In rewriting the spy story, the later Priestly writer has not only changed who the initiator of the reconnaissance mission is (#233), the specific land that the spies are to reconnoiter (#234), and how many go and to whom they report back (#235-236), but also the content of the report brought back by the scouts.
In the earlier Yahwist version the spies report back that the land is “flowing with milk and honey” and that it bears much fruit (Num 13:27). But later, in the Priestly portion of the composite text as we now have it, the 12 chieftains (#235) report back:
“The land through which we passed to scout: it’s a land that devours its inhabitants…”
Granted, both versions speak of the giants or Nephilim in the land, but only the Priestly version has the scouts—what appears to be—give a discrediting report or lie. Why?
Levine writes this in his Anchor Bible commentary, p. 358:
Whereas in the JE narrative, the spies are realistically concerned about force and fortification, here in P’s version, they malign the Promised Land itself. In the priestly execration, it is predicted that the Judean exiles will be consumed by the land of their enemies, which is a way of expressing extinction (Lev 26:38).
In other words, P’s version reflects the concerns and fears of its own historical era and audience. The spies narrative, as indeed does the whole wilderness and conquering of the promised land narrative, reflects the real fears and trajectory of the exiles in Babylon as they returned home to their land in the later third of the 6th century BCE. The land had indeed been obliterated by the Babylonians themselves and is often expressed as a barren wasteland in the post-Babylonian prophetic literature. Levine continues by citing an example from Ezekiel, a text that has strong linguistic parallels with the Priestly literature, as the following verse makes apparent.
“Because they say to you (the land personified): A devourer of people are you, and a bereaver of your nations were you! Just so, you shall no longer devour people, and your nations you shall no more bereave.” (Ez 36:13-14)
In other words, both the Priestly version of the spy story and Ezekiel reflect the dynamics (concerns, fears, events, etc.) of the 6th century and especially those of a group of Judean exiles who had real concerns and fears about returning to their land when the Persians defeated the Babylonians in 538 BCE and declared that they could return to Judah.
Obviously then, none of these concerns or fears would have been expressed in the earlier Yahwist version of the spies story. They are narrative elements that creep into the Priestly version of the story to explicitly address the concerns of this writer’s historical audience. And finally, once again—#237!—we see how ever-changing historical circumstances necessitated new versions, new retellings, of Israel’s older stories—later versions that often contradicted narrative details and even larger theological and/or ideological agendas in these earlier versions!
Tune in tomorrow to find out why, according to P’s later contradictory version, Caleb ain’t the only faithful survivor of the older wilderness generation.