Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? – Numbers 13:19

Following God’s instruction, Moses sends a group of leaders drawn from each of the Israelites’ ancestral tribes ahead of the people in late summer. From the time of the exodus from Egypt until now, the entire population has traveled together without knowing the conditions awaiting them. The scouts are directed to the Canaanite hill country. Their assignment is to explore the Israelites’ final destination, report back on the inhabitants and environment, and present seasonal, local fruits as evidence.

Moses poses a series of questions to guide the group on its expedition. The most provocative of the queries, Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? (Num. 13:19), resonates with many commentators in ways that are strikingly familiar. For example, Ibn Ezra states that if its air and water are good, so, too, is the Land. Ramban takes the broader view that good includes all good things and bad refers to all evils that might be found there. He then asks whether Moses’ subsequent question, Is the Land fat or lean? (Num. 13:20) is superfluous and provides a nuanced answer taking into account differences in the natural ecologies of valleys and mountainous regions:

It is possible that a good land is fruitful and its fruits are fat, and it produces fat products, such as balm and oil (Ezek. 27:17), dates and figs and the like. But [it is also possible] that it is good and yet lean, and always needs rain, and must be hoed and fertilized very often, and its fruits have a tendency to be dry although they are better and last longer than the fat ones. In such a land, there are very many “lean” fruits, such as nuts, almonds, apples, carobs and fruits of the forests….

Ramban cites Onkelos’ translation (Is the Land rich or poor?), adding:

[There] are countries whose inhabitants are rich because of the low prices prevalent among them, and their neighbors trade with them in all the good things found among them, and there are some countries whose inhabitants are dependent on their neighbors and their inhabitants have little power (II Kings 19:26), although they are good and not bad at all.

Whenever we choose ingredients, we make decisions about “good” and “bad,” and often “fat” and “lean,” as well. Our selections affect the overall quality of our baked goods, including their appearance, texture, and taste. The ingredients we use reflect our relationships to the lands that produce them and their inhabitants, too. What do they say about our values?

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