The iconic images of the 12 spies, brought to light by the talents and brushstrokes of numerous artists and designers, are amongst some of my favorite biblical scenes. Such artistic depictions have indeed been recreated throughout history because of the plethora of meaning and messages one can pull out from this fantastical story.
It’s rather fun to revisit a biblical scene filled with so much trauma and passion and admire its artistic representation from different cultures and perspectives. This story has it all: freed slaves, new hope, fear of defeat, the triumph of the minority opinion, lessons to be learned for the coming generation. This is a story of an expedition from the newly freed Israelites on their way towards settling anew the home Abraham and Sarah had begun, but not yet completed. Indeed, it seems like these themes tend to repeat themselves quite often if I am reading my bible correctly.
What interests me regarding this story is the role of the grape bushel in the picture. One can see two of the spies returning with a massive bunch of grapes as a sign that the giants living in the land of Canaan were too big to defeat. Any creature that feasted on such large bushels made them a force that Israel could not overcome. There is an interesting parallel regarding the size and strength of both grapes and people. The grapes carried by the spies may have been massive, but sometimes size isn’t everything, and if you know wine, you know that concentration of force and flavor are all the more important: good grapes come in small packages. The same is often true for people, I do believe.
Likewise, the Jewish people have had a peculiar habit throughout the ages of containing a potency and power that surely projects farther than our puny size in numbers. I don’t care to go into too much detail in that direction, since there’s enough content available to discover the achievements of Jewish people throughout history. But in this case, the perspective is what I find interesting, inasmuch as size and scale sometimes can be deceiving. This is maybe the first time the Israelites will face a giant (literally) and also the burden of keeping hope alive when facing giant challenges (not the first time, nor the last). There is no doubt that conquering giants on the field of battle must have surely been a daunting task, as well as providing for the needs of the army and the people during a campaign. Yet it is of course the perseverance and faith of the minority within the people that act as the driving force towards the fulfillment of the biblical prophecy and the eventual conquest of Canaan. It would be the two spies, Yehoshua and Caleb, who returned with the positive message that would not only be saved from the plague that killed the other ten spies, but these two would also be granted the exclusive prize of being the only from their generation to enter the land.
This contrast between hope and despair hovering over the heads of the slaves must have been daunting: to fight for hope or to run in despair, to retreat to the harsh ‘safety’ of the desert or to push forward and enter the land that was promised in the covenant and plant grapes and harvest crops. I cannot say I know such intense emotions as these, but alas, living in Israel and traveling around this wonderful land, one does often come into contact with such scenes that force us to choose, and with some inspiration and faith, hopefully, to choose wisely. Indeed one of the important aspects I encourage amongst my guests is that of empathy for the people that live in this land, and the ability to better understand the choices we make as individuals and as nations. Sometimes wine is the catalyst that leads to fiery debate and passionate oration.
Sometimes wine is the cushion we need to feel comfortable discussing harsh themes.
Additionally, one should notice a peculiar aspect of the biblical story that I’ve only just stumbled upon while writing here and now. If you will recall, Avraham started out his life in Canaan as a shepherd, a herdsman. He has a certain relationship to the ground and earth that is unique to the Bedouin peoples of the Middle East and indeed, for nomadic peoples across the world. From a state of ‘freedom to roam’ and spread out like the flocks, the Jewish people will soon fall into bondage and will enter the second stage of their national identity, that of an urbanized nation in chains, down in Egypt. No longer free to graze on the open plains with the sheep and goats, Israel becomes the bonded builders of a foreign nation’s home. While skimming over some important details, it is only upon release from the interim period of wandering the desert, that the conquest is able to occur and Israel may take her place in the promised land and begin a new stage as farmers and a sedentary people.
I raise the question here: who taught the Israelites how to farm after 250 years in slavery? How is it that shepherds turned slaves turned conquerors would suddenly have such success in their agricultural ambitions? I can’t help but laugh at the irony of history in that the modern state of Israel was yet another example of this pattern of human development and settlement. The urbanized Jews in the house of Pharaoh would have to dramatically escape and start afresh as farmers. Likewise, early stages of growth in this region in the late 1800s were built around the idea of working and tilling the soil. Agriculture would again be the saving force for a people seeking to redefine their identity in the modern age, as was true once before in the narrative of the Jewish people.
These stories provide an important foundation upon which to build a better relationship with this land. The legends from this book we call the bible can teach and preach piety and priestliness, they can raise our passions and glory, and stoke the fires of our faith. Ultimately, they help to fill our conversations over glasses of wine with some extra spice and flavoring. The tasty journeys we create are meant to be joyful to the pallet, inspiring to the heart, provide the food for enlightened thought, and hopefully, leave us a bit more inspired.
I look forward to hosting you and touring through times long gone, revisiting these biblical stories through paintings and prose, and putting down a few glasses of wine together.
L’chayim, to life, to good wine with good friends