Did Moses Lie to Us? A Textual Journey (Part II)

Scouting the Land

Moses then proceeds to renarrate how the Israelites scouted out the promised land early on in the wilderness period and how on account of their rebellious nature and lack of faith in Yahweh they were denied entry and forced to wander the wilderness for 40 years. Ok, I thought. Everyone knows this story. Surely Moses can’t slip one in on us here.

     And I said to you: “You have come to the Amorite hill country that Yahweh our God is giving us. See, Yahweh our God has put the land in front of you. Go up and take possession, as Yahweh your fathers’ God spoke to you. Fear not and be not dismayed!”

     And you came to me, all of you, and said: “Let us send men ahead to scout out the land for us and to bring us back word. . .”

    And the thing was good to my eyes, so I selected twelve men from among you, one man per tribe. And they turned and went up to the hill country and came to the Wadi Eshcol, and spied it out. And they took some of the land’s fruit with them and brought it down to us. And they brought back word to us and said: “The land that Yahweh our God is giving to us is good.” But you refused to go up and you rebelled against the word of Yahweh your God, and you grumbled in your tents. . .

    And I said to you: “Have no dread nor fear of them. Yahweh your God, who is going in front of you, will fight for you. . . Yet for all that, you did not have faith in Yahweh.

    When Yahweh heard your loud complaining, he was angry and vowed: “Not one of  these men, this evil generation, shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers—none except Caleb son of Jephunneh; he shall see it, and to him and his descendants will I give the land on which he set foot, because he remained loyal to Yahweh.”

   And because of you Yahweh was incensed with me too, and he said: “You shall not enter it either. Joshua son of Nun who attends you, he shall enter it. (Deut 1:20-38)

Ok, that’s pretty straight forward. Nothing new there—I thought. But just to make sure, it’s best to read the original account, the first account, which is now preserved in Numbers 13-14. Yet what I found was that similar to Moses’ renarration of the selection of judges, here too Moses gets some of the details wrong. Or was he consciously changing these details, here too? For what he says happened did not quite happen the way he claims—at least, again, when compared to the original record.

Right from the opening verses I noticed a pretty glaring discrepancy. Here, in Moses’ retelling of this event he claims that it was Yahweh’s commandment to “Go, take possession of the land” right from the start, and that he told this directly to the people: “And I said to you.” The people replied, however, by suggesting an alternative plan: “And you all came to me and said . . .”—namely, spying out the land first—to which Moses happily agreed. But this was not how it went down.

Numbers 13:1 tells us clearly that it was Yahweh who suggested to Moses to send spies to scout out the land—not the people, as Moses claims here! Furthermore Yahweh does not say in the original “Go, take possession of the land!”

I was miffed once again. Moses again claims to have said something that he did not say. More gravely, Moses claims that Yahweh said something when according to the original account he said no such thing. Could Moses have been confused? For what Yahweh himself proposed—scouting out the land—Moses presents as what the people suggested, and moreover as an alternative plan. Did Yahweh tell Moses one thing, and then Moses tell the people a completely different thing?

What rattled my cage the most was that when Moses renarrates this event, he makes it sound as if Yahweh gave a direct order to “Go, take the land!”—“as Yahweh spoke to you” Moses asserts—and presents the people as disobedient and rebellious “against the word of Yahweh your God” because they did not obey this commandment but instead put forward a counter-plan—to scout out the land. So here in Moses’ retelling the people are presented as disobeying a commandment that Yahweh never gave! Why would Moses do such a thing? What was I missing here?

Granted, the Israelites don’t look any better in the original version. They still lack faith in Yahweh. But why would Moses falsify what actually happened, claiming to say things that he and Yahweh never said, and ultimately chastising the people and calling them rebellious for disobeying a commandment that was never given in the first place!?

Moreover, not only did Yahweh not command the people “Go, take possession of the land” as Moses claims here, but neither did he also claim the same when they left Horeb, as Moses also professed earlier! Surely, the Israelites are to go and take the land. But Yahweh did not say this to the people at these two times as Moses claims. Certainly I understand the flexibility that Moses has in the manner in which he renarrates these events. But what I didn’t grasp was why would Moses be putting words into Yahweh’s mouth. Were these secret revelations of some sort?

The other pertinent detail that Moses seems to have botched, or misremembered, was Caleb’s crucial role in the event. In the original story it was Caleb, not Moses, who encouraged the people to have faith in Yahweh. “And Caleb quieted the people before Moses and said, ‘Let us go up and we’ll take possession of it, because we’ll be able to overcome it’” (Num 13:30). And later with Joshua he also encourages the people saying: “If Yahweh desires, then he will bring us to this land and give it to us. . . just don’t rebel against Yahweh, and don’t fear the people of the land” (14:8-9).

But again, when Moses renarrates these things, this becomes: “And I said to you: ‘Have no dread nor fear of them. Yahweh your God who is going in front of you will fight for you.’” In the original account as we have it however, Moses didn’t say this. It was Caleb who voiced these words! So Moses has now both taken credit for what Jethro initiated with respect to the selection of judges, and for Caleb’s encouraging words to the people to have faith in Yahweh. Had Moses forgotten this as well? Certainly Moses could have, like Caleb, encouraged the people as well, even though it’s not in the original account. But still why wouldn’t Moses give credit where credit was due? Why didn’t he even acknowledge Caleb’s positive role in this event? And why did it seem that Moses was consciously suppressing the mention of the role of crucial individuals in these events so that it appeared as if Moses himself initiated plans and encouragements that others in fact did?

Finally, Moses adds a narrative detail that wasn’t in the original story at all—namely that Yahweh was outraged with Moses as well because of the people’s rebelliousness. And it was this very reason why, Moses tells us, that he was not allowed to enter the promised land himself. Now, this could just be an afterthought that Moses had while renarrating this event, his interpretation in other words of why he could not enter the promised land. But even if this were the case, Moses knows that this is not the correct reason why. For Yahweh himself explicitly and directly just told Moses at the beginning of this same year (the 40th year) that he would not enter the promised land because he did not have faith in Yahweh while performing the water from the rock miracle. “Because you did not trust in me, to make me holy before the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this community to the land that I have given them” (Num 20:12).

So at this point it remains unclear why Moses would think that it was on account of the people’s rebelliousness rather than because of his own lack of faith that Yahweh denied him access to the promised land. Perhaps Moses knows the real reason, but could not bring himself to acknowledge it? So in a psychological transference of some sort he overtly blames the people for his own lack of faith that he cannot come to terms with himself. In either case, the account that Moses renarrates is not completely faithful to the original. Furthermore, Moses has now on three different occasions presented himself in a more positive light: suggesting that it was he who devised the plan to select judges, and not Jethro; suggesting that it was he who encouraged the people to have faith and go up and take the land, and not Caleb; and suggesting that it was the people’s lack of faith in Yahweh that prevented him from entering the land of Canaan rather than his own lack of faith. What is Moses possibly up to I thought? If I didn’t know better, I’d say Moses was rewriting history!

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3 Responses to Did Moses Lie to Us? A Textual Journey (Part II)

  1. Peter says:

    Steven,
    Don’t you think this could be resolved easily by saying these accounts were written by two different authors? And whoever wrote the second account likely, didn’t have the first account in front of him. I know this isn’t the traditional view, but traditions aren’t always right.

  2. Exactly Peter!

    The Did Moses Lie to Us? posts are part of a small little project—book—that I hope to have finished by year’s end. If you’ve visited my other site (contradictionsinthebible.com) and are familiar with what I’m doing over there, yes, this post might come as a bit of a shock, because yes, you are correct: Deuteronomy’s retelling and the “original telling” come from two once independent textual traditions. What I’m attempting to do in this small project is 2 simple chapters: 1) a surface reading as perhaps a fundamentalist would do noting the textual problems and my, the reader’s frustrations in encountering them. The second chapter (2) would then introduce source-criticism and basically lay out how these discrepancies and contradictions are resolved when we see that these are two different tellings. I will also go into answering why the later Deuteronomist, through the mouthpiece of Moses, alters this earlier tradition. But in short it’s an attempt to get fundamentalists to read the text and notice the discrepancies — thus the 1st person narrative.

  3. Paris Eiffel says:

    I agree with your answer that two different people may have written it and I think possibly two different people have different interpretations. When you send spies it does not mean that their account of the detail will be authentic but only authentic to their interpretation. Just a thought….

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