Moses and the Messengers from Canaan (painting by Giovanni Lanfranco)
The Meaning of the Attitude of Joshua Ben Noon and Caleb Ben Yefune to the Residents of the Land of Canaan
The story, also known as “the Spies Affair” starts: “Send thou men, that they may spy out the land of Canaan”(Numbers 13:2). It sprawls on for two chapters in our parasha, Shlach Lecha. We can also find the story in chapter 32:8-1 and Deuteronomy, chapter 1:22-46 and chapter 9:23. It is also indicated or mentioned explicitly in the Book of Joshua 14:7-8, in THE Book of Ezekiel 20:15-17 and in Psalms 95:8-11, Lechu Neranenah Psalm- “O come, let us sing unto the LORD”
There are differences and contradictions in the story. The traditional interpretation is to admit that there are contradictions in the different versions but that the versions complete each other, for example, in Jerusalem Talmud, Rosh Hashana Tractate chapter 3, Halacha 5, it is written that Torah words are poor in one place and rich in the other and that sometimes the Torah tells stories that happen later before stories that happen earlier as it is agreed that “there is no early and late in the Torah” (Psachim tractate 6:2 and other places). According to the scientific interpretation, the various versions are the remains of different sources that were edited into one story.
Usually, interpreters focus on the differences between the stories of Caleb Ben Yefune and Joshua Ben Noon and the story of the other ten spies, as well on with the reactions of God, Moses and the people to the different stories. I would like to focus on how the local residents of the land are described by the spies.
The ten spies describe the locals as strong people (Numbers 13:31), who are “fierce” and “men of great stature” (ibid 32). They even claim to have seen “giants there, the descendants of Anak” (ibd 28). Subjectively, they said that: “we were in our own sight as grasshoppers” (ibid 33). Caleb and Joshua do not disagree with this description, but they were more optimistic than the ten spies and said: “neither fear ye the people of the land; for they are bread for us; their defense is removed from over them, and the LORD is with us; fear them not” (Numbers 14:9).
The traditional interpretation denigrates the ten spies, and praises Caleb Ben Yefune and Joshua Ben Noon for their courage and insistence. In our days they would have been a good example of how to occupy the land and settle it.
I would like to point out another side of Caleb and Joshua’s words, their disrespect to the local residents of the land, a disrespect that was inherited by the Zionist leaders, who, at least some of them, if not ignored, in their vision, the local residents of the land, saw them as riffraff, and did not think that an Arabic-Palestinian resistance will prevent the realization of Zionism.
Despite Balfour’s explicit condition that the establishment of a Jewish homeland would not violate the human rights of the non Jews, the rights of non Jews in the Jewish state have been severely violated. We can see an increasing awareness of this situation on the Jewish side and many have recently begun to witness it clearly and even traumatically.
We have to ask a question of those who try to sweep these violations under the carpet. Can a Jewish- democratic state exist if its leaders do not understand that the only guarantee for the Jewish state’s existence here, and as a Zionist, I support the Jews’ rights as well as the Palestinian’s right to self determination, is to realize that, despite the tragic past of the two peoples here in this area, peoples who killed each other, the occupation must end with a solution of two states for two peoples, with each state having within it a minority of the other people who can live in peace and have full democratic rights.
Only then the land will stop flowing blood and become a land which flows milk and honey, (ibid 14 15) and for all her inhabitants.