Commentators on our story attempt to both solve the difficulty of fitting the long trek of the spies within the allotted forty days, and to resolve the contradiction between verses which alternately portray the spies as either visiting all of Israel or focusing only on the Southern portion of the land. In trying to do so, they challenge various assumptions commonly made about the episode. The Tanchuma and Rashi posit that the spies were the beneficiaries of a miraculous shortening of their journey which enabled them to complete their mission within forty days. In contrast, the Netziv and Hoil Moshe propose that the spies splintered into multiple groups, divvying up the country between them, while some modern commentators suggest that the spies may, in fact, have only scouted out a small section of the land. Finally, other contemporary exegetes maintain that the spies' undertaking was really a synthesis of two disparate missions.
The Entire Land
The twelve spies traversed the entire land from the Zin Wilderness in the South to the road leading to Chamat in the North. This position subdivides as to whether the spies traveled together or divided up the territory amongst themselves.
All twelve spies toured the land together.
- Begin with the worst – According to most of these commentators, although Moshe wanted the spies to traverse the entire land, he told them to begin in the mountainous region of the Negev due to tactical reasons:
- Tanchuma and Rashi assert that Hashem wanted them to initially see the least fertile part of the land, so that they would conclude their mission on an uplifting note with the choicest areas of the country.
- Alternatively, Chizkuni proposes that Hashem wanted them to first figure out how to conquer the most difficult mountainous region, so that the rest would then seem easy in comparison.2
- Cover the whole land – Abarbanel, in contrast, maintains that Moshe's words were actually an explicit directive to visit the entire land from South to North. They were to proceed from the Negev toward "the mountain" ("הָהָר"), i.e. Hor HaHar, which is located at the northern border of the country.3
- The itinerary – Rashi (v. 21) suggests that they followed the western border northward,4 while Hoil Moshe proposes that they began in the South and then followed the eastern boundaries.5 Chizkuni and R. Hirsch posit that the spies crossed the country on a diagonal, from the southeast to northwest.
- The entire land – From Rashi's comments on v. 25, it appears that the spies covered every square meter of the country. Malbim also emphasizes that the scouts toured individual cities in the middle of the land, and did not just walk along the borders,6 while Abarbanel writes that they walked in all four directions.
- For Hoil Moshe who suggests that the spies hiked merely along the eastern perimeter of the land, it is probably a doable feat.
- Tanchuma and Rashi, who suggest that the spies passed through the center of the country as well,7 solve the problem of the longer route by suggesting that Hashem miraculously aided them and quickened their way.8
- Following Bavli Sota, Rashi and Hoil Moshe suggest that only Calev11 entered Chevron.12
- Other commentators point out that from the report of the spies to Moshe regarding the giants, it appears that they had all visited the Chevron area. Thus, Chizkuni and R. Hirsch explain that Torah sometimes uses a singular form to describe a group acting together as one unit,13 while Abarbanel and Malbim suggest that, to avoid detection, the scouts had arrived in the city one by one.14
- Miracle – Tanchuma and Rashi suggest that this too was due to supernatural Divine intervention. Hashem ensured that a plague befell the inhabitants of Canaan, preoccupying them with their dead so that the spies could tour undetected.
- One by One – Malbim asserts that when traveling through areas where they might arouse suspicion, the spies split up. Abarbanel, similarly, asserts that the spies entered the land one by one and not as a group of twelve.
Divide and Conquer
The spies split the land up amongst themselves, with each person visiting a different section of the country.
- Hoil Moshe suggests that the spies had split the land amongst themselves, and thus only one of them arrived in Chevron.
- Netziv agrees that the spies divvied up the mission, but he maintains that they traveled in pairs. Consequently, he is compelled to propose that Calev's partner was frightened away by the giants and fortifications in Chevron, and only Calev was left to enter alone.
Only the Negev
The spies did not explore the entire country, but rather only the Negev region.
The spies had two missions, a military reconnaissance mission which focused only on the Negev, as well as a surveying mission to determine the tribal inheritances which required them to visit the entire country.
- R. Medan proposes that there were two parallel missions in which different configurations of the spies participated:27
- A "holy" one to appraise the quality of the land and allocate the tribal inheritances. This objective necessitated the participation of all twelve tribal princes to scout ("לָתוּר") the entire country.
- A "secular" one to determine military strategy. This required only a couple of men to spy ("וְיַחְפְּרוּ" / "וַיְרַגְּלוּ") on Chevron and its surroundings, the first area to be conquered.
- Alternatively, there was a primary mission and a secondary one, in both of which all of the spies participated equally:
- The spies' primary focus was to prepare for the upcoming conquest. This necessitated giving significant attention to Chevron and its environs, their inhabitants, and fortifications, as this was the originally intended point of entry into the land.
- The secondary goal was to see the overall quality of the land and affirm its goodness. For this, the spies needed to visit a variety of sites, but not to comprehensively cover the whole country or study any place in depth.
- According to R. Medan, Bemidbar focuses on the scouting mission, while Devarim highlights the military one. Thus, Bemidbar speaks of traveling throughout the country, while Devarim recounts only the visit to Chevron.
- Alternatively, in Devarim, Moshe mentions only the tour of the South as that was the critical part of the trip which had the most significant impact on the morale of the spies. Moshe is recapping the event for the next generation and thus omits the less crucial details.
- According to R. Medan, Moshe told the people to scout the entire land but to begin in the Negev.
- Alternatively, Moshe is instructing the spies, not just to begin in the South, but to concentrate their efforts there.
- R. Medan asserts that this refers to Calev, who alone was not fearful of entering the fortified Chevron and facing its giants.
- Alternatively, all twelve spies visited Chevron, and the Torah's use of the singular merely indicates that the group acted in concert.