Spies and Espionage in the Hebrew Bible

Yesterday we mentioned that our weekly Torah portion talks about the story of the spies Moses send to the land of Canaan. Naturally, our weekly Prophet’s portion is taken from the Book of Joshua and talks about the two spies Joshua sent to Jericho (Joshua, Chapter 2).

It is a well-known fact that Joshua himself was one of the spies Moses sent in the first story (our weekly Torah portion), which means he saw the land with his own eyes. So why did Joshua have decide to send two spices on another mission?


The comparison between the two biblical ‘espionage’ stories is fascinating and can give us an answer to this question. First let’s have a look at the opening verses of our weekly Torah portion:

“The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel. From each tribe of their fathers you shall send a man, every one a chief among them.” (Numbers 13:1-2)

And now let’s have a look at our weekly Prophet’s portion:

“And Joshua the son of Nun sent two men secretly from Shittim as spies, saying, “Go, view the land, especially Jericho.” And they went and came into the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab and lodged there. And it was told to the king of Jericho, “Behold, men of Israel have come here tonight to search out the land.” (Joshua 2:1-2)

Three main differences emerge when reading the two biblical segments: the first two can be seen in the English translation and the third one can be only seen in the original Hebrew.

First difference: secret mission?

For the first mission the Bible simply says ‘send men to spy out the land of Canaan,’ and for the second mission (from the Book of Joshua) it is written ‘sent two men SECRETLY from Shittim as spies’ – meaning it was an ‘undercover secret mission’ when Joshua sent the spies but when Moses sent the spies it did not have the same nature at all.

Second difference: the identity of the spies.

Not only did Moses not mention anything about a’secret mission’ but the Bible says specifically to choose the leader of each tribe – not exactly the ‘classic spy type.’ In the case of Joshua, on the other hand, we do not even know the names of the spies – in fact, we do not know anything about them.

Third difference: the secret revealed.

The twelve spies who were sent by Moses traveled to the land without being spotted and went back to Israel’s camp to describe what they saw. The two spies Joshua sent were spotted soon after they were dispatched to their mission, and not just that but ‘it was told to the king of Jericho, “Behold, men of Israel have come here tonight to search out the land.’

In the original Hebrew it did not say ‘to search out’ but rather the Hebrew verb ‘La-Cha’por’ (לחפור) which means ‘to dig’ or ‘to tunnel’ and that changes EVERYTHING – all the information we need in order to answer the question about the difference between the two missions can be found in this Hebrew verb (‘La-Cha’por’).

When we connect all of the dots, we will see that the reason why Joshua sent spies for another mission even though there was already a spying mission before, is the fact that the two missions had entirety different purposes.

The twelve leaders who were sent by Moses went to see the Land of Canaan in order to get an impression of the land and to give a report to the people about all different aspects of the land. This is the reason why important and respected members of the community were chosen for this particular mission.

However, in Joshua’s case, this was a military espionage, meaning gathering information which would assist the Israelites in the battle over the land. That is the reason for the secret nature of the mission and the reason why the two spies hid at the house of Rahab (who was a prostitute and that is why the presence of two foreign man which nobody in Jericho knew would not draw any special attention), and was accused of ‘digging a tunnel’ – under the well-known walls of Jericho – in order to tip the scale at the battle over the city.