Moses and the Spies: Confidence Leads to Peace and Prosperity
Moses was instructed by God to send men to go on a tour of the Land of Canaan. He did not call them spies, as Joshua did 40 years later, when he secretly sent men to Jericho. Moses simply told the 12 men, each representing a tribe, to go and see what the land was like, who the inhabitants were, and how they lived. It might even have been a diplomatic mission rather than espionage.
It was certainly designed to gather information — to get a sense of what the mood of the land was, its features, its resources, and its population. It was the first stage in the campaign to take Canaan.
The men returned from exploring the land and their reports were divided into two very different opinions (like Supreme Courts today). They all agreed the country was fertile and rich, “a land flowing with milk and honey.” But 10 of them said that the people were too strong, too powerful, and they felt inadequate, overpowered — and in modern psychological terms, inferior and insecure. They described themselves as feeling like grasshoppers (Chagavim).
The word Chagav, grasshopper, is often used as a synonym for locusts. They are related and very similar. And maybe the people in Canaan did see the Jews like locusts, that come in swarms, brought by the winds, and then are moved on by the winds. The Middle East then was awash with nomadic invaders who came, stayed a while, and then disappeared — the Apiru and the Hyksos most notably. The Canaanites might have been too comfortable or confident to care, or thought the Israelites might be in transit for greener pastures along the Euphrates.
But when you compare the pessimism of the 10 men who claimed it was a mission impossible — to the optimism of Joshua and Caleb — you can see that it was not a matter of the facts. It was a mental, psychological issue — a distinction between men with confidence in themselves and men insecure and psychologically fearful.
All challenges can be seen as opportunities or excuses for giving up. The message that Moses drew from the reaction of the people was not just that they were lacking in the confidence to face the challenges ahead, but that they were willing to resort to violence and turn back altogether. Nothing could make it clearer that they were not yet ready. Sometimes even God has to accept the reality of the situation on the ground. And we can learn the lesson of life to be positive rather than negative.
The author is a writer and rabbi based in New York.