In Shelach Lecha, Moses, at the behest of the people, sends out twelve high ranking people to spy on Canaan. As we know, this wasn't such a success.

Thirty-nine years later, Yehoshua (Joshua ch. 2) sends out two unnamed people (maybe there's a midrash that gives them names, but there's none in pshat). That worked out fine.

If I were sending a spy, I'd try to send someone unknown. I would never send, e.g., a governor or congressman, to spy on another country, but rather a random person who won't attract attention. Why did Moses choose to send famous leaders? Conversely, why did Yehoshua choose to send (literally) no-names?

  • IIRC, it says (somewhere) that it was Kalev and Pinchas. Kalev proved his loyalty the first time around and Pinchas was a righteous person on his own right. (No source and not mentioned explicitly in text which is why this is a comment and not an answer) Commented Jun 15, 2012 at 21:46
  • wither way, the failure of the spies was not connected to being caught. They made it through. They just brought back a bad report. Yehoshua instituted changes in how he sent the spies which helped, and this was a different generation who had no memories of being in Egypt (and claimed that they wanted to go back) Commented Jun 15, 2012 at 21:48
  • @ShmuelBrin First, I know they weren't caught. But people respond to foreign leaders differently than to nobodies. Second, I assume the meraglim's ability to rile Bnei Israel is directly proportional to their fame. Commented Jun 15, 2012 at 21:50
  • 2
    This strikes me as a celebrity "mission" rather than a military (scouting) operation for just that reason. Was it a scouting campaign or a PR move? Commented Jun 15, 2012 at 22:04
  • 2
    @CharlesKoppelman, no, I think we agree (I had missed his comment when I posted). Canaan wouldn't care who these guys were, but if the leaders of the tribes tell the people this is a good land, that has power. (I've got no source; I'm just speculating.) Commented Jun 15, 2012 at 22:17

3 Answers 3


There is a difference between Moshe's intention in sending spies and Yehoshua's intention.

Moshe's intention was to persuade the people and "boost their confidence" so that they should be willing and ready to enter the land without complaint. He wanted spies that would scope the land and its inhabitants and return to tell the people, who would listen to and be influenced by their judgement, that the land was beautiful and the cities were conquerable with the help of God. For this reason, Moshe chose influential members of the community, "ראשי בני ישראל".

Yehoshua was not interested in influencing the public opinion. He was interested in information that would help him make strategic military decisions. He wanted to know the culture and the mindset of the inhabitants of Canaan. He wanted to know how the cities were oriented, their level of defense etc. For this reason, the spies' standing in the community didn't matter. They weren't going to make any public statements; they were going to report back to Yehoshua directly. No need for twelve spies so that all the tribes would listen. Yehoshua was the only one listening.

Why wasn't Moshe interested in military information? (Well, he was to an extent, but only insomuch as it would influence the public to show they could defeat their enemies.) Malbim attributes this to the fact that Moshe led al pi nes; he led the people miraculously. Had he led them into the land, military strategy would have been irrelevant. He was trying to boost people's confidence, their trust in God, to be worthy of His miracles. Yehoshua, on the other hand, led al pi teva, a natural leadership. (Not to say that he could never perform miracles. He surely did.) Military information was necessary for him to succeed. Thus he sent out spies to gather information.

  • stopping the sun is a pretty big miracle. But can you provide sources for your claims of Moshe's motivations? Commented Jun 15, 2012 at 22:12
  • ....maybe the difference between Moshe and Yehoshua was that the former cared about public opinion and the latter didn't care whatsoever. Low self-esteem does that. So does creating a new role. Commented Jun 15, 2012 at 22:14
  • 1
    @CharlesKoppelman, Like I noted, Yehoshua performed great miracles. What Malbim is trying to say is that Moshe led in such a way that miracles were expected. He didn't need to do the kind of things that normal (military) leaders would do. Yehoshua, on the other hand, did have to do those things. He had to prepare; he had to plan. Just like a normal leader would do before invading a country. Miracles can come, but they are not part of the plan. With regard to Moshe's motivations, this is clear in Malbim to Yehoshua 2, as well as Abarbanel to Bamidbar 13.
    – jake
    Commented Jun 15, 2012 at 22:21
  • 1
    @CharlesKoppelman, I'll look at the sources and give you more specific citations as soon as possible.
    – jake
    Commented Jun 15, 2012 at 22:22

Perhaps indeed for this reason, Rashbam (13:2) understands the phrase כל נשיא בהם to mean simply "from among those who volunteer (נשא אותם לבם) for this mission." Such people would, of course, have been strong and fearless types, but it is quite possible that they were unknowns up to this point.

Following the usual explanation, that they were indeed leaders, though, Ramban explains that Hashem hoped that they'd then reinforce each other and prevent each other from succumbing to defeatism.

Sforno points out that to some extent this hope was indeed realized: all twelve of them agreed that it was a good land (13:27 and Deut. 1:25) - whereas lesser people might not have recognized its advantages. [The problem began only when ten of the spies claimed that it was unconquerable, thus demonstrating a lack of faith in Hashem - which didn't last very long; the next day, after Hashem's stern rebuke, the Jews' trust in Him reasserted itself (13:40ff and Deut. 1:41ff), just that by then it was too late to undo the chillul Hashem that had been caused.]

  • And Yehoshua's spies? Were they just average dudes? Did he learn from the mistakes of the past?
    – jake
    Commented Jun 15, 2012 at 22:57
  • @jake: since, as in your answer, they were reporting back only to Yehoshua, then it wouldn't have mattered as much. If they ended up being defeatist like the other two, he could bury the report.
    – Alex
    Commented Jun 15, 2012 at 23:20

Actually in Devarim 1:22 the term ויחפרו is used. But as will be explained, Moses did not send out the 12 leaders for ויחפרו.

In the next verse, 1:23, see Rashi, he says Moses agreed to send out spies only in order for them to feel more comfortable about conquering the land, and he hoped they would change their mind when they saw that Moses was confident about conquering the land. But really he himself felt is was unnecessary because he was confident since God said they would get the land. But that's not what happened. They still wanted to spy.

At that point, he decided to consult with God, but he had something else in mind. He felt it would benefit the nation in another way. It would excite the Israelites to see the wonderful produce of the land "so they would ascend to it with great eagerness." (the quote is from Ramban beginning of Shelach). And by the by it may placate the nation, because it will seem to them that people are being sent to the land for the purpose they requested.

And this is what he was advised to do by God. This is why in Shelach God says send אנשים - "men" not מרגלים "spies", and why it says ויתורו - which can be translated as and they shall scan out or scour as opposed to the more intensive ויחפרו, to dig and excavate, that which should have remained hidden. This is also why the 12 leaders were sent out, because they knew the wants and interests of their specific tribe, and why all 12 of them went through the entire length of the land and they didn't split up, because no one knew yet where his personal tribe's portion laid, because the lottery was not yet performed. So they made sure to scout the entire land, including their own future portion. And everyone knew about this task, which is uncharacteristic of a spy mission.

On the other hand, by Joshua, who "sent out two men to spy secretly"- שנים אנשים מרגלים חרש. It was two regular men, not leaders of the nation. And only two- the more under the radar the better. And they were to be spies. They only ended up going to Jericho, because as soon as they heard from Rahab that their terror was upon the hearts of everyone in the land, and there was no more "courage in any man, because of you", 2:9-11,there was no more need to spy further.

From a talk of Rabbi Menachem Schneerson, Shelach 1991.

  • This is almost a direct copy from my response to a related question. But it includes the answer to this question too. So I think it's fitting to put it here also.
    – gaagu
    Commented Jun 13, 2014 at 20:22

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .