Spy out or Scout out the Land: Words Matter

This week’s Torah Portion (The Parasha) is from Numbers chapters 13-16.  One of the most dramatic stories in the Torah is the story of the 12 leaders, presidents of the twelve tribes, who are sent by Moses to tour the land of Canaan and see what is good in it.  This account starts as an innocent story of a nation that is coming home after more than 400 years of absence.  These people have an historical memory of the land that God gave to their forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, but they themselves never have they seen their God given Land.  One of the things that we can learn from this text of Numbers chapter 13 is that words do matter and that translations may seldom actually capture the small, but very important nuances of a text in another language.

The English text of Numbers 13:1-2 reads like this: “And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the children of Israel; from each tribe of their fathers you shall send a man, every one a leader among them.”  (Num 13:1–2 NKJV)

Here is the English text as translated verbatim from the Hebrew: “And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Send for your own self men to scout, [seek out] the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the children of Israel; from each tribe of their fathers you shall send a man, all of them dignitaries who volunteer.”  (Num 13:1–2 NKJV)

These small changes in the translation make a big difference.  First and most important is the fact that God said to Moses, you need to send men for your own knowledge to tour the land scout the land.  The word “Tour / Scout” is very different from the word “spy” – yes, what these men did was not only tour but they actually did the spying of the land.  A normal tourist comes to see the land and find out what is good about the land. The spy comes to see the weaknesses of the place, the points that make the place vulnerable so that the land can be attacked in time of war.  The twelve honorable men actually did the touring/scouting but in their report they brought the good news and an honest report but with bad and faithless conclusions.

1.     God knows everything even before it happens.  This is what prophecy is about.  God does not need to send spies to find out anything He knows even the secrets of men’s hearts.

2.    Moses and the leaders of Israel needed to know more about the land that God gave to their forefathers.  It is for the sake of Moses and the leaders themselves to tour the land and find out more about this land so that they get excited and encouraged before entering the land and having to deliver it from the hands of the invaders, like the Palestines, Jebusites, Girgasites, Hittites, Amorites, and the other foreign nations that have come from far to invade the land.

3.    The sin of the 10 spies was not about saying things that were not accurate. All the 12 dignitaries said the same thing and spoke the truth, but the 10 added a statement that was not taking into account the mega factor in this formula and that is THE LORD who created the Universe the owner of the world and all that is in it.  They didn’t give a report that took the major force that they have experienced when they put the blood on their door posts in Egypt, and when they crossed the Sea of Reads and when they received the Manna fresh every day.  Their sin was in discouraging the people and not taking FAITH in God as a major factor and the weapon that is ultimate to power above all powers.  From Rabbi Joseph Shulam.

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