Back to the Wilderness

When the Israelites decide they are not strong enough to conquer the Land of Israel, God decides they won't even try


This week, we read the Torah portion Shelakh--literally, "Send," the directive of God to Moses concerning spies that will reconnoiter the Promised Land. Of course, more decisive will be God's later command to Moses, "Turn and get into the wilderness," which sends the Israelites wandering in the desert for another 40 years, starting just as they stood ready to enter the Promised Land. So close and yet so far. Moreover, those over the age of 20 are sentenced to die during these 40 years in the desert, never at all to reach the Land of Milk and Honey. According to the text, what was the sin of the spies that merited such harsh punishment?

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Until now, the travels and travails of the Israelites since their departure from Egypt were part of the greater sweep of the Exodus event--God's redemption of the Jewish people from slavery and, in effect, their return to a history of their own. While there are setbacks, most notably the sin of the Golden Calf, most of Israel's time in the desert is dedicated to imbuing the fledgling nation with a collective consciousness and outfitting them for its religious duties to God and each other. Their movement toward the Land of Canaan is symbolic of their movement in history.

But God's commandment to "turn and get into the wilderness" initiates the most severe and widely applied punishment that freezes and even seems to reverse this process of redemption.

The story of this drawn-out death sentence begins with the 12 spies, each representing a tribe of Israel, sent into the Land of Canaan to reconnoiter the land on the people's behalf.

"Go up this way by the south and see the country what it is, and the people who dwell in it, whether they are strong or weak, few or many, and what the land is that they dwell in, whether it is good or bad and what cities they dwell in, whether in tents or in strongholds, and what the land is, whether fat or lean, whether there are trees in it or not. And be of good courage and bring of the fruit of the land."

The Bible explains that the spies competently scoped out the land and returned with the fruit, including a cluster of grapes so large that it required two men to carry it between them on a pole. According to their own words, which the narrator supplies to the reader, the spies seemed to have executed their mission to the letter.

"We came to the land," they report, "and indeed it flows with milk and honey. But the people are strong who dwell in the land and the cities are fortified and very great; and moreover we saw the children of Anaq there. Amaleq dwells in the land of the Negev."

Though God is never clear on what the spies do to incite His anger, what they offer next, conclusions of pessimism and despair, might comprise the "evil report of the land," as it comes to be known, a report that causes all the trouble. The spies return believing that the land's inhabitants "are stronger than we," "are men of great stature," and illustrate that "we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight." The immense cluster of grapes they have brought back only seems to corroborate their statements about giants inhabiting the land. In general, there is no indication that the spies are expressing anything but genuine fear.

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