By Israel Drazin


The following are surprising interpretations of the biblical portion Shelach (Numbers 13:1-15:41) raise interesting ideas concerning interpreting the Torah.


Seemingly contradictory biblical texts

In 13:2, God instructs Moses to send spies to reconnoiter Canaan; apparently he is initiating the enterprise. However, Deuteronomy 1:22 reports that the Israelites initiated the idea. In his commentary to Exodus 20:2, Abraham ibn Ezra explains that the Torah frequently tells tales in different ways in different parts of the Torah and whenever it does so it retells the tale in a different way. He tells us that this is the biblical style to deepen the story and we need to read the two versions together to understand what happened. In this case the Torah is stating that the people initiated the plan and God allows it. Rashi uses a midrashic interpretation of the Torah wording to come to this conclusion. God says here shelach lekha, which he interprets as “send as you like,” although the literal meaning of the two words is simply “you (should) send.”


Is God involved in human affairs?

Most people are convinced that God knows everything happening in this world and even knows the future before it occurs. If this is true, why did God authorize the spying of Canaan? Wouldn’t he know that the results would be catastrophic, that the Israelites would be punished with imprisonment in the desert for forty years? Would a beneficent God do such a thing?


Many Jewish philosophers did not believe that God knows everything. They understood that God is transcendental: God created the world and the laws of nature that control it and is not involved further. They say that God does not know what occurs in this world; he only knows the generalities, the laws of nature that he created. Ibn Ezra denies divine knowledge of human particulars. In his commentary to Genesis 18:21, he writes: “for it is the truth that the All (namely, God) knows every particular (only) in a general manner, but not in a particular manner.”[1] Ibn Ezra,[2] Maimonides,[3] Abraham ibn Daud[4] and Gersonides[5] maintained that divine providence reaches only some individuals, but not all people.[6] In his Guide of the Perplexed 3:17 and 18, Maimonides states that divine providence, the concept that God is watching over humans, means that God gave people intelligence, and if they use it, they are, in effect, being watched over by God: “I hold that divine providence is related and closely connected with the intellect, because providence can only proceed from an intelligent being….every person has his individual share of divine providence in proportion to his (intellectual) perfection.”

If this is so, why does the Bible say that God said and did many things? In his last chapter on prophecy,[7] Guide 2:48, Maimonides states that when the Torah states that God did something it does not mean that he did it, the event occurred according to the laws of nature. The Torah says that God did it, even though he was not directly involved, because he was indirectly involved since he created the laws of nature that produced this result.[8]


Thus according to this interpretation the plan to reconnoiter Canaan was a natural event. The people thought it was a good idea to spy-out the land (the Deuteronomy version) and after thinking about it Moses agreed (understanding God’s decree in Numbers as an intellectual exercise.).

[1] This is also the view of Aristotle.  It is contrary to such others as Shem Tov ibn Falaquera (circa 1225-1291), who maintains the traditional view that providence extends to human individuals.  See R. Jospe, Torah and Sophia, Hebrew Union College Press, 1988, pp. 164-171.

[2] Also commentary to Exodus 23:25, 33:21.

[3] Also Guide of the Perplexed 3: 51.

[4] HaEmunah HaRamah 97-98.

[5] S. Feldman, The War of the Lord, JPS, 1987, vol. II, pp. 139-209, and Gersonides’ Commentary on Job, chapters 11 and 42.

[6] Divine providence extends over those people who have reached intellectual perfection.

[7] Maimonides defines prophecy as a natural event, a higher level of intelligence.

[8] See my book Maimonides and the Biblical Prophets for a fuller discussion of 2:48 with many examples.