The Hebrew meaning of the sin of the spies

The sin of the spies, who were sent to explore the Land of Israel, is considered to be one of the worst sins in the eyes of the Jewish tradition. According to the Jewish tradition, the day of the sin was the ninth of the Hebrew month of Av – the same date that later on both the first and the second Temples in Jerusalem would be destroyed – and is considered a national mourning day, in which Jews all around the globe fast.
(*In the modern state of Israel, it is considered as an official mourning day by law – because of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, NOT because of the sin of the spies).

In today’s post, we will discuss the Hebrew meaning of their sin. First let’s have a look at the scriptures:

“Then the men who had gone up with him said, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are.” So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height.” (Numbers 13:31-33)

The gap between the original Hebrew and the English translation in this case is quite large. The term ‘bad report’ does not appear in the original Hebrew AT ALL! There, it is written that the spies ‘Hotzi’u Deebat Ha-Aretz” {הוציאו דיבת הארץ} – literally means ‘they took out the ‘things/words which been said about the land’. Naturally, the literal meaning of this Hebrew sentence does not make any sense in English so that is why I would like to explain what exactly what the meaning is in Hebrew.

The Hebrew word ‘Deebah’ {דיבה} comes from the root D-B-B {ד-ב-ב} and the meaning is strongly related to the concept of ‘speaking’ or ‘telling’. In Modern Hebrew (and also in some cases in Biblical Hebrew – as we are about to see) it means ‘slander’ or ‘defamation’.
In other cases in the Hebrew Bible, such as in the case of Joseph in Genesis, this Hebrew word was actually ‘neutral’ and meant ‘things/words that been said,’ but with an additional Hebrew adjective that means ‘bad’ (‘Ra’ah {רע} in Hebrew) which turned this neutral term into a negative concept:

“And Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father.(Genesis 37:2)

Again, the same as in the case of the spies, the English translation uses the same term (‘bad report’) even though, in the original Hebrew it is CLEAR that we are talking about two COMPLETELY DIFFERENT situations.

In the case of Joseph, the Bible uses a different verb ‘Va-Yave’ {ויבא} – which means ‘and he brought’ while in the case of the spies the Bible uses the verb ‘Hotzi’u’ {הוציאו} which means ‘and they took out.’

The difference between the two cases is very significant. In the case of Joseph, we learn from the Hebrew syntax that he said bad things about his brothers but he spoke the TRUTH. That is the reason why the Bible added the adjective ‘bad’ (‘Ra’ah’) and the verb ‘to bring’ (‘Va-Yave’) to clarify that concept.

However, in the spies’ case, they said bad things which were a complete FALSEHOOD and that is the reason for the unique Hebrew term the Bible uses ‘Deebat Ha-Aretz’ – which means ‘slander about the land’ and the verb ‘to take out’ (‘Hotzi’u’) which suggests it was a lie, in the sense of they did not ‘bring’ a report (as it is) but rather ‘took out’ which means they ‘made up’ or ‘created’ the report in of their own minds.