Talmud pages

Sotah 35

The spies' good intentions.

As the Israelites prepare to enter the land of Israel, God has Moses send a small group to scout out the land and report back what they observe. As the Torah tells it, ten of the spies return with a fear-inducing report that “the land consumes its inhabitants” (Numbers 13:32) and that the inhabitants of the land were so large that “we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13:33).

Only two of the spies, Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun, return with a positive report. The result of the bad report is devastating: The newly freed Israelites rebel against God and beg to return to Egypt. In response, God becomes enraged and threatens to destroy the people. Thanks to Moses’ calming intervention, God settles for making the people wander 40 years in the wilderness instead, until an entire generation had died out. (Caleb and Joshua were allowed to enter the land, however.)

It’s not surprising, therefore, that the rabbinic tradition does not view the ten spies positively. On today’s daf we read a series of midrashim that paint them as slanderers who doubt God’s ability to aid the Israelites in their future efforts to conquer the land. Embedded within the stream of interpretive material, however, are two texts that cast them in a different light:

Rava taught: The Holy One Blessed be He, said: I intended for good, but they considered bad. I intended it for their good by causing many people to die there so that anywhere that the spies arrived, the most important of them died, so that the Canaanites would be preoccupied with mourning and would not inquire about them … however, the spies considered this proof that the land was bad and said: It is a land that consumes its inhabitants.

Having witnessed death and destruction of the land’s inhabitants, the spies concluded that the land itself was hazardous. But, says the midrash, it was actually God who caused this wave of deaths — so that the Canaanites would be occupied by grief and mourning, allowing the spies to pass unnoticed.

Another midrash explains why the spies felt small, like tiny grasshoppers: 

When the Canaanites were having the mourners’ meal, they had the meal beneath cedar trees, and when the spies saw them they climbed up the trees and sat in them. And they heard the Canaanites saying: We see people who look like grasshoppers in the trees.

When the mourners looked up from their post-funeral meal and noticed the spies watching them from the tree tops, it must have been an odd sight. And since cedar trees are known for being tall, the spies naturally looked small way up there — hence the comment that they looked like grasshoppers. 

Taken together, these midrashim suggest that the spies’ report arose from a misunderstanding, or misinterpretation, of what they saw and heard. Yes, the people had called them grasshoppers, but not out of a sense of strength or superiority. Yes, they had witnessed many funerals, but not because the land was inhospitable. More importantly, their error was not the result of an evil intention, nor fear, nor lack of faith — but rather by a miscalculation on God’s part. God had intended for good and the spies did not see it as God intended.

Perhaps, the Talmud suggests, we should not be so quick to judge the spies. And if a divine intervention that sought to help ended up hindering, perhaps we might also not be so quick to judge others when their actions yield negative consequences. If God can miscalculate, certainly so can we.

Read all of Sotah 35 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 3, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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