Deuteronomy 1 and Selective Reporting

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A few years ago I wrote about the rare occasions when it's legitimate to represent your opponents unfairly, using a passage from Isaiah as an illustration. I thought of a similar issue yesterday in reading the first chapter of Deuteronomy. In the early chapters of Deuteronomy, Moses recounts the events of Exodus through Numbers once again to the Israelites on the eve of their entrance into the promised land. But there are differences, just as there are with the different reports of Jesus' life in the four gospels, the different accounts of the history of the kings of Israel and Judah in Samuel-Kings and Chronicles (as weel as the occasional narratives in the prophets), and the three different accounts of Paul's conversion in Acts.

It's one thing to reorder the events so they aren't chronological but thematic. The order of contact with the nations east of the promised land is different. In the latter chapters of Numbers it looks chronological, and in Deuteronomy 2-3 the nations Israel actually fought end up at the end to be treated together, whereas they probably weren't encountered in that order. But you might argue that anyone aware of the geography would know that this wasn't ordered chronologically or geographically.

But what about the spy report in Deuteronomy 1? It leaves out some important information that Numbers is very up-front about. It's the sort of thing that we might call selective reporting in our day. If you just read Deuteronomy, you'd get the sense that the spies came back with an entirely positive report. All it says is that the spies reported the land to be good and full of good fruit. There's nothing in the report about their being scared of giants or unwilling to go into the land. The only mention of that comes later, when Moses recounts the people's opposition.

Now I think there are some good reasons (which would take too long to list here) for thinking that Deuteronomy's narrative assumes the background knowledge someone who has read Numbers would know. So I'm not inclined to accept that it's all that plausible that a contrary ideology is behind Deuteronomy. Besides, there isn't a huge theological difference between recognizing a bad spy report (representing the majority of the tribes with one person per tribe) and recognizing a bad response from the people as a whole. So I don't accept a source-critical solution to this problem (which I'm not sure would be a solution anyway).

Here's what I propose is going on. I do think there's a theological reason for Moses' reporting things differently in Deuteronomy 1. In Numbers, the concern is largely getting down what happened in order. But in Deuteronomy, Moses is giving a speech to the people on the eve of their entrance to the land. Moses' overall point is that the good report is all they needed, and the false report (not given here as a report by the spies but given in Numbers as exactly that) is irrelevant. Moses' leaving it out in this speech would be glaringly obvious to the Israelites, who had just spent 40 years wandering around because their parents and grandparents had heeded that report.

In Numbers, the spies did indeed give the positive information Moses here says they gave, and the people (who happened to include most of the spies) responded wrongly to it, assuming God to be unable to achieve his promises to them. It just happens that the majority report of the spies was part of that bad response. Moses allows the response of the people to capture the content of the spies' report, not because he (or the author of the book if it's someone else) wants to hide the fact that the leaders of each tribe were involved in the bad report from the very return of the spies but because he wanted to separate that bad report from the content of the good report that should have been all the people needed, given a sufficiently high view of the God who had revealed himself to this people over and over as a good God who cares about them and who has the power to back up his promises.

So this seems to be a case of selective reported based on ideology (of a sort), but it seems perfectly fine in this context to do that. It would be interesting to work out what sorts of general principles allow for the moral legitimacy of selective reporting based on ideology, and I won't do that now, but I think this is an interesting example of a phenomenon that I'm sure will occur in other kinds of situations.

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