Rabbi Bernard Fox



“Any Yehoshua bin Nun sent from Shittim two men – secret spies – saying:  Go and see the land and Yericho.  And they went and they came to the home of a harlot.  And her name was Rachav.  And they laid down there.” (Yehoshua 2:1)

This week’s parasha discusses the incident of the spies.  Moshe sends a group of spies into the Land of Israel.  The spies return and report that the land is well-defended.  They also question the vitality and health of the land’s environment.  Only two of the spies, Yehoshua and Kalev, demur.  They insist that the land is remarkably fertile and that they would succeed in its conquest. 

The nation was persuaded by the report provided by the majority of the spies and concluded that they were doomed.  They would not succeed in the conquest.  The nation decided that it must return to Egypt. 

Hashem punished Bnai Yisrael.  The people were condemned to wander in the wilderness for forty years – until the members of the generation died.  Then, their children would possess the land of Israel.

This week’s haftara is taken from Sefer Yehoshua.  Forty years have passed and now Yehoshua leads the nation.  Bnai Yisrael have arrived at the border of the land of Israel and are prepared to follow Yehoshua into the land.  They will vanquish the nations that now occupy it and take possession of the Land of Israel.  But Yehoshua makes an amazing decision.  He decides that before initiating his campaign, he will send spies into the land. 

This seems to be a very strange decision.  Moshe had sent spies and this had lead to disaster.  Yehoshua was one of these spies.  No one was more familiar with the incident.  Why would Yehoshua risk bringing about a repetition of the same catastrophe that Moshe’s spies instigated?



“And it was told to the King of Yericho saying:  Men from Bnai Yisrael have come here tonight to spy out the land.”  (Yehoshua 2:2)

Yehoshua’s spies are immediately recognized.  The king of Yericho is notified of their presence.  He launches a search to find them.  Rachav decides to hide them.  She bravely protects them from detection.   She helps them to escape from Yericho and return to Bnai Yisrael.  In exchange, she asks that Bnai Yisrael spare her and her family. 

It seems that Yehoshua’s decision was ill-advised.  The spies were easily detected.  They were only saved through the efforts of Rachav.  Without her intervention, Yehoshua’s decision would have been disastrous.  At best, the spies would have returned with a report of their harrowing experiences and near-deaths.  This account would not have been very reassuring.  



“Send for yourself men and they should spy out the Land of Cana’an that I give to Bnai Yisrael.   You should send one man from each tribe of their fathers.  Each of them should be a leader.”  (BeMidbar 13:2) 

Before we can understand Yehoshua’s decision, we must review elements of the incident in our parasha.  Hashem authorizes Moshe to create a group of twelve spies.  Each shevet – tribe – of Bnai Yisrael must be represented with the exception of Shevet Leyve.  This group will be sent together into the land and it will bring back a report.

Why were twelve spies needed?  This seems to be an unnecessarily large group.  The larger the group the more likely it will be detected.  Yehoshua’s two spies were immediately observed.  Certainly, only a miracle could protect this large delegation from detection.  Why did Hashem authorize a plan that needlessly relied on a miraculous intervention?

But it must be noted that this large group did miraculously avoid detection.  Whereas Yehoshua’s more stealth strategy was a failure and his two spies were immediately recognized.  It seems that Hashem was willing to protect the secrecy of the large group send by Moshe.  But Hashem was not willing to afford the same protection to Yehoshua’s spies. 



“And look upon the land – what is it?  And regarding the nation that dwells upon it – is it strong or weak?  Is it many or few?”  (BeMidbar 13:18)

Yehoshua’s directions to his spies are not outlined in detail.  However, the Torah provides a detailed description of Moshe’s instructions.  It is difficult to determine the overarching mission of Moshe’s spies.  Nachmanides argues, that the spies were sent to provide information that would be used in developing a strategy for conquest.  He explains that it is inappropriate to rely upon miraculous intervention.  Instead, we must make every effort to act responsibly.  We cannot conduct ourselves impulsively or recklessly and then rely on Hashem to intervene and save us from our own carelessness.[1]

However, this is not the most obvious interpretation of Moshe’s directions.  He instructs the spies to bring back a sample of the fruit of the land.  He tells them that they should report on the fertility of the land.  Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra suggests that the spies had a dual mission.  They were to provide information to be used in developing a strategy for conquest.  But they were also to provide information to be used to assess the quality of the land.[2] 

We can understand the reason for gathering information relevant to conquest.  Nachmanides’ comments deal thoroughly with this issue.  However, it is more difficult to understand the reason for gathering information relevant to the land’s fertility.  Moshe had already communicated to the nation Hashem’s promise that they would be taken to a land flowing with milk and honey.  Why was a confirmation of the land’s fertility required? 

The composition of Moshe’s spies and their strange mission can be explained by a single consideration.  In his recounting of this event in Sefer Devarim, Moshe explains that the original impetus to send these spies came from the nation.  The nation came to Moshe and requested that he send spies.[3]  In our parasha, Hashem responds to this request and authorizes Moshe to send the spies.[4]

The origin of the suggestion to send the spies explains the composition of the group and its assigned mission.  The nation’s suggestion apparently reflected uncertainly and fear.  They were not confident in their ability to confront and defeat the inhabitants of the land.  Neither were they convinced that the land’s fertility and richness merited the danger they perceived in its conquest.  The spies’ mission was designed to address both of these doubts.  The composition of the group reflected that these spies were selected in order to address the concerns of the entire nation.  Their success in addressing the fears and doubts of the nation would depend upon their credibility.  The representative composition of the group would assure its credibility.

This explains and interesting nuance in the behavior of the spies.  Upon their return, they presented their report.  We would have expected them to report to Moshe.  Moshe would then decide how to best use the information the spies gleaned.  But instead, after reporting to Moshe and Aharon, the spies immediately presented their report to the people.[5]  This is understandable given the origin of the suggestion to send these spies.  The spies were sent in response to the urgings and anxieties of the nation.  They were sent as the nation’s representatives.  Therefore, when they returned, they reported to the entire nation.

We can now better understand Yehoshua’s behavior.  He did not send spies in response to a popular request.  The spies he sent were not a national delegation.  Two individuals were sent.  They were sent in secrecy.  Rabbaynu David Kimchi – Radak – explains that the nation was unaware of the mission.[6] The spies were selected by Yehoshua; he sent them; and they reported only to him.

But what was Yehoshua’s objective in sending these spies?  As noted above, the narrative does provide an account of exact instructions provided by Yehoshua.  Perhaps, the objective of the mission can be deducted by its outcome.  As explained above, Rachav hid the spies and then assisted them in their escape.  She did this in exchange for a promise that she and her family would be spared during the conquest.  But she also explained that she and all of the inhabitants of the land had heard of the destruction of the Egyptians and the other nations that had opposed Bnai Yisrael in its march towards the Land of Israel.  The nations of the land were terrified.  She was eager to win the favor of the spies because she was fully confident that Bnai Yisrael would conquer the land.  The spies brought back this message to Yehoshua:  nations of the land are demoralized and disheartened. 

This suggests a new perspective from which we must consider the detection of the spies.  This detection was an essential step in their success in gathering the intelligence that they reported.  Once they were detected, Rachav was forced to choose between here allegiance to her own king and the opportunity to forge an agreement with these representatives of Bnai Yisrael.  She chose to create an agreement.  In the process, she explained her reasoning and the fear and desperation of the nations of the land.  This was the very intelligence that the spies were sent to gather.  In other words, the detection of the spies was not the result of an absence of providence.  It was an expression of providence.

Now, we can easily understand why Yehoshua was not concerned with a repeat of the disaster brought about by the first spies.  These spies were sent by Yehoshua and reported only to him.  They were not a delegation.  They were two people.  Their absence would not be immediately noticed.  But most important, these spies were not sent to perform an evaluation of the land or to gather strategic information.  Their sole purpose was to report back on the morale of the nations of the land.  Yehoshua could not predict the details of the report but he has confident of its general tone.  Radak explains that he knew that the spies would bring back a report that he could share with the people and that this report would build their confidence.[7]

[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 13:3.

[2] Rabbaynu Avraham ibn Ezra, Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar, 13:18-20.

[3] Sefer Devarim 1:22.

[4] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 122.

[5] Sefer BeMidbar 13:26.

[6] Rabbaynu David Kimchi (Radak), Commentary on Sefer Yehoshua 2:1.

[7] Rabbaynu David Kimchi (Radak), Commentary on Sefer Yehoshua 2:1.