The Spies – Where Did They Tour?

Exegetical Approaches


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.

Joint Endeavor

All twelve spies toured the land together.

"עֲלוּ זֶה בַּנֶּגֶב וַעֲלִיתֶם אֶת הָהָר" – These commentators disagree regarding the meaning of Moshe's instructions:
  • 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
"וַיָּתֻרוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ מִמִּדְבַּר צִן עַד רְחֹב לְבֹא חֲמָת" – This approach reads these words as describing the route literally traversed by the spies.
  • 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.
In 40 days?
  • 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
The focus on Chevron in Bemidbar – This approach might suggest that the narrator chooses only to tell the details of the time spent in Chevron and Nachal Eshkol as that is what the spies touch upon in their speech.9
No other places mentioned in Devarim – These commentators might suggest that, in Devarim, Moshe focuses exclusively on the visit to the hilly region of Chevron and Nachal Eshkol due to the specific agenda of his speech there.10
Singular form of "וַיָּבֹא עַד חֶבְרוֹן"
  • Following Bavli SotaSota 34bAbout the Bavli, 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
Undetected by the Canaanites?
  • 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.
The mission's focus – Malbim asserts that the mission was a surveying one, meant to assess the quality of the land, and not to evaluate potential military strategies.15
Doubling of the spies' return – These commentators do not address the issue explicitly but might suggest that this follows the pattern of a "כלל ופרט" with a general description (‏"וַיָּשֻׁבוּ..."‏) in verse 25 introducing the detailed description in verse 26 (‏"וַיֵּלְכוּ וַיָּבֹאוּ..."‏).

Divide and Conquer

The spies split the land up amongst themselves, with each person visiting a different section of the country.

Moshe's instructions – "עֲלוּ זֶה בַּנֶּגֶב וַעֲלִיתֶם אֶת הָהָר" – Netziv asserts that Moshe directed the spies to scout the entire land, as suggested by the Torah's description "וַיִּשְׁלַח אֹתָם מֹשֶׁה לָתוּר אֶת אֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן", but that he also instructed them to begin in the mountainous areas of the Negev.17
"וַיָּתֻרוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ מִמִּדְבַּר צִן עַד רְחֹב לְבֹא חֲמָת" – This position views these words as a description of the area traveled by the spies.18
The focus on Chevron – Netziv asserts that this is just one place visited as part of the much broader scouting mission. He does not elaborate on why the text highlights this episode, but he could explain19 that it provides the necessary background for understanding the later report of the spies.
Singular form of "וַיָּבֹא עַד חֶבְרוֹן"
  • 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.
The mission's focus – Netziv views the mission as a military one in which the spies were supposed to see which cities were the least fortified and most vulnerable.20
Doubling of the spies' return – Netziv asserts that the phrase "וַיָּשֻׁבוּ מִתּוּר הָאָרֶץ" in v. 25 relates to the spies gathering together after their individual expeditions to one preset meeting spot. Only afterwards, did they return together from that site to the Israelite camp ("וַיֵּלְכוּ וַיָּבֹאוּ אֶל מֹשֶׁה" in v. 26).
In 40 days? – As the mission was divided amongst the various men, forty days should have been sufficient time to collectively traverse the country and return to Moshe.
Undetected by the Canaanites? – The spies traveled alone or in pairs, making them much less conspicuous.
The gravity of the sin – If only one person visited Chevron in person,21 there would have been much less grounds for the spies' fear mongering and their negative report which highlighted the city.22

Only the Negev

The spies did not explore the entire country, but rather only the Negev region.

"עֲלוּ זֶה בַּנֶּגֶב וַעֲלִיתֶם אֶת הָהָר" – Moshe directed the leaders to the southern region of the land since this was the only place they were supposed to scout.
"וַיָּתֻרוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ מִמִּדְבַּר צִן עַד רְחֹב לְבֹא חֲמָת" – This phrase contains a parenthetical statement detailing for the reader the borders of the land of Israel, even though the spies toured only one small portion of the land.23 The verse should thus be read as incorporating an implied word: "וַיָּתֻרוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ [שגבולותיה] מִמִּדְבַּר צִן עַד רְחֹב לְבֹא חֲמָת."
The focus on Chevron in Bemidbar and Devarim – Both Bemidbar and Devarim focus only on Chevron and Nachal Eshkol. This was not just one of many stops on the spies' mission, but the only one.
Singular form of "וַיָּבֹא עַד חֶבְרוֹן" – This position does not relate to the issue. It might answer, as Chizkuni above, that the Torah at times uses a singular form of the verb when speaking of one group of people.
The mission's focus – This position is most logical if one assumes that the mission was primarily a military one. Moshe asked the spies to explore the Negev exclusively since that was the first area they would need to conquer.24 The mission was thus very directed, and there was no need to see the rest of the land, since the main objective was not to confirm the agricultural quality of the land.25
Mention of other areas – The spies' report in 13:29 is somewhat difficult for this approach as it suggests that the scouts traveled throughout a significant portion of the land. The spies explicitly mention, not just the inhabitants of the Negev and mountains, but also "וְהַכְּנַעֲנִי יוֹשֵׁב עַל הַיָּם וְעַל יַד הַיַּרְדֵּן".
In 40 days? – If the spies only visited the southern part of Israel, one wonders what took forty days?
Undetected by the Canaanites? – This approach does not relate to this issue.
Understanding the sin – If the spies spent almost all of their time in the Chevron region, their report, and fear, is much more understandable. They were very heavily influenced by the sight of the strong fortifications and giants, as this is all they saw. They were not unfairly harping on just one city and ignoring all the rest, but expressing concerns based on the totality of their experiences.

Dual Mission

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.

Sources:R. Yaacov Medan26 and other modern commentators
The mission's dual focus
  • 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.
Bemidbar vs. Devarim
  • 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.
"וַיָּתֻרוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ מִמִּדְבַּר צִן עַד רְחֹב לְבֹא חֲמָת" – These words depict the area that the spies explored.
Moshe's instructions of "עֲלוּ זֶה בַּנֶּגֶב וַעֲלִיתֶם אֶת הָהָר"
  • 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.
The focus on Chevron in Bemidbar – R. Medan does not address this issue but if one posits that Moshe instructed the spies to focus their attention on Chevron, it is understandable why the narrator highlights this part of the trip.
Singular form of "וַיָּבֹא עַד חֶבְרוֹן"
  • 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.
Doubling of the spies' going and coming – The two verses (13:21-22) describing the spies' embarking on their mission speak of both the broader survey ("וַיַּעֲלוּ וַיָּתֻרוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ") and the more focused objective ("וַיַּעֲלוּ בַנֶּגֶב וַיָּבֹא עַד חֶבְרוֹן"). Similarly, when the spies return, there are two separate verses (13:25-26), one for the completion of each mission.28
In 40 days? R. Medan does not address whether the spies could have realistically crossed the country and returned in forty days. According to the second variation, though, the spies tarried only in Chevron, visiting the rest of the country much more superficially, and forty days could have sufficed.29
Undetected by the Canaanites? – R. Medan asserts that in combining the two missions, Moshe encouraged its failure, in large part because in so doing the men were much more conspicuous.30 He suggests that the spies were met with suspicion as they neared Chevron and thus panicked at the site of the giants' questioning eyes.31
Understanding the sin – The fear of the spies and their emphasis on the incidents in Chevron is readily understandable given that this was the focal point of their visit.32