Geography and the Narrative Shape of Numbers 13 -- By: J. A. Beck

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 157:627 (Jul 2000)
Article: Geography and the Narrative Shape of Numbers 13
Author: J. A. Beck


Geography and the Narrative Shape of Numbers 13

J. A. Becka

The stories of the Bible are filled with geographical information. The Scriptures refer often to details of topography, geology, hydrology, climate, land use, and urbanization. Noted biblical geographer George Adam Smith challenges people to read the Bible with geographical awareness. “In the Bible, you see the details which are so characteristic of every Eastern landscape, the chaff and rolling thorns blown before the wind, the dirt cast out on the streets; the broken vessel by the well; the forsaken house; the dusty grave. Let us pay attention to all these, and we shall surely feel ourselves in the atmosphere and scenery in which David fought, and Elisha went and Malachi saw the Sun of Righteousness arise with healing in his wings.”1

Geography shaped the events of biblical history. Attention to “narrative geography” recognizes that biblical writers used geography not only to provide the setting of events but also to achieve strategic, literary ends. As Shimon Bar-Efrat has observed, “Places in the narrative are not merely geographical facts, but are to be regarded as literary elements in which fundamental significance is embodied.”2

This article addresses the strategic use of geography in Numbers 13, with attention to what may be called the narrative-geographical shaping of the story. Throughout Numbers 13 Moses used, reused, and nuanced geographical elements in patterns designed to impact the reader. Geographical references were noted to

generate expectations, to raise or lower the tension of the plot, and to mold the reader’s view of the characters.

Moses identified and instructed twelve men to explore the new land and report back to him. The report they brought back (exclusive of Joshua and Caleb) was negative. The report carefully and deceitfully used geography to argue that the Israelites could not enter the Promised Land. This became a watershed moment in Israel’s history, for it inspired a rebellion that lasted forty years.

Preparation for the Report

Literary Naming of the Spies

Two types of naming were used to introduce the spies. They were characterized first as a group and then as individuals.

Moses was instructed to send on this mission men who met specific standards. Each was to be a “leader” (נָשִׂיא, You must have a subscription and be logged in to read the entire article.
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