Shelah- Lekha: Finding Courage in the Face of the Unknown

Shelah- Lekha: Finding Courage in the Face of the Unknown

(Numbers 13:1 -15:41)

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

“Send men to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people; send one man from each of their ancestral tribes, each one a chieftain among them” (Numbers 13:2)

“For Judaism, peoplehood has a

crucial spiritual dimension. If the Jews were just a family whose concern was self-preservation – a family bound only by shared fate – then it’s doubtful we would have survived through thousands of years of wandering. The Jewish collective functions on two levels: as family and as faith. What strengthened the Jewish people was its sense of destiny – that the Jewish people has an urgent spiritual role to play in the evolution of humanity. Destiny gives meaning to fate….Judaism is the love story between God and a people” (Yossi Klein Halevi, Letters To My Palestinian Neighbors, Kindle edition, 2018, p. 53).

According to the Torah portion Shelah Lekha in the Hebrew Bible, various groups of ancient people were living in the Promised Land when Moses sent 12 Israelite scouts, one chosen from each Hebrew tribe, to check out the land and the people living there. There were indeed existing inhabitants of the land, tribes with diverse histories grouped under the general heading of the Canaanites but dwelling in different locations within the land. The Bible simply lists their names of their tribes and their locations in Canaan. All of them came from somewhere. So who were these people?

Although the selected Israeli scouts were leaders of their own tribes, most of them had not yet shed the fears of a people enslaved for 400 years by the Egyptians nor developed the courage of free men to explore the unknown. So although the 12 men entered the land to observe, only two of them – Joshua and Caleb – came back with positive feedback. The land was so fruitful, in fact, that they brought back with them a single cluster of ripe grapes from Eshcol, each grape so huge, the cluster had to be borne on a carrying-frame.

It was not surprising that Joshua and Caleb felt confident and were brimming with confidence. God had already changed the name of the former from Hosea (which means “salvation” or “grace”) to Joshua. In an encouraging play on words meant to strengthen him, the addition of the Hebrew letter “yud” changed the meaning of his name to “He (God) is my salvation.” With that blessing, Joshua son of Nun, along with Caleb son of Jephunneh, tried to assure the whole community that “the land that we traversed and scouted is exceedingly good land” and that community should “have no fear then of the people of the country”(Numbers 14:5-9). The 10 Hebrew men, however, were too frightened to hear that message, and they knew that he people of the country that they had seen were so gigantic in stature that they, the Israelites, had felt like grasshoppers in comparison. They would not be able to prevail against them. No way. Joshua and Caleb were even pelted with stones.

Feeling rather angry, and, with the realization that the Hebrews as a whole were not yet ready to conduct themselves as free men, God decreed that, for rebelling against the divine instruction, they needed to spend another 38 years in the desert, making forty years in all. It would indeed take another two, perhaps three, generations – people who had outgrown a slave mentality, who had been born into freedom and nurtured to govern themselves wisely – before the Israelites could enter Canaan.

In the meantime, Joshua, along with Caleb, had already been divinely tapped, as a future leader of the Hebrews, a replacement for Moses who was growing very old. They would be the leaders. Presumably, the other ten men would be the minyan — expected to show up!).

Who was in the Promised Land when the Israelite Scouts Checked It Out?

The Canaanites (dwelling by the Sea and along the Jordan) were a group of ancient people – different tribes — who lived in the land of Canaan on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. “The Land of Canaan” is described in the Bible (see Genesis 10 and Numbers 34) as extending from Lebanon toward the Brook of Egypt in the south and the Jordan Valley in the East. [1]

These Canaanite tribes, who derived from diverse places, consisted of:

THE ANKITES (Anakim, the name means long-necked) were located in Hebron, a very old city. They were a formidable race of giant, warlike people who occupied the land of southern Israel before the arrival of the Israelites. They were descendants of the Nephalim (people with pre-human ancestry who coupled with human females) that dominated the pre-flood world. According to the Torah, during the conquest of Canaan, the Jews expelled them from Hebron. The giant, Goliath (as in the story of David and Goliath), is believed to have been a descendant of these same people. (So it is quite likely that the Israelite scouts did see fearsome giants.)

The AMALEKITES (a nomadic people, native to the Negev region and known to be plunderers), Their brutal, cowardly actions towards the Israelites resulted in a long-standing feud, and God’s direction was to wipe the Amalekites off the face of the earth (see Ex. 17: 8-13; Samuel 15:2, and Deut. 25:11).  To this day, Jewish people are enjoined to remember to forget Amalek, the leader of the Amalekites, for attacking the weak and helpless. “Remember what Amalek did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt” (Deut. 25: 17-19). Haman, remembered at Purim as the tormentor of the Jews, was reputed to be a descendant of the Amalekites.

THE HITTITES (located in the Hill country) were an ancient (ca. 1600 BCE) Anatolian people originally from Asia Minor in what is modern day Turkey. Historically (ca. 1900 BCE – 1500s BCE), they were one of the three superpowers in the ancient world, on a level with Egypt and Assyria. Their relations with Egypt were volatile [the famous battle of Kadesh concluded with the world’s oldest peace treaty). According to frequent Biblical references to the Hittites, they comprised many of the inhabitants of Canaan (Ex. 13:5; Numbers 13: 29; Joshua 11:3) and seemed to have friendly relations with the Israelites. For example, Ephron the Hittite sells Abraham and family a burial ground (Genesis 23); Esau married Hittite women, and Rebecca despised them (Genesis 26: 34). King David had Uriah the Hittite killed in order to acquire Uriah’s wives (2 Samuel 11); King Solomon had Hittites among his many wives (1 Kings 10:29b-11:2; 2 Chronicles 1:17); and the prophet Ezekiel chides Israel with the metaphor of a Hittite mother (Ezekiel 16:3, 45). Also, Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah the Hittite and later of King David; she was also the mother of King Solomon. In addition to the biblical texts, much archeological evidence about the Hittites exists, but the two sources are not always compatible.

THE JEBUSITES (also located in the Hill country, that is, the mountains beside Jerusalem) were a Canaanite tribe who inhabited Jerusalem prior to its conquest by either Joshua or King David. According to the Book of Joshua, Adonizek led a confederation of Jebusites and tribes from neighboring cities against Joshua but was roundly defeated and killed. Judges 1:21 portrays the Jebusites as continuing to dwell in Jerusalem within territory otherwise occupied by the Tribe of Benjamin. Current academic consensus is that the city was conquered by King David in 1003 BCE. Unfortunately, politics comes into the mix as some partisan archeologists support Yasser Arafat’s claim that Palestinian Arabs are descended from the Jebusites. However, there is no archeological evidence to support this claim. Most informed authorities now believe that the Palestinians are more closely related to the Arabs of Saudi Arabia. [2]

THE AMORITES (then living in the Hill country) were a Semitic people who emerged from western Mesopotamia (modern day Syria) prior to the 3rd millennium BCE. They first appear in history as nomads who regularly made incursions from the west into established territories and threatened their stability. They played a large role in the history of Babylonia (there was an Amorite King before the fall of Ur). Although the settled Babylonian Amorites seem to have been regarded positively in the region, the roaming Amorites continued to be a source of instability. As pre-Israelite inhabitants of the land of Canaan, they were clearly separate from the Israelites. In the Book of Deuteronomy, they are described as the last remnants of the giants who once lived on earth (3:11), and in the Book of Joshua they are the enemies of the Israelites and are consequently are destroyed by Joshua (10:10, 11:18). The biblical stories certainly created a narrative (Egypt enslavement, etc.) that served to separate the Israelites’ national identity from the Amorites. Eventually the Amorites came to be referred to as ‘Aramaeans’ and the land they came from was called “Aram.” After 600 BCE, they no longer appear in the historical record.

Abraham’s father, Terah, brought his family from Ur (now in modern Iraq but then a thriving trade city) with the intention of continuing on to Canaan, was he a wandering Aramean? Although he tired of the trip and settled in Haran instead, perhaps he brought the ethnic identity and cultural heritage of the Amorites with him. Was Terah, in fact, a wandering Aramaean? Or was it our patriarch, Abraham, who left (see Lekh Lekha) to find “the land that I will show you,” the Promised Land, after destroying his father’s idol shop? Was it our ancestor, Jacob — guilt-ridden through his own trickery, so badly treated by Laban, finding his true self through his mystical struggle with an angel, and finally seeking a new place – a sacred place — to call his home?[3]

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[1] The following information is culled from multiple Internet sources, which I have tried to simplify and integrate.

[2] The name “Palestine” is derived from the name the 5th century BCE Greek writer, Herodutus, applied to a district of Syria and to the inland region of the Judean mountains and the Jordan Rift Valley. Centuries later, after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple (70 CE) and drove the Jews out of Jerusalem, they called the area “Palaestina” in order to erase the connection of the Jews to their historical and spiritual homeland. Notably, the Arab conquest of Jerusalem did not take place until 637 CE.

[3] There is considerable rabbinic controversy whether “arami oved avi,” a formula originally used when the first fruit offerings were brought to the Temple, refers to “my father was a wandering Aramean” or to “an Aramean destroyed my father”  because the roots of the two different verbs are similar. The latter could refer either to what Laban the Aramean tried to do to Jacob, or to Abraham leaving Ur. (See My Jewish, Mishna Pesachim 10, the Haggadah, and the biblical narrative.)