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Torah Commentary
D'varim (July 29, 2017)

This Evil Generation

When the Lord heard your loud complaint, He was angry. He vowed: Not one of these men, this evil generation shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers — none except Caleb, the son of Jephunneh; he shall see it, and to him and his descendants will I give the land on which he set foot, because he remained loyal to the Lord.

Because of you, the Lord was incensed with me too, and He said: You shall not enter it either. Joshua, son of Nun, who attends you, he shall enter it.
— Deuteronomy 1:34-38

Bettijane Eisenpreis

In this portion, D’varim, we read about the spies who go into the Land that God has promised to Israel and bring back a gloomy report. They speak of large cities inhabited by giants who are sure to defeat the Israelites. Sound familiar? Yes. We have heard about the spies and the giants, the so-called Anakites, in the book of Numbers. (13:1–14:44) In both versions, the spies bring back discouraging news; the Israelites refuse to go forward and are punished by having to stay in the desert for 40 years, until the entire generation that came from Egypt dies out.

While the outcome is the same, there are significant differences between the two tales. In Numbers, the Lord tells Moses to send the spies, one from each of the 12 tribes. When the spies return, all of them report that the Land is “flowing with milk and honey,” but 10 of the 12 say that the inhabitants are giants who will crush the Israelites, should they attempt to settle the Land. There are two holdouts — Joshua and Caleb — who vote for continuing the journey and subduing the so-called giants.

In Deuteronomy, it’s a different story. The people come to Moses and ask him to send the spies, and while the scouts all seem to have a positive impression of the Land, the people “sulk in their tents” and refuse to go forward. They talk of their fear of giants and complain that Moses has taken them away from the fleshpots of Egypt to die in the desert.

In this version of the story, Caleb takes precedence as a good guy, a warrior who wants to go forth and slay the inhabitants of the Land. Joshua is an afterthought. Moses first tells the Israelites that only Caleb will be allowed to enter the Promised Land. Then, in the next paragraph, he says that, because of the people’s timidity, he, Moses, will be forbidden to enter. Finally, he mentions Joshua, who will be leader in his place.

Why am I making such a big deal out of these insignificant discrepancies? Spies go out. They come back and say there are giants in the Land, and they don’t want to go on. The people are punished by having to stay in the desert for 40 years. We all know the story. Or do we? How important is Joshua? Is Moses punished for the people’s refusal to go on or because he struck the rock to get water instead of just touching it with his staff? (Numbers 20:9-12) And should we care?

I think we should care. At the end of Deuteronomy, the Bible says that never again was there a man like Moses, whom the Lord talked to “face to face.” It is hard to believe that such a person would lose his temper like a mere mortal, strike the rock and have to be punished. It is much easier to believe that Moses is punished for the people’s sin, rather than his own. And because Deuteronomy is written much later than the rest of the Torah, it is easy to believe that a little reputation-polishing is taking place.

As for Caleb and Joshua, I like to think that Joshua gets the last laugh. Caleb is a man of war, but the Israelites go to war, are defeated, and still must do their 40 years in the desert. And when all is said and done, it is Joshua who leads the next generation into the Promised Land.

For those who believe that every word of Torah is the literal word of God, I imagine Deuteronomy poses a problem. Some of its teachings are in direct conflict with other parts of the Torah. But if you believe, as I do, that the Torah is the work of divinely inspired people, then it’s no problem. Different times need different teachings. The process of reinterpreting our sacred scrolls began while the Bible was still being written, and it continues to this day.

Bettijane Eisenpreis, a freelance writer, is a long-time member of Temple Emanu-El
and a regular participant in our Saturday morning Torah study group.

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