Our portion from Numbers tells the sad tale of spies who go into Canaan to scout the land. We know how it ends. Except for Caleb and Joshua, the spies give a faithless, hopeless report, to which the frightened community succumbs. In response, God decrees that the people will spend forty years in the wilderness and the older generation will die there.
This is a painful account to be sure, and we read it with both a sense of anguish and also a hope somehow that something positive will come of it in future generations.
The extraordinarily beautiful gift in this week’s companion piece from Joshua is that it takes us to the future to see a very positive outcome. It tells a different spy story, one in which the people have clearly grown and become stronger.
Let’s take a look.
Recall that Moses sends the spies, as many sages say, without clear necessity or conviction. He sends one from each tribe, but with no apparent awareness of their strength or capacity to handle the assignment with fidelity and fortitude. Further, he gives them fuzzy directions.
Moses asks them to see if the land is good or bad. To what end? God has promised it is good. What strategic difference could result from this question?
He asks them to take fruit from the land. Why? God has promised it is good. Additionally, it appears that their seeing the rich fruit, which the current inhabitants will surely fight to keep, seems to frighten them as much as it inspires them.
Moses asks the spies to determine whether the inhabitants are strong or weak. This indeed might be crucial to know, but it is so only if it informs the strategy they will use to conquer the land.
The spies explore the land, but only as onlookers, really without plan or purpose. And they achieve little in their exploration, except to become frightened and then come back to frighten the people.
Finally, and crucially, they, except Caleb and Joshua, show no faith in God’s promise to deliver the land.
We know that Moses, our great teacher, leads and grows in amazing ways in his lifetime, and we treasure his leadership. But the denouement to our tale this week comes in how his successor, Joshua, later uses spies in advance of entering the land.
What’s different in the second story?
First, Joshua sends just two spies. And, according to the sages, it’s the tough and resolute Caleb and Pinchas.
The mission of these spies relates strategically and primarily to Jericho, the main target of Joshua’s campaign to win the land. The spies go to the house of the innkeeper, Rahab, with a purposeful plan in that regard.
Whether they knew beforehand that Rahab would help them or successfully rallied her help upon arrival, we don’t know. But, whichever it was, she proved invaluable to their success. She hid them and gave them vital intelligence that the inhabitants of the land were fearful of the Israelites, aware both of God’s miracles on their behalf and their early military victories.
Effective spies also take the step of protecting those who support them. The spies do just that for Rahab and her family.
The spies come back to Joshua with an incredibly valuable report, along with the confidence that they, with God’s help, can win the land. We know when Jericho is taken how important intelligence, strategy, and faith are to the victory.
I can’t help but think of the many ways in which the modern State of Israel has modeled its operations on the spirit of this story. Successful missions – whether by a state or a person – tend to involve living true to its lessons. As with Joshua and his spies, and Israel, all of us can have success by growing in strength and courage.