What went awry? Contemporary Biblical scholar, Avivah Zornberg, faults Moses’ instructions.
The Israelites “broke into loud cries and wept all night” (Numbers 14:1) in response to the report of the scouts. The goal of their mission was to prepare the Israelites to fulfill a long awaited goal: taking possession of the Promised Land. Instead, the people proclaim, “Let us head back for Egypt” (Numbers 14:4).
Moses had chosen representatives of each of the tribes and had instructed them: “Go up there into the Negev and on into the hill country and see what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not?” (Numbers 13:17-20). Ten of the twelve spies conclude that the inhabitants are far too strong to conquer, “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves and so we much have looked to them” (Numbers 13:33).
Jerusalem-based Zornberg, daughter of the former Chief of Scotland’s Rabbinic Court, declares that the instructions had led to reflexive, binary thinking. To conquer the land required a broader and more nuanced orientation. The word “and” was better suited than “or” for clarifying expectations. For the country was inhabited by people who were varied in their ability to fight, with many factors to consider and, the soil was not necessarily of only one type. Her analysis is a caution in our own lives against either-or thinking that prevents deeper analysis and the possibilities of creative solutions to meet our long-held goals.