2016-06-30
One hot summer day thousands of years ago, Moses sent 12 men to spy out the land of Canaan. One hot summer day in 2005, a group of Jews and Catholics gathered in Jerusalem to discuss the meaning of the story of that ancient and fateful summer day.

Several times a year, I have an opportunity to discuss stories from the Bible with Christians. My synagogue community, Kehilat Yedidya, is unusual among Orthodox synagogues in occasionally hosting Christian groups for Friday night services and dinner. This time the customary dinner table discussion of the section of the Torah-the Five Books of Moses-read in synagogue that week continued when the Catholics returned to Yedidya ("Kehilat" means "community") after our Saturday morning services.

The Catholics who visited Yedidya last month had come to Israel to study the Gospel of Mark in the framework of a program called Ecce Homo, conducted in a convent in Jerusalem's Old City.

Such ecumenical discussions of Bible stories can be both rewarding and frustrating. Jews and Christians share the text of the Old Testament, but come from different reading traditions. It's impossible to say that there's a hard and fast rule, and each such discussion contains its share of surprises. But in general, in my experience, there are two major distinctions.


First, of course, we each read the stories against the background of our own religion's history, theology, and spiritual concerns.

Christians are often focused on issues of faith and belief, whereas Jews tend to be more focused on actions. Second, Jews who have engaged in serious study of biblical and rabbinic texts are trained to do what literary scholars call "close readings." We are trained to pay attention to word usages, syntactical structures, and parallels between the text we are studying and other texts. We also read the texts along with a battery of traditional and modern commentators. Christians often find such readings too technical, even boring, and prefer to take a broader view of the narrative.

The differences can sometimes mean that each group is baffled, and sometimes annoyed, by the way the other group reads the text. But, with some patience and experience, such discussions can often enrich each side, by allowing it to see the story from a different perspective.

The story of the spies (Numbers, chapters 13 and 14) is a good one for illustrating these differences, because on the surface the story seems to be one of simple equivalencies-faith brings divine reward and lack of faith brings divine retribution. But, like all Bible stories, it is much more complex and ambiguous than it seems at first reading. The discussion that took place in Kehilat Yedidya last month is worth considering, because it illustrates these different ways of reading and understanding a scriptural text.

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  • At the beginning of chapter 13, God tells Moses to send one leader from each of the 12 tribes to "spy out the land of Canaan,." Moses appoints 12 spies and instructs them: "Go up this way by the south, and go up into the high land: 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 tens, or in strongholds; and what the land is, whether fat or lean, whether there are trees in it or not" (Num. 13:17-20).

    When the spies return, they stand before Moses and Aaron and the people of Israel and report: "We came to the land where thou dist send us, and indeed it flows with milk and honey; and this is the fruit of it. But the people are strong that dwell in the land, and the cities are fortified, and very great" (Num. 13:27-28). They report that here are giants in the land, and each part is populated by a different people. Their conclusion is that the Israelites cannot conquer the land.

    Caleb, the scout representing the tribe of Judah, disagrees with his fellow spies, and calls on the Israelites to go immediately to conquer the land. But the other spies continue with what the text calls their "evil report." As a result, the Children of Israel panic and tell Moses they'd rather go back to Egypt than see their wives and children slaughtered by the Canaanites. Caleb, joined by Joshua, the scout from the tribe of Ephraim, rend their clothes and try to persuade the people to trust in God and set out to conquer the land, but the congregation says the two dissidents ought to be stoned to death.

    The "glory of the Lord" then appears in the Tent of Meeting before the children of Israel, and God, angry at the refusal of the Israelites to set out and enter the Promised Land, threatens to punish them. Moses asks for forgiveness for the people and succeeds in revoking the severest punishments, but God declares that the current generation that came out of Egypt will not enter the land, with the exception of Caleb and Joshua. The children of Israel will wander the wilderness for 40 years until a new generation is born and matures, and only that younger generation will take possession of land (Num 14:10-45).


    We gathered in Yedidya's second-floor sanctuary. The sun blazed in from the clear glass window set over the carved wood holy ark at the front of the hall, much as it must have blazed over the Israelites gathered around the Ark of the Covenant that summer day in the wilderness, eight days' march from the Promised Land. According to tradition, it was high summer the day the spies returned to tell Moses and the tribes that the territory Moses was leading them to was populated with giants, a forbidding land that devoured its own inhabitants. After a brief initial presentation, we broke into small groups, and I found myself sitting on a bench in a corner of the sanctuary in company with Catholics from three continents.

    The guests had read the text, but right from the start of our conversation it was clear that they were not at all familiar with the story.

    "It's not part of our liturgy," noted Peter Kaufman, who teaches religion in a Catholic boys' school in Melbourne, Australia. He and his daughter, Naomi, had been my family's guests for dinner the previous night, after the group attended our Friday night Sabbath services. During that previous conversation he had explained to me that the reason the Ecce Homo group had taken the Gospel of Mark as its text for the month was that this, the most narrative of the four accounts of Jesus' life, is the one quoted in Catholic church services.

    In contrast, Jews return to the story each year as part of the annual cycle of Torah-reading in the Sabbath morning services.

    "For us, this is more than just another installment in Torah," I told the guests. "In many ways this is the turning point of the story of the Exodus. Because up to this point, the former slaves are meant to proceed to full redemption. When the spies set out, the Israelites are a week away from Canaan. They've escaped Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, received the Torah at Mt. Sinai, and they are about to enter the land that God has promised them for their own. After the spies return, the story has changed. Except for Joshua and Caleb, none of those who left Egypt will enter the land. They will die in the desert. It is a disaster of cosmic proportions. According to the Sages, the spies returned on the ninth of the month of Av, and their sin made that day a day of calamity for the Jews for all time. It would be the day that both the First and Second Temples were destroyed. On the Jewish calendar it is a major fast day."

    "Isn't it primarily a failure of faith?" asked Father Patrick MacManus from Dublin as he thumbed through a well-worn Bible to the page where the story appears. The grandfatherly priest was clearly perplexed by the story. "After seeing all the wonders and miracles in Egypt and at Sinai, how could they have doubted that God was with them? Why did they even need to send the spies? They should have had the faith to go straight ahead into Canaan."

    "But perhaps it was clear to God from the beginning that the former slaves could not enter the Promised Land," I said. "The Jewish commentators are split on this issue. Some say that this was a crisis that made God change His original plan for the Israelites. Others say that God planned the 40-year wait from the start. After all, we're told in the book of Exodus that God deliberately does not lead the Children of Israel by the shortest route to Canaan, along the Mediterranean coast, specifically because He knows that they will be frightened and turn back when they encounter combat in the land of the Philistines."

    "Perhaps the whole point of sending the spies was to demonstrate to the Israelites that they were not ready to enter the land. Perhaps it was meant to be a lesson for them." The suggestion came from Sister Euphrasia Nasipwoni Simati of Kenya, who was dressed in a bright green-and-black robe and turban.

    I liked Sister Euphrasia's idea. It got away from viewing the story simply as a failure of faith. Certainly some language in the story gives support for such a reading: "And the Lord said to Moses, How long will this people provoke me? And how long will it before they believe me, for all the signs which I have performed among them?" (Num. 13:11). But, I pointed out to the others, God endorses the spies' mission. The commentators differ about whether God approved of sending the spies or merely acquiesced reluctantly to an initiative by Moses and the people. But while God demands faith, he doesn't demand blind faith. Sending spies to check out the land is certainly a natural, even a wise thing to do. And on the face of it, at least, the spies do as they are told. They spend 40 days in Canaan and their report points out both the promise of the land and the difficulty they see in conquering it.

    "I think the problem is that they wanted to conquer the land instead of trying to live there together with the Canaanites," said Sister Patricia Anne Ryan, also from Australia. "It's like the situation today, where the Israelis and the Palestinians need to learn to live together." But the rest of us agreed that, whatever our opinions about the current conflict, the story in the Bible is unambiguous on this point. It might be uncomfortable for the peace activists among us, but God says clearly that the Israelites are to conquer the land of Canaan from its existing inhabitants.

    The problem is not in the details of the report but in the conclusions, I proposed. Look closely at the language. The spies speak unanimously when they report what they saw, in chapter 13: 25-29. We hear an individual voice only in verse 30, where Caleb says: Let us go up at once an possess it; for we are well able to overcome it." But Caleb's is a minority report. In the following verse we hear the conclusion of the majority: "We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we."

    "We have two opposite conclusions based on the same facts, from people who saw the land together. It seems to be a problem of perception, not of faith," I argued. "Look at 13:33: `and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers,' the majority says, comparing themselves to the inhabitants of Canaan, whom they portray as giants. I had that experience in the army with my commanders. At first I'd have this perception that they were taller than me. Later, when I got to know them better, I'd realize we were actually the same height."

    "If their faith had been stronger, they wouldn't have seen it that way," Father Patrick said, shaking his head.

    "If they could have all just lived together..." Sister Patricia sighed.

    By the end of the discussion, I was struck by how the story of the spies could serve as a metaphor for our own interaction. As a religious Jew living in Israel, I see the land as mine. I see the Old Testament as mine, also, the story of the spiritual history and religious experience of my people. I know the text intimately, as I know the land-the placement of each boulder on each hill, the paths that lead or circumvent each road, the source of each river. But visitors can often see the larger lay of the land in a way that the natives sometimes miss.

    One of the concepts that Jews use in understanding Bible stories is tikkun, which means "repair" or "mending." In some Bible stories, characters repeat actions or relive situations that were performed or lived in an unsuccessful way by earlier characters, and in so doing "repair" the evil effects of the previous failure. In this light, the Catholic-Jewish dialogue that took place at Kehilat Yedidya last month is a tikkun of the story of the spies, for it has resulted in good rather than in evil reports.

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