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October 5, 2015 | 22nd Tishrei 5776

Teaching Israel IV


Galilee Diary #326, February 25, 2007  


Marc J. Rosenstein


In Numbers 13, Moses sends spies to scout out the promised land.  They return with the following report:

We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey…  However …  The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers.  All the people that we saw in it are men of great size…  and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.


The original plan was for us to get the instructions for the land (the Torah) and straightaway march in and start implementing them.  But the preparations went awry, and ten of the spies who were supposed to help us get ready to go in came back with such a discouraging report that the people rebelled and wanted to turn back.  The punishment for this hesitation was that this entire generation would indeed not enter the land, but would die in the desert.  This myth of the 40 years’ wandering, of the need to begin a new life in a new land with a new generation, has always been an important part of our story of who we are and how we came to be.  Archaeologists and historians are skeptical – but who cares?


But interestingly, this story is a story about a story – the guiding myth behind the entire enterprise of leaving Egypt and marching to the promised land was well known.  In Genesis 15:16 God says to Abraham: “…they shall return here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.”  And in Leviticus 18:25, “Thus the land became defiled; and I called it to account for its iniquity, and the land spewed out its inhabitants.”  In other words, the Israelites’ conquest of the land is not a function of their military might or wisdom, but of their commitment to implementing the Torah there.  The Canaanites will be overcome and “spewed out” because of their failure to obey God’s laws (see, for example Sodom and Gomorrah).  Our secret weapon that would enable us to conquer and hold the land was to be the Torah, and our commitment to creating an ideal society and state.  And, the story went on to say, if we failed to live by the Torah, we too would be spewed out (Lev. 24:28).


The spies were overwhelmed by the reality of what they saw, which caused them to question this formative myth. It’s all very nice, they said, to talk about promises, about moral laws, about Divine providence, about building utopia; but these guys are really scary; indeed, we wouldn’t be surprised if they were wearing explosive belts.  This is just not a good time to go there. Indeed, maybe this whole project is a mistake.  Life wasn’t, after all, so bad in Egypt.


Interestingly, all twelve spies experienced the same reality – they traveled on the same tour bus.  And yet, Caleb and Joshua were able to integrate their observations with the myth, and came back from their trip with a very different report (Numbers 14:7-8): “The land that we traversed and scouted is an exceedingly good land.  If the Lord is pleased with us, He will bring us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey, and give it to us.”  So it seems that even “reality” is actually not absolute, but the story we tell ourselves.  The report that the spies brought back was not only a scientific description of the land (with specimens of the fruits that they collected there), but a description of their own feelings – and the feelings that they attributed to the natives whom they encountered:  “We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves – and so we must have looked to them.”  Apparently no one got off the bus to talk to these natives - we could only imagine what they must have thought of us.


It seems that all of our perceptions of the reality of Israel are in some way refracted through the myths we carry with us; it is not a simple case of “facts” vs. “myths,” but a complex structure of the Israel we imagine, the Israel we see, and the Israel we want to see.

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