Twentieth century Biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom notes that the Torah (Numbers 13:2) describes each of the twelve men sent out on the mission to reconnoiter the Land of Israel as a “nasi,” which the Jewish Publication Society translation renders as “chieftain.” But sending the tribal leadership on a potentially dangerous spying mission seems foolhardy. Putting the entire Israelite brain trust at risk is a perilous and perhaps catastrophic strategy. Had the intention been to send out a spying mission, Milgrom surmises, Moses would “neither have risked sending the chieftains nor have resorted to such a large number.” The only logical conclusion is that the mission was not one of spying at all.
Indeed, the Biblical text has a specific word for spies (meraglim) that is used as the descriptor of the two agents sent by Joshua (Joshua 6:23) who appear to have professional training. The word meraglim, however, is not the word choice here. Consequently, readers are left with the distinct impression that these men were not seeking military intelligence but something else entirely. Milgrom concludes that Moses’ intention could only have been “to send a cross-section of the tribal leaders so that their (hopefully positive) report would dispute the people’s self-doubt concerning their ability to conquer the land.” In other words, the mission was less strategic and more psychological.
Milgrom’s reading makes good sense of the text and accommodates the linguistic details. It also points to a sophisticated understanding of human nature. Often, human beings are impeded by their fears. Simply telling someone not to be afraid may not allay fears that are too deep and too overwhelming to be so easily dismissed. What works better is a presentation of evidence from a reliable source. The tribal leaders, by their status, were reliable and their report would be credible. And were they to return with physical proof, their report would be even stronger. Moses counted on the men sent on this mission to do just that. Moses sensed that the Israelites had misgivings about the unknown and about their own capabilities. Hence, he acted to address Israelite fears.
After the fact, we see that Moses had miscalculated. Ten of the leaders returned with a less than positive report that stoked the people’s fears rather than allay them. But that does not make Moses’ insights any less valuable or true.