The story of the spying of the promised land is initially recounted in Numbers 13-14, which as we have already seen is a composite text of the Yahwist and later Priestly traditions (see Contradictions #233, #234, #235-236, #237, and #238-240).
When we say “composite text,” we mean that the text/story in the form that it has come to us modern readers is composite in nature; it is composed of two once separate traditions or tellings of this same story (for a step-by-step textual breakdown of a composite text see my post on the composite Crossing of the Red Sea story in Contradictions #120-122).
Biblical scholars and linguists who study ancient Mediterranean texts make such bold conclusions based on the Hebrew text itself—observing its varying styles, grammar, vocabulary, editorial markers, and other cultural and linguistic distinctions.1 This textual data is further corroborated by also observing differing and even contradictory messages, thematic emphases (whether cultic, political, or religious), and even noting differing theologies and ideologies among our various biblical scribes. Indeed, this website is devoted to observing, and being honest to, the Bible’s duplicate traditions and its numerous variant tellings of Israel’s traditional stories. That is to say, the biblical texts themselves—the object of our study—inform us that Israel’s most cherished stories were recited and retold with variation by different social groups in different time periods and that these differing versions or retellings were preserved in the collection of texts that eventually became the Bible as we know it today. For a general discussion see my Introduction to storytelling in the ancient world in Stories from the North and the South.
In our present case, we know from studying the text itself and its cultural underpinnings that the story in Numbers 13-14, as with hundreds of other stories in what was later codified as the Bible, re-present two versions or tellings of the spying of the promised land story that for some reason were redacted together at a later date (other examples include: two tellings of the story of creation, of the flood, of the dispersion of peoples and languages, of Abraham’s birthplace, of Abraham’s covenant, of the naming of Isaac, of the naming and founding of Beersheba, of Jacob’s blessing, etc.). In this particular example, a later Israelite community and/or culture told the story of the spying of the land differently. We have numerous examples of ancient stories being told differently throughout the ancient world, and the biblical text attests unwaveringly to this cultural fact. Regrettably this knowledge about the biblical text and the ancient peoples that created, told, and retold its stories has been slow to reach the public. And this itself is due to a variety of factors which I briefly discuss in a series of posts entitled Being Honest to the Bible’s Texts, Their Authors, and Their Beliefs, and in reference to a specific textual example in this post, The Biblical Texts on Their Own Terms Versus the Bible on Its Terms: Genesis 1 and 2 as a Case Study.
Fortunately for those skeptical modern readers, the redactors and editors of this collection of ancient literature not only preserved variant tellings of Israel’s traditional stories in the form of composite texts, where two traditions were stitched together, but they also preserved whole separate variant tellings which were originally a part of different oral or textual traditions. Simply read the story in Numbers 13-14 (which in itself is a composite narrative, but you can set that aside for the moment) comparatively with the version of the same story renarrated in Deuteronomy 1:20-45. Have a pen in hand and make note of different narrative details, omissions or additions, differing narrative order, and differing messages or thematic emphases between these two versions. I have already done this myself in the post Moses Retells His Story (Part II), which attempts to read these two versions side-by-side from the perspective of a 1st person fundamentalist reader who approaches the biblical texts with all the typical handed down assumptions that fundamentalists adopt from their tradition. Or in a different manner, I’ve listed these differences as Contradictions #357-363 above. But feel free to do this on your own as well.
A close reader will note that there are some subtle and not so subtle differences between these two versions of the same story. Our job as modern readers of these ancient texts is not to deny these authors and their cultures the very fact that they retold their stories in differing manners, but rather to understand the cultural, political, and even religious reasons behind these modified retellings. A people or culture often altered the manner in which a story or even perceived historical event was told when changing cultural, religious, or political circumstances dictated a new or different telling, or indeed when a different social group—scribes, elite priests, royal servants, or secular storytellers—wished to recite these stories. Again, the Bible as it has come down to us is our best source for this very truth! And it is our job as modern readers to acknowledge this and to understand it as much as is possible. This is what I have been calling Being Honest to the Texts, Their Authors, and Their Beliefs—Not ours about Them!
This can be done with the composite text of Numbers 13-14 where we have already acknowledged that a later elite priestly guild of the 6th century retold this traditional story to accentuate and represent their own concerns, geopolitical worldview, and unique set of beliefs from an older telling of this same story. But our study of Deuteronomy 1-11 affords us the opportunity to compare whole retellings. So let’s first note the differences between these two retellings, which I have enumerated in the title of this post, and then try to ascertain why the author of Deuteronomy would present Moses renarrating the story differently.
The Deuteronomic retelling of the spy story in Deuteronomy 1:20-45 presents itself as a simple retelling through the mouthpiece of Moses; yet it departs in significant ways from the “original” narration of this event in Numbers 13-14. Since Numbers 13-14 is itself a composite text, composed of an older 9th-8th century telling of this story (which we shall call the Yahwist version) and a later 6th century retelling (the Priestly version) of it (see Contradictions #233, #234, #235-236, #237, and #238-240), I shall only focus on differences between the earlier Yahwist and the Deuteronomic renarration.
In outline the Yahwist version in Numbers 13-14 runs as follows:
- Moses suggests sending spies to scout out the land (Num 13:17). Scholars assign verse 17 (or some version of it) as the beginning of the older Yahwist story line. But look how the later Priestly writer retold the story’s opening which is now at verse 1: Yahweh instructed Moses to send spies to scout the land (see Contradiction #233). In either case, both the Yahwist and Priestly telling of the story contradict the Deuteronomist’s where Yahweh commands the people to immediately “Go! Take possession of the land” and it is the people who offer as a counter-plan to spy out the land instead (Deut 1:21-22). We can easily imagine that a storyteller might freely vary this story’s beginning, saying Yahweh, Moses, or the people suggested the plan to spy on the land. However, below I will argue that the Deuteronomist purposefully changed the story from Moses’ plan (J) to the Israelites’ (D) for a specific reason, and that reason aligned with one of the Deuteronomist’s central theological agendas—to present Moses as deserving of no blame!
- “The land” is delimited to the Judean hill country with a focus on Hebron (Num 13:22). Verses 21 & 22 both start, “And they went up. . .” Scholars see verse 21 as a Priestly insert that expanded the scope of the spying all the way north to Hamath (see Contradiction #234), which not coincidentally was the norther most border of Israel as perceived by the Priestly guild (see Contradiction #343-344). Yet the original southern version of the story as told by our southern secular scribe, the Yahwist, was only concerned with a story that focused on its own past and its pre-Jerusalem capital, Hebron.
- The scouts give a favorable report to Moses alone (v. 27), but the men are discouraged by the giants in the land, as well as the “Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, and Canaanites” who occupy the southern Judean hill country. In D’s retelling these indigenous all become labeled as “Amorites” (Deut 1:27, 44)—a minor narrative alteration, but did the Deuteronomist have a reason for changing this when his “Moses” renarrates the tale?
- Caleb exhorts the men to “go up and take possession of the land” (v. 30). P expands this to include Joshua (14:6-9; see Contradictions #238-240); but again notice that in D’s retelling Caleb’s encouragement is omitted and Moses is presented as encouraging the people while Caleb and Joshua are merely mentioned as being saved, but Joshua for a very different reason—to fill in for Moses’ stead since he won’t be crossing now!
- The men, however, lack faith in their ability to conquer the inhabitants.
- Yahweh is angered and swears to wipe them all out: “I’ll strike them with an epidemic and dispossess them!”
- Moses intercedes on their behalf (absent in D’s version), and Yahweh relents and swears that none but Caleb will enter the land; the rest of the Israelites will be destroyed in the wilderness.
- Yahweh then bids them to turn back toward the wilderness.
- However now the men wish to go up and do battle, but they are sorely defeated at Hormah by the Canaanites and Amalekites.
If you were living in the days of old and heard this story around the campfire, what might you think was its purpose?
The most significant purpose seems to be to explain why the Israelites didn’t or couldn’t conquer the land of Canaan through the Negeb, that is via the south; for the story tells us that the Israelites were forced back from Hormah. The story also seems to serve the ancillary purpose of explaining Israelite settlements in Transjordan which we hear of from Moabite sources that date back to the 9th century (for more on this Moabite source and how the Yahwist interacted with it see Contradiction #269, #271-273, #282-285). This story would have us believe that these Transjordanian settlements hearken back to Moses’ time period. And this was a typical means to justify the possession of land in the ancient world by claiming it belonged to or was settled by an earlier ancestor (see the origin stories of Beersheba in Contradiction #44).
Most obvious perhaps is the story’s dire message about maintaining one’s faith in Yahweh, and specifically in relation to military skirmishes. From the story of David and Golaith to the miraculous fall of the walls of Jericho, to Hezekiah’s saving of Jerusalem from 185,000 Assyrians encamped along its outer walls, many of the Bible’s stories emphasize this theology of loyalty and faith. Here in our present case, lack of faith not only cost the Israelites a victory at Hormah (but see a contradictory version in Num 21:1-3; Contradiction #242 & #271-273), but every soul of the Exodus generation except Caleb, that also means women, children and men who were not part of the spying expedition.
Like so many of the wilderness stories, the men’s lack of faith in Yahweh—one of the central issues to the story—makes no sense in its literary context. They are literally three days journey from the Sinai event, at least that is what the last occurrence of the Yahwist text states (Num 10:33). Rather these narratives serve a pedagogical purpose displaying what happens when one lacks faith in Yahweh. The main focus of the Yahwist version falls on Caleb and his seed: “And my servant Caleb, because a different spirit was with him, and he went after me completely, I’ll bring him to the land where he went, and his seed will possess it” (Num 14:24). Like the blessing and promise of the land passed down from Abraham’s seed to Isaac’s and to Jacob’s seed, they now rest with Caleb’s seed. The land Caleb spied out was Hebron, David’s capital before he took Jerusalem from the Jebusites. David too is praised for going after Yahweh completely and being Yahweh’s faithful warrior. There can be little doubt that the original audience of this story, the southern kingdom of Judah, would have perceived these parallels. It’s a story that legitimates Davidic control of the southern kingdom by presenting Yahweh’s endorsement.
The mention of the Amalekites in the earlier Yahwist version, rather than the Amorites of the Deuteronomist, also supports a date of composition reflective of the military battles Israel fought with the Amalekites of the Negeb during the early united monarchy. Finally, the episode of the spies introduces, indeed explains the presence of, two themes prevalent in the tradition: 1) the Israelite conquest of Transjordan, since their initial attempt to take the promise land directly from the south failed; and 2) the extermination of all of this generation’s men (all 600,000!), except Caleb, because of their initial lack of faith. These two themes will also be variously retold by biblical scribes.
The Deuteronomist’s retelling of the episode, wherein Moses is simply presented as renarrating the story/event, diverges from the Yahwist story-line on several points. Its version runs as follows:
- Yahweh commands the people to immediately “Go up! Take possession” of the land of the Amorite hill country. Cf. verses 8, 24, & 31, where the Deuteronomic theme, “Go! Take possession” is also explicit.
- It is the people who instead suggest to Moses to send spies and scout out the land! The Deuteronomist rewrites the narrative here for the sole purpose of presenting the people as rebellious! They disobeyed a direct command! See #5.
- Moses approves of the plan and selects 12 men, one from each tribe. Absent in the earlier J account, and P’s version has Moses select 12 chieftains.
- They come to the wadi Eshcol and spy it out and take its fruit.
- A favorable report comes back, but the men refuse to take the land because of the giants; “they rebelled against the word of Yahweh” (also 1:43).
- Moses exhorts the people to have no fear, and to have faith in Yahweh; Moses’ exhortation is completely absent from J and it is full of themes only found in Deuteronomy, such as “you saw what Yahweh did in Egypt,” which of course is incorrect; this generation never did see. See forthcoming contradiction.
- Yahweh is angered and swears to wipe them all out save Caleb who will see the land because of his loyalty.
- Neither will Moses enter the land because Yahweh is angered at him too! Rather Joshua shall enter in his stead—a completely new Deuteronomic element. D adds two themes here to its retelling: 1) an explanation about why Moses could not enter the promised land, contradictory to P’s explanation (see Contradiction #266 & #267) and 2) an explanation of Joshua’s salvation simply due to the fact that he will be Moses’ replacement, again contradictory to P’s explanation where in his retelling Joshua is added to Caleb as the sole two who had faith in Yahweh (see Contradictions #238-240).
- Yahweh bids them to turn around toward the wilderness.
- However a few now chose to go up and to battle, but are defeated at Hormah by the Amorites.
In short, the Deuteronomist has Moses re-narrate the event incorrectly. Why? What were the Deuteronomist’s intentions in having his Moses change and modify the story’s details? These are the questions we must ask—not erase the Deuteronomist’s changes and his message by forcing them to be harmonized with the versions in Numbers 13-14. Understanding is out goal, not perverting the texts so that they align with our culture’s modern beliefs about these texts!
If we look at these modifications one-by-one, we see that the first significant difference is that the Deuteronomist has Yahweh command them: “Go up! Take possession!” (1:21). This command recalls the opening of the book of Deuteronomy, where Yahweh is also presented as exclaiming: “Go, take possession of the land that Yahweh swore to your fathers” (1:8). The Deuteronomic author constantly presents the Israelites’ trek through the wilderness as divinely decreed. In the Yahwist version, our author’s source, this trajectory is completely absent, and in the later Priestly version Yahweh commands them to scout out the land rather than take it. Thus in the Deuteronomic version the counter-plan offered by the people to spy out the land is presented as a direct refusal to follow Yahweh’s command “to go up and take possession of the land.” Twice the Deuteronomist has Moses renarrate to his audience: “And you rebelled against the word of Yahweh your god” (1:26, 43). In other words, the Deuteronomist uses the spy narrative to portray the Israelites as not only lacking faith, but more so also rebellious and disobedient from the start. This is merely one of the unique features to the Deuteronomist’s retelling, and it portrays the Deuteronomist’s own theological convictions than anything else. For example, look at chapter 9, which seems to emphsize this theme most clearly, especially verse 7: “From the day that you went out from Egypt until you came to this place you’ve been rebellious toward Yahweh!”
So in an attempt to understand this text culturally, we ask what factors would have been prevalent in the 7th century (or any century for that matter), that would have elicited re-presenting the wilderness generation as rebellious for the full 40 years of the trek? Why present this generation as rebellious?
We might initially say then that this version of the telling of the story sought to use it as an example of how not to act (rebellious), during the campaigns in the 7th century to retake Israelite territory after the Assyrians withdrew from the region. Or it might be used to theologically justify norther Israel’s loss of its land in 722 BCE. At any regards, the Deuteronomist’s revamping of the wilderness generation as completely rebellious from beginning to end speaks against yet other textual traditions that sought to do the complete opposite! Look at these two prophetic traditions and how they used the wilderness generation as a literary foil and paradigm of loyalty to most likely be used in comparison to our authors’ own generation (Contradiction #124).
The word of Yahweh came to me saying: “Go proclaim in the ears of Jerusalem: ‘Thus saith Yahweh: I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you went after me in the wilderness, in a land not sown’” (Jer 2:1-2).
“Therefore, I [Yahweh] will now allure her [Jerusalem] and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her… There she shall respond as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt” (Hos 2:14-15).
Second, given this first modification, the Deuteronomist obviously had to also change the initiator of the spy plan from Moses to the people in his retelling, so that it was the people who were presented as rebellious and culpable, and not Moses—although Moses will bear the sins of the people here, costing him, according to this version of the story, his entry into the promised land.
Third, in the Yahwist source the spies come back and tell of the fortified cities and the giants within, to which the Israelites respond with fear and dread. Yahweh is displeased by their grumbling and decides to destroy them but Moses intercedes. Yet in the Deuteronomic retelling, Moses’ initial reaction is to instill courage into the Israelites by saying that Yahweh will fight for them. The Deuteronomist even has Moses proclaim “I said this to you ‘have no fear nor dread,’” which in fact Moses never did say in the earlier version! Rather it is the southern hero Caleb who encourages the people to go up and posses the land. The Deuteronomist places Moses in Caleb’s position, but nevertheless retains the Caleb tradition. So twice now the Deuteronomist has modified the story in such a way as to not impart any negativity onto its hero, Moses, or to present him in a more favorable light. Moses doesn’t suggest the rebellious plan of spying out the land, thus disobeying Yahweh’s original command to go conquer it; and Moses exhorts the people to have faith, not Caleb.
Fourth, the Deuteronomist makes no mention of Yahweh’s determination to exterminate everyone else and Moses’ intercession to implore the deity not to. Instead, Moses’ intercession to Yahweh is replaced by Moses’ exhortation to the people, which in itself is filled with Deuteronomic phrases and themes. The people are encouraged to have faith because “you saw what Yahweh did to Egypt!” This theme is most pronounced in Deuteronomy 4-5.
Finally, the Deuteronomist finds in his retelling of the spy episode, the rationale for why Moses was forbidden to enter the promised land, contrary to the later Priestly writer’s rationale (see Contradiction #266). We are informed that Yahweh was also angered against Moses (Deut 1:37, 3:26), but not on account of anything that Moses did or did not do, as P claims (Contradiction #266), but rather Moses is presented as innocent but bearing the sins of the people. We are not given a specific reason, but the Deuteronomist may have rewritten the tradition in an attempt to explain two details that later writers seemed to have been concerned about (because P also address these two themes, albeit differently).
- Later writers seemed compelled to give an account as to why Moses never entered the promised land. In the older traditions (J and E), Moses’ death in the plains of Moab was merely recorded; we surmise since these older traditions fail to mention anything. There are only two places in the Torah where the reason for Moses’ non-entry are recorded and both of these passages not only give contradictory reasons but come from two later writers, D (Deut 1:37) and P (Num 20:6-12). See Contradiction #266 & #267 for a fuller treatment.
- These later traditions also needed to explain Joshua’s existence in stories about the Conquest of Canaan recited in other early traditions now preserved in the book of Joshua. Again, both P and D gave different responses. D saw Joshua as Moses direct successor and it was for that reason that Joshua was speared in Yahweh’s killing off of the first generation (Deut 1:38). In P’s retelling of the spy story, Joshua is placed side-by-side with Caleb so it now becomes both Caleb and Joshua who exhort the people and thus the only two saved from Yahweh’s wrath.
The Deuteronomist also uses the generic ethnic term ‘Amorites’ rather than ‘Canaanites,’ which may reflect Assyrian usage of that time period.
There is also some confusion as to where the Israelites go after their failed attempt to possess the land. Both Deuteronomy 1:40 and 2:1 claim that they then head into the wilderness toward the Red Sea, but Deut 1:46 suggests that they returned to Kadesh. On the other hand, the Yahwist tradition does not specify, but in the next episode, the encounter with Edom, they are presented as still being at Kadesh. Infused with this problem—how long did the Israelites stay at Kadesh according to the various biblical traditions—is the related question of when does the present generation die off as decreed by Yahweh due to their lack of faith in initially taking the land. See Contradictions #279 & #280.
Finally, in the older Yahwist material, the ark of the covenant plays a prominent role in these conquest narratives. In Num 14:44-45 we are informed that the ark of the covenant of Yahweh did not go up with those who attempted to take the land after Yahweh, in his anger, forbade them. Although the same narrative is adopted by the Deuteronomist, there is no mention of the ark of the covenant of Yahweh. In fact, the Deuteronomist has here, as elsewhere, purposely omitted it. This is because the whole ideology inherit in Yahweh’s ark of the covenant is not shared by the Deuteronomist. The ark of Yahweh, flanked by two cherubim, traditionally symbolized his throne seat. To bring the ark of Yahweh into battle was to bring the deity himself into battle. It was an indication that the god himself was on the battlefield and this usually boded well for an Israelite victory (see 1 Sam 6). All of this was apparently problematic for the Deuteronomist who could not imagine Yahweh’s presence being anywhere else but in heaven. As we shall see in forthcoming entries, the Deuteronomist even rewrites the Horeb revelation to have it conform to this view: according to the Deuteronomist, Yahweh did not descend onto mount Horeb/Sinai as narrated in both the J and E material, but rather he has Yahweh speak from heaven! “You saw no form, only heard a voice” (Deut 4:12-15). This theological stance against the presence of Yahweh being anywhere but in heaven also extends itself to the Deuteronomist’s sharp polemic against idols, statues, and carved and molten images—all of which the Deuteronomist has construed (falsely it may be noted) as manifestations of the deity’s presence. This is apparently also the case with his omission of angels when they appear in his sources (see forthcoming). In short, the suppression of the ark of the covenant, angels, and Yahweh’s descent unto Horeb are due to the sharp theological differences he had with this older material, both of which are now preserved in what later generations of scribes codified as “the Bible.” I hope my reader starts to see that slight narrative alterations and modifications between these sources were due to real differences and disagreements in theological positions between the various biblical writers.
History or Fiction?
I will return to this question after we look at a few more of the Deuteronomist’s renarrations in Deut 1-11 comparatively with their “original” narrations in Exodus and Numbers. But if this later author consciously altered the tradition that he himself inherited, can we confidently say that he viewed these stories as historical fact? Was the Deuteronomist privy to information that his older sources did not have and therefore modified these traditions so that they would be more historically accurate? Or were these modifications made to accentuate a particular message and/or lesson that the Deuteronomist wished to impart on his audience? Isn’t it the message of the story that mattered most to our scribe? Wasn’t the Deuteronomist using Moses to author and authenticate a new telling of “history”—one that agreed with his central theological message and beliefs? If that’s the case, what does it tell us about the Bible and how its authors perceived these very texts?
- A good introduction and overview of these textual data can be found in Friedman’s Introduction to his The Bible with Sources Revealed. For more academic treatments see: Blenkinsopp, The Pentateuch: An Introduction to the First Five Books of the Bible; Campbell & O’Brien, Sources of the Pentateuch; Carr, Reading the Fractures of Genesis: Historical and Literary Approaches; Levinson, Deuteronomy and the Hermeneutics of Innovation; Campbell & O’Brien, Unfolding the Deuteronomistic History: Origins, Upgrades, Present Text; and Baden, The Composition of the Pentateuch: Renewing the Documentary Hypothesis.↵