The Spies in Art
Bemidbar 13-14 and much of Devarim 1 are devoted to the story of the twelve spies. The two images shown here, Doré's engraving1 and Lanfranco's painting,2 both depict the men returning from their mission, carrying the fruits of the land. The renderings differ both in the cast of characters portrayed and in how those figures are depicted, allowing for varied understandings of the spies' report and intentions.
Doré's engraving focuses on the returning spies. In the center, two of the scouts stand on a mound triumphantly raising their huge cluster of grapes to show the nation. Behind them, another pair carry a second bundle of grapes on a rod between them, and three others follow, showing off other assorted fruits. In the background the masses of Israelites await their arrival.
In contrast to Doré, Lanfranco chooses to highlight just a few characters. Three of the spies, Moshe, and an unidentified man are painted close to the foreground, large and muscular, while the other spies are alluded to by a couple of heads that peep out from behind. The scouts look weary and somewhat tense as they display their oversized fruits to Moshe. The leader, in turn, stands majestically with one arm raised and the other holding what looks more like a scepter than a staff.
Relationship to the Biblical Text
The artists' choices reflect certain ambiguities in the Biblical text and different possible interpretive stances:
To Whom Did the Spies Report?
While Doré has the spies approaching and displaying their finds to the entire nation, Lanfranco instead has them returning specifically to Moshe. To whom did the spies report according to the Biblical text? At first glance the verses seem to support Doré's rendering, as Bemidbar 13:26 presents the spies speaking to both the leaders and the congregation. The very next verse, though, states "וַיְסַפְּרוּ לוֹ" (they told him) in the singular, suggesting that they spoke only to Moshe.3
The two possibilities relate to several other questions as well. What was the purpose of the spies' mission? Was it military in nature, in which case one would have expected a private debriefing, or was it a scouting mission meant to encourage the nation, necessitating a more public report? See Spies or Scouts for elaboration. Even if one takes the latter possibility, one must question the logic of sharing a negative report with the masses. Did the spies purposefully share their negativity with the nation,4 or was this simply a tactical error on their or Moshe's part?
Triumphant or Disillusioned?
Doré's exultant spies contrast sharply with the fatigued and frightened messengers of Lanfranco's image. What were the spies feeling when they returned, excitement or dismay? When did they become convinced that they were incapable of conquering the land –– already in Canaan, or only once they began to describe their visit and heard the murmurings of the nation?5 Finally, at what point did their words stop constituting a legitimate report and turn into slander and sin?6 To learn more, see Sin of the Spies.
"וַיִּשָּׂאֻהוּ בַמּוֹט בִּשְׁנָיִם"
While Lanfranco paints two men carrying the cluster of grapes, Doré portrays two different pairs of men each carrying their own rod. Was there one pole of grapes or two? The text is ambiguous as the phrase "וַיִּשָּׂאֻהוּ בַמּוֹט בִּשְׁנָיִם" can be understood to mean either that two men were together carrying one pole,7 or that there were two separate poles.8
How Large Were the Fruit?
While both artists depict huge clusters of grapes, the other fruit that they portray are rather normal in size. This would seem to accord with the Biblical narrative which suggests that the grapes were so large that they necessitated two men to carry them while the other fruit did not require any special arrangements. This makes one wonder how big grapes were vis-a-vis other fruit in the time of Tanakh, and how to understand this larger than natural size. One can either suggest that nature has changed over the centuries, or that the grapes themselves were similar to those found today and the pole was only necessary due to quantity and not size.