Numbers 13:1-2 records that God asked Moses to send men to spy the land of Canaan, Deuteronomy 1:21-23 records that it was Moses who sent the spies. Who actually sent the spies was it Moses or God?


Regardless of whether Moses initiated the idea of sending spies onto Canaan or whether he did so at God's command, Moses was in practice the one who sent the spies. However, Numbers 13:17b-20, authorship of which is generally attributed to the Yahwist Source, is closer to Deuteronomy 1:21-23 than is Numbers 13:1-17a, in which (Numbers 13:1-2) God told Moses to send spies into Canaan.

Dennis T. Olson says in Numbers, page 76 that scholars are generally agreed that the present form of Numbers 13-14 is the result of two originally separate literary stories or traditions, one older and the other later. The dominant 'Documentary Hypothesis' attributes the earlier version to the Yahwist Source and the second version, written during or shortly after the Babylonian Exile, to the Priestly Source. The two accounts were then skilfully redacted into the Book of Numbers so that a casual reader is not aware that there are two separate accounts. From the following two tables, we can see that i) Moses despatched the spies on his own initiative, and ii) Moses despatched the spies at God's command, depending on exactly which source we read:

Verse Spies narrative of the Yahwist Source (J)

13:17b-20   Moses despatched the spies.

13:22-25    The spies travelled only as far north as Hebron (in the future kingdom of Judah).

13:27-29    The spies returned and issued their report to one person (Moses), stating 
that the land was ‘flowing with milk and honey’, but that the inhabitants were giants 
and and their cities fortified.

13:30   Caleb alone tried to encourage the Israelites to proceed with the conquest.  

13:31,33    The spies countered Caleb's claim, stating that the land was unconquerable.

14:1b, 4    The people refused to enter Canaan and plotted to elect a new captain to 
lead them back to Egypt.

14:11-12    God was angry, threatening to destroy the people by plague.

14:20-25    God chose not to destroy the Israelites, instead they were to wander the 
desert until the present generation had died.

Verse Spies narrative of the Priestly author (P)

13:1-17a    At God's command, Moses appointed twelve heads of tribes to scout the 
land, and despatched them from the Wilderness of Paran.

13:21   The spies toured the entire Promised Land, ‘from the Wilderness of Zin to the 
entrance to Hamath’.

13:25-26    The spies returned and displayed the land's fruit.  They issued their 
report to Moses and Aaron, and to all the congregation.

13:32-33    The report stated that Canaan was not only unconquerable, but a ‘land that 
devours its inhabitants’.

14:1a, 2-3  The Israelites refused to enter Canaan.

14:6-10a    Caleb and Joshua tried to encourage the Israelites to proceed with the 
conquest.  The Israelites responded by calling for them to be stoned.

14: 26-35   God was angry and decreed that the Israelites will wander the wilderness 
for forty years, until the present sinful generation had died.

14:36-38    The spies died in a plague, all except Joshua and Caleb.

Talmud answers the seeming "contradictions" between Numbers and Deuteronomy.

The rabbis indicated that the Lord had commanded Moses "to send for himself" (that is, for Moses) the spies into the land. The Talmud mentions Deut 1:23, when Moses indicates that sending the spies had pleased him (that is, not God, but Moses).

The following citation comes from b. Sotah 7:5, Gemara X:4, A-D (Folio 34B) of the Babylonian Talmud as translated by Jacob Neusner (2011).

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Thus, the Lord had commanded Moses, and Moses (in turn) commanded the people.

Neusner, Jacob (2011). The Babylonian Talmud: A Translation and Commentary (Vol 11a). Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 167.

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