a colorful illustration of two men hefting a large branch with a large bunch of grapes on it
The Israelite spies return from Canaan laden with a bounty of grapes (Illustration/Richard Andre, 1884)

How this lesser-known biblical character helped fulfill the Jewish people’s destiny

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Numbers 13:1–15:41

As a child, I always looked forward to the annual showing of “The Ten Commandments,” the 1956 Hollywood version of the Exodus. Despite being 3 hours and 20 minutes long, the film ends just after the cinematic episode of the golden calf, with the stentorian voice of Cecil B. DeMille announcing (I paraphrase a little) “thus they spent 40 years wandering in the desert” before arriving at the Promised Land.

For years, I assumed the Israelites were consigned to four decades of languishing in the wilderness for that wild dance around the golden calf. Hollywood couldn’t have been wrong, could it?

But so much more happens in our Torah before that generation learned that they would not enter Canaan, that they would die in the desert while their descendants continued forward.

And why? Because of the account in this week’s parashah, the Incident of the Spies. God tells Moses to send 12 scouts, one from each tribe, into Canaan to gather intelligence about the land and those who lived there, collect some native fruits and report back.

Forty days later, they bring a mixed message. It is a good land, they say, flowing with milk and honey, with gigantic produce. But its cities, they say, are similarly enormous, with colossal inhabitants of this land “that devours its settlers.” (Numbers 13:32)

A massive collapse of confidence engulfs the vulnerable people, and “all the Israelites” threaten to kill Moses and Aaron — and God has had enough. Though He plans initially to wipe them all out, Moses persuades Him to “pardon as you have asked,” words we still sing every year on the eve of Yom Kippur. But though they are spared, they will perish in the wilderness.

I have a lot of compassion for the former slaves whose hearts grew faint, whose fragile self-esteem vanished utterly at the report of the spies. How easily we can give in to doubt when confronted with overwhelming odds, ready to turn tail and run, despite the blessings and even miracles in our lives that should give us strength.

Yet in the maelstrom of the Report of the Spies, two voices stand out. Caleb and Joshua dare to say “we are strong enough to fulfill this destiny.” (Much has been said about the moral ambiguity of the conquest of Canaan, and I acknowledge we likely will grapple with the consequences for the rest of Jewish history.)

As prominent as Joshua is, as Moses’ designated successor, a careful read of this history-defining tale actually has Caleb as the first, singular voice of encouragement: “Caleb hushed the people before Moses, and said, ‘Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it.’” (Num. 13:30)

Joshua, surprisingly, doesn’t appear as Caleb’s partner until Chapter 14, when they both risk their lives to exhort the people to stay strong and take courage. And even after that, God refers only to “my servant Caleb, because he was imbued with a different spirit and remained loyal to Me — him I will bring into the land that he entered.” (Num. 14:24) Later in the chapter, God refers to them together as the only two spies who will see the Promised Land. (Num. 14:30)

Caleb doesn’t have a book that bears his name, as Joshua does. His name means “dog,” which isn’t usually a compliment, but his loyalty (a central character trait of our beloved canines) is clearly precious to God. He usually is portrayed as a sidekick to Joshua, but he is clearly his own man, willing to stand up alone, for which he is noticed and thanked by the Holy One.

We know very little of him, relying on midrash to fill in even a few details, such as the legend that once in Canaan, he visited the Cave of the Ancestors to draw strength and inspiration. His name in this chapter, “son of Jephunneh” (he is called differently in other places), can be read as “the one who turned away,” suggesting independence and a willingness to stand apart.

Despite the discrepancies in the text, the fact that these two spies stand together is ultimately, enormously powerful. One lone voice can be regarded as an outlier, easy to ignore and drown out. But the two together made a poignant statement of alliance and agreement, paired together for all time as a bulwark against utter despair. They bolster one another, and we are lifted by their faith.

We may often feel utterly alone while the world seems to be spinning out of control.

Maybe the example of Caleb and Joshua can help keep hope alive that if we band together, we may yet have the strength to journey on.

The Torah seems to know that even a great blessing is better carried by two, as in this same story, the enormous grapes that signify the bounty of the Land “had to be borne on a carrying frame by two.” (Num. 13:23)

In this subtle way, we are prepared to behold the bravery of both Caleb and Joshua, two men who carried the promise of Jewish destiny on their shoulders.

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District of San Francisco, her hometown. She is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. She can be reached at [email protected].