How do you persuade someone to do what you want—even when you can’t make a reasonable case for it?
Two of the stories people tell in this week’s Torah portion, Shelach-Lekha, are implausible when you examine them. But nevertheless the speakers succeed in getting the reaction they desire.
1) Fabrication by the Ten Scouts
Moses sends twelve men north from the wilderness of Paran to scout out the land of Canaan—the land God has promised to give to the Israelites—and report back. He also tells them to bring back some fruit from the land. They return forty days later with pomegranates, figs, and a single cluster of grapes so heavy that two of them have to bear it on a carrying frame.
All twelve scouts agree that the land is fertile and good, and “flows with milk and honey”1. Ten of them, however, are alarmed by the “strong people” and “large fortified cities” they saw—phrases that make the assembled Israelites nervous.
Caleb, one of the other two scouts, urges:
“Let us definitely go up! And we will take possession of [the land], since yakhol nukhal it!” (Numbers 13:30)
yakhol (יָכוֹל) = being capable of, having power to. (Infinitive absolute form of yakhol, יָכֺל = was capable of, had power to; held onto, won.)
nukhal (נוּכַל) = we are capable of, we have the power to do. (Imperfect form of yakhol.)
yakhol nukhal (יָכוֹל נוּכַל) = Literally: being capable we are capable of. Idiomatically: we are certainly capable of. (In Biblical Hebrew, an infinitive absolute preceding another verb from the same root indicates emphasis, such as “certainly”, “definitely”, or in older English “surely”.)
The ten scouts who are afraid to march on Canaan do not want the Israelites to believe Caleb’s assurance. So they add some new details to their story.
But the men who had gone up with him said: “Lo nukhal to go up to the people, because they are stronger than we are!” And they put forth to the Israelites a slanderous report of the land that they had scouted, saying: “The land that we traversed to scout out is a land devouring its inhabitants! And all the people who we saw in it were people of [great] size. And there we saw the Nefilim2, Anakites from the Nefilim! And in our eyes we were like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.”
Lo nukhal (לֺא נוּכַל) = we are not capable, we do not have the power. (Lo, לֺא ֹ= not.)
The ten scouts simply do not believe that their people could succeed in conquering the land, with or without God’s help. Since the presence of large fortified cities is not enough to persuade the Israelites to stay put in Paran, the ten scouts invent a “slanderous report” that is clearly false—if you examine it rationally.
How could a land that produces such abundant food be “devouring its inhabitants”? Could wild animals be killing off the people? No, the land is full of large cities, and these cities are still populated. We know this because in their first account, the scouts said that there were Anakites; Amalekites living in the Negev; Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites living in the hill country; and Canaanites living along the seacoast to the west and the Jordan River to the east.3
Furthermore, in the first report Anakites were only one of the groups living in Canaan. In their new story, they ten scouts say that all the people are giants—giants so big that they felt like grasshoppers in comparison.
Despite the holes in their story, the ten scouts succeed in panicking the Israelites, who weep all night and tell each other: “Give us a leader and we will return to Egypt!” (Numbers 14:4)
In the morning the twelfth scout, Joshua, stands with Caleb and both men argue that the Israelites can conquer Canaan because God is with them. But their argument comes too late. The people have already been persuaded by the tale the other ten scouts fabricated.
The Israelites do not see through the deception because their habit, whenever they encounter a problem, is to doubt God and beg to go back to Egypt, where they were enslaved but (they now believe) safe.
In the book of Exodus the Israelite slaves believe Moses the first time he tells them that God will rescue them.4 Then Pharaoh doubles their labor, and when Moses tells them that God will not only free them, but also give them the land of Canaan, they do not listen.5 Five of the ten plagues affect the Israelites as much as the Egyptians, which is not a promising sign. After they march out of Egypt, Pharaoh pursues the Israelites with an army of charioteers, and they are so frightened they do not believe God will rescue them.6
Their faith in God returns after the Egyptian army drowns in the Reed Sea.7 But in the wilderness the Isaelites think they are going to die when they run out of food or water, and they long for Egypt instead of trusting God to provide for them.8
The majority of Israelites are easily deceived in this week’s Torah portion because the fabrication of the ten scouts triggers their ongoing anxiety about God.
2) Fabrication by Moses
In the morning the Israelites threaten to stone Caleb and Joshua for telling them what they do not want to hear. Then the glory of God (probably the divine cloud that has led them from Egypt to the southern edge of Canaan) appears on the Tent of Meeting.9 God threatens to disown the Israelites, kill them, and make a nation out of Moses instead.
Moses does not try to reason with God. Instead he reminds God that if God kills all the Israelites, the Egyptians will hear about it and spread the news. Since God chose the Israelites to rescue and accompany, Moses says,
“… then the nations that heard of your reputation would say: Except God was not yekholet to bring this people to the land that [God] promised them, so [God] slaughtered them in the wilderness!” (Numbers 14:15)
yekholet (יְכֺלֶת) = capable enough, powerful enough. (Also from the root verb yakhol.)
Moses then asks God to pardon the people instead. God grants a limited pardon, requiring the Israelites to stay in the wilderness for forty years before they get another chance to enter Canaan.
Would the natives of Egypt and other nations really conclude that God killed the Israelites because God was not powerful enough to give them the land? In an actual war between the Israelites and the natives of Canaan, people might assume that the conqueror’s god was stronger. But would people think that the reason God killed the Israelites before they even entered Canaan would was because God was weak?
Throughout the Ancient Near East, gods were considered mercurial and easily angered. The gods in polytheistic religions quarreled with each other, with disastrous consequences to human beings. They also lashed out at humans if they felt they were insufficiently propitiated.
If news spread that the Israelites had all died at the border, the people of other nations probably would conclude that the God of Israel was responsible. But they would attribute God’s deed to annoyance, revenge, or a change of mind, not to a lack of power.
Apparently God does not think of this. After hearing Moses’ deceptive claim, God commutes the Israelites’ sentence. Why is the God-character in Shelach-Lekha so easily persuaded?
Four times in the book of Exodus God says that the purpose of creating ten plagues in a row (and hardening Pharaoh’s heart whenever it wavers) is so that all the Egyptians, as well as the Israelites, will realize how powerful God is.10 Finally God lets Pharaoh beg the Israelites to leave Egypt, and they march out into the wilderness. Then God tells Moses:
“And I will strengthen Pharaoh’s heart and he will chase after you. Then I will be honored through Pharaoh and through all his army, and Egypt will know that I am God.” (Exodus 14:4)
The honor11 that God has in mind is drowning the Egyptian army in the Reed Sea. For the God-character portrayed in Exodus and Numbers, it is not enough to be the most powerful god in the world.12 All human beings must know that the God of Israel is the most powerful god. The God-character in Exodus and Numbers frets over “his” reputation.
Moses is able to mislead this God-character because he knows what the deity is touchy about.
Few people today believe in an anthropomorphic God that is hypersensitive and does not see through human misdirection. But all of we humans can be tricked into knee-jerk reactions by those who know our weak spots.
In these times I am angry when immoral politicians use slogans that push people’s buttons and thereby get popular support for agendas that will result in the opposite of what their voter base really wants. I am also angry when activists whose agendas I favor unskillfully use slogans that set off negative knee-jerk reactions among people who would otherwise be able to listen to a reasonable argument.
Alas, the portion Sehlach-Lekha illustrates that when a speaker fabricates a story that triggers an ingrained fear or sore spot, the listeners are highly unlikely to stop and think.
May all human beings be blessed with longer fuses, and the strength to put our feelings on hold long enough to question what we read or hear.
- Numbers 13:27. See my post Ki Tavo: Milk and Honey.
- Nefilim (נְפִילִים) = a race of demi-gods and heroes before the Flood. (Genesis 6:4)
- Numbers 13:29.
- Exodus 4:30-31.
- Exodus 6:6-9.
- Exodus (Beshallach)14:10-12.
- Exodus (Beshallach) 14:31.
- Exodus (Beshallach) 16:2-3, 17:1-4.
- Numbers 14:10.
- Exodus 7:3-5, 9:15-16, 10:1-2, 11:9.
- Honor or importance. The Hebrew word in Exodus (Beshallach) 14:4 is ikavdah (אִכָּבְדָה) = I will be honored, I will show my glory, I will be respected, I will be recognized as important. God repeats this sentiment in Exodus 14:17 and 14:18.
- Monotheism appears in the Hebrew Bible only in the first chapter of Genesis and the books of Deuteronomy and Isaiah.