The Desert Dead

Shelah Lekha By :  Raymond Scheindlin Professor Emeritus of Medieval Hebrew Literature Posted On Jun 12, 2015 / 5775 | Torah Commentary

When the spies returned to the Israelite camp in the wilderness of Paran after scouting out the Land of Canaan, they reported that the land did indeed flow with milk and honey but that it could not be conquered. It was full of warlike people—Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Emorites, and Canaanites—men of enormous size and strength, giants descended from the sons of gods dwelling in fortified towns with walls that reached the sky. Even the land’s produce was intimidating, for it took two Israelite men holding a great pole on each end to carry out a single cluster of grapes that they had taken as a sample of the land’s bounty and as evidence of its supernatural scale. The spies were sincere in urging caution; they had been truly terrified by their experiences. When they were in Hebron, for example, they had hidden in a cave from giants. The cave was actually a pomegranate rind that a giant’s daughter had thrown away. But when the girl remembered her father’s admonition not to litter, she returned, picked up the pomegranate rind with the twelve spies inside it, and tossed it into her garden as easily as you pick up and throw an eggshell.

The spies told the Israelites all this and concluded their report by saying, “We were like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and in the eyes of the Canaanites as well!”

With such testimony, it was no wonder that the anodyne assurances of Joshua and Caleb did not outweigh the majority report, which concluded, “We cannot go up against this people, for they are stronger than we.” The Israelites lifted their voices and wept.

It is hard not to sympathize with those Israelites. They had now spent more than a year in a harsh desert, a place of serpents and scorpions, a thirsty place with no water, a place where they could not hope to survive without God’s constant intervention. They had come from a place where they had been enslaved. Now they learned from the spies that the land to which they were headed was one that consumes its own people and whose inhabitants could easily destroy them. In their distress, the familiar hardships of Egypt seemed better than the Promised Land or even the desert. In a mad moment, they considered returning to Egypt. But even they must have realized that the best they could expect there was to be again enslaved, after being punished for fleeing. No wonder they spent the night in lamentation.

In the morning light, admonished by Moses, despondent at learning their punishment—40 years of pointless wandering in the desert, never (in their lifetimes) to achieve the tranquility and security of living in a fertile land of their own—and stunned by the sudden death of the 10 who recommended against proceeding to the Land, the people had a change of heart and decided to invade after all. In their eagerness, they flouted Moses’s warning to remain in the camp and attacked—but Moses and the Ark of the Covenant stayed behind. It was too late to undo their failure of trust. God punished the leaderless mob of invaders by allowing the Amalekites and the Canaanites to decimate them.

The shocking thing about the episode is that it didn’t need to happen, for physically, the people of the desert generation were anything but weaklings. Tradition reports that as the 40 years went by, they aged and died one after the other, and their corpses lay baking in the desert for centuries. One time, an Arab traveler said to a rabbi, “Come with me, and I’ll show you the Desert Dead.” He got up and went with the Arab. Deep in the desert lay a whole generation of Israelites on their backs, huge petrified corpses—so huge that the Arab could ride on his camel under one corpse’s flexed knee with his lance raised. Not only were the Desert Dead huge, but they also enjoyed mysterious protection from the elements and from men. The 6th-century Hebrew poet Yannai confirmed the formidability of the spies, saying that the men were like lions and tigers, elite warriors bearing trenchant swords.

The Israelites of the desert generation might have been as intimidating to the Canaanites as the Canaanites were to them. Indeed, God rebuked them for so misjudging their own powers: “Perhaps you seemed to yourselves to be grasshoppers, but how could you know that you appeared as grasshoppers to the Canaanites? Maybe to them you were giants!”

Were they giants or grasshoppers?

Which are we?

In thinking about the condition of the Jewish people in his own time, the poet Ḥayim Naḥman Bialik revived the image of the gigantic Desert Dead in his great poem of that name (“מתי מדבר” in Hebrew). He depicted the endless, silent desert strewn with their enormous corpses lying as if petrified in the sun, impervious to time and its vicissitudes. One by one, the desert beasts—the eagle, king of the heavens; the serpent, king of the underworld; and the lion, king of the terrestrial realm—approach, attack, are mysteriously repelled, and wander off, while the Desert Dead lie inert, oblivious to any threat, even to any presence.

But once in a long while comes a moment when the desert rebels against its fate of eternal stasis and against the Creator who has doomed it to eternal desiccation. A violent storm blows up and throws the desert into chaos. Rocks and the dunes seem to rise up against the heavens, as if trying to throw off the chains that have bound them to eternal sameness. With the desert, the Desert Dead, too, are at last roused. They wake and sit up, their eyes flashing with their ancient martial vigor. Their hands reach for their swords, and their voices sound loud over the crashing tumult of the raging desert:

Mighty warriors we!
The last of the slaves,
The first of the free! . . .
We and heaven’s eagles have sipped freedom at its source!
Who is lord over us? . . .
In the face of heaven and all its spite,
Here we are, ready to storm, to conquer!
And if God has withdrawn from us,
If His Ark will not move from its place—
We will conquer without Him!
                                   (Translation from Bialik’s Hebrew by Raymond Scheindlin)

The moment passes. The sun and the silence return, the desert goes quiet, and the Desert Dead are again recumbent, impassive, immutable. For a moment, they had glimpsed their own power—and for once, correctly assessed their own vigor and potential—but they have fallen back into their native passivity and once again have lost the power to affect anything, even themselves. The poem concludes:

The silence returns as before.
The desert stands barren.

Were they giants or grasshoppers? Which are we?

The imaginative elaborations of the story of the spies (from Numbers ch. 13 and 14) used in this piece can be found among the rabbinic traditions collected by Louis Ginzberg in Legends of the Jews (7 vols.; Philadelphia, 1909-46) 3:261-78; their sources are identified ibid. 6: 92-96. Yannai’s poem is found in Z. M. Rabinovitz, (מחזור פיוטי יניי 2 vols.; Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 1987) 2:48-49.

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