Community > Jewish Life > Shlach Lecha: Had God Changed His Mind?

Shlach Lecha: Had God Changed His Mind?

Nechama Leibowitz
reprinted courtesy of the Jewish Agency for Israel Education Department 

In this chapter we shall deal with the end of the section on the spies – with the last verse. Their punishment had already been explained to them and been given added force by being worded in the form of an oath:

As I live, saith the Lord, surely as you have spoken in My ears, so will I do to you. (14:28)

They had “begged”: “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt, or would that we had died in this wilderness.” Accordingly:

Your carcasses shall fall in this wilderness from twenty years old and upward, you that have murmured against Me. (14:29)

And your children shall be wanderers in the wilderness forty years and shall bear the brunt of your strayings until your carcasses be consumed in the wilderness. After the number of days in which you spied out of land, shall you bear your iniquities, even forty years, and you shall know My displeasure. (14:33-34)

The punishment was immediately felt when death overtook the evil congregation of the ten spies (14:37):

And these men that brought an evil report of the land died by the plague, before the Lord.

After all this the people mourned. On the morrow (14:40):

They rose up early in the morning and went up to the top of the mountain saying, Lo we are here and we will go up to the place which the Lord has promised; for we have sinned.

The reaction to this was (vv. 41-43):

Why do you now transgress the commandment of the Lord seeing it shall not prosper? Go not up for the Lord is not among you. …But they insisted on going up to the top of the mountain; nevertheless the ark of the covenant of the Lord and Moses did not budge from the camp.

The result of this behavior of theirs (14:45):

The Amalekite and the Canaanite who dwelt in that hill country descended and fell upon them and crushed them even to Hormah.

Our commentators have been puzzled by this. Arama thus words the difficulty in his Akedat Yizhak:

After they had presumed to go up to the top of the mountain, Why did not the ark of the Lord and Moses move from the camp and why were the gates of repentance shut against them? Does not this story violate the golden rule that he who acknowledges his sin and forsakes it shall find grace? Was it not the Lord’s desire that they should overcome their fear, that they should not be afraid of the people of the land and go up and fight? Were they not bidden: “Go up! Be not afraid, neither be dismayed”. Was not their action in ascending the mountain what was expected of them? Or had the Lord changed his mind?

We find a similar problem in the messages of two great Hebrew prophets. Isaiah called on his brothers:

Keep calm and be tranquil; fear not nor let your heart be faint. (Isaiah 7:4)

He demanded resistance to the enemy had promised that salvation would come. But when Jeremiah saw his king rising up and the people enthusiastic for rebellion, he prophesied catastrophe and destruction, demanded immediate surrender and acceptance of the overlordship of the king of Babylon, even himself bearing the yoke on his own neck as a symbol of the humbling that had been ordained. Had God changed His mind? This is not the case. Not the God who defends His city unconditionally, who does not allow the stranger and enemy to enter its gates is the living God in whom we are to put our trust. Nor is God who destroys and overturns, the God of retribution, the living God in whom we are to believe. Buber thus explained it in his work on The Teaching of the Prophets:

It is immaterial whether the prophecy involves salvation or catastrophe. What matters is that the prophecy, irrespective of its content, should fit in with the Divine demand at that particular historic moment. In times of unjustified complacency, a message of shattering catastrophe is called for, the finger pointing at impending destruction in history. On the other hand, in times of great tribulation, from which deliverance is still possible, in times of remorse and repentance an encouraging message of salvation is in keeping.

When Jeremiah called for surrender and acceptance of the yoke of the king of Babylon, he knew that the people could no longer be purified and restored to the true path except through arduous sufferings involving the destruction of the temple and the yoke of exile. It was no longer possible “to build and to plant” without fulfilling the message of “to root out and pull down, to destroy and overthrow.”

The work of rebuilding could not be contemplated before the process of destruction and uprooting had been endured. The same applies to our subject. Their inability to go and occupy the land became clearly manifest in the statement: “Let us appoint a leader and let us return to Egypt”, in that weeping that they wept on that night. Now matters could not be remedied without them accepting what had been imposed on them. Their words: “Lo we are here and we will go up” constituted no repentance unless they accepted their sentence, humbled themselves and bore their punishment. Divine punishment is itself the cure for their ills, the path of repentance. So Maimonides explains the purpose of their wanderings in the wilderness:

Man cannot be expected suddenly to leave the state of slavery and toiling in bricks and straw and the like, wash his soiled hands at the spur of the moment and fight with giants… It was therefore part of the Divine wisdom to make them wander around the wilderness until they had become schooled in courage. For, as is well know, a nomadic existence under Spartan conditions breeds courage, and the reverse, cravenness. In addition a new generation of people grew up who had known no humiliation and bondage.