Bibliotheca Sacra 157 (July-September 2000): 271-80
[Copyright © 2000 Dallas Theological Seminary; cited with permission;
digitally prepared for use at
GEOGRAPHY AND THE
OF NUMBERS 13
J. A. Beck
THE STORIES OF THE BIBLE are filled with geographical in-
formation. The Scriptures refer often to details of topogra-
phy, geology, hydrology, climate, land use, and urbanization.
Noted biblical geographer George Adam Smith challenges people to
read the Bible with geographical awareness. "In the Bible, you see
the details which are so characteristic of every Eastern landscape,
the chaff and rolling thorns blown before the wind, the dirt cast out
on the streets; the broken vessel by the well; the forsaken house;
the dusty grave. Let us pay attention to all these, and we shall
surely feel ourselves in the atmosphere and scenery in which David
fought, and Elisha went and Malachi saw the Sun of Righteousness
arise with healing in his wings."1
Geography shaped the events of biblical history. Attention to
"narrative geography" recognizes that biblical writers used geogra-
phy not only to provide the setting of events but also to achieve
strategic, literary ends. As Shimon Bar-Efrat has observed, "Places
in the narrative are not merely geographical facts, but are to be re-
garded as literary elements in which fundamental significance is
This article addresses the strategic use of geography in Num-
bers 13, with attention to what may be called the narrative-
geographical shaping of the story. Throughout Numbers 13 Moses
used, reused, and nuanced geographical elements in patterns de-
signed to impact the reader. Geographical references were noted to
J. A. Beck is Associate Professor of Hebrew and Old Testament, Concordia Uni-
1 George Adam Smith, The Historical Geography of the
2 Shimon Bar-Efrat, The Art of Biblical Narrative (Sheffield: Almond, 1984), 194.
Tremper Longman III makes a similar observation (Literary Approaches to Biblical
272 BIBlIOTHECA SACRA / July-September 2000
generate expectations, to raise or lower the tension of the plot, and
to mold the reader's view of the characters.
Moses identified and instructed twelve men to explore the new
land and report back to him. The report they brought back (exclu-
sive of Joshua and Caleb) was negative. The report carefully and
deceitfully used geography to argue that the Israelites could not
enter the Promised Land. This became a watershed moment in Is-
rael's history, for it inspired a rebellion that lasted forty years.
PREPARATION FOR THE REPORT
LITERARY NAMING OF THE SPIES
Two types of naming were used to introduce the spies. They were
characterized first as a group and then as individuals.
Moses was instructed to send on this mission men who met
specific standards. Each was to be a "leader" (xyWinA, Num. 13:2). As a
group, they are called "men" (MywinAxE, v. 3)3 and "heads of the sons of
Genesis 42:9, Joseph accused his brothers of being "military scouts"
(MyliG;ram;) who had come to spy out the land. When Joshua sent men
here by Moses were not these "military scouts"; they were influen-
tial men whose report could sway the community.
This more general form of characterization gives way to a
lengthy list in which the spies are named individually. In formulaic
fashion the twelve are designated by tribe, proper name, and pa-
ternal association (13:4-15). The reason this list was organized this
way remains under discussion.5 But the fact that these men were
identified in such a list has import for their characterization.6 It
3 Within Jewish tradition even the designation MywinAxE suggests that these were men
of honor. This is the meaning of this designation in Genesis 34:20; Exodus 17:9;
Judges 8:15-17; 1 Samuel ; and 2 Samuel (A. M. Silbermann, Numbers,
Chumash with Rashi's Commentary [
and Maurice Simon, Midrash Rabbah, Numbers
4 Ronald B. Allen, "Numbers," in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rap-
ids: Zondervan, 1990), 2:804.
5 Timothy R. Ashley, The Book of Numbers, New International Commentary on
the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 232.
6 Robert Alter has noted that such lists are often ignored within literary analysis.
In reality they may be effectively employed as literary devices. "The coldest cat-
alogue and the driest etiology may be an effective subsidiary instrument of literary
expression" ("Introduction to the Old Testament," in The Literary Guide to the Bible,
ed. Robert Alter and F. Kermode [
Geography and the Narrative Shape of Numbers 13 273
grants them "a sense of importance and dignity."7 Thus by both
general designation and personal introduction, the reader is led to
view these men as esteemed and honored leaders of the com-
munity. Thus the reader anticipates that the report the twelve
gave will be both persuasive and honorable.
THE SEARCH DEFINITION
The reader is further prepared to hear the spies' report by noting
Moses' instructions for the reconnaissance mission. In defining that
search Moses pointed out a considerable amount of geographical
features. He provided the geographical boundaries of the search,
the season in which the search was conducted, and the specific geo-
graphical questions the group were to answer.
The search area. The search area is defined both by Moses' di-
rect speech and by the narrator's summary of the search. In
the reader is allowed to listen in as Moses told the spies where they
were to go. In 13:2 the reader learns that the spies would reconnoi-
the spies to search the Negeb (bg,n,) and the hill country (rha), two re-
gions within the
Negeb refers to a limited strip of land extending 10 miles north and
miles south of
mountain ridge overlooking the Rift Valley to near the dunes along
Moses was also interested in the hill country. The word rha in
the Book of Numbers is most often employed in the proper names
of prominent mountains such as
it is clearly a regional designation, for it is set in contrast to the
coastal plain and the
the hill country runs from the Negeb
into the highlands of Galilee.9
When the narrator described the trip itself, he spoke of the
search area in a different way. Verse 21 refers to the trip's south-
ern departure point and its northern terminating point. The spies
explored the land from the Wilderness of Zin to Lebo-Hamath. The
Wilderness of Zin is the northern portion of the Wilderness of
Paran, specifically the area around Kadesh-barnea.10 Lebo is asso-
7 Allen, "Numbers," 2:805.
8 Carl Rasmussen, The Zondervan Atlas of the Bible (
9 Ashley, however, says the Negeb refers only to the hill country of
Book of Numbers, 236).
10 J. Simons, The Geographical and Topographical Texts of the Old Testament
(Leiden: Brill, 1959), 256.
274 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / July-September 2000
ciated with the Lebweh near one source of the
Beqa' Valley.11 Thus the exploration of the spies is said to follow
the watershed of the central mountain spine.12
The narrator's language for the search area differs from the
language Moses used. Why did the narrator not simply summarize
the search with identical language? Noth says this signals multiple
authorship.13 But within this unified literary unit a different ex-
planation is to be preferred. The language of the narrator allows for
the possibility that the spies did not adhere closely to Moses' in-
structions. The search he asked for may have been different from
the one he received. Replication of Moses' language would certainly
have signaled obedience. The shift in language adds tension to the
plot, thereby urging the reader to look for further evidence that will
either vindicate or implicate the spies.
One last difference between Moses' description and the nar-
rator's summary bears mentioning. Moses did not identify any spe-
cific city he wanted the spies to visit, but the narrator stated that
they stopped in
Wadi Eshcol just north of Hebron.14
The search season. In verse 20 the narrator wrote that "the
time was the time of the first-ripe grapes." While the grape harvest
itself would occur over the summer months, the first ripe grapes
are harvested in July.15 Since the entire exploration took forty days
(v. 25), this exploration took place during the summer season.
The search questions. Moses then defined the search itself with
a set of questions (vv. 18-20). Knowing the search area and the
11 "Many scholars assumed that Lebo-Hamath should be translated as 'the en-
trance to Hamath.' However, there is really no doubt that Lebo was an important
city on the border of the
(Yohanan Aharoni, The Land of the Bible: A Historical
12 Nelson Glueck,
13 Martin Noth assumes that the different descriptions are associated with dif-
ferent authors. J and E limit the search to the Negeb and Judah, and P allows the
search to extend to the entire nation (Numbers: A Commentary [
14 Edward Robinson argues for this location of Wadi Eshcol based on the name of
one of the four kings from the
Biblical Researches in
lem: Universitas Booksellers, 1970], 1:214). This nineteenth-century observation
about the location of Eshcols supported by a fourth-century Christian pilgrim text
"The Pilgrimage of Holy Paula," in
15 Carl Ritter, The Comparative Geography of
(New York: Greenwood, 1968), 3:297.
Geography and the Narrative Shape of Numbers 13 275
search season, the geographically informed reader begins to antici-
pate how the answers to those questions might sound.
First, Moses asked for information on population density (v.
18).16 The archaeological record for the pre-Israelite period reveals
what they may have seen. Mazar notes that the Late Bronze period
(1550-1200 B.C.) testifies to a declining population in the hill coun-
try.17 Aharoni offers this summary of the Canaanite period: "The
valleys were intensely settled, with strong and important kingdoms
on the coastal plain and the Shephelah, in the Jezreel and Jordan
valleys. Among the hill regions only the most northern enjoyed a
dense settlement. . . . Most of the hill regions were only thinly set-
tled, and appreciable areas were forested with thick scrub that was
a formidable obstacle to settlement and agriculture. The southern
and highest part of
except for the lateral valleys and the southern highlands, were not
occupied."18 Given the search area designated by Moses, the spies
would have encountered land that was sparsely settled.
The second question Moses asked pertained to the hydrology of
the land (v. 19). "Is the land in which they live good or bad?" While
this vocabulary is somewhat general, rabbinic commentators19 dis-
tinguish it from the subsequent question about soil fertility (v.
20).20 Moses' inquiry is no doubt related to the oppressive condi-
tions the Israelites experienced in the Wilderness of Zin. Since that
region receives less than two inches of precipitation each year, the
Israelites constantly faced the shortage of water there.
In the Negeb the spies would have experienced a climate and
16 Rashi sees the matter of population density at the heart of this verse (A. M. Sil-
bermann, Chumash with Targum Onkelos, Haphtaroth and Rashi's Commentary,
tions reflected in this verse. But in support of one question is the point that the first
pair of words, "strong or weak," is further explained by the following pair of words,
"few or many." The word "strong" can have a variety of nuances. It can result from
iron chariots (Josh. ), numbers (Judg. ), or the Lord Himself (Deut.
34:12). Moses was interested in the strength of numbers here. The chiastic ar-
rangement of the adjectives adds support to this view.
17 Amihai Mazar, Archaeology and the Land of the Bible 10,000-586 B.C.E. (New
18 Yohanan Aharoni, The Archaeology of the
minster, 1978), 158. Aharoni bases his observation on the El-Amarna texts.
19 Rashi understands this use of bOF ("good") to be associated with hydrology (Sil-
bermann, Chumash with Targum Onkelos, 4:62). Ibn Ezra understands it as a ref-
erence to climate (Jacob Milgrom, Numbers,
JPS Torah Commentary [
Jewish Publication Society, 1990],102).
20 Charles A. Briggs understands this use of bOF as a reference to fertility (The New
Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew and English Lexicon [
ciated Publishers and Authors, 1980], #2296, 3b).
276 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / July-September 2000
hydrology that was nearly as austere as the wilderness of their
wanderings. The region is generally an "environment adverse to
human activity or extensive settlement."21 Rainfall provides the
only water, and it is scant (eight to twelve inches each year). This
allows for a barley harvest only once every three or four years.22
By contrast, the climate and hydrology of the hill country was
much more favorable. "The relative abundance of rain and scores of
springs in the highlands of
erly showers and mean handful of springs in the Negeb.”23 The
central mountain range receives between twenty and forty inches
of rainfall annually.24 Further the geologic makeup of that region
allows for the preservation of water in numerous springs.25 Given
their experience in the Wilderness of Zin, one would expect the
spies to report favorably with regard to the water resources.
A third question Moses asked pertained to urban construction:
"Do the inhabitants live in open camps or in fortified cities?" (v. 19,
author's paraphrase). Another look at the archaeological record
shapes the answer the reader expects the spies to give. Bright ob-
serves that the hill country was a "patchwork of petty states, none
of any great size.”26 Mazar adds that the most amazing archaeo-
logical feature of the hill country during this period is "the almost
total lack of fortifications."27 The strongholds that existed were
Egyptian military and administrative ones "along the northern Si-
nai, the northern
ley.”28 Thus one would expect the spies to report that, in general,
the indigenous population lived in vulnerable, open settlements.
The agricultural quality of the region was the subject of Moses'
fourth question (v. 20). The soil of the Negeb is a fine, wind-blown
soil called loess soil.29 "When it rains, the surface of the loess soil
becomes relatively impermeable, so that instead of seeping into the
21 Barry J. Beitzel, The Moody Bible Atlas (Chicago: Moody, 1985), 36.
22 Rasmussen, The Zondervan Atlas of the Bible, 50.
23 Glueck, The River
24 Rasmussen, The Zondervan Atlas of the Bible, 18.
25 Ibid., 19.
26 John Bright, A History of
Archaeology and the Land of the Bible,
This was true at
where a Middle Bronze II fortified city was not in use in Late Bronze or during Iron
(Avi Ofer, "
28 Ibid., 283.
29 Rasmussen, The Zondervan Atlas of the Bible, 49.
Geography and the Narrative Shape of Numbers 13 277
ground much of the water rapidly runs off into the wadis, creating
miniature badlands' formations."30 The hydrology and geology cre-
ate a poor agricultural environment.
But as the spies moved farther north, they saw more green. As
nineteenth-century explorer Edward Robinson moved north of
with shrubs; and these increased as we advanced and were in-
termingled with evergreens and prickly oaks, arbutus and other
dwarf trees and bushes."31 During the Canaanite Period, the hill
country was covered with considerable forests.32 But under those
forests lay an increasing bed of rich, red, moisture-absorbing soil.33
The hill country had potential for agricultural development.
Aware of the search area, the search season, and the search
parameters, the reader begins to expect that Moses' questions will
be answered in a certain way. The reader does not expect the spies
to convey much enthusiasm about the Negeb, but one does expect
them to celebrate what they observed in the hill country. The spies
are expected to speak about a sparsely populated land, a land with
water resources, unfortified settlements, and rich agricultural po-
tential. In short, one expects the spies to return and to say that Is-
rael could easily conquer the land.
THE SEARCH REPORT
After forty days the spies returned and offered their report. Just as
Moses had carefully used geography to frame the nature of the
search, so the spies carefully misused geography to erode the peo-
ple's enthusiasm. Their less-than-objective report was simply, "We
can't do it!" They led the Israelites to this conclusion through care-
ful naming of the land, through their answers to Moses' questions,
and through unsolicited information they added to their report.
NAMING THE LAND
The sensitive reader will note that the spies referred to the land
with standard language that is carefully chosen and strategically
31 Robinson, Biblical Researches in
32 Aharoni, The Land of the Bible, 27. The significant deforestation and accompa-
nying erosion of the hill country did not occur until after it had been cleared for ag-
riculture by the influx of Israelites (Arie Issar, Water Shall Flow from the Rock;
Hydrology and Climate in
the Lands of the Bible [
33 Beitzel, The Moody Bible Atlas, 44.
278 BIBlIOTHECA SACRA / July-September 2000
altered for rhetorical impact.
From the beginning the reader is expecting to hear a positive
report. After all, the spies had gone to the Promised Land. Within
the Pentateuch the words "
three times before this chapter. This expression is securely at-
tached to God's promise to the patriarchs and is typically used with
the expression "which the Lord has promised to give you."34 This is
the land to which the Lord had sent them. But when the spies
spoke of this very special land, they made a subtle but significant
shift in the language they used. It was no longer the land to which
the Lord sent them; it was "the land to which you sent us" (v. 27).
The spies also referred to the land as "a land flowing with milk
and honey" (v. 27). This expression is used fifteen times in the Pen-
tateuch. It is language by which God Himself described this land
(Exod. 3:8, 17). In almost every case it is associated with God's
promise to give
motivated the people in a positive way. But the spies again made a
strategic shift that diminished the impact of this phrase. Within
the space of five verses, the land that "flows" with milk and honey
became the land that "devours" its inhabitants (v. 32).35
A further note of discord was struck as the spies described the
breadth of their search. Moses had asked for a report on the Negeb
and the hill country. But they spoke about the Negeb, the hill coun-
try, the coastal plain, and the Jordan Valley.36 Thus the spies re-
ported on places Moses had not asked about, places that would
have a significant impact on the answers to Moses' questions.
Conspicuous by its absence is mention of the spies' stop in the
and the promise of the land that was given to them (Gen. 13:18;
23:2, 9; 35:27). But the spies made no mention of it, though it was
the burial place of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. "They averted their
glance from the tombs of the fathers, and they neglected the prom-
ise of God."37 The spies repeatedly took language that had the
34 Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers
Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1981), 119.
35 Based on the paralleling of the feminine singular participles tbazA and tl,k,xo, Philip
J. Budd understands "devours" as a reference to the land's infertility (Numbers,
Biblical Commentary [
36 The last two collocations are unique in the Hebrew Bible but are clearly a refer-
ence to the topographical
zones west of the
the coastal plain, the central mountain spine, and
The Moody Bible Atlas, 27). Aharoni
views the last reference as the northern
Valley (Aharoni, The Land of the Bible, 68).
37 Allen, "Numbers," 2:810.
Geography and the Narrative Shape of Numbers 13 279
power to excite enthusiasm and turned it into language that gener-
ANSWERS TO MOSES' FOUR QUESTIONS
In their report the spies answered each of Moses' four questions in
some fashion. But the order in which they gave their answers dif-
fers from the order in which Moses asked the questions. Since the
most logical way in which to present their report would have been
to follow the order of Moses' questions, the reordering of informa-
tion raises questions. Moses asked about the population density,
hydrology, urbanization, and agricultural quality. But the spies'
answers were in this order: hydrology,
banization, and population density.
The ten spies first answered Moses' question about hydrology
(Num. 13:27). Here the spies resorted to abbreviated language that
speaks of the land's rainfall dependence. They simply agreed that it
is a land that "flows with milk and honey." The brevity of their an-
swer neglects the water resources in the hill country.
Then the spies answered Moses' question about the agricul-
tural potential of the land by showing the large cluster of grapes
they gathered from the Wadi Eshcol: "This is its fruit" (v. 27). It
had been a long time since the Israelites had seen fresh fruit. This
would have been a great incentive to enter the land. But the spies
did not speak at any length about the cluster of grapes or the
pomegranates and figs that they had found. Instead, they pro-
ceeded to answer Moses' questions about urbanization and popula-
tion density. Rashi presumes that the spies used the large cluster
of grapes to support their argument that the land was heavily forti-
fied and highly populated.38
In answering Moses' question about the extent of urbanization,
the spies reported that they encountered cities that were "fortified
and very large" (v. 28). As noted earlier, the archaeological record
of the hill country at that time indicates only small settlements
with almost total lack of fortification. In essence they were saying
they believed the Israelites could not conquer the land.
In answering Moses' questions about the population, the spies
is living in the land of the
tites and the Jebusites and the Amorites are living in the hill coun-
try, and the Canaanites are living by the sea and by the side of the
place, the spies were suggesting, where there was no room to re-
38 Rashi criticizes the selection of "large fruit" as part of the spies' strategy to dis-
courage the people (Silbermann, Numbers, Chumash with Rashi's Commentary, 64).
280 BIBLIOTHECA SACRA / July-September 2000
ceive newcomers. In their report the spies deceitfully distorted
what they saw. Their answers were designed to lead
one conclusion: "We can't possibly possess the land!"
A STRATEGIC ADDITION
The spies made a strategic addition to the report. The most fre-
quently mentioned item in their report was the physical size of the
indigenous people. This is noteworthy because Moses had not asked
about the people's physical size. Interspersed among the answers to
Moses' other questions is a recurring reference to the "strength" of
the people who lived in the land they explored.
The spies said the people were "strong" (zfa, v. 28). Moses had
not used that word in his questions. He did ask, however, if the
people were qzAHA. The spies affirmed that the people were "too strong
[qzAHA] for us" (v. 31). The spies also said that "the descendants of
Anak" were living in the land (v. 28). Later the spies spoke about
"men of great size" (v. 32). And they added, "There also we saw the
Nephilim (the sons of Anak are part of the Nephilim);39 and we be-
came like grasshoppers in our own sight, and so we were in their
sight" (v. 33). This unsolicited information, which built throughout
the report, led to the conclusion of the majority of the spies, "We
are not able to go up against the people" (v. 31).
The use, reuse, and nuancing of geographical references generates
expectations about the spies' report, influences the tension of the
plot, and molds the reader's view of the spies. These men who at
the beginning of the chapter were seen as honorable leaders be-
came untrustworthy manipulators of the truth. They played with
the name of the land, simply calling it "the land where you sent
us." They fabricated evidence when answering Moses' questions.
And they added uninvited, incendiary information to the report.
The geography indicates that their report is not what the reader
expects it to be. They convinced the Israelites that taking the land
was impossible (14:1-4). Ironically the very people who, along with
the ten spies, thought they could not enter the Promised Land and
conquer it, did not enter it. They died in the wilderness (vv. 22-23,
29, 32-37) because of their lack of confidence in the Lord.
39 This was a class of very tall men, legendary in size, whose memory lingered long
in the minds of the Hebrews (George Buchanan Gray, A Critical and Exegetical
Commentary on Numbers, International Critical
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