The Promised Land: Good Or Bad?
The True Sin Of Israel Rejecting The Promised Land
In Parshat Devarim, Moses recounts the story of the spies. In that story, Moses had sent 12 men to the Promised Land, asking them: "And what of the land? Is it good or is it bad?"
Now without even going to see the land for yourself, you know the right answer to that question, right? The Promised Land is good! The Almighty God describes it as a good land, His chosen land, the place where His chosen people belongs. Then why does Moses pose this question to the spies? Is it a trick question? Isn't this a bit strange?
When you take a closer look at the text, and when you look at it through the lens of Moses' words in Parshat Devarim... when you see how the spies actually answer Moses’ question, and how the people react, it becomes clear that there is a story playing out here just beneath the surface of the text, a story with a checkered history and insidious undertones, a story that sheds a whole new light on this tragic episode.
The most comprehensive presentation of Rabbi Fohrman’s theory of the sin of the Tree of Knowledge is in his book, The Beast That Crouches at the Door, which you can purchase here. He also explicates parts of the theory in various videos and podcasts throughout our library, including:
- Genesis Unveiled
- Eicha And Ayekah: Was There A Tisha B’Av In Eden?
- What Is The Meaning Of Life? (see Part III, aka segment 4)
Click for Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch’s commentary on the parallel between the sin of the spies and the sin of Adam and Chava.
For more on Parshat Devarim, see "What Did Moses Do Wrong?"
In Parshat Devarim, as Moses begins his grand farewell speech, he reminds the people of many of the events that happened in the desert, including the story of the spies.
Israel Prepares to Enter the Promised LandHe talks about the sin, about God’s anger, about the decree that they would wander for 40 years and die in the desert. Only their children, the next generation, would get to enter the land. But then, Moses says something that made me do a double take – he describes those children in a very weird way:
בניכם אשר לא־ידעו היום טוב ורע המה יבאו שמה
בְנֵיכֶם אֲשֶׁר לֹא-יָדְעוּ הַיּוֹם טוֹב וָרָע–הֵמָּה יָבֹאוּ שָׁמָּה
Your children — who today have no knowledge of good and evil — they shall go there (Dev. 1:39).
Those words —‘knowledge’, ‘good’, ‘evil’ — any reader of the Bible knows that those words are loaded. We’ve heard them before. There is only one other place in the entire Five Books of Moses where we hear about knowledge of good and evil. It’s the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden.
Is Moses intentionally evoking the Garden of Eden here in this random verse in Deuteronomy? And if so, what is he trying to say? Does the story of the spies have something to do the story of Adam and Eve?
Maybe I’m reading too much into it. One parallel does not a connection make. So let’s go to where the Torah first recounts the story of the spies, back in the Book of Numbers. If there aren’t any other hints there, then, well, this is going to be a pretty short video. But if there are… well, that would be interesting, wouldn’t it?
Biblical Parallels Between the Promised Land... and Eden?Numbers Chapter 13. God tells Moses to choose one man from each of the 12 tribes and to send them to spy out the land of Canaan. And then, Moses says to the spies: Here’s what I want you to find out about the land. For one thing, he wants to know:
Most people translate this as “Is there any wood there?” But עֵץ literally means “a tree.” Is there a tree there? What an odd question. Why does Moses want to know if there’s a tree there? I don’t know… but I do know something else. We came into this story looking for Garden of Eden buzzwords. The word “tree” definitely qualifies, right?
And keep reading that very verse. Moses commands the spies:
לקחתם מפרי הארץ
Take from the fruit of the land (Num. 13:20)
Was there fruit anywhere in the Garden of Eden? I think there was. Add another parallel to the list.
And here’s another one. There are severe consequences for the sins in both stories. In the sin of the spies, God decrees two consequences:
במדבר הזה יפלו פגריכם
Your corpses will fall in this wilderness (Num. 14:29)
You’re going to die.
And Consequence #2:
אם־אתם תבאו אל־הארץ…
Surely you shall not come into the land… (Num. 14:30)
You cannot live in that special land.
Do we hear anything like that in the Eden story? We do. Before they even ate from the tree, God warned Adam:
ומעץ הדעת טוב ורע לא תאכל ממנו כי ביום אכלך ממנו מות תמות.
Of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil you shall not eat — for on the day that you eat from it, you will surely die. (Gen. 2:17)
Death. There’s Consequence #1.
וישלחהו יהוה אלהים מגן־עדן
And God sent him out from the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:23)
He banished the man (Gen. 3:24)
There’s Consequence #2: You cannot live in that special land.
It’s the exact same two consequences.
And there’s one last parallel that I’d like to share with you. Go back to that language of daat tov v’ra, “knowledge of good and evil,” that we noticed at the start of this video, in Deuteronomy. What’s fascinating is that, here in Numbers, although we don’t find the phrase, “daat tov v’ra”... we find the idea of daat tov v’ra. We find all of these different people speaking up and saying: “Here’s what I think is good” — and they don’t all agree. It’s as if the whole story is really just this conversation about what’s really good, and who is right. About who has knowledge of good… and evil?
If that sounds a little confusing, let’s go to the verses and I’ll show you what I mean.
The Promised Land: Good or Bad?It starts with Moses posing a question for the spies to investigate:
ומה הארץ… הטובה הוא אם־רעה
And what of the land... is it good or is it bad? (Num. 13:19)
That’s instance #1. Moses asks the spies, let us know, is the land tov, good, or rah, bad.
And now instance #2. When the spies return, how do they answer Moses’ question? The truth is...they don’t. They never actually answer: is the land good, tov, or is it bad, rah? Maybe you don’t think that’s so weird. Maybe they thought the other information they shared – like the cities are fortified, the people are strong – could speak for themselves, and Moses didn’t need them to take an explicit stand on the “good or bad” question.
But then, if you keep reading, after the people hear the spies’ report, after they mourn, they say:
הלוא טוב לנו שוב מצרימה
Wouldn’t it be good for us to return to Egypt? (Num. 14:3)
Now we hear the word “good,” but not in the way that we expected! Moses asked about whether Israel was good but after hearing the spies’ report, the nation weighs in, disastrously, about what they think is good – and it’s not Israel, it’s Egypt!
And that’s when two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, rush to defend the land of Israel, insisting:
הארץ אשר עברנו בה לתור אתה טובה הארץ מאד מאד
The land that we just spied out… it is good – it’s very, very good! (Num. 14:7)
So let’s get this straight.
1. Moses asks the spies to see if the land is good, then...
2. The spies are conspicuously silent on the question, then...
3. The people jump in and declare that Egypt is good – good for them, at least – and then...
4. Joshua and Caleb get into the fray and say: “No, no, it’s not Egypt, Israel is what’s good!”
So who is right? Who has true knowledge of good… and evil? Who has daat tov v’ra? Do you see how this theme wends its way throughout the whole story?
Connecting the Story of the Promised Land and Eden in the BibleThat verse in Deuteronomy about the children knowing good and evil, it’s seeming less and less like a fluke. In parallel after parallel, we see the Tree of Knowledge casting its shadow over this entire story. It’s as if the Torah wants us to be reading the story of the spies with the Gan Eden at the forefront of our minds. But why? What is the Tree of Knowledge meant to teach us here, in the story of the spies?
To unpack this, we need to fundamentally understand that term that keeps coming up: knowledge of good and evil. So let’s go back to the Garden of Eden, and let’s ask one of the most basic questions we can ask.
Why did God tell Adam and Eve not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? Knowledge of good and evil sounds like a good thing. You’d think God would want us to know the difference between right and wrong, to be moral people. So why place that tree off-limits?
I’m going to share with you Rabbi Fohrman’s answer to that question, at least as I understand it. But if you want to hear his full argument and all of his evidence, I’ve left some links for you in the description.
Here’s the thing. It’s not called the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil” because it helps you know the difference between right and wrong. It’s called the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil” because only a being with absolute knowledge of good and evil has access to that tree. And only one being actually has that kind of objective knowledge – not Adam, not Eve, but God.
Now, when I say that God has knowledge of good and evil, I’m not making some fluffy, abstract theological claim. The Torah tells us as much. Look at the first chapter of Genesis. God creates a whole bunch of things, and nearly every act of creation, we hear:
וירא אלהים כי־טוב
And God saw that it was good (Gen. 1:10 – also Gen. 1:12, 1:18, 1:21, and 1:25).
God decrees that His creation is tov, good! And a few chapters later, God looks at the world again, and:
וירא יהוה כי רבה רעת האדם בארץ
And God saw that the evil of man was great (Gen. 6:5).
He sees that humanity has become rah, evil – and He makes the decision to destroy the world in a flood. The bottom line seems to be that God evaluates things and decides whether it’s good or bad. God has knowledge, so to speak, of good and evil.
But human beings can’t have that knowledge. Why not? Because we are subjective. We like to think that we can be objective, but really, we decide what’s good and bad with reference to what we like. God, as the Creator of the whole universe, who lives outside of the system, so to speak – who doesn’t have a horse in the race — only God can be truly objective.
God made one special tree in the Garden of Eden off-limits, and He named it the “Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil”, as if to say: “Adam, Eve, all of the other trees in the garden are yours, to eat and enjoy. But this tree? This one isn’t yours. It’s not for you. It’s Mine.” That was God’s way of communicating this crucially important message: “I’m the Creator here. I’m the one who makes the call about what’s good and what’s bad. I want you to be moral, yes, but I don’t want you to invent your own morality. I’ll tell you what the good is, and your job is to pursue it.”
When Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge, they rejected that message. They said: “We don’t want to leave it to God to decide what’s good and bad. We can decide for ourselves.” That was their sin.
Back to the Israelites and the Promised LandAnd now come back to the spies. Isn’t that exactly what the spies did wrong?
God had told the people what was good. He had said:
וארד להצילו מיד מצרים
I will come down to save you from the hand of Egypt
ולהעלתו מן־הארץ ההוא אל־ארץ טובה
And to bring you up from that land to a good land (Ex. 3:8)
He had called Israel an eretz tova, a good land. And now the first freed slaves have the chance to see that good land. But they don’t see it through God’s eyes. They view it through their own biased, subjective lens, and they conclude: “Nah, it looks like a tough place to make a home. No thanks. Let’s go back to Egypt.”
They’re making the same mistake that Adam and Eve once made. And for that, God decrees: “If you can’t align yourself with My definition of the good, then you can’t live in this special place.” It’s as if God was kicking man out of the Garden of Eden for the second time. (By the way, I’m not the only one who says this. Rav Hirsch says something similar – and he has some really cool things to add, check the link in the description to read it in full.)
So who could enter the land? The children – those who didn’t have “knowledge of good and evil” – who didn’t participate in this twisting of the knowledge of good, who hadn’t made Adam and Eve’s fatal mistake of deciding, on their own, based on their own false opinions what’s good and what’s bad — they would be given the opportunity to enter the land. For them, God would re-open the gates.
Understanding Why the Israelites Didn't Enter the Promised LandThere’s one thing about this story which leaves me wondering. What should the spies have said? Should they have just shut their eyes and said: “God, You said that the land is good; that’s all we need to hear. As far as we’re concerned, everything is just rosy and peachy?”
That doesn’t make sense to me. They were seeking information that would aid them in their conquest. To notice that the inhabitants are strong, the cities fortified, that’s all good to know. That’ll help them to prepare. Alright, maybe they exaggerated a little, but… to see what’s right before your eyes, that’s not a sin, is it?
But maybe the problem wasn’t that they reported that the inhabitants were strong, or the cities fortified. Those are just facts. They were telling it like they saw it. Maybe the problem was that they took it upon themselves to make a judgement call on the basis on those facts: “Therefore, we can’t conquer the land.” A judgment that directly contradicted what God had been promising them all along: that they could conquer it. That was their sin. They should have deferred to God’s judgment. The Mizrachi, makes the same point in his commentary.
Instead, here’s what they could have said:
“God, You told us that this is a good land, and that we can conquer it. We’ll be honest — it doesn’t look that way to us. We’re scared. But somehow, even though it seems impossible, we know that You’re going to pull us through. We’re going to put our faith in You.”
Not ignoring the facts; just finding a way to sit with the paradox: with both the facts and their faith in hand.
And us modern people, we’re no strangers to that paradox.
There are times when what I think is “good” or “bad” doesn’t line up with what God says is good or bad. What am I supposed to do with that? Not to shut my eyes and pretend that there’s no tension; to acknowledge that there’s a tension, but not let it uproot my faith. To bring in humility: to remind myself that, even though something seems one way to me, I’m subjective; I might be looking at it through biased eyes. To remind myself that God is able, somehow, to see through to the fundamental, objective nature of things. And to find a way to sit, however uncomfortably, with the paradox: acknowledging what I see in front of me, on the one hand, and holding fast to my faith, on the other. To take it day by day, knowing that I might have to sit like that for a lifetime.
Want more on Parshat Devarim? Rabbi Fohrman looks at a different aspect of Moshe’s farewell speech, and his conclusions are fascinating. Link is in the description. Check it out.