The text, the interpreter and the author
In parashat Shelach Lecha, the historical land becomes a mental space, where hope and fear are intermingled.
In the Book of Genesis, the Land of Israel is the real stage upon which the central plot unfolds. When Jacob's offspring leave Canaan and journey to Egypt, the Land of Israel is a real, living space in their memory. However, in the "seam" between the Books of Genesis and Exodus - when the last persons who still remember the Land of Israel die off - this land is transformed into an imaginary space. The historical land becomes a mental space, where hope and fear are intermingled.
At the beginning of this week's portion, when Moses dispatches the 12 spies to Canaan, he tells them: "... see the land, what it is; and the people that dwelleth therein, whether they are strong or weak, whether they are few or many; and what the land is that they dwell in, whether it is good or bad; and what cities they are that they dwell in, whether in camps, or in strongholds; and what the land is, whether it is fat or lean, whether there is wood therein, or not" (Numbers 13:18-20).
The emissaries must supply details about the real Promised Land, which the Children of Israel are about to enter. The purpose: to prevent the Israelites, upon their arrival, from experiencing too great a dissonance between the image of the land in their minds and the actual Canaan that they will soon see. This is a delicate job of explication that demands the ability to read the land "text" and to create an interpretation of it that will in turn, in this case, give rise to a representation of the Promised Land that will be acceptable to the hearts of the "readers."
The text in question is not easily transmitted to the interpreter, who seeks to analyze its complexities according to the indices of "good" and "bad," "camps" and "strongholds." This is the description of the text according to the Torah, prior to the emissaries' commentary: "So they went up, and spied out the land from the wilderness of Zin unto Rehob, at the entrance to Hamath. And they went up into the South, and came unto Hebron; and Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai, the children of Anak (or, the children of giants ), were there. Now Hebron was built seven years before Zoan in Egypt. And they came unto the valley of Eshcol, and cut down from thence a branch with one cluster of grapes, and they bore it upon a pole between two; they took also of the pomegranates, and of the figs. That place was called the valley of Eshcol, (literally cluster) because of the cluster which the children of Israel cut down from thence. And they returned from spying out the land at the end of forty days" (Num. 13:21-25 ).
We would naturally expect the Promised Land to be described in an objective manner, so that we the readers can form our own impressions from the powerful interpretation the spies provide. However, the description is not objective: The biblical "camera" focuses on the case of two of the stops the spies make during their tour; it conveys these incidents as two formative stories.
The first story is a historical story which reflects Hebron's construction, concerns the work of Ham, son of Noah, who built cities for his children: For Canaan, he built Hebron and for Mizraim (Egypt ) he built Zoan (according to Rashi ). Hebron's seniority vis-a-vis Zoan is mentioned, along with the description of its inhabitants as being "children of giants." In the face of this formative story, the spies appear as momentary guests who are looking from the outside at a mythological "text" that has been spread out before their eyes. However, in point of fact, the spies' perspective reshapes the "text": Instead of being described as the final resting place of the Patriarchs, as it is depicted in Genesis, Hebron is described as Zoan's "elder sister." The comparative description is the product of a particular viewpoint: Essentially, the spies, born in Egypt, "process" the text, exceeding the geographical perspective with which they are familiar.
The eye engaged in careful study naturally reshapes the text; what is projected there will become a reflection of the spies' awareness, not a vehicle through which the Israelites will be able to obtain a truly substantive impression of the Promised Land. As if to bridge the gap between the listener and the text, the spies take along the Land of Israel's fruits so that they can show them to the Israelites. Holding the textual metaphor, this act is similar to citing an excerpt of a written work, in order to give the reader a taste of its original texture.
The citation of the text here gives rise to a second formative story, which the spies themselves propagate. The cutting down of the branch with the cluster of grapes from the valley reshapes the landscape, yielding a name for the valley. From now on, it will be called Eshcol "because of the cluster (eshcol ) which the children of Israel cut down from thence."
This is a formative story that is not rooted back in history, but rather documents history as it unfolds. Although the text is cited to create a more reliable impression, the citation reshapes the text, which is named now after the act of citation; after the cutting of the cluster.
The fruit should be a metonymy of the Promised Land as a whole. When the spies show its produce to the Children of Israel, that act is intended to narrow the gap between the listeners and the text that must be interpreted, and to bring that text before the Children of Israel. It is as if the interpreter says: "Come take a look at the evidence on your own, without my words of mediation."
The implicit assumption that the interpreter creates is that the text can easily be interpreted in this manner when it is cited and brought from Canaan into the Land of Israel. This interpretive manipulation conceals the fact that the cluster is removed from its original context and is planted in a different one. The citation creates a false presentation of objectivity and conceals the citer's role. The spies' sin lies in interweaving their interpretation "on" the fruit: "And they ... said: 'We came unto the land whither thou sentest us, and surely it floweth with milk and honey; and this is the fruit of it. Howbeit the people that dwell in the land are fierce, and the cities are fortified, and very great; and moreover we saw the children of Anak there" (Num. 13:27-28 ).
The Promised Land's blessed fruit located as an introduction, in order to contrast with the power of the nation sitting there and paves the way for the creation of an "objective" presentation of the slander aimed at it. Indeed, the effective interpretation creates a powerful emotional reaction among the Children of Israel who weep and seek a solution in some other place: "Let us make a captain, and let us return into Egypt" (Num. 14:4 ).
In effect, it is not only the fruit's meaning that changes in the wake of the displacement; its source also changes. The valley from which the cluster of grapes is taken will now be called by another name: Eshcol. Only two persons understand both the dynamism of the interpreted text and the ability of exegetists to interpret words in accordance with their own will. These two persons are Caleb and Joshua, who stand up and proclaim: "The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceeding good land. 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" (Num. 14:7-8 ).
Caleb and Joshua abandon the citation and the interpretation, and undertake an astonishing interpretative move: They abandon the text and return to the author: "Only rebel not against the Lord, neither fear ye the people of the land; for they are bread for us; their defense is removed from over them, and the Lord is with us; fear them not" (Num. 14:9 ).
The text's author, he who promised that text to the Israelites, will also make sure to rewrite it for them; indeed, this process begins to unfold when the valley from which the cluster of grapes is taken is given its name. A subjective viewpoint, rather than an objective table of contents, is what shapes the landscape. Torn between the two contradictory interpretations, the listeners react with violence. The only one who can decide which interpretation is valid is the author: "But all the congregation bade stone them with stones, when the glory of the Lord appeared in the tent of meeting unto all the children of Israel" (Num. 14:10 ).