Inyenzi: Parashat Sh’lach L’cha, Numbers 13:1−15:41

לב  וַיֹּצִיאוּ דִּבַּת הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר תָּרוּ אֹתָהּ, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵאמֹר:  הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר עָבַרְנוּ בָהּ לָתוּר אֹתָהּ, אֶרֶץ אֹכֶלֶת יוֹשְׁבֶיהָ הִוא, וְכָל-הָעָם אֲשֶׁר-רָאִינוּ בְתוֹכָהּ, אַנְשֵׁי מִדּוֹת. 32 And they spread an evil report of the land which they had spied out unto the children of Israel, saying: ‘The land, through which we have passed to spy it out, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature.
לג  וְשָׁם רָאִינוּ, אֶת-הַנְּפִילִים בְּנֵי עֲנָק–מִן-הַנְּפִלִים; וַנְּהִי בְעֵינֵינוּ כַּחֲגָבִים, וְכֵן הָיִינוּ בְּעֵינֵיהֶם. 33 And there we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come of the Nephilim; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.’

Kinyarwanda is the language spoken in Rwanda. In that language, inyenzi are cockroaches, like grasshoppers, to be feared, especially in large numbers. This was the name the perpetrators of the genocide in Rwanda, Hutu Power, gave to the Tutsis. 800,000 were slaughtered in ten weeks. The spies in the Tanach, in response to anticipatory fears of his people, were sent by Moses to the Land of Canaan to “spy out” that land. Upon their return, 10 of the 12 called themselves grasshoppers. They felt like inyenzi. According to some Talmudic commentaries, they may even have been called inyenzi by the inhabitants.

For the residents of the land, from the distance, they must have looked as small as grasshoppers. In their own thoughts and from the perspective of those on whom they spied, they felt like grasshoppers. In Ecclesiastes, grasshoppers are characterized by a lack of vitality, a lack of energy, perhaps even an absence of sexual potency. “The grasshopper shall drag itself along.” (12:5)

Reports include not only observations but experiences, not only experiences of the outside world but of one’s response to that world. Reports, especially those of spies, always include interpretations and evaluations. Were the 10 of the 12 spies erroneous in their depiction of the inhabitants as tall and strong? Did they exaggerate? Whether the descriptions were or were not accurate, based on their appraised strength, were they justly to be feared? The most fascinating part is, as John Le Carré once wrote, that the world of spies is “such a reflection of the society it serves. If you really want to examine the national psychology, it’s locked in the secret world.”

What was the national psychology of the Israelites, the majority of whom were punished by God because the reports of ten of the spies pointed to a distrust of God and Moses himself as leader? Sent to spy out the land, by a 5:1 ratio, the spies urged extreme caution and communicated a sense of fear. They were not trained spies, but political leaders of the different tribes. They were specifically asked to appraise the numbers and strength of the foe. Were the inhabitants strong or weak? Were their cities well-fortified or not? Was the land fertile? In the latter case, the spies returned with grapes slung between two poles, a symbol in contemporary Israel, to prove the abundance of the land and that it was indeed flowing with milk and honey.

However, the land was reportedly also occupied by fierce peoples – Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites and Canaanites. Without contradicting that main objective impression, Caleb, however, urged an attack by the Israelites. He was a hawk. “We should go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.” (13:30) The issue was not the strength of the inhabitants, but the strength and will of the Israelites. The dissenters opposed to an attack urged, “We are not able to go up against the people; for they are stronger than we.”

In the Midrash, the Ten are considered cowards and sinners for delivering a negative report. Caleb and Joshua are portrayed as heroes. Caleb was fortified by faith, for he allegedly traveled all the way to Hebron on his own to pray at the Cave of Machpelah where the forefathers were buried.

To repeat, the difference between Joshua/Caleb and the Dissident Ten did not seem to be over the strength of those who then dwelled on the land. Why then did the narrator insert the judgement that the Group of Ten, the dissenters, those wary of initiating a war rashly, “spread an evil report of the land”? After all, it was just their observation and interpretation. How could that be “evil”?

The view that the inhabitants were tall and strong was not contradicted by either Caleb or Joshua. The report that the land “eateth up its inhabitants” was challenged. There was no report of either collusion among the various peoples inhabiting the land or any preparations underway to obstruct a return of the Israelites. What is meant by, “the land eateth up its inhabitants?”

Numbers 14:36 and 37 make clear that the debate was not over the strength of the inhabitants, but about “bringing a bad report about the land.” The punishment for giving a bad report was that God struck down the dissident spies with the plague. But, again, what did it mean that the land “eateth up its inhabitants?” Ezekiel in 36:13-14 described such a land as devouring men and depriving the nation of its children. Was that a projection of huge casualties no matter who won? Or of impotency? Or of both?

There is absolutely no suggestion of infertility of the land itself, as suggested in many commentaries, for the spies, as a group of 12, brought back lots of fruit to prove the abundance the land yielded. However, there is another interpretation beside considerations of the costs and possibilities of victory. It was based upon likely after-effects – the fear of assimilation, of the Israelites losing their distinctiveness. Did the spies see a great deal of intermixing of the peoples? For they reported seeing, “the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come of the Nephilim.”

In Genesis 6:1-6, the Nephilim are referred to as “sons of God” who married the beautiful daughters of men, of humans. “The Nephilim on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God (bene Elohim) came into the daughters of men.” If the inhabitants were akin to the Nephilim, the fear was that they would rape, seduce or marry the daughters of the Israelites. But if the Nephilim were considered something like fallen angels, as in parts of the Christian tradition, who bred with human females, or even as descendants of Seth, the fear that the Dissident Ten reported was about how attractive the residents would appear to the Israelite women and not just the physical strength of the inhabitants. Why was this regarded as such a heinous piece of intelligence and interpretation?

It would appear that the Dissident Ten had a double fear. “And wherefore doth the LORD bring us unto this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will be a prey; were it not better for us to return into Egypt?” (14:3) Their instinct for survival, deeply rooted in the slavery that they escaped, underpinned a wariness, a sense of suspicion.

How did Moses and Aaron respond to the report of Caleb and presumably Joshua to go on the attack versus the urge for caution by the other ten spies? Moses, Aaron, Joshua and Caleb went into mourning. After all, they had gone through so much, had travelled so far only to learn that their weakness lay in their own fears. They urged that the people put their faith in God rather than surrendering to the angst, despair and trepidation of the other ten spies.

“If the LORD delight in us, then He will bring us into this land, and give it unto us–a land which floweth with milk and honey. Only rebel not against the LORD, neither fear ye the people of the land; for they are bread for us; their defence is removed from over them, and the LORD is with us; fear them not.” (14:8-9) Simply put, “Have faith.”

The response? The people threw stones at Moses, Aaron, Joshua and Caleb. No reasoned counter-evidence to still the fears of the populace were offered by either Caleb or Joshua. God was simply revolted by their panic and lack of faith in His leadership. He promised to send pestilence to destroy them. In other words, no toleration for dissent. The response to dissent should be destruction of the Nay-sayers.

But, if you destroy Your own people, You will lose face before the Egyptians and their gods, said Moses. You led them. You lived in the midst of them. And at the last minute, they chickened out. But the failure would be assigned to God, Moses argued. Moses then appealed to God’s other side, his human kindness.

The Lord, who presumably had cooled down by then, pardoned the people for their lack of faith. No capital punishment. But they, and their children over twenty years of age, would have to live out the next forty years in the wilderness, a home when there is no home. Except Caleb, Joshua and each of their sons over twenty years of age; they would eventually enter the Promised Land. They would get home.

Clearly dissent, even grumbling and murmurings, would not be tolerated and would be regarded by God as evil. This was the case even if the Dissenting Ten were influenced by religious concerns as well as fears, such as an anticipation that even if this nomadic people won and settled down, they would lose their religious fervour developed in the wilderness. This was the case even if the Dissident Ten were correct in their fears and anticipations concerning the physical might of the existing inhabitants. After all, when the zealots, without Moses’ authority, attacked and were roundly defeated, they were not punished.

In other words, I, God, do not want to hear about your fears and trepidations or even your abstract faith divorced from politics and war. If your faith will not or cannot overcome hesitation, then that is the end of it. You lose. There is no acknowledgement of any right of dissent or even any consideration of what turns out to be the majority argument. Either you are for Me or against Me. I demand absolute loyalty and trust. Even though you predicted defeat correctly, it is I, your God, who caused the Amalekites and the Canaanites to attack the Israeli encampment and create mayhem and wonton destruction.

“And they [the zealots, the ma’apilim, the defiant ones] rose up early in the morning, and got them up to the top of the mountain, saying: ‘Lo, we are here, and will go up unto the place which the LORD hath promised; for we have sinned.’ And Moses said: ‘Wherefore now do ye transgress the commandment of the LORD, seeing it shall not prosper. Go not up, for the LORD is not among you; that ye be not smitten down before your enemies. For there the Amalekite and the Canaanite are before you, and ye shall fall by the sword; forasmuch as ye are turned back from following the LORD, and the LORD will not be with you.’ Then the Amalekite and the Canaanite, who dwelt in that hill-country, came down, and smote them and beat them down, even unto Hormah.” (14:40-45)

What was missing? Why did they lose? Not even faith in the end. It was God who had to lead His people into battle. The conviction of the zealots was that God and Moses were just discouraging them. Their bravery and resort to action would prove their greater faith, that is, proof that they could overcome the test God put before them. However, what was required was not bravery, but loyalty. Neither dissent on one hand nor rash action on the other hand could or should instigate the direction of an action.

The irony, of course, is that it is God who treats the majority of the people as inyenzi, as grasshoppers, to be left out to die in the cold wilderness. On the other hand, it is the same God who will insist that strangers who live among the Israelites be treated like citizens and be subject to the same law. One law forbids working on shabat for Israelite and stranger alike. How are genocidal actions and the profession of humanitarianism and universal values to be reconciled?

To be continued.

With the help of Alex Zisman

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