#233. Who suggests sending spies to scout out the land: Yahweh OR the people? (Num 13:1-2 [P] vs Deut 1:22-23 [D])


Numbers 13-14 recount the story—or rather stories—of the spying of the promised land, which as it now stands is a composite text, a patch-work of the earlier Yahwist and later Priestly versions. Deuteronomy 1:21-46 is also another version of the spy story and presents itself as a simple retelling, through the mouthpiece of Moses, of the events recorded in Numbers 13-14. Yet it departs in significant, and contradictory, ways from the version(s) preserved in Numbers. As voiced elsewhere, I will present the contradictions between the Deuteronomic and Yahwist versions later on when we look at the contradictions in the book of Deuteronomy. My reason for doing this is because I will be making a sustained argument throughout our examination of the contradictions between Deuteronomy and these earlier JE traditions now preserved in parts of Exodus and Numbers. Here, over the next few days, we will only be looking at places where the Yahwist tradition [J] clashes with the Priestly version [P], and where the Priestly version differs from the Deuteronomic version [D]. But the Deuteronomic and Yahwist contradictions, of which there are many—indeed our most significant contradictions will be found here—will be looked at later.

A further note: Although it may seem from my wording above that biblical critics move from claiming sources to “finding” contradictions in the text in order to buttress such claims, in reality this is far from the case, and just the opposite. It is more the case that through centuries of careful study of the biblical text itself such contradictions were observed—that is the biblical text itself revealed its own composite nature, the textual data being: contradictions, narrative inconsistencies, chronological inconsistencies, anachronisms, duplicate stories with differing narrative details and emphases, differing vocabulary, Hebraic styles, editorial markers such as the resumptive repetition, differing themes, emphases, and theological and/or ideological agendas, etc. These textual data are best explained by postulating different sources, textual traditions, and authors. Indeed the Bible as a corpus of ancient literature bears witness to this fact, as does our knowledge about how scrolls were produced, who wrote them, why, and to whom, and how textual traditions were written, rewritten, amended, altered, and even contradicted by other textual sources and archives in the ancient Near Eastern world.

So even though the above sounds as if I’m moving from claims about the text to the text itself, the fact is that the movement has been for more than 300 years now from texts and from the cultures that produced these ancient texts to hypotheses that best explain the observable textual data to reconfirming those hypotheses as fact. If modern readers are ignorant of this scholarship and field of knowledge—i.e., ignorant of the actual biblical texts themselves, the worlds that produced them, and textual production and transmission in the ancient Near Eastern world—this hardly amounts to an excuse for dismissing the textual data and the conclusions drawn from them. A survey of the evolution of this scholarship has already been posted: How the Torah was discovered to be a collection of contradictory traditions. See also: What is the Bible? and Studying the Bible scientifically and objectively. Or just peruse the other 232 contradictions now posted on this site, and we’ve only done the books of Genesis through Leviticus, and now at Numbers 13-14.

After that rather long preface, maybe we ought to start with the textual data themselves. I have counted some 9 contradictions, so here is the 1st textual indicator of different tellings of the spy story now preserved in Numbers 13-14 and Deuteronomy 1:21-46.

And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying: “Send men and let them scout the land of Canaan… You shall send one man for each tribe.” (Num 13:1-2 [P])

And I [Moses] said to you… “See, Yahweh our god has put the land in front of you. Go up, possess it as Yahweh, your fathers’ god, spoke to you. Don’t be afraid and don’t be dismayed.” And you came forward to me, all of you, and said: “Let’s send men ahead of us and let them explore the land…” (Deut 1:20-22 [D])

Both of the above are the beginnings of the spy story as told by the Priestly writer, whose version is now cut-and-pasted into Numbers 13-14 (13:1-16 + 21 + 25-26 + 32 + 14:1-3 + 5-10 + 20-38) and by the Deuteronomist. It is surmised, based off of other textual studies, that both of these authors were rewriting an earlier version of the spy story, the Yahwist’s, which had Moses as initiating the sending of the spies (possibly at 13:17b). If this is the case, then both the later Priestly author and the Deuteronomist changed the Yahwist’s beginning from Moses as the one who suggests the spying of the land to: Yahweh on the one hand [P], and the people themselves on the other hand [D]. There are good reasons why each writer would have done this—i.e., altered, even consciously contradicted, the story as he received it.

We might initially confine ourselves to speculating about why each of these authors tells his story in a different manner. First, one of the Priestly writer’s theological emphasis throughout the wilderness narrative is to accentuate that nothing happens outside of the word of Yahweh. This has already been explicitly stated in Numbers 9:15-23 (see #225). So having Yahweh command that men should scout out the promised land is in keeping with this agenda. This is especially pertinent if the original Yahwist text started by having Moses suggest the spying of the land and/or Yahweh’s presence or direct word was absent or even latent as it is in many other Yahwist passages. In this case, we could certainly understand why the Priestly writer would have changed this detail in his retelling of this story.

The focus of the Deuteronomic tradition is really the conquest of the land, not the spying of it! Deuteronomy opens with Moses reminding the Israelites that Yahweh has declared: “Go and possess the land that Yahweh swore to your fathers…” (Deut 1:8). This is then reiterated as the beginning of, not the spy story per se, but the possession story: “Go up, possess it as Yahweh, your fathers’ god, spoke to you” (Deut 1:21).  However, the agenda of the Deuteronomic author, and thus his alteration of the story, is to display not only the unfaithful nature of the Israelites, a theme present in both the Yahwist and Priestly versions, but more so their rebellious natures. Thus, rather than obeying Yahweh’s command to “go up and possess the land” the Israelites instead suggest sending spies to scout it out! This then brings upon them, twice, the charge: “you rebelled against the word of Yahweh” (vv. 26 & 43). This is the Deuteronomist’s theological agenda in his retelling of the story. He wishes to show that the spying of the land was a direct disobedience of Yahweh’s command to “go up, posses it.” Rather than obey Yahweh, the Israelites initiate an alternative plan—sending spies. As a result, not only are the people punished, but Moses too—the Deuteronomist’s contradictory reason explaining why Moses is not allowed entry into the promised land. For a future time.

As evidenced elsewhere, my goal here is not to glibly point out Bible contradictions, nor to argue with those who deny the texts and claim that there aren’t any contradictions, but rather to understand why they’re there and what they tell us about the Bible and the men who wrote its texts. Here we see two different authors who both inherited the same tradition/story, but in retelling it, in rewriting it, they modified the story to suit their own agenda, purposes, audiences, beliefs, etc. This procedure is likewise visible for the majority of contradictions already posted here. Concerning the spy stories of Numbers 13-14 and Deuteronomy 1:21-46, this is merely 1 out of 9 contradictions we will look at.

4 thoughts on “#233. Who suggests sending spies to scout out the land: Yahweh OR the people? (Num 13:1-2 [P] vs Deut 1:22-23 [D])

  1. So tell me in simplified terms: in one passage YHWH commands to send out spies but in two other passages its the people-in rebbellion-who do this against YHWH’s commandment ?

    1. Simplified: Yes!

      These retellings of Israel’s traditional stories—that’s really what we’re talking about—are quite fascinating to study. You should see my more recent post on this topic here at Contradiction #358. Is the plan to send spies presented as an alternative plan OR Yahweh’s original commandment? (Deut 1:21-22 [D] vs Num 13:1 [P])

      That should do a better job at explaining it. What these now combined textual traditions or variant tellings of the story tell us is that in one version Yahweh is presented as commanding Moses to send spies to scout out the land (Num 13:1, attributed to P). Yet in another passage (not two other), Yahweh is presented as commanding the Israelites to conquer the land directly but the people approach Moses and suggest they send spies to scout it out (Deut 1:20-22)

      What interests me is not that a different scribe (different oral tradition ?) told the story differently—for this the Bible provides 100s of examples, which I nevertheless have to argue for most of the time because people are just not reading these texts—but why would a scribe change or alter the tradition. So here it becomes more speculative. But I think it’s quite clear in Deuteronomy’s case. First, take a quick look at Deuteronomy 9. There our author’s main agenda as he has Moses (a literary character in his text) retell stories from the wilderness period comes clear. Here’s a pinnacle verse: For the day you came out from Egypt to the day you came to this place you’ve been rebellious toward Yahweh” (Deut 9:7). When D renarrates these stories he over-stresses and creates the theme of continual rebelliousness. Now look back at his version of the spy narrative. In verses 26 & 43 he also claims the people “rebelled against Yahweh.” Thus we ask: could he have retold the story so that the people present the spying plan as a counter-proposal and direct refusal to Yahweh’s command to “God take the land!”? I think there’s enough textual grounds to support this. But go ahead a read the very lengthy arguement in the contradiction I linked above. Hope that helps.

  2. This is then reiterated as the beginning of, not the spy story per se, but the possession story: “Go up, possess it as Yahweh, your fathers’ god, spoke to you” (Deut 1:21).

    This verse reads in its entirety, “See, Yahweh your God has given the land to you; go up, take possession, as Yahweh, the God of your ancestors, has promised you; do not fear or be dismayed.’ It’s noteworthy, I believe, that the word translated “dismayed” occurs here for the first time in the Torah, and it along with the word translated “fear” appear together elsewhere in works of the DH: Deut. 31:8, Josh. 8:1, 10:25, and 1 Sam. 17:11; see similar wording in Josh. 1:9.

    1. Thanks John,

      This is quite significant because what many of my readers don’t realize is that I’m not putting forward here the textual data and evidence that supports the Torah sources—J, E, D, P—that scholars have identified for roughly three centuries now, but merely the points of convergences, or contradictions, between these traditions. Vocabulary that is unique to one and only one particular source is, I feel, one of the strongest arguments for the unity and veracity of these sources’ existence as independent textual traditions prior to their being redacted together. There are an abundance of unique words and phrases—unique to one and only one particular textual tradition—that fall into this category. This is especially the case for P and D. I’m sure you’re well aware of this John, just letting other readers know.


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