay on the names or shapes of the letters, and it is therefore hard to understand why it merited such words of praise from the rabbis. The answer is that this paragraph in Shabbat holds the key to the rabbinic decision to frame the Ark’s battle hymns between inverted Nunim.
The children who appear in Bet HaMidrash are anonymous, and their words are described as paralleling and even surpassing information transmitted in the time of Yehoshua. Yehoshua was Moshe’s disciple and the first in the chain of transmission of the Torah from one human to another. The children therefore represent an unbroken chain of transmission which could be traced all the way back to Moshe. Unlike the tradition passed on to Yehoshua, which is codified and even rigid, the children’s tradition is more emotional and symbolic. In that tradition, the letter nun stands for loyalty. The bent nun, the one which is used in the middle of a word, is analogized to a loyal servant who is also submissive, while the upright, or final nun, is compared to a loyal servant who holds his head up.
The mention of Yehoshua bin Noon in the Talmudic paragraph is alludes to Yehoshua’s relationship with Moshe, which was one of deep loyalty:
וּמְשָׁ֨רְת֜וֹ יְהוֹשֻׁ֤עַ בִּן־נוּן֙ נַ֔עַר לֹ֥א יָמִ֖ישׁ מִתּ֥וֹךְ הָאֹֽהֶל – His [Moshe’s] servant, Yehoshua bin Noon, was a young man, who would never leave the tent (Ex. 33:11).
When we put together the two rabbinic traditions, we can conclude that the rabbis chose to mark the paragraph with inverted Nunim to tell us that the concept of loyalty has been turned on its head. The inverted Nunim are road-signs telling us to carefully look at what happens before and after them. Before them, in the first ten chapters of BeMidbar, the Torah discusses the perfect form of government and nation, while after them there is an ongoing trust crisis affecting all layers of Israelite society and causing near-total collapse. Here is a list of the events which follow the Ark’s battle hymn, and in which the sense of trust is eroded at all levels of society:
11:1-3: The people complained, apparently for no reason, and are punished by fire.
11:4-9: The riffraff(האספסוף) craves meat, as a result the whole nation cries, reminisces about the food they had in Egypt, and complains about the manna.
11:10-15: Moshe rebels against God, saying that he does not want to lead the nation anymore, and claiming that the role has been for him a torture.
11:21-22: Moshe seems to doubt God’s ability to deliver meat to the whole nation.
11:26: Two elders, Eldad and Medad, prophesy on their own without being authorized by Moshe. This is either a rebellion by them or God telling Moshe that He is in control.
11:31-34: The Israelites descend like predators on the miraculously delivered quail and are harshly punished.
12:1-15: Miriam and Aaron criticize Moshe. They are rebuked by God, and Miriam contracts leprosy for seven days.
13:1-33: The scouts return from Canaan and dissuade people from going there. The people do not believe that God can help them conquer the Canaanites.
14:1-4: The Israelites cry all night and then decide to appoint a new leader, instead of Moshe, and return to Egypt.
14:10: After Yehoshua and Caleb try to convince the people that it is possible to conquer Canaan, the people attempt to stone them, along with Moshe and Aharon.
14:36-38: The scouts instigate the people again and die in a plague.
14:39-45: The Israelites, remorseful for their rebellion, wage battle against the mountain dwelling nations in defiance of Moshe’s advice. The Ark does not accompany them to battle and they suffer a crushing defeat.
15:32-36: A man transgresses Shabbat in an open act of rebellion against Moshe and the laws of the Torah.
16:1-35: Korah accuses Moshe of assuming positions without divine approval, while two hundred and fifty of his followers compete for the position of High Priest by offering unsolicited frankincense.
17:6-7: Following the punishment of Korah and his followers, the Israelites blame Moshe and Aharon for their death.
20:2-5: The Israelites complain about lack of water. They say that Moshe and Aharon took them from Egypt to die in the desert, and that they did not deliver on the promise to bring them to the land of milk and honey.
20:9-13: Moshe hits the rock instead of talking to it, and as a result is told by God that he will not enter the Land of Canaan. It almost seems as if God was looking for a pretext to “fire” Moshe and Aharon.
21:4-9: The Israelites complain about lack of bread and water and say that the manna is rotten. They are attacked by poisonous snakes.
25:1-9: The Israelites are tempted by the Moabite women, descending into promiscuity and idolatry. Zimri openly defies Moshe by going with a Midianite woman into the Tabernacle.
32:1-32: The tribes of Gad and Reuven decide to stay in the other side of the Jordan river.
In total, there are twenty instances of rebellion and loss of trust, and it is to this chain of events that the rabbis were directing our attention with the inverted Nunim.
Losing Trust and Faith
The Torah uses the root אמנ to highlight the concept of losing trust in the leaders. Let us start by studying the etymology of אמנ, and before that, a brief introduction of the concept of the bi-radical root, or a root composed of two consonants. The early grammarians believed that Hebrew roots are bi-radical, but the opinion which later became the norm, and which is still broadly taught, is that Hebrew roots, like those of sister languages Aramaic and Arabic, have three letters. The rare four-letter verbs are either a doubling of two letters, usually onomatopoeic (sound-mimicking), such as צרצר, בקבק, גלגל, or are borrowed from other languages (פענח, שכלל).
Contemporary scholars of Hebrew, however, tend to agree with the early grammarians, whose theory was revived in the 19th century by authors such as Aharon Marcus in his work Barzilai. The understanding is that the language started with short two-letter roots, and later evolved to offer more meaning and nuances. In that process, a third letter was attached to the first two to create new words which share a general idea. For example, the bi-radical rootפר means ox, which is also a symbol of power, energy, and virility, and therefore all three-letter roots with the stemפר connote great numbers, strength, wildness, breaking something into smaller units, or proliferation: פרא, פרד, פרה, פרז, פרח, פרמ, פרס, פרע, פרצ, פרק, פרר, פרש.
Returning to ourאמנ , we can immediately note that its bi-radical root is אם – mother. In a child’s world, the mother is a haven of trust and security, andאם is therefore at the basis of אמנ – faith, covenant, trust, and caregiving. Moshe’s responds to the complaint of the Israelites about the lack of food by giving up on his role as a trusted caregiver (11:11-15):
וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶל־יי לָמָ֤ה הֲרֵעֹ֙תָ֙ לְעַבְדֶּ֔ךָ… הֶאָנֹכִ֣י הָרִ֗יתִי אֵ֚ת כָּל־הָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה אִם־אָנֹכִ֖י יְלִדְתִּ֑יהוּ כִּֽי־תֹאמַ֨ר אֵלַ֜י שָׂאֵ֣הוּ בְחֵיקֶ֗ךָ כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר יִשָּׂ֤א הָאֹמֵן֙ אֶת־הַיֹּנֵ֔ק עַ֚ל הָֽאֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֖עְתָּ לַאֲבֹתָֽיו… כִּֽי־יִבְכּ֤וּ עָלַי֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר תְּנָה־לָּ֥נוּ בָשָׂ֖ר וְנֹאכֵֽלָה… וְאִם־כָּ֣כָה׀ אַתְּ־עֹ֣שֶׂה לִּ֗י הָרְגֵ֤נִי נָא֙ הָרֹ֔ג אִם־מָצָ֥אתִי חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינֶי֑ךָ וְאַל־אֶרְאֶ֖ה בְּרָעָתִֽי
Moshe said to God, why have you hurt me?… was I pregnant with this nation or did I give birth to it? Why then do You ask me to carry it in my bosom as a caregiver carries a suckling on the land promised to its forefathers… they cry on [my shoulder] saying “give us meet to eat”… if this is how You (in the feminine) treat me, please kill me, if You truly like me, and let me not live through this ordeal…
Moshe compares his role to that of a caregiver who has to take care of a demanding baby. He uses the word אומן, derived from אם, to describe a caregiver who has the full trust, but also dependency, of the baby. He says, bitterly or sarcastically, that he is not the true mother or father. He then addresses God in the feminine, as if to say that God is the mother, and concludes with a death-wish. His statement that he would rather die resembles extreme cases of post-partum depression.
God’s response to Moshe is אספה לי שבעים איש מזקני ישראל – gather for me seventy elders. The root אספ, gather, is another keyword in the narrative of chapters 11-12. It is used in both the negative and positive senses, to show that getting together and working in unison is good only when leading towards a noble cause, and if not, it can have horrific results. In the positive context, it is used to describe the gathering of the elders who are supposed to help Moshe in taking care of the nation (11:15; 11:24), while the negative context is that of gluttony and leprosy (11:4; 11:22; 11:30; 11:32; 12:14-15).
The purpose of the gathering is to delegate the power of Moshe to the elders, so they can help him shoulder the burden. God also promises Moshe that the people’s request will be answered and that they will receive enough meat to last them a whole month, or until they will not be able to look at it. The word chosen to describe this negative reaction to the meat is לזרא , and it echoes the warnings issued in the beginning of BeMidbar: והזר הקרב יומת – the alien who approaches the holy will die. Moshe’s reaction to God’s promise has perplexed the commentators, because he seems to question the feasibility of such a miracle, but this reaction fits perfectly into the pattern of the trust crisis of the second part of BeMidbar.
The Torah uses the keyword אספ in Moshe’s response to highlight the stark contradiction between what was expected from him and how he reacted:
אִ֣ם אֶֽת־כָּל־דְּגֵ֥י הַיָּ֛ם יֵאָסֵ֥ף לָהֶ֖ם וּמָצָ֥א לָהֶֽם – will all the fish of the sea be gathered for them to satiate their desire?
What happens next is perhaps the strongest rebuke that Moshe ever receives from God, despite it being indirect. As Moshe takes the elders to the meeting place where they will be imbued by his spirit, two men who were conscripted among the seventy decide to stay behind. Not only were they not punished by God, they were rewarded with the gift of prophecy. This was God’s way of telling Moshe that leadership does not necessarily have to flow through him. Moshe understands that message very well, and when Yehoshua demands that the two will be punished, he calmly answers:
הַֽמְקַנֵּ֥א אַתָּ֖ה לִ֑י וּמִ֨י יִתֵּ֜ן כָּל־עַ֤ם יי נְבִיאִ֔ים כִּי־יִתֵּ֧ן יי אֶת־רוּח֖וֹ עֲלֵיהֶֽם – Are you defending my honor? I wish God would have granted prophecy to the whole nation!
Moshe explains to Yehoshua that the perfect form of government is not from the top down, but rather an ideal state where individuals fully understand the word of God and follow the paths of the Torah. In an ideal situation such as that, the government does need to rule but merely facilitate interaction between individuals. This ideal world is hinted at by the battle hymn of the Ark and the unique title אלקי הרוחות לכל בשר, the God of spirits to all flesh, which will be explained with more detail later. Following the exchange between Moshe and Yehoshua, Moshe is gathered into the camp with the other elders, to show that the leadership is now united with the people – וַיֵּאָסֵ֥ף מֹשֶׁ֖ה אֶל־הַֽמַּחֲנֶ֑ה ה֖וּא וְזִקְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:
There is one more interesting wordplay, which was pointed out by R. Haim Vital in Etz Haim (שער הכללים, פרק ג’). He relates the names of the two elders, אלדד ומידד, to breastfeeding. The word דד appears with that significance in Proverbs (5:19), while the prefixes אל ומי can be understood as to and from. This symbolism continues the analogy of Moshe to the caregiver and the people to the suckling, and analogy which Moshe was unwilling to accept. By naming the two “rebellious” elders Eldad and Medad, God tells Moshe that as a leader he must nurture the trust of the people, even if it requires him to behave like a mother to her demanding children. The analogy of breastfeeding is to that of constant abundance and love which the mother bestows on her children. This love keeps adjusting itself to the specific needs of each age, and this is what God wants from Moshe – flexibility and adjustment to the people’s changing needs.
Following the “rebellion” of Eldad and Medad, orchestrated by God to teach Moshe a lesson in leadership, the promised meat is delivered to the people. Their reaction shows gluttony and lack of self-control and it is described with the keyword אספ – gather:
וַיַּֽאַסְפוּ֙ אֶת־הַשְּׂלָ֔ו הַמַּמְעִ֕יט אָסַ֖ף עֲשָׂרָ֣ה חֳמָרִ֑ים – they gathered the quail, even the one who gathered the least had ten piles.
The people are punished for that behavior and the place where they buried their dead is called קברות התאוה – the Graves of Desire, as if to say that one must fight and destroy desire and gluttony.
Perhaps at this point we can look back at the inverted Nunim and their encoded message. The rabbis chose these letters to frame the battle hymn of the Ark because they saw there the key for understanding the tragedy of BeMidbar. The divine plan for the perfect state was perfect, but also divine, and therefore destined to fail when executed by humans. We do not need to stretch our memory to come up with examples of well-orchestrated campaigns and thoroughly calculated operations which failed because of arrogance, lust, indifference, laziness, and even by what under other circumstances would have been wonderful qualities, such as courage, devotion, and dedication.
Dr. Seuss captured that idea in his satirical Yertle the Turtle. The mighty turtle-king, who rose to the sky on the shoulders of his subjects, eventually rolls down from his throne because:
A plain little turtle whose name was just Mack, decided he’d taken enough. And he had. And that plain little lad got a bit mad. And that plain little Mack did a plain little thing. He burped! And his burp shook the throne of the king!
If you haven’t read the story, please put in on your to-do list, and if you did, please note that I am not taking sides with either Yertle or Mack, but rather highlighting that a mighty kingdom could fall because of a trivial issue. In BeMidbar, the divine plan clearly defines the parameters of each segment of the encampment, assigns roles, and conjures circles of sanctity and hierarchy. The Ark is in the center of all that, surrounded by the Holy of Holies, the Holy, the Tabernacle’s courtyard, Cohanim, Levites, and Israelites. The purpose of the divine plan is not to aggrandize a human ruler, but rather to help all members of society, and like all other plans, it depends on the full cooperation of all participants. This is, I believe, the meaning of the hymn which was chanted as the Ark would travel:
שובה יי רבבות אלפי ישראל – Bring peace and harmony to the myriads and thousands of Israelites.
Diversity, Unity, Hierarchy
Only God can fully understand the different character traits, desires, and aspirations of each person, and Moshe pleads with Him to help the human leaders in carrying out their very difficult role of harmonizing these differences. This is also the meaning of the unique term:
אל אלהי הרוחות לכל בשר – the God of spirits of all flesh.
Flesh – the physical vessel which is the human body, is mentioned here in the singular, because despite the many variables which determine our look, we humans are all made in one mold. The spirit, however, is referred to in the plural, to illustrate our diverse, creative, and unpredictable personalities. The term appears in BeMidbar twice (16:22 and 27:16). The first is in response to God’s statement that He is going to annihilate the whole nation for Korah’s sin. Moshe argues that the nation cannot be held responsible for the sins of an individual, and he uses the term above to hint that Korah’s rebellion against Moshe and God was driven by his own motives and aspirations for power and glory. The Israelites might have been fooled by him and followed him blindly, but they did not share his “spirit”.
The second time the term is mentioned when Moshe requests a successor. He wants someone who like him will lead the way and decide when to be active and to be passive. He addresses God as the creator of all spirits and flesh to appoint that person because, as Rashi appropriately comments, a leader must be able להלוך כנגד רוחו של כל אחד ואחד – correspond to the needs of each member of society. The utopian society can only emerge from relationships of mutual trust and care, and it cannot be rigid. It must adapt itself to the changing needs of the society and to the diversity of wills and opinions. The hymn of the Ark was chanted when the Ark traveled, because when we are in motion, when there is movement, sensitivity and attention are required to keep things functioning.
A similar message is conveyed by the one name of God which is unique to Jewish tradition and which is considered ineffable, or one which cannot be verbally expressed: YHWH. This name is a combination of the past, present, and future tenses of the root הוה – to be: היה, הוה, יהיה – HYH, HWH, YHYH, and can itself be perceived as a verb. The reason it cannot be pronounced is not only because of its sanctity, but because it does not have a palpable existence. It flows from past to future, constantly changing and responding to the needs of the multitudes, thousands and myriads of believers.
In that sense the Book of BeMidbar sends the message that in order to create a perfect society which will follow the rules and will be based on mutual trust and responsibility, these rules must be flexible and adaptable, and society must recognize the talents, needs, and aspirations, of its many members.
Let us recap: the trust crisis, which started with a complaint for no clear reason by no specific group, has then caught on to the less engaged elements of society, the אספסוף – gathering of random people. It then affected the top – Moshe himself, and God responded by shaking Moshe’s position and allowing Eldad and Medad to prophesy without his blessing. Following that the whole nation behaves in an animalistic way, and at the end of Parashat Shelah Lekha, the trust crisis makes its way back to the elite. This time, Miriam and Aaron who cast doubt on Moshe.
The conversation is initiated by Miriam (ותדבר), and she is concerned with family issues: Moshe’s wife, but it quickly deteriorates to criticism which stems from bitterness and jealousy:
הרק אך במשה דיבר יי? הלא גם בנו דיבר – Did God speak only with Moshe? [No], He spoke with us as well.
This is a serious breach of trust. Miriam and Aaron are part of the leadership triumvirate and they were always at Moshe’s side, but now it seems that they are complaining about his disproportional share of the leadership cake. Maybe now that God granted prophecy to Eldad and Medad, Miriam and Aharon are prompted to discuss their leadership roles. The breach described in that story is similar to many cases of family feuds between spouses and siblings, which start with a comment expressing concern and well-wishing, and turn into shaming and blaming contests.
God’s response is swift. He makes it clear that His brush with Moshe does not mean that Moshe’s status has been diminished in any way, and His choice of title for Moshe is extremely interesting considering our discussion:
בכל ביתי נאמן הוא – He is the trusted custodian of My household.
God tells Miriam and Aaron, and also Moshe indirectly, that even though Moshe denounced his loyalty by saying that he is not an אומן – a trusted caregiver, and even though God bypassed him, he is still the trusted, faithful servant.
Miriam’s punishment is that she cannot be gathered into the camp for seven days because of leprosy. The lepers were one of the groups who were removed, temporarily, from the perfect camp, and the keyword אסף appears here again:
תסגר שבעת ימים ואחר תאסף – let her be quarantined for seven days and then gather back into the camp.
The story of the scouts is presented in the Torah in two versions which seem to be incompatible. This chart lists the most salient differences.
|God tells Moshe to send the scouts.||The mission is requested by the people.|
|The mission is to gather information. There is no specific mention of how the information will be used.||The mission is strategic. The scouts are asked to come back with a plan for the route to take and cities to attack.|
|The members of the delegation are called scouts, from the Hebrew root תור.||The members of the delegation are called spies, from the Hebrew root חפר.|
|The scouts are described as leaders and chieftains, and they are mentioned by name.||They are described only as “one person of each tribe.”|
|The scouts first deliver information, with only a hint of difficulty, conveyed by the word אפס – however (13:28). After the Israelites react negatively, the scouts add that it is an impossible mission. After the decree was given that they will spend 40 years in the desert, the scouts instigated the people again.||The scouts return with a short and positive message: טובה הארץ אשר יי אלהינו נותן לנו – the land which God is giving us is very good. They refer to the land as already being given.|
|In summary: the voices in the conversation from the moment the scouts return are: scouts; Israelites (insinuated); Caleb; Scouts; Israelites; Yehoshua and Caleb; Israelites; God; Moshe; God; God; Scouts.||In summary: the voices in the conversation from the moment the scouts return are: scouts; Israelites; Moshe; God.|
The commentators offer many explanations to the discrepancies between the two narratives, and it seems that the common thread to all of them is that in Devarim Moshe tells the story in retrospect, from his perspective. The narrative in BeMidbar unfolds as events are taking place, and reading that narrative, one might believe that the mounting opposition among the people regarding the conquest of Canaan was a result of an ongoing debate between the people, the scouts, Caleb, Yehoshua, Moshe and God. The debate in BeMidbar is prolonged and multilayered, while in Devarim almost no discussion is present. In retrospect, Moshe tells the people that they never intended to accomplish their journey and enter the land of Canaan, and that it was not the report of the scouts that made them take the final decision.
In BeMidbar, the people sent to Canaan are described as scouts sent to gather general information, they hold prestigious positions, and they are commissioned by God. In Devarim, it is understood that the mission, even if ordered by God, was necessary because the Israelites wanted it. They wanted spies and not scouts, and they wanted strategic information, so they could insist on returning to Egypt. In retrospect, it is understood that the chieftains sent to Canaan did not deserve the honor bestowed upon them, and they are referred to in Devarim as ordinary people.
This is just a cursory interpretation, and the readers are encouraged to compare the two narratives in depth and research the commentators. It is also recommended to chart the order in which the events in the desert are described in Devarim, in order to feel the perspective of Moshe as he speaks of those events.
I would like to highlight several elements of the story, especially in relation to the overarching story line of loss of trust in the leadership.
Loss of trust in oneself:
A lot was written on verse 13:33: “in comparison to the giants we seemed to ourselves as grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” Losing trust in one’s ability to succeed will turn him against parents, educators, and advisors. The rebellion might be active and aggressive, or it might be expressed through passive, indifferent behavior. When such feelings are experienced by a group of people, they are exponentially more powerful and spread like waves throughout the group.
Why does God care what people say?
In verses 14:13-18, Moshe argues that God should spare the Israelites, because their annihilation would cause other nations to say that God was unable to bring them to Canaan. A similar argument is used following the sin of the Golden Calf, and we wonder why is it a valid one when used to convince God, since after all God is immutable. The answer is that Moshe is not speaking of God’s image but of the greater goal of the Torah. That goal is mentioned when God chooses Abraham and again before Mattan Torah, the Giving of the Law on Mount Sinai – and it is about spreading the message of the Torah to the whole world. Though any argument with God would seem futile, Moshe argues that destroying the Israelites will foil the general goal because no nation will be willing to become God’s nation.
You will succeed in what you deeply care for:
Amidst the tragic events of the scouts’ rebellion there is one positive moment. In verse 14:31 God tells the Israelites that their children, who they thought will be slaughtered by the enemy’s sword, will merit entering Canaan and settling in it. He is not telling them that to rub salt on their wounds, but to send the message that when you deeply care about something, chances are it will succeed. The Israelites did not care for independence or for Canaan, and therefore lost both, but they did care deeply about their children, and for that reason their children succeeded in the mission.
The importance of family:
This brings us to another key element of BeMidbar’s trust crisis narrative. A nation is strongest when its members feel as family to each other. A family where siblings, spouses, and parents and children do not trust each other will fall into disarray and so will the nation. Let us go back to chapter 11 and look at references to familial relationships:
11:10: families; 11:12: pregnancy, delivery, wet nurse, suckling, fathers; 12:1: wife (spoken of by in-laws); 12:12: fetus emerging from the mother’s womb; 12:14: father; 14:13: wives and children; 14:31: children; 14:33: sons;
Don’t kill the messenger:
The story of the scouts also drives home the point that though the people mostly directed their criticism as Moshe and Aharon, and even tried to stone them, they were actually rebelling against God. That idea is mentioned in the following verses:
14:3: why does God bring us to that land to be killed by the sword…
14:9: [Yehoshua and Caleb urge the people:] do not rebel against God…
14:11: God tells Moshe that the people blaspheme Him and have no faith in Him, despite all the miracles they have seen.
14:13-19: Moshe’s argument revolves around the need to establish faith in God.
14:22: God speaks of the people who try Him.
14:26: [God said:] until when will this evil congregation complain against Me… I have heard their complaints against Me…
14:35: The people congregated against God.
The Rise and Fall of the Faithless
Following the rebellion of the scouts and the decree of spending forty years in the desert, the Israelites decide to prove their enthusiasm and willingness to conquer Canaan. They rise early and stage an attack on the mountain-dwelling Amalekites and Canaanites. Moshe warns them that the Ark will not travel with them and that they will be defeated because their actions are not approved by God. They refuse to listen and are miserably defeated by their enemies.
This short story is packed with allusions to the central idea of BeMidbar, which is the importance of balancing hierarchy and boundaries with the needs of the individual. The perfect plan God presents for the new nation fails, because different individuals and groups refuse to follow through, and because they fail to recognize their unique place and role within the grand scheme. In the six verses (14:40-45) telling the story of the מעפילים – those who ascended the mountain, we find at least ten verbs of movement (translated her in the infinitive):
וַיַּֽעֲל֥וּ;ּ וְעָלִ֛ינוּ; עֹבְרִ֖ים; תִצְלָֽח; תַּעֲל֔וּ; וּנְפַלְתֶּ֖ם; שַׁבְתֶּם֙; וַיַּעְפִּ֕לוּ; לַעֲל֖וֹת; לֹא־מָ֖שׁוּ; וַיֵּ֤רֶד
Go up; go up; cross over or disobey; cross over or succeed; go up; fall down – be defeated; return/abandon; ascend; go up; move; come down.
In verse 41, the concept of crossing boundaries is conveyed by using two words with multiple meanings:
לָ֥מָּה זֶּ֛ה אַתֶּ֥ם עֹבְרִ֖ים אֶת־פִּ֣י יי וְהִ֖וא לֹ֥א תִצְלָֽח – why do you disobey/cross over God’s word? It will not cross over/succeed.
The action of the Israelites is meant to show obedience, but it is disobedience, the result of which is failure. Both success and failure are described by words which also mean crossing to the other side. Transgression is crossing a boundary and success is moving from one stage to another. The word צלח has three meanings in the Tanakh: to cross over (usually a river), to succeed, or to be imbued with God’s spirit, and the Israelites had none of the three.
Another allusion to the importance of boundaries is the word מקום – place, in verse 40. The plan of BeMidbar shows exactly where each person should be. The Israelites decide to go to a place without God’s approval, while the Ark, and Moshe with it, do not move from amidst the camp. Moshe is upset with the Israelites, and the text juxtaposes the forbidden action and movement of the Israelites with the sanctioned inaction and stillness of Moshe and the Ark. The words “amidst the camp” are keywords in BeMidbar, since everything revolves around the structured hierarchy of the camp and its components (Ark, Cohanim, Levites, Israelites, Outcasts). The root קרב is used seven times in the description of events from the first rebellion in chapter eleven to the story of the ascenders (11:4;20;21; 14:11;13;14;42;44).
Finally, the thread connecting this story to the admonitions in the beginning of BeMidbar is the root נגפ which usually means plague but could also mean defeat. The warning stated that: וְלֹ֨א יִהְיֶ֜ה בִּבְנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ נֶ֔גֶף בְּגֶ֥שֶׁת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל אֶל־הַקֹּֽדֶש- the result of breaching the boundary and approaching the holy, restricted zone, will be a plague. The Israelites chose to ignore the warning and were punished with either a plague or a defeat throughout the book of BeMidbar (14:37 and 42; 17:11-15; 25:8-26:1; 31:16).