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Parshat Shlach – The difference between the Spies of Moses and Joshua

Both Moses and Joshua sent spies to the land before they wanted to enter it.

The spies sent by Moses led to 10 of the 12 spies giving a report which made the people not want to enter the land. After the spies sent by Joshua, the people entered the land to conquer.

What was it that made the difference?

The account of Moses’ spies is found in the Parshat Shlach.

שְׁלַח־לְךָ֣ אֲנָשִׁ֗ים וְיָתֻ֙רוּ֙ אֶת־אֶ֣רֶץ כְּנַ֔עַן אֲשֶׁר־אֲנִ֥י נֹתֵ֖ן לִבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אִ֣ישׁ אֶחָד֩ אִ֨ישׁ אֶחָ֜ד לְמַטֵּ֤ה אֲבֹתָיו֙ תִּשְׁלָ֔חוּ כֹּ֖ל נָשִׂ֥יא בָהֶֽם׃

“Send agents to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people; send one participant from each of their ancestral tribes, each one a chieftain among them.” (Numbers 13:2)

In Joshua 2:1 the account of Joshua’s spies is shown.

וַיִּשְׁלַ֣ח יְהוֹשֻֽׁעַ־בִּן־נ֠וּן מִֽן־הַשִּׁטִּ֞ים שְׁנַֽיִם־אֲנָשִׁ֤ים מְרַגְּלִים֙ חֶ֣רֶשׁ לֵאמֹ֔ר לְכ֛וּ רְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְאֶת־יְרִיח֑וֹ וַיֵּ֨לְכ֜וּ וַ֠יָּבֹ֠אוּ בֵּית־אִשָּׁ֥ה זוֹנָ֛ה וּשְׁמָ֥הּ רָחָ֖ב וַיִּשְׁכְּבוּ־שָֽׁמָּה׃

Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two men from Shittim as spies, saying, “Go, reconnoiter the region of Jericho.” So they set out, and they came to the house of a certain prostitute named Rahab and lodged there.

Two differences that stand out are:

1- The use of language is particular; שְׁלַח־לְךָ֣ = Send for you

2- There is a distinction between the words וְיָתֻ֙רוּ֙. In which we can see the modern Hebrew word תיר = tourist and מְרַגְּלִים֙ = spies

It could have read שלח אנשים = send people. Why לך = “for you” . The Or HaChaim points out that לך reflects “permission” from G-d to Moses to send spies rather than a commandment.

Did the idea of sending spies come from Moses? Given the outcome was it a good idea? Moses was the greatest prophet ever and the most righteous man who ever existed. Could it be possible that he would make such a mistake in sending spies?

Reading Yalkut Shimoni’s words, we learn that it was not Moses who wanted to send spies in the first place. It was the people themselves who wanted to send spies Moses had said there was no need. After all, the land had been given to them by G-d. The people reasoned their vision to send spies with the fact that the Canaanites knew the people were going into the land, and were hiding their treasures. Besides, the people wanted to participate in conquering the land by seeing what the weak sides were. After all, that is good advice, for anyone who wants to conquer a country. [1] However, deep down perhaps at that moment on a subconscious level, they wondered, whether the land was really good, whether the desert was not better. Moses consulted with G-d whether he should send spies. G-d told Moses that he could do that. He could send them as תירים “tourists”ת people who would discover and enjoy the land. One could then report back to the people that the land was worth fighting for. This would also allow the spies – the people – to use their free will/choice. After all, G-d had said the land was good, now they could go investigate the land and make their own choice whether they agreed or not. Did they like the land, as G-d had said, or did they dislike the land, from their own perspective.[2]

The spies went into the land to start reporting on the good aspects of the land, on the weak spots in the land, so that they could easily conquer it, however, out of sight of Moses and his leadership, the thought occurred to them that maybe the land was not good for the people after all, and that the land had not only weaknesses, but also very strong spots, which were not so easy to conquer. They no longer viewed the country as “tourists” but as actual spies … working on an attack protocol.[3] These thoughts made them doubt G-d and made them show lack of trust in G-d. Would G-d call a bad country good and would strong places be too strong for G-d to overcome? This made these men to be found extremely foolish. Their words of slander was the cause of an entire generation having to die in the desert. That these spies were stupid the Midrash teaches from Proverbs 10:18, where Solomon taught us that he who is מוציא דבה, engages in slander, is a fool.[4]

Sending spies in itself was not bad, shown by the fact that Joshua also sent spies when he wanted to conquer Jericho. If the idea in itself was bad, and Joshua knew the consequences, he would not have done so. Joshua sent spies not to see if the land was good, or asking if they could conquer it, but only practically how could they best conquer the land. As we see the example, in the conquest of Ai (Joshua 7:3). The question there was only: how many soldiers do we need and not the question can we conquer it. The conquest was a fact, after all G-d was with them. People trusted G-d.

This is the big difference between the spies of Moses and Joshua. Moses’ spies were overwhelmed by the physical land and could not imagine that this would be good for the people. Joshua’s spies knew the land would be good for the people, they just went to see how they could conquer that physical land – which G-d had given them.

We can learn from that

That is the task of every human being in this world. Confidently taking on your duties in the physical world, knowing that the world is good in itself and that with G-d’s help you can conquer that physical world.[5]

Moses’ spies were the great leaders of the people. Great leaders who went into doubt in the physical land, separate from Moses. That should be a warning to us, that we should stick to good Torah leaders who teach us, so that we remain strengthened in our faith and trust in G-d.

By Angelique Sijbolts


[1] Ramban on Numbers 13:2:1
[2] Rashi on Numbers 13:2:2
[3] Learned from a lesson on Parshat Shlach by Rabbi J. Sacks. Since I don’t remember exactly which lesson that was, I have no direct reference.
[4] Rabbeinu Bahya, Bamidbar 13:2:4-7
[5] Based on comments from Or HaChaim on Numbers 13:2:1,2,3

Thanks to Rabbi Tani Burton for the inspiring question

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