Shelach-Lekha: Sticking Point

The Israelites are camped in the Wilderness of Paran.  Canaan, the land God chose for them, lies just over the ridge.  Moses gets God’s permission to send twelve scouts into Canaan to gather information in Shelach-Lekha (“Send for yourself”), this week’s Torah portion.1

They return with giant fruits, including a grape cluster so big it takes two men to carry.

And they brought back word to them and to the whole assembly, and they showed them the fruits of the land.  And they gave an account, and they said: “We came into the land where you sent us, and indeed it flows with milk and devash, and this is its fruit.”  (Numbers/Bemidbar 13:26-27)

devash (דְבַשׁ) = honey, syrup.  (The bible uses the same word for honey from bees and syrup from dates or figs.)

Dripping fig

Moses has been calling Canaan a land flowing with milk and devash all along.2  Now the scouts confirm it.  The Talmud explains the phrase by claiming that when Rami bar Yechezkeil went to the village of Benei-berek he saw goats dripping milk from their udders as they grazed under fig trees dripping syrup.3  Both kinds of dripping indicate a land of abundance.

But in this week’s Torah portion, a fertile land is not enough.

“However, the people dwelling in the land are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very big, and also we saw the offspring of the giant Anak there.”  (Numbers 13:28)

Alarmed, the Israelites start grumbling against their leader, Moses.  This is what ten of the twelve scouts want, since they themselves are afraid to try conquering an armed and fortified land.  But Caleb, one of the two scouts who are in favor of carrying out God’s plan, hushes the people and says:

“We should definitely go up, and we will get possession of [the land], for we can definitely conquer it.”  (Numbers 13:30)

Caleb forgets to mention the reason for his confidence: God’s backing.

The men who had gone up with him said: “We cannot overcome [those] people, since they are stronger than us.”  Then they brought out slander of the land that they had scouted to the Israelites, saying “The land that we crossed and scouted is a land that is eating up those who live in it!  And all the people that we saw in it were men of unusual size!  … and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we would look to them.”  (Numbers 13:30-33)

Obviously the land is not eating up the people who currently live in it, since they are growing extra-large fruits and can afford to build fortified cities—and the land itself is flowing with milk and devash.

Arthur Rackham illustration for Gulliver’s Travels

Next the ten pessimistic scouts, who at first reported seeing some very large men, say that every man in Canaan is gigantic.

The Israelites are too upset to notice that these claims are merely slander.  They cry out loud all night, and tell each other that they would rather have died in Egypt than come all this way only to be defeated by the Canaanites.

When they assemble again, they are ready to stone Moses and Aaron.  The two optimistic spies, Caleb and Joshua, pull themselves together and remind the people:

“If God is pleased with us, then [God] will bring us to that land and give it to us, a land that is flowing with milk and devash.  Only do not rebel against God, and do not be afraid of the people of the land, because they will be our dinner.  Their protection has deserted them, but God is with us.  Do not be afraid!”  (Numbers 14:8-9)

This Caleb and Joshua emphasize that the land is sweet, worth conquering, and that God is protecting them.

Then the whole assembly said to pelt them with stones.  But the glory of God appeared at the Tent of Meeting to all the Israelites.  And God said to Moses: “How long will this people reject me?  And how long will they have no faith in me, with all the signs that I have made in their midst?”  (Numbers 14:10-11)

Moses talks God out of killing all the Israelites and starting over again.  But God does decree that the people will not be allowed to enter Canaan until all the men age 20 and over have died, except for Caleb and Joshua.


What is wrong with these people?  Don’t they remember how God drowned a whole army of Egyptians to save them at the Reed Sea?  Are they so used to seeing the glory of God appear in a pillar of cloud and fire that they don’t take it seriously anymore?  Why don’t they believe God will deliver the land of Canaan to them, as promised?

Ethical objections are not an issue; the bible does not consider the morality of starting an unprovoked war against Canaan’s inhabitants and subjugating everyone they do not kill.  So why do the people refuse to cross over into Canaan?

One explanation is that the Israelites remember all the times God smote them, as well as the times God saved them.  In the book of Exodus, after the Levites kill 3,000 men who they suspect of worshiping the golden calf, God afflicts many of the survivors with a plague.4

Quail in the Wilderness, by Caspar Luyken

Shortly after they leave Mount Sinai, the people complain about the food and whine that they are tired of manna.  God blankets the ground with quail, then kills everyone who starts to eat the birds.5

How can the Israelites count on a God who keeps killing them?  Even if they are careful not to rebel by making another golden calf or complaining about the manna, they are bound to make some other error, and then they will find themselves facing the Canaanites without God’s protection.

I think this is a reasonable fear.  Yet if they reject God and do not march ahead into Canaan, what will happen to them?  If God lets them return to Egypt, they will face execution or enslavement.  Surely it would be better to risk death or enslavement in Canaan, where there is a chance that God will aid them and they can settle down in a land of milk and devash.

It is hard to grow up and take on a new life, a life in which we are responsible for something we do not know yet how to do.  When we are children, someone else feeds us and guides us and takes care of our needs.  When the Israelites are slaves in Egypt, their parent-figure is the Pharaoh.

Then they are adopted and rescued by God.  The Israelites develop an adolescent relationship with God, grumbling and rebelling occasionally as they look forward to the promised land, the way teenagers look forward to adulthood.

Suddenly it is time to leave home and make our own place in a world of strangers—giants we cannot hope to compete with.  The promised land of adulthood is both exciting and frightening.

Most people take a deep breath, take the risk, and cross over the ridge into Canaan.

But life takes more than one deep breath.  As an adult, I keep facing another ridge to climb, another new land to enter.  I never know whether I am strong enough to do the next thing that I have never done before.  I never know whether inspiration or luck will be on my side.

Yet when the new land is important, and there is no good alternative, the best you can do is to cross that ridge whether you have faith in God or not.  Otherwise, you will be stuck in the wilderness until you die.  And if you survive to get a second chance at crossing over, you should take it.

May each of us be blessed with the courage to go forward, and may our rewards be sweeter than devash.

  1. See the first part of my post Shelah-Lekha: Reminder for more details.
  2. Exodus 3:8, 3:17, 13:5, and 33:3; Leviticus 20:24.
  3. Talmud Bavli, Ketubot 111b.
  4. Exodus 32:28, 32:35
  5. Numbers 11:4-6, 11:31-34.


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