Parshat Shelach contains the famous story of the "spies:" twelve men sent by Moses to scout the Promised Land before the Israelites enter it. A number of doublets and contradictions have led critical scholars to the conclusion that the spies narrative as it appears in the Torah is actually a conflation of two versions of the same story (although there are differences of opinion with regard to the details, as always). The following are some of the problems that a source-critical approach to the text helps resolve:
1. Moses sends the delegation of spies twice, once in Numbers 13:3 and once in 13:17.
2. The spies offer two separate reports, one in 13:27-29 and one in 13:32-33.
3. God grows angry over the incident twice, once in 14:11-12 and once in 14:26-35. (He seems to be placated in between.)
4. Caleb is twice exempted from the punishment meted on the other spies, once in 14:24, and once in 14:38, where he is joined by Joshua.
1. In 13:21, the spies are said to tour the entire Promised Land, "from the Wilderness of Zin to the entrance to Hamath," while in 13:22-24 they travel only as far north as Hebron.
2. In 13:26, the spies issue their report to Moses and Aaron, yet in 13:27 the recipient of the information is identified by means of a singular pronoun.
3. In 13:27, the spies concede that the land is "flowing with milk and honey," yet in 13:32 they describe it as a "land that devours its inhabitants."
4. In 14:24, Caleb is told that he, alone among the spies, will enter the Promised Land. This contradicts 14:30, in which both Caleb and Joshua are told that they will enter the land.
These doublets and contradictions, along with stylistic considerations, serve as guidelines for dividing the narrative into two documentary sources, as follows:
Priestly version (P):
13:1-17a: At God's command, Moses appoints twelve heads of tribes to scout the land, and dispaches them from the Wilderness of Paran.
13:21: The spies tour the land, all the way to its northernmost point.
13:25-26: The spies return and display the land's fruit.
13:32: The spies issue their report to Moses and Aaron, stating that Canaan is not only unconquerable, but a "land that devours its inhabitants."
14:1a, 2-3: The Israelites are disheartened and refuse to enter Canaan.
14:5: Moses and Aaron prostrate themselves, presumably in anticipation of divine wrath.
14:6-10a: Caleb and Joshua attempt to encourage the Israelites to proceed with the conquest. The Israelites respond by calling for them to be stoned.
14: 26-35: God decrees that the Israelites will wander the wilderness until the present sinful generation dies off. The period of wandering will be forty years.
14:36-38: The spies die in a plague. Joshua and Caleb are exempted from the punishment.
Jahwistic version (J):
13:17b-20: Moses dispaches the spies.
13:22-25: The spies tour the southern portion of the land (the future kingdom of Judah).
13:27-29: The spies issue their report to Moses, stating that the land is "flowing with milk and honey," but that the inhabitants are giants and and their cities are fortified.
13:30: Caleb alone affirms that the Israelites are capable of conquering the land.
13:31,33: The spies counter Caleb's claim, stating that the land is unconquerable.
14:1b, 4: The people are disheartened and refuse to enter Canaan.
14:11-12: God threatens to destroy the Israelites by plague.
14:13-19: Moses dissuades God from committing such a brash act.
14:20-25: God concedes not to destroy the Israelites, instead issuing a lesser punishment of wandering the desert until the present generation has died off.
14:39-45: Unable to accept their sentence, the remorseful (or fickle) Israelites attempt to penetrate the land. However, God and the Ark of the Covenant remain at the camp rather than accompanying them into battle, and they are roundly defeated by the land's inhabitants.
The two versions of the story have the same basic contours. In both versions, Moses sends a delegation of spies to tour the land of Canaan. The spies return with a report that dipleases God, including an assertion that the land's inhabitants are physically large and hence formidable. Both versions include "good" spies who attempt encourage the Israelites to enter the land, to no avail. In both versions, the older generation of Israelites are condemned to die in the wilderness as a punishment for their cowardice and lack of faith. The heroes alone are exempted from the punishment.
The similarities between the stories, however, bring their differences into relief. Some of these differences are merely factual, but others betray a variance in ideology. For example:
1. J, who is generally believed to have lived in the southern kingdom of Judah, has the spies explore the southern portion of the land alone. This suggests that, as far as J was concerned, the land promised to the Israelites comprised the south alone. For P, on the other hand, the full extent of the later united monarchy was vital and had to be included in the story.
2. In a similar vein, J's hero is Caleb, a representative of Judah, the leading southern tribe, whereas P adds Joshua, a representative of Ephraim, the most powerful tribe of the north. In part, the inclusion of Joshua has an expository function: P, who knows of the tradition of Joshua's conquest of Canaan, must explain why Joshua, unlike the other members of the Exodus generation, had the opportunity to enter the Promised Land. However, Joshua's inclusion also seems to serve an ideological end: Just as Caleb's faithfulness earns his decendents title to the land that he traverses in J (14:24), Joshua's faithfulness in P might be said to have earned the Ephraimites -- and, by extension, the entire northern kingdom -- title to their territory.
3. I(n J, the spies admit that the land is bountiful, but protest that its inhabitants are mighty and the cities impregnable. In P, their offense is greater, for they impugn the land itself. The people's transgression is greater in P as well, for when Caleb and Joshua assert that Canaan is a bountiful land and can be conquered, the people not only refuse to believe them, but call for them to be stoned. In keeping with the severity of the spies' offense, they meet a particularly severe punishment, dying in a plague rather than wandering the wilderness with the other Israelites of their generation.
4. The two versions of the narrative reflect the respective theologies of P and J. In J. In J, God has humanlike emotions, first wrathfully decreeing death for the entire nation, and later relenting when Moses intercedes on their behalf. Moses influences God by appealing to his capacity for forgiveness as wells as his pride. If he destroys the Israelites, Moses argues, the nations who have heard of his might will lose their awe of him, supposing that he was unable to lead the people to victory. In P, on the other hand, God's stance remains constant from the outset. Moses' only role in this story is to obey God. Even the act of reconnaissance itself is a response to a direct divine command. This is, in fact, the most praiseworthy form of behavior in P.
The strongest support for this division analysis of the text comes from Deuteronomy 1:19-46, which recounts the story of the spies according to the J version. As in J, Moses sends the spies on his own initiative rather than as a response to divine command; the spies depart from Kadesh-barnea rather than the Wilderness of Paran; the expedition reaches Nahal Eshkol, not the entrance to Hamath; the spies report that the land is "good"; there is no mention of the plague that consumes the guilty spies in P; there is a reference to the unsuccessful attempt to penetrate Canaan that ensues in J after the punishment is issued. Most strikingly, the deuteronomist, who clearly knows of Joshua and his role in leading the people into Canaan, does not mention Joshua among the spies. Linguistic parallels to the J narrative reinforce the notion that it served as the basis for the deuteronomic version of the story.