The Real Heroism Of Caleb And Joshua
The Lesson Behind Joshua And Caleb's Good Report
Do you know the story about the spies?
Moses sends twelve men on a mission to spy out the land of Israel. They come back bearing a bad report. “Scary people live there! The land devours its inhabitants! We’ll never be able to conquer it.” The people overreact, and God decrees that they should wander in the desert for 40 years.
Now, you may remember that not all of the spies were guilty. Two of them – Caleb and Joshua – tried to speak up. They tried to defend the land of Israel, to remind the people that it’s a beautiful land, a land promised to them by God, and that it was within their power to conquer it!
It must have taken a lot of courage for them to speak up like that, and their little speech was no doubt stirring… but would you say that Caleb and Joshua were heroes? Because – reality check – no one actually listened to them. As soon as they finished talking, the people tried to stone them to death! They didn’t change anybody’s minds. God still punished the people. Their act of courage didn’t have any effect at all.
Or did it? It turns out that Caleb and Joshua did accomplish something on that day. No, they didn’t manage to change the people’s minds, they didn’t manage to forestall God’s punishment… but on that day, they reached back into Israelite history and corrected an egregious sin that hadn’t been spoken about about for hundreds of years.
What was the sin? And how did they correct it?
For Rabbi Fohrman's Pesach course which connects the sale of Joseph to the punishment of exile/slavery in Egypt: "How To Read The Haggadah"
For more videos that deal with the “redemption” of Judah and Joseph’s mistakes, see:
Parshat Shelach tells us the story of the spies. Let’s read through this story, and as we do, we’ll play one of our favorite games here at Aleph Beta: Where have we heard this before? What does this remind you of?
The Story of Joshua, Caleb and the SpiesSo here’s the story: שְׁלַח-לְךָ אֲנָשִׁים – God tells Moses to choose one man from each of the 12 tribes and to send them on a mission to spy out the land of Canaan. וּרְאִיתֶם אֶת-הָאָרֶץ מַה-הִוא – they’re meant to see what the land is like, the people who live there, the cities they’ve built.
So the spies head out, they stop at Chevron, Nachal Eshkol, they cover a lot of ground, and then they come back with a report about what they saw… and it’s not looking too good. “The people who live there are strong and scary,” they say, “and the land? אֶרֶץ אֹכֶלֶת יוֹשְׁבֶיהָ הִוא, it’s a land that devours its inhabitants. Trying to conquer that land is a suicide mission.”
Caleb, one of the spies, stands up, and argues to the people, “Don’t listen to them! We can conquer the land!” But it’s too late. The people are already mourning: וַיִּבְכּוּ הָעָם בַּלַּיְלָה הַהוּא – they cry all night long.
Joshua and Caleb’s Good ReportCaleb stands up again, this time with another of the spies, Joshua, at his side, and together, they try to turn the tide, insisting, טוֹבָה הָאָרֶץ מְאֹד מְאֹד – that it’s a good land, that God will protect them. But the people won’t hear it.
They’re about to stone Caleb and Joshua when God jumps in and says: “That’s enough. You don’t want My land? You don’t get My land. No one is going anywhere for forty years. You’re all going to die here, wandering in this wilderness.”
So, what other story am I thinking of? In what other story do we find the 12 tribes, someone is sent on a mission to see something, to bring back a report, Chevron, something that gets devoured, and crying? What is the only other story in the Torah where we find not one, not two, but all of these elements?
Parallels to Joshua and Caleb in the BibleIt’s the story of Joseph and his brothers. Genesis chapter 37. There, we meet the 12 tribes – the 12 sons of Jacob. And one day, they’re out shepherding, and Jacob calls Joseph over and says:
אֶשְׁלָחֲךָ אֲלֵיהֶם – “I’m sending you on a mission” – there’s shelach!
רְאֵה אֶת-שְׁלוֹם אַחֶיךָ – “See how your brothers are doing” – re’eh!
וַהֲשִׁבֵנִי דָּבָר – “And report back to me” – heishiv davar!
וַיִּשְׁלָחֵהוּ מֵעֵמֶק חֶבְרוֹן – and he sends him from the valley of Chevron – Chevron!
So Joseph meets up with his brothers, but as we all know, the story takes a crazy turn: when they see him coming, they decide to kill him.
וְאָמַרְנוּ חַיָּה רָעָה אֲכָלָתְהוּ – “We’ll say that a wild animal devoured him” – something is devoured!
And what’s more, it’s a lie. The wild animal didn’t really devour Joseph, just like the land of Israel doesn’t really devour its inhabitants. They take Joseph, cast him into a pit… and then Judah speaks up and voices a different idea: מַה-בֶּצַע כִּי נַהֲרֹג אֶת-אָחִינוּ – “What do we gain by killing him? Let’s sell him for a profit.” The brothers follow Judah’s lead, Joseph is sold down to Egypt, and the rest is history. And then, when the brothers bring a bloodied coat to their father, he believes that Joseph is dead and he cries:
וַיֵּבְךְּ אֹתוֹ. There’s your crying.
You’ve got all of these elements appearing in both stories, and that’s not all… they appear in the exact same order. 12 tribes, a mission with shelach, re’eh, heishiv davar; Chevron; devouring; crying… In the world of intertextual parallels, that’s pretty darn good.
Now, if you’re a really intense skeptic, maybe you’re still balking: “Eh, I see the parallels, but those words are kind of common. You got anything else for me?”
As a fellow skeptic, I totally get where you’re coming from. So I saved a few more parallels in my pocket, just for you.
Deeper Biblical Connections to Joshua and Caleb’s StoryFor starters, how do you say “spies” in Hebrew? Meraglim. That’s a highly unusual word. Does that word come up anywhere in the Joseph story?
Would I have brought it up if it didn’t? Years after the sale of Joseph, when the brothers come down to Egypt to get food, what does Joseph say to them? מְרַגְּלִים אַתֶּם – “You’re spies!” לִרְאוֹת אֶת-עֶרְוַת הָאָרֶץ בָּאתֶם – “You’ve come here to spy out the land!” Pretty nuts, right?
And here’s another parallel. What was the consequence of each of these sins – the sin of the spies and the sin of the sale of Joseph? For the sin of the spies, God decrees that the people have to spend 40 years wandering outside the land. Well, what was the consequence of the sale of Joseph? Joseph goes down to Egypt, a famine seizes the land, the brothers travel to Egypt, they reunite with Joseph, they relocate to Goshen… and they end up having to endure hundreds of years of slavery before they can finally head back to the Promised Land. (Now, it might not seem like such a straight line from A to G, you don’t see God’s hand as explicitly in that punishment – but Rabbi Fohrman argues compellingly that it’s there. Check out his Pesach course, I’ve linked to it in the description.) What we have here are two sins: and they both end with a delayed entrance to the Promised Land.
And one final parallel. I told you that the spies said some nasty things about the land. But what word does the Torah use to describe those nasty things? The word is dibah. וַיֹּצִיאוּ דִּבַּת הָאָרֶץ. Dibah means evil talk, an evil report. Now, dibah is a very unusual word – it only comes up one other time in the entire Torah. Do you have a guess where? Yep, you got it – also in the Joseph story: וַיָּבֵא יוֹסֵף אֶת-דִּבָּתָם רָעָה אֶל-אֲבִיהֶם – “Joseph brought dibah – an evil report – about his brothers to his father.” He tattle-taled on them. It’s like he was spying on them.
It’s just one parallel after the next. The classical commentators – Ramban and others – also pick up on these connections. It’s like the Torah is trying to tell us: “If you want to understand the story of the spies, then you have to read it, side by side, with this other story. The stories illuminate one another.” So we see the parallels, but how do these stories illuminate one another?
What Did Joshua and Caleb Really Do in the Bible?I think the key to answering that question lies in that final parallel – in dibah.
Because you might have been thinking: “Hold on a second, Beth, you’re cherry picking verses. Dibah is an outlier. It’s all the way up here in verse 2, in that section about Joseph’s early life, before the sale. It’s not really part of the story of the sale of Joseph at all!
But let me ask you: What prompted the sale of Joseph? Yes, his brothers did this horrendous thing to him, but… did their anger come out of nowhere? Joseph contributed to the cataclysm, didn’t he? He shared those dreams of grandeur. He accepted the coat from his father. And before all that, the chapter opens with tension between these brothers: with Joseph’s dibah. The midrashim also note this link between Joseph’s sin in speaking dibah and his ultimate sale. So the dibah, it’s not part of some earlier unrelated story. No, the whole chapter is about the sale of Joseph: its buildup and its ultimate climax.
And that, I think, is one way in which the story of the spies is illuminating the story of Joseph. It is reminding us that Joseph wasn’t just a victim. I’m not saying that Joseph is the big villain in the story – that honor is probably reserved for Judah, the guy who comes up with the plan to sell Joseph – but Joseph isn’t blameless either.
And what about the other way? How does the story of Joseph change the way we read the story of the spies?
Who Were Joshua and Caleb?Well, let me ask you this: Who are the two most prominent actors in the spies story? It’s Caleb and Joshua, the two heroes. Which tribe are they from? Caleb: לְמַטֵּה יְהוּדָה כָּלֵב בֶּן-יְפֻנֶּה – he’s from Judah. And Joshua? לְמַטֵּה אֶפְרָיִם הוֹשֵׁעַ בִּן-נוּן – he’s from Ephraim, which means... he’s from Joseph. Isn’t that interesting?
Judah and Joseph – arguably the two most prominent actors in Genesis 37 – and now, hundreds of years later, someone from the tribe of Judah and someone from the tribe of Joseph find themselves together again – except this time, it’s different. This time, they’re not contributing to the cataclysm. They’re trying to right it, by directly addressing their ancestors’ mistakes.
Because what was Judah’s big mistake in Genesis? He was the guy who spoke up and talked the others into selling Joseph into slavery. He was the gangleader. He emerged as a leader among his brothers on that day – and he used his leadership for evil.
The Difference in Joshua and Caleb’s Good ReportAnd now look at Caleb, Judah’s descendant. He’s the guy who speaks up and tries to persuade the others. He’s just like his ancestor, Judah, he’s got that same courage, those same leadership qualities… except unlike Judah, he’s not using his leadership for ill. Caleb is using that quality for good – or trying to, at least. He’s redeeming Judah’s mistake.
What about Joseph? What was his big mistake? Well, it all started with the dibah, the evil talk that poisoned his relationship with his brothers.
And now look at his descendant, Joshua. Someone is speaking dibah, and that sets off warning bells for him. He remembers his ancestor’s mistake, he knows all too well where dibah can lead. So whereas Joseph was the speaker of dibah, Joshua takes a stand against it. טוֹבָה הָאָרֶץ מְאֹד מְאֹד – he insists: “It’s a very, very good land!” And in doing so, he redeems Joseph’s age-old error.
And the beautiful thing is that they do it together. Caleb puts himself out there and Joshua steps up and stands with him, as if to say, “My brother, there was a time when we were on opposing sides of the story. But today, I’ve got your back.”
The Different Spirit of Joshua and CalebThe people didn’t listen to Caleb and Joshua, but does that mean that their heroic stand didn’t mean anything? No. Caleb and Joshua accomplished something on that day. That’s how Genesis 37 illuminates the story of the spies. It shows us that the story of the spies isn’t just about 10 people who do wrong and 2 who try, futilely, to do right. It’s a story about redeeming the mistakes of our past. Caleb and Joshua are showing us what it looks like – as Rabbi Fohrman would say – to remember, but choose a different ending.
And it’s fascinating to me that the way they do that is by channeling the very same middot, the very same character traits, that got their ancestors into trouble in the first place. Judah, Caleb, and leadership. Joseph, Joshua, and dibah. It reminds me of what the rabbis of the mussar movement say: that we don’t really have bad character traits, rather, there’s only the palette of character traits that God gives us, and each trait can be channeled for bad or for good.
The Lesson Behind Joshua and Caleb’s StoryNow when I read this story, I can’t help but think about my own character traits, those parts of myself that I struggle with – and part of me wishes that I could wake up tomorrow and I just wouldn’t have those flaws anymore. But I’m starting to think that that’s an overly simplistic way of looking at things.
Do you have a temper problem? You lash out at your loved ones when you get frustrated? That’s no good; gotta work on that. But what if you dig a little deeper. You’re a passionate person. When that passion is expressed in a nasty way, we call that “anger.” But that same passion that causes you to lose your temper, can also compel you to act, to intervene, in a positive way, to stand up to the classroom bully, or just get involved when you see a vulnerable person who needs help.
You see, I don’t think God wants us to deny, or extinguish, essential parts of ourselves. God just wants us to do what Caleb and Joshua did: to take those parts and find a way to make them shine.
I think there’s a really powerful personal insight here, and it sparked a whole bunch of thoughts for me about this story with a friend of mine... so my producer Rivky and I decided to record an epilogue so we could continue the conversation. Take a listen – and please, leave a comment letting us know how you make sense of this material, how you see it applying in your own life. We’d love to hear that.