Commentary on Numbers 13:17-33

Notes (NET Translation)

17 When Moses sent them to investigate the land of Canaan, he told them, “Go up through the Negev, and then go up into the hill country 18 and see what the land is like, and whether the people who live in it are strong or weak, few or many, 19 and whether the land they live in is good or bad, and whether the cities they inhabit are like camps or fortified cities, 20 and whether the land is rich or poor, and whether or not there are forests in it. And be brave, and bring back some of the fruit of the land.” Now it was the time of year for the first ripe grapes.

The Negev is a dry area that runs southwards from Beersheba (Gen 20:1; 24:62; Num 21:1). The hill country refers to the chain of hills that run north through the tribal territories of Judah, Ephraim and into Galilee (Josh 20:7). The “time of year for the first ripe grapes” corresponds to late July to early September, a few months after the departure from Sinai (10:11).

21 So they went up and investigated the land from the wilderness of Zin to Rehob, at the entrance of Hamath.

The wilderness of Zin lies on the southern border (Num 20:1; 34:3-4; Josh 15:1, 3) while Rehob lies on the northern frontier (Num 34:7-9; 1 Kgs 8:65; 14:25; Amos 6:14; Ezek 48:1). A distance of about 250 miles separates the locations.

22 When they went up through the Negev, they came to Hebron where Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai, descendants of Anak, were living. (Now Hebron had been built seven years before Zoan in Egypt.)

Hebron is in the hills of Judah, about 18 miles southwest of Jerusalem. It is where Abraham lived (Gen 13:18; 18) and where the patriarchs and matriarchs were buried (Gen 23:19; 25:9; 35:27-29; 50:13). In a sense, the Israelites have returned home.

The name Anak was associated with a people famed and feared for their great size and military prowess and may also be associated with the ethnic phrase Iy-‘anaq found among the Egyptian Execration Texts of the early second millennium B.C. In v. 33 in the Septuagint the term was translated as “giants,” and they were associated with the Rephaim in Deut 2:11. Remnants of these giants survived into the time of the Judges and the beginning of the Israelite monarchy. In Josh 12:21-22 the Anakim were noted as having lived in the Hebron region, as well as to the west in the Shephelah in such cities as Gath, and in the coastal plain in Gaza and Ashdod. Some have suggested that the famous Goliath, who was defeated by David, was one of the surviving descendants of these exceptionally tall individuals. Four others were killed by David’s men in a battle recounted in 2 Sam 21:15-22. Though the three names of the Anakites are not mentioned again in the biblical text, they were no doubt heads of prominent Anakite clans to have been included at this point. Caleb and his army drove the three clans out of Hebron, according to the account in Josh 15:14. Later in the scouts’ report to Moses the Anakites were associated with the Nephilim, the descendants of offspring that resulted from the illicit union between the “sons of God” and the “daughters of men” in Gen 6:4.1

Zoan corresponds to Tanis, the capital of the Hyksos pharaohs, built in the first half of the second millennium BC.

23 When they came to the valley of Eshcol, they cut down from there a branch with one cluster of grapes, and they carried it on a staff between two men, as well as some of the pomegranates and the figs.

Note the cluster had to be carried by two men. This indicates the fertility of the land.

24 That place was called the Eshcol Valley, because of the cluster of grapes that the Israelites cut from there.

The Hebrew word Eshcol means “cluster (of grapes)”.

There is no contradiction between verse 23, which suggests the valley already had this name before the spies arrived, and the following verse which attributes its name to them. If the name of the valley was coined by the spies, then verse 23 is proleptic. If the name is pre-Israelite (one of Abraham’s allies in Gen. 14:13, 24 was called Eshcol and lived near Hebron), then the spies in verse 24 are giving a new interpretation to an old word.2

25 They returned from investigating the land after forty days.

26 They came back to Moses and Aaron and to the whole community of the Israelites in the wilderness of Paran at Kadesh. They reported to the whole community and showed the fruit of the land.

Kadesh-barnea is located on the southern frontier of Canaan (Num 34:4; Josh 15:3). Israel has nearly arrived at its goal, or so it seems.

27 They told Moses, “We went to the land where you sent us. It is indeed flowing with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. 28 But the inhabitants are strong, and the cities are fortified and very large. Moreover we saw the descendants of Anak there. 29 The Amalekites live in the land of the Negev; the Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites live in the hill country; and the Canaanites live by the sea and along the banks of the Jordan.”

The scouts use the phrase “the land where you sent us” instead of “the land which the Lord promised“. The phrase “flowing with milk and honey” indicates a land abundant in flocks and sap-giving trees (Hebrew devash conveys the sense of sweetness and does not refer specifically to bee’s honey). The majority of the spies confirm that the land is good but state the land’s people cannot be defeated (cf. v 31).

30 Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses, saying, “Let us go up and occupy it, for we are well able to conquer it.”

31 But the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against these people, because they are stronger than we are!”

32 Then they presented the Israelites with a discouraging report of the land they had investigated, saying, “The land that we passed through to investigate is a land that devours its inhabitants. All the people we saw there are of great stature. 33 We even saw the Nephilim there (the descendants of Anak came from the Nephilim), and we seemed liked grasshoppers both to ourselves and to them.”

Now the faithless spies are said to give an evil report, meaning their words are untrue. In saying the land “devours its inhabitants” they are saying the inhabitants tend to die because of the hostile environment (Lev 26:38; Ezek 36:13-14). This contradicts their previous claim that it is a land “flowing with milk and honey” (v 27). The Nephilim were descendants of the “sons of god” and human women (Gen 6:1-4). The parenthetical phrase “the descendants of Anak came from the Nephilim” is not in the Greek (but see v 28). The faithless spies exaggerate the stature of the land’s inhabitants.

Bibliography

Ashley, Timothy R. The Book of Numbers. The New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993.

Brown, Raymond E., Joseph A. Fitzmyer, and Roland E. Murphy, eds. The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1990.

Cole, R. Dennis. Numbers. Kindle Edition. The New American Commentary. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000.

Friedman, Richard Elliott. Commentary on the Torah. First Edition. San Francisco, Calif.: HarperOne, 2001.

Levine, Baruch A. Numbers 1-20. The Anchor Yale Bible. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993.

Mays, James L., ed. The HarperCollins Bible Commentary. Revised Edition. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2000.

Milgrom, Jacob. Numbers. The JPS Torah Commentary. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1989.

Wenham, Gordon J. Numbers. Kindle Edition. Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. IVP Academic, 2015.


  1. Cole 2000, Kindle Locations 6889-6899 
  2. Wenham 2015, Kindle Locations 2057-2060 
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