Bibliotheca Sacra 157 (July-September 2000): 271-80

[Copyright © 2000 Dallas Theological Seminary; cited with permission;

digitally prepared for use at Gordon College]









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-

versity, Mequon, Wisconsin.

1 George Adam Smith, The Historical Geography of the Holy Land, 7th ed. (New

York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1896), 99-100.

2 Shimon Bar-Efrat, The Art of Biblical Narrative (Sheffield: Almond, 1984), 194.

Tremper Longman III makes a similar observation (Literary Approaches to Biblical

Interpretation [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987], 94-95).


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.






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

Israel." These are designations for significant tribal leaders.4 In

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

into Jericho (Josh. 2:1), he called them MyliG;ram;. But the men chosen

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 17:12; and 2 Samuel 1:11 (A. M. Silbermann, Numbers,

Chumash with Rashi's Commentary [Jerusalem: Silbermann, 1934], 62; and H.

Freedman and Maurice Simon, Midrash Rabbah, Numbers [New York: Soncino,

1983], 676).

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 [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987], 16).


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 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 13:17

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-

ter "the land of Canaan." But Moses became more specific by telling

the spies to search the Negeb (bg,n,) and the hill country (rha), two re-

gions within the land of Canaan. "As a regional-geographical term,

Negeb refers to a limited strip of land extending 10 miles north and

10 miles south of Beersheba and running east to west from the

mountain ridge overlooking the Rift Valley to near the dunes along

the Mediterranean Sea."8

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 Mount Sinai (3:1, ynAysi rha). But here

it is clearly a regional designation, for it is set in contrast to the

coastal plain and the Jordan Valley (13:29). The rising terrain of

the hill country runs from the Negeb through Judea, Samaria, and

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 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,

1989), 49.

9 Ashley, however, says the Negeb refers only to the hill country of Judah (The

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 Orontes River in 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 Hebron (vv. 22-23). There they cut grapes from the

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 kingdom of Hamath and is to be identified with Lebweh"

(Yohanan Aharoni, The Land of the Bible: A Historical Geography [Philadelphia:

Westminster, 1967], 72).

12 Nelson Glueck, The River Jordan (New York: McGraw Hill, 1968), 112.

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 [Philadelphia:

Westminster, 1968], 101).

14 Edward Robinson argues for this location of Wadi Eshcol based on the name of

one of the four kings from the Hebron area who accompanied Abraham (Gen. 14:24;

Biblical Researches in Palestine and the Adjacent Regions 1838 and 1852 [Jerusa-

lem: Universitas Booksellers, 1970], 1:214). This nineteenth-century observation

about the location of Eshcols supported by a fourth-century Christian pilgrim text

(Jerome, "The Pilgrimage of Holy Paula," in Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society [New

York: AMS, 1971], 1:9).

15 Carl Ritter, The Comparative Geography of Palestine and the Sinai tic Peninsula

(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 Upper Galilee and nearly all of Lower Galilee,

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,

vol. 4: Bamidbar [Jerusalem: Silbermann, 1934], 62). It is possible to see two ques-

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. 17:18), numbers (Judg. 18:26), 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

York: Doubleday, 1992),239.

18 Yohanan Aharoni, The Archaeology of the Land of Israel (Philadelphia: West-

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 [New York:

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 [LaFayette, IN: Asso-

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 Judah immeasurably outweigh the mis-

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 Negev, the coastal plain and the Beth-Shan Val-

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 Jordan, 138.

24 Rasmussen, The Zondervan Atlas of the Bible, 18.

25 Ibid., 19.

26 John Bright, A History of Israel, 3d ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1981), 119.

27 Mazar, Archaeology and the Land of the Bible, 243. This was true at Hebron

where a Middle Bronze II fortified city was not in use in Late Bronze or during Iron

(Avi Ofer, "Hebron," in The New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Investigation,


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

Beersheba, he wrote, "The hills, we could see, began to 'be covered

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.




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.



The sensitive reader will note that the spies referred to the land

with standard language that is carefully chosen and strategically


30 Ibid.

31 Robinson, Biblical Researches in Palestine and the Adjacent Regions 1838 and

1852, 1:212.

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 [New York: Springer, 1990], 132).

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 "land of Canaan" are employed thirty-

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 Israel the land. This reuse of language would have

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

city of Hebron. Hebron was closely associated with the patriarchs

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,

Word Biblical Commentary [Waco, TX: Word, 1984], 145).

36 The last two collocations are unique in the Hebrew Bible but are clearly a refer-

ence to the topographical zones west of the Jordan River. Beitzel identifies these as

the coastal plain, the central mountain spine, and the Jordan rift valley (Beitzel,

The Moody Bible Atlas, 27). Aharoni views the last reference as the northern Jordan

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-

ated doubt.




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, agricultural potential, ur-

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

reported, "Amalek is living in the land of the Negev, and the Hit-

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

Jordan" (v. 29). Thus the sparsely populated hill country was a

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 Israel to only

one conclusion: "We can't possibly possess the land!"




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 Commentary [Edinburgh: Clark,

1903], 141).

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