Friday, June 24, 2005

Shelach: A Documentary Analysis

[Meredith warning]

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.


Max M. Alist said...

I always enjoy your scholarship, but I'm sure you would agree that if you're honest with yourself, most of these apparent doublets and contradictions easily can be explained:

1. This is typical of how the Torah recapitulates after taking a small detour. E.g. Exodus 6:29-30 after 6:10-12.
2. Come on, elf. You know as well as I do these aren’t two separate reports. The spies start badmouthing Israel, Caleb cuts in and says, “Have no fear, Israelites. We can do this!” And the spies respond, “No, we can’t do this, because the land is....”
3. I have no explanation off the bat for the two angers. However, G-d is placated only inasmuch as He decides not to destroy the whole nation. But His anger towards the spies never diminished.
4. 14:24 tells what will happen, and 14:38 tells what happened. That’s not a doublet. As far as why G-d did not describe Joshua’s reward as He did for Caleb, RaMBaN suggests that doing so would have affronted Moses, because Joshua’s reward involved conquering Canaan in Moses’ stead.

1. Nowhere in these verses does the Torah state that the spies saw only until Hebron. In fact, the quick shift from plural to singular in 13:22, “They ascended in the South, and he came until Hebron,” indicates that only one of them (Caleb, according to Talmud Sotah 34) went to Hebron.
2. Moses was the one who sent them on their mission. The spies made sure everyone heard, but it makes sense that they would direct their report to Moses.
3. I thought a contradiction was where both statements can’t be true. Where’s the contradiction? As Rashi, from Midrash Rabbah, notes, by beginning their report with words of truth, they made their argument more credible. I learned the same thing in sales; “Yes, Mrs. Jones, this product is expensive, however....”
4. 14:24 does not say Caleb alone will enter Canaan, so, again, both statements are valid. As I noted above, the detail given to Caleb in 14:24 would have been inappropriate to give to Joshua in the presence of Moses.

Otherwise, keep up the good work, and thanks for the forum!

Meredith said...

Hi! I didn't read this a/p your instructions... but I'm sitting here not reading it on YOUR computer!!!

BZ said...

I've actually seen a frum d'var torah that includes this same analysis! It started off by pointing out all this evidence that the story is two interwoven stories, then asked "So why would Hashem decide to tell the story by weaving together two versions?"

Meredith said...

Random thought: "Meredith Warning" shtick would be appreciated when the time comes.

elf said...

Hey, sorry for abandoning you all. Just got into a funk.

Max M.: Thanks for taking the time to read this through and respond. As for your criticisms:


1. I agree that this could, on the face of it, be a resumption for the purpose of continuing the narrative. Because of other factors, however, I believe that in this case the verses belong to different sources. I listed the first doublet mainly in order to be comprehensive.

2. I didn't describe the source division clearly here. I believe that verse 31 belongs to J, so the events do occur as you describe them within the J version. The problem, from my perspective, is verse 32, which seems to impugn the land itself, which the spies previously asserted was "very good." Since my "red flag" was actually a contradiction rather than a doublet, I probably should not have listed #2 in this section of my post.

3. In verses 20-23, God explains that He has decided not to destroy the people, and that He will issue a lesser punishment instead. In verses 26-35, He repeats the latter part of the decision, with what seems to be a suddenly renewed sense of outrage -- not only against the spies, but against the people as a whole.

4. You are correct that this is not a proper doublet. (I'm beginning to see that slamming this post together immediately before Shabbat was not such a good idea.) However, the omission of Joshua from verse 24 is glaring. From an "Ockham's razor" perspective, dividing the text into two sources is a more satisfactory solution than adding an idea that is not inherent in the text, as RaMBaN does (provided, of course, that the division "works" reasonably well the whole way through, as it does in this case).

1. I'm aware of the Midrash that only Caleb traveled to Hebron; however, I think it's noteworthy that a number of Hebrew manuscripts and ancient translations have a singular verb here, raising the possibility that the Masoretic text has preserved a scribal error. In any case, don't you think it's odd that the spies are said to "go up into the Negev" while the remainder of the tour is not narrated? And doesn't the phrase ad hevron ("as far as Hebron") udercut the notion that the spies proceeded all the way to the northern border, as described in 13:21?

2. According to 13:27, the spies addressed an audience of one, while according to 13:26, they addressed an audience of several. You're adding a distinction that isn't in the text.

3. See my discussion of Doublet #2.

4. I'm going to back down a bit on this one. Together, 14:23 and 14:24 seem to suggest that Caleb will be the only member of the present generation to enter the land, but the text does not explicitly state that there will be no other exceptions to the punishment. Of course, we do have to ask why Joshua is absent from this verse, and I still think that RaMBaN's explanation is less satisfactory than the source-critical solution.

BZ: Interesting. I do think that there's substantial theological "food for thought" to be gleaned from reading the stories separately.

Meredith: That'll take some thought.

elf said...

One more thing: To repeat a point I've made earlier about the Documentary Hypothesis, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. The fact that this narrative can be divided into two independant versions, each complete (except for the very beginning of the J version) and each more coherent than canonical text, is in itself the best evidence that source-critics are onto something here.

$P said...

elf, I think that's BS. If I were taking 2 folk tales and trying to create one story out of them, I wouldn't combine sentences from one and sentences from another. If I were a real editor trying to make a coherent whole (as I don't see why we would think the "redactor" of the Torah wouldn't be trying), I would do the same with that. Now, you might claim that each of the folk tales had a large following and hence had to include the exact language in the torah itself to get those groups of people to come along, again that seems like such a push to me.

Now, I'm not saying it's impossible that the documentary hypothesis is correct, but there are so many assumptions. You assume the story is disjointed is because it was redacted, I would view that as more evidence that it wasn't, as if it was edited it be a more coherent whole. Until the day we find a manuscript (or scripts) that provide evidence for the documentary hypothesis, I think as jews we give up a huge amount more in truth than we gain by going w/ this hypothesis.

but you probably already knew I felt this way :)

elf said...

you might claim that each of the folk tales had a large following and hence had to include the exact language in the torah itself to get those groups of people to come along

According to the "Persian hypothesis," Ezra combined the documents because he was under orders from the Persian authorities to produce a compilation of the authoritative scriptures of the Jews. If this hypothesis is correct, then the redactor's goal was not to create a great work of literature, but simply to compile the documents efficiently. Presumably, this seemed to him the most efficient way to deal with the narratives.

Until the day we find a manuscript (or scripts) that provide evidence for the documentary hypothesis, I think as jews we give up a huge amount more in truth than we gain by going w/ this hypothesis.

While it's true that we haven't found a copy of, for example, The Book of J by J (not to be confused with The Book of J by Harold Bloom), there is some corroborating evidence for the Documentary Hypothesis within the Bible, including certain portions of Deuteronomy (such as the one cited here) and a number of Psalms that reflect one or another document rather than the redacted text.

but you probably already knew I felt this way :)

Um, yeah :)

$p said...

is there any evidence to support that "Persian Hypothesis", or is it simply that?

1) Why would the persian care?

2) If doing all this work, why not make a great work of literature, esp if this is supposed to be a metaphorical bible (well, not so metaphorical :) )

elf said...

Hey $p -- I seem to have missed this comment. Unfortunately, I can't provide a very satisfying answer your first question, as I have not yet read the main book on the subject. I have heard that there is evidence that Cyrus and his successors attempted to collect legal compilations from the various Persian provinces and that there is additional evidence in favor of setting the redaction of the Torah in the Persian period. However, I'd have to read more to decide whether I find the theory as a whole convincing.

The answer to #1 is that the Persians (like the Greeks and Romans after them) preferred to take a "hands off" approach to running their empires, collecting taxes and expecting military support but otherwise allowing for a large measure of autonomy. Making sure that each group had a single set of agreed-upon laws would help this system run smoothly.

I'm not sure that I understand #2. It would be a lot more work to create a literary masterpiece from four separate documents (although some would argue that that happened anyway). And I'm not sure what you mean by "metaphorical."

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