Numbers 13:1-3 – Moses Sends Spies

Numbers 13 and 14 record the incident of Moses sending spies into the Promised Land.

Numbers 13 opens with God speaking to Moses and telling him to send spies.

Numbers 13

1. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,
2. Send for yourself men, that they may spy the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel; of every tribe of their fathers shall you send a man, every one a leader among them.
3. And Moses by the consent of the Lord sent them from the wilderness of Paran; all those men were chiefs of the people of Israel.

The incident of the spies is also recorded in Deuteronomy, but the opening is very different.

Deuteronomy 1

22. And you came near me every one of you, and said, We will send men before us, and they shall search us out the land, and bring us word again by which way we must go up, and to what cities we shall come.
23. And the saying pleased me well; and I took twelve men of you, one from each tribe;

In this article I will explain 2 approaches to understanding these verses.

Rashi Explains

Let’s look at some of Rashi’s comments on these verses to learn how he reconciles Numbers 13 and Deuteronomy 1.

Num 13:2 send for yourself – According to your own judgment. God is not commanding that spies be sent, but Moses may send them if he wants to.

Num 13:3 by the consent of the Lord – The Hebrew here is “al pi Hashem.” Often this phrase means a commandment from God. The translation reflects Rashi’s understanding that God gave Moses permission but did not command him to send spies.

Deut 1:22 and you came near me every one of you – They came before Moses as an unorganized mob. They should have come in a respectful and organized way with the leaders and elders first followed by everyone else.

Deut 1:23 and the saying pleased me well – Moses was hoping that his agreement with their request to send spies would cause them to withdraw it. They would see that nothing was being hidden from them and would realize there was no need for spies.

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The Order of Events According to Rashi

According to Rashi, and most other commentators, Numbers 13 and Deuteronomy 1 are relating the opening of this incident from two different perspectives.

There is no contradiction. Both perspectives are true and by combining them in the proper order we understand the full story.

Numbers 13 and Deuteronomy 1 Combined

Deut 1:22. And you came near me every one of you, and said, We will send men before us, and they shall search us out the land, and bring us word again by which way we must go up, and to what cities we shall come.
Num 13:1. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,
Num 13:2. Send for yourself men, that they may spy the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel; of every tribe of their fathers shall you send a man, every one a leader among them.
Deut 1:23. And the saying pleased me well; and I took twelve men of you, one from each tribe;
Num 13:3. And Moses by the consent of the Lord sent them from the wilderness of Paran; all those men were chiefs of the people of Israel.

According to Rashi, Moses did not think it was necessary to send spies. He hoped that the people would withdraw their request. He only sent spies because God permitted it.

Malbim Explains

Malbim asks why the fact of the people approaching Moses and requesting spies is not mentioned in Numbers.

He suggests that at the time of the incident the people knew exactly what had happened.

In Deuteronomy Moses is speaking 39 years later to the next generation. This younger generation does not know the full story so they need to hear it.

They could wonder how God could have commanded to send spies and thus put a stumbling block in front of the previous generation.

Moses clarifies that the people created their own stumbling block by requesting spies.

What the People Wanted

Malbim writes that there is a contradiction between what the people wanted and what Moses did.

The people said they wanted to know the best way to attack and conquer the Land. They wanted spies that “shall search us out the land, and bring us word again by which way we must go up.”

But Moses told the spies (Numbers 13:17) “Go up this way southward, and go up into the mountain.” Invading through the mountains would likely be difficult. He should have directed them to search the borders of the land to find an easy way to invade.

2 Types of Spies

Malbim resolves this contradiction by pointing out that there are different types of spies and spying.

Two Hebrew words are used in these passages. Malbim explains the difference between them.

In Numbers 13 the English “they may spy” is from the Hebrew 3-letter root tav-vav-reish.

The mission of those who are sent to “spy” a place is to determine if a place is good or bad. Is it an area that is good for dwelling? Is it suitable for our needs? For this task you need a representative of each tribe because each tribe will be interested in different things.

In Deuteronomy 1 the English “they shall search” is from the 3-letter root chet-pey-reish.

The mission of those who are sent to “search” a place is to help the leaders plan an invasion. These spies are sent to find the weaknesses of an area so that the army will know where and how to attack.

For this mission you only need a few spies and it doesn’t matter what tribe they are from.

Why the Difference?

The original request of the people was to send spies to prepare for an invasion. This was pleasing to Moses.

Moses and the people thought that once they entered the Land of Israel they would be required to fight and conquer based on natural means. Like any other army, the fight would require good information and planning.

The desire to learn what they would face when they entered the Land was not necessarily a bad idea. In the wilderness everything was taken care of for them. In the Land they would be required to provide for themselves via planting and harvesting.

However, in Numbers 13, God only permitted sending spies to survey the goodness of the Land. Therefore, He directed Moses to select 12 men, one from each tribe and leaders of the tribes. Then the people would know that these men were doing the best for each tribe and they would believe and accept their report.

He is telling Moses and the people that conquering the Land will not be possible based on natural means. They will succeed only based on God’s miraculous intervention.

Malbim bases this on the phrase “the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel” [Numbers 13:2].

Malbim understands this to mean that the Land of Israel cannot be conquered by them via natural means. Conquering the Land will require God’s intervention – God giving them the Land.

Further Reading

In my review of the book Leadership in the Wilderness there is another approach to understanding the incident of Moses sending spies into Israel.


A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
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