Torah Portion of the Week: The Bible’s Lone Pardon

Parashat Shlach Lecha.

'Moses and the Messengers from Canaan,' Giovanni Lanfranco, 1621-1624.
Getty Center / Wikimedia Commons

The word selicha (pardon, forgiveness), in its various forms (as verb or noun), appears 50 times in the Bible, and in every case, it is only God who is asked to, or can, grant it. It appears twice in Parashat Shlach Lecha (Number 13:1-15:41). One of those occurrences is unique, being the only one where the verb appears in the past tense. Elsewhere in the Bible there are requests for and promises of pardon, and threats of or complaints about its denial. However, nowhere, except in the incident of the spies in this week’s Torah reading, is there any report that God has actually granted a pardon. Sins are abundant but pardon is given only once.

The story begins with a simple reconnaissance mission: Moses sends a group of people to scout the Promised Land for agricultural, demographic and military intelligence. When they return, havoc erupts. Their report arouses in the Israelites the fear that they will be unable to defeat Canaan’s natives and conquer the land. The inferiority felt by several of the spies after seeing the Canaanites is transformed into objective reality, both in their eyes and surely among the giants they encountered: “And there we saw the giants, the sons of Anak [or of “a giant”], who come of the giants; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight” (Numbers 13:33).

Words of encouragement from Caleb, one of the spies, do not ease – perhaps they even aggravate – the situation; that night the Israelites want to return to Egypt. God cannot bear this and turns to Moses: “How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, for all the signs which I have wrought among them? I will smite them with the pestilence, and destroy them, and will make of thee a nation greater and mightier than they” (Num. 14:11-12).

God’s declaration to Moses about his plan to destroy Israel and replace it with Moses is the prophet’s moment of truth. According to biblical theologian Yochanan Muffs, the prophet has a dual role: not only to bring God’s word to the nation, but also to represent the nation before God.

God could easily destroy Israel; perhaps he tells Moses his plan so that the latter will prevent him from doing so. And Moses knows precisely what to do.

Before Moses pleads, “Pardon, I pray thee, the iniquity of this people according unto the greatness of thy lovingkindness” (Num. 14:19), he gives two justifications for granting a pardon. The first pertains to God’s reputation: If the Almighty destroys Israel, the Egyptians and Canaanites might see this as weakness and claim, “the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land which he swore unto them, therefore he hath slain them in the wilderness” (Num. 14:16). Paradoxically, Moses warns God not to desecrate his own name.

The second reason is even more sophisticated and paradoxical, because it is based on what God himself told Moses on another occasion. In Exodus, we read that Moses wanted to know God’s ways and was rewarded with a majestic divine revelation, one encompassing both a visual aspect and verbal content, and in which Moses learned that the Lord is “God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth; keeping mercy unto the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin; and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and unto the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7).

In talmudic literature and the prayer book, this description is termed “God’s 13 qualities of compassion”’; it is recited as a means – psychological, perhaps even magical – for soothing God’s wrath. The Babylonian Talmud interprets the description in Exodus, where “the Lord passed by before [Moses]” (Exod. 34:6) thusly: “God wrapped himself with a prayer shawl like a cantor, showing Moses how to pray. God told Moses, ‘When Jews sin, they should recite these words and I will forgive them’” (Tractate Rosh Hashanah, page 17b). According to this midrash, God taught Moses the magic formula that even God himself will be unable to resist.

This talmudic interpretation is based on the biblical narrative – in the incident of the spies – in which Moses demonstrates the very qualities God revealed to him in order to attain God’s forgiveness. Moses appeals to the Almighty: “And now, I pray thee, let the power of the Lord be great, according as thou hast spoken, saying: The Lord is slow to anger, and plenteous in lovingkindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression” (Num. 14:17-18). Moses beseeches God to exercise the qualities he himself proclaimed earlier, including being “slow to anger,” and possessing immense lovingkindness and the capacity to forgive sin and transgression.

In the first part of Moses’ speech, he speaks of God’s active role: If God kills the Israelites, the other nations will think he was incapable of bringing them to Canaan as planned. The second part emphasizes God’s passive qualities. The words “let the power of the Lord be great” indicate that in the eyes of Moses, and indeed of God himself (Moses bases his appeal on God’s declaration), the Almighty expresses his power by not using it.

God accedes: “I have pardoned according to thy word” (Num. 14:20). Ostensibly, all is forgiven. However, this, the only explicit pardon in the Bible is incomplete. God immediately qualifies the pardon with “But …”: “And the Lord said: ‘I have pardoned according to thy word. But in very deed, as I live – and all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord – surely all those men that have seen my glory, and my signs, which I wrought in Egypt and in the wilderness, yet have put me to proof these ten times, and have not hearkened to my voice; surely they shall not see the land which I swore unto their fathers, neither shall any of them that despised me see it’” (Num. 14:20-23). Although he agrees not to destroy Israel, God pledges that the sinners will not see the Promised Land.

There is something disappointing about this partial pardon, but there is apparently a connection between this being its sole appearance and its ambivalent, qualified character. Total pardon, which includes the end of all anger and all feelings of insult and revenge, exists only theoretically: It is a pardon that can be sought and even promised but, when realized – even when God is the one who is pardoning – it can be only partial.