Who Is Getting Stoned?

Robbie Harris
Shelah Lekha By :  Robert Harris Professor of Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages Posted On May 29, 2013 / 5773 | Main Commentary

In 1965, Bob Dylan wrote these famous lines:

Well, they’ll stone you when you’re trying to be so good
They’ll stone you just like they said they would
They’ll stone you when trying to go home
And they’ll stone you when you’re there all alone
But I would not feel so all alone
Everybody must get stoned[1]

Now, Dylan has claimed that—despite what many people have thought—this song is not about marijuana, and that he “never has and never will write a ‘drug song.’” So be it. The fact remains that the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s songs are so fraught with ambiguity and nuance that one can subject them to lengthy, critical exegesis and still not arrive at a clear understanding (most definitely the mark of great literature, but that’s a subject for another day). Our Torah portion similarly contains a vague statement about “getting stoned.” Let us examine one episode in the portion of Shelah Lekha (Num. 13–15).

Among other subjects, the parashah narrates the story of the spies, one from each tribe, whom Moses sends to scout out the Land. Specifically, let us join the narrative at the point that Joshua and Caleb (the two good or “heroic” spies) attempt to encourage the community—largely ineffectively—after the People express their fears that any effort to conquer the Promised Land will not be successful:

If the LORD is pleased with us, He will bring us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey, and give it to us; only you must not rebel against the LORD. Have no fear then of the people of the country, for they are our prey: their protection has departed from them, but the LORD is with us. Have no fear of them! As the whole community threatened [literally, “said”] to pelt them with stones, the Presence of the LORD appeared in the Tent of Meeting to all the Israelites. [Num. 14:8–10]

In the paragraph above, note the ambiguity of the italicized pronoun: the entire community said that they would pelt “them” with stones, but whom precisely were they threatening?

In answering this question, both Rashi and Abraham ibn Ezra, two of the greatest medieval biblical commentators, interpreted the unclear pronoun as referring to Joshua and Caleb. Although neither commentator clarifies why he makes that identification, presumably it is because Joshua and Caleb begin their speech in verses 6 and 7: “And Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, of those who had scouted the land, rent their clothes and exhorted the whole Israelite community: ‘The land that we traversed and scouted is an exceedingly good land.’” Therefore, the two spies who speak positively about the Land are the immediate antecedent to the pronoun—problem solved.

Or is it? Jacob Milgrom would beg to differ. In his magisterial commentary on the book of Numbers (published in the Jewish Publication Society’s Torah commentary series), he states that “‘them’ refers to Moses and Aaron,” and directs us to consider verse 5: “Then Moses and Aaron fell on their faces before all the assembled congregation of the Israelites.” Particularly, since both this verse and the one that contains the ambiguous pronoun (verse 10) contain very similar language regarding the action of “the entire community,” it is quite possible that Professor Milgrom’s interpretation is correct. However, since the pronoun is confusing, perhaps it would be best to state that the peshat, or interpretation that best fits the context, indicates that the growing discontent among the community threatened all of the “good guys” (i.e., Moses, Aaron, Joshua, and Caleb).

The Babylonian Talmud, however, contains a midrash (farfetched, to be sure, as we would say in Yiddish) that further complicates our understanding of the pronoun them. It notes the ambiguity in verse 10, and claims that it was God whom the rioters threatened to stone:

As the whole community threatened to pelt them with stones [is followed by] the Presence of the LORD appeared in the Tent of Meeting. R. Hiyya b. Abba said: It teaches that they took stones and hurled them against God on high! (Sotah 35a)

Thus, Rabbi Hiyya interprets the juxtaposition of the words “the Presence of the LORD” to the ambiguous pronoun them, which means that the pronoun includes the LORD, and R. Hiyya therefore concludes that the Children of Israel literally took stones and threw them also at God.

Even if the midrash here is surely fanciful, and the actual intended victims were only the human heroes, it seems to make little difference to God. Consider the following verse in the Torah:

And the LORD said to Moses, “How long will this people spurn Me, and how long will they have no faith in Me despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst? (Num. 14:11)

Whoever was getting stoned, God seems to recognize that the community’s discontent was really directed at God’s own Divine Self, and that the miracles that God had performed on the People’s behalf were to no effect.

The rest of the story, alas, is all too familiar: God is angry enough to destroy the People; Moses intercedes on their behalf, and God commutes their punishment and sentences the people to wander in the desert for 40 years. One thing, at least, is clear: doing the right thing often carries risks, whether to human actors (peshat) or to God’s own Divine Presence (derash). Or, as “Rabbi Zimmerman” phrased it: “Well, they’ll stone you when you’re trying to be so good.”

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant by Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.