The Complete Book of Numbers
Chapter 13 and Chapter 14
At this turbulent moment, as Israel dispatches special-ops troops into Lebanon to hunt down Hezbollah positions, it's fitting that I'm reading Chapter 13, the story of another time Israel sent its scouts into enemy territory—and also met with mixed results. Preparing to conquer the Promised Land, Moses sends a dozen men, including Joshua, to reconnoiter Canaan: Is the soil rich or poor? The inhabitants strong or weak? The cities mighty or feeble?
The spies spend 40 days—of course it's 40 days—in Canaan and return with an evenhanded report. The land is flowing with milk and honey, but the cities are fortified. When spy Caleb says the Israelites can certainly conquer the land, the other spies (except Joshua) change their story. They turn on Caleb and began spreading lies: Canaan is actually filled with giants—the bloodthirsty Nephilim, who are the offspring of human women who married angels.
The Israelites immediately quail. "If only we had died in the land of Egypt … or if only we might die in this wilderness. Why is the Lord taking us to that land to fall by the sword?"
Let me digress for a moment: What's with the histrionic fatalism of the Israelites? Whenever Moses or his people run into the slightest spot of trouble, they wail the 1500 B.C. equivalent of, "Kill me now!" or "I wish I were dead!" (In Chapter 11, for example, Moses cried to the Lord, "If you would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg you.") I hope my fellow Jews won't take offense, but it seems to me that this is a distinctively Jewish form of complaint. The kill-me-now joke is one of the great foundations of modern Jewish humor—the mother who sticks her head in the oven when her son drops out of medical school or dates a Christian girl, for example, or the entire oeuvre of Woody Allen. (I've never heard the Christian or Italian or Asian-American equivalent of this kind of Jewish black humor.) I suspect the Torah is the Rosetta stone of this exaggerated fatalism. What began as genuine, if melodramatic, anguish in Exodus and Numbers has, over thousands of years, and by millions of irreverent yeshiva boys, been tweaked into comedy.
Anyway, back to the Israelites weeping and gnashing. Moses and Aaron fall on their faces to appease the Israelites, who are now demanding to return to Egypt. Joshua and Caleb yell at the Israelites to pull themselves together, insisting that Canaan is glorious and that if they obey the Lord, He will give it to them. Listen to how Joshua and Caleb describe the inhabitants of Canaan—the people who rightfully possess the land the Israelites want to seize: "Have no fear then of the people of the country, for they are our prey" (my italics). "Prey"—that's a breathtaking and sinister word! Again we're reminded that the Torah is not aspiring to be a book for everyone. It is not preaching universal truth for all men. It is the work of a single tribe at war with everyone around it. Their enemies were not human: They were prey.
The Lord once again flips out at the inconstant Israelites and threatens to abandon His covenant. He weighs His options: "I will strike them with pestilence and disown them," He suggests. Then He can start over with just Moses and his few loyalists. But Moses, as always, rises to his people's defense. Cannily playing on God's own insecurity, Moses tells Him that when the Egyptians and others hear that the Israelites were slaughtered in the wilderness, they will assume "the Lord was powerless to bring that people into the land He had promised them." Moses also butters up God, reminding that He describes Himself as "slow to anger and abiding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression." Now, as I wrote a couple weeks ago, this is a deeply inaccurate description of the Lord, who is quick to anger and short on kindness, but the flattery works. God grudgingly stays his death sentence for the Israelites but imposes a different, and perhaps crueler, punishment: None of the Israelites who came out of Egypt will be allowed to enter the Promised Land. They must wander the desert for 40 years (one year for every day the scouts spent in Canaan). He's one ruthless deity: "Your carcasses shall drop in this wilderness. … Thus you shall know what it means to thwart me." God spares Caleb and Joshua—they alone will survive to enter the Promised Land. (The other spies, meanwhile, die quickly from plague.) The Israelites are "overcome by grief" when they hear God's sentence and try to circumvent it. A rump army attempts to invade Canaan and is slaughtered by the enemy.
Who deserves our sympathy during this terrible episode? The Lord is impatient and remorseless with His chosen people. But can you blame Him? The Israelites are impossible—faithless, childish, and cowardly.
But can you blame them? One of the lessons of the Iraq occupation is that people who've been oppressed for generations are not immediately ready for tolerant, rational self-government. They have habits of violence and intolerance and suspicion of authority that can't be shrugged off in a moment. The Israelites were in bondage for 400 years, enslaved to brutal dictators: It's unreasonable to expect them to immediately govern themselves and trust in God. God abandoned them for 20 generations, and He expects them to count on Him after a few months. I understand the Israelites' fears—they needed, perhaps, a gentler God. But for the same reason, it's very hard to argue with God's 40-year plan. Just as it took a generation for Korea and Germany to shake off their war trauma, and as it will certainly take a generation (or more) for Iraq to trust democracy, so the Israelites needed a generation. The freed slaves would never have been able to conquer the Promised Land—they were too timid and unstable. The testing of the desert journey—the self-sufficiency it required of the young Israelites—hardened them for conquest. God is cruel but practical, ruthless for a purpose.
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David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.