The main narrative in this week’s Torah portion tells the story of the sin of the spies. The children of Israel sent spies to the land of Canaan to scout out the land and report back to the people. The spies came back with a negative report of the promised land. They instilled fear, panic, and despair in the people.
Two of the spies dissented. Caleb and Joshua brought a positive and encouraging report. Joshua was the primary disciple of Moses as well as his eventual successor.
Before the spies’ departure on their mission, their names are listed. Joshua’s name is listed as “Hoshe’a the son of Nun”.(13:8) At the conclusion of the list the Torah states:
“These are the names of the men whom Moses sent to scout the land, and Moses called Hoshe’a the son of Nun, Yehoshua.” (13:16)
(From for the duration of this teaching we will refer to Joshua by the Hebrew pronunciation, Yehoshua)
In this verse, we are told that Yehoshua’s original name was Hoshe’a, and that his name was changed to Yehoshua by Moses. In the Bible, the changing of a name by one’s master is not unique to this situation. For example, in Genesis Pharaoh changed Joseph’s name when he appointed him viceroy over Egypt. (Gen. 41:45)
It is important to note that Yehoshua was already referred to as Yehoshua, the name Moses gave him, on a number of occasions earlier in the Bible (see Ex. 17:9-14, 32:17, Num. 11:28). This leads to an obvious question. If Moses changed his name from Hoshe’a to Yehoshua only now, at the sending of the spies, why was he already called Yehoshua in the earlier passages we mentioned? On the other hand, if Moses made the change at an earlier point, why is the name change mentioned only now?
A number of traditional commentaries assert that the change of name took place here, at the time of the sending of the spies. According to this approach, Yehoshua is called by this name earlier is the Torah in reference to how he would be known in the future. There is some logic to this. After all, Joshua would play a central role in the Biblical narrative of the entry and conquest of the land. Keeping his name consistent across all stories about him makes sense. Following this reasoning, he is called Hoshe’a here in the list of the spies in order to present the name change in its proper context, at the time the change was made.
Regardless of when the actual change of his name took place, the question remains. What is the connection between this name change and the sending of the spies that warranted its mention here in Numbers 13?
The Talmud (Sotah 34b) comments as follows:
Moses prayed for him [saying] ‘May the Lord [Yah] save you from the counsel of the spies.’
The Talmud is making a wordplay with the two-letter name of God, Yah, and the difference in spelling between the two names Hoshe’a and Yehoshua. In Hebrew, the difference between the two names is only one letter. Hoshe’a is four letters – heh, vav, shin, and ayin. Yehoshua is the same four letters with a yud added at the beginning. The first two letters in Yehoshua are yud and heh – the same as the two-letter name of God, Yah.
A second aspect of this wordplay is that the name Hoshe’a means “save.” Yehoshua means “God saves,” with the yud at the beginning referring to God.
This wordplay/prayer of Moses is peculiar. If only a single letter yud was added to the four-letter name Hoshe’a, not any full name of God, why does the Talmud suggest that Moses was invoking the name Yah? God’s most common name YHVH also begins with yud. Since only the letter yud was added, why did the sages of the Talmud not suggest “May the Lord (i.e. YHVH) save you …” as the prayer of Moses? What do the sages single out the name Yah in the prayer for Yehoshua to be saved from the negative report of the spies?
This two-letter name for God appears only twice in the Torah. The first is in the song that the children of Israel sang at the time of the splitting of the Red Sea.
“The strength and retribution of Yah was the cause of my deliverance. This is my God and I will glorify Him; the God of my father and I will exalt Him.” (Exodus 15:2)
The second appearance of Yah appears soon after the first, just after the war with Amalek who had attacked the Children of Israel not long after the splitting of the sea.
“The Lord said to Moses; ‘Write this as a remembrance in the book, and repeat it in Yehoshua’s ears, for I will totally obliterate the memory of Amalek from under the heavens.’ Moses built an altar and called it the Lord is My Banner. He said, ‘For the hand is on the throne of Yah: the Lord maintains a war against Amalek from generation to generation.” (Exodus 17:14-16)
Note the mention of Yehoshua along with the second time Yah is used. Yehoshua was the one who led the battle against Amalek.
Looking at these two passages, the only two uses of the name yah in the Torah, we notice an obvious connection. In both passages, the context is the defeat of, or battle against, the enemies of Israel. The first verse, from the song at the Red Sea, refers to the defeat of the Egyptians, the second refers to the perpetual war with Amalek, the archenemy of Israel.
It is interesting that the 1st-century Aramaic translator of the Torah, Onkelos, translates Yah as “fear of God” [d’chila Hashem] in the first reference and as “fear of His presence” [d’chila di’shchinteih] in the second. It seems that for Onkelos, this name of God, Yah, denotes the awesome God who strikes fear in enemies of Israel.
In light of the above, I would like to suggest two ways to understand what the sages of the Talmud meant in their comment about the change from Hoshe’a to Yehoshua.
Onkelos’ translation suggests that the name Yah connotes fear of God. Reading this into the prayer of Moses suggested in the Talmud, Moses prayed for Yehoshua to have an extra dose of fear of God. Fear of God would prevent Yehoshua from reporting anything other than a glowing report about God’s chosen land. After all, if God chose it how could there be anything wrong with it?
A second approach would be to look at the name Yah in its full meaning and context. Yehoshua was the one who led the battle against Amalek. At the end of that war, we read:
Yehoshua weakened Amalek and his people with the edge of the sword. (Exodus 17:13)
Yehoshua was someone who had tasted victory over the enemies of Israel. He had seen the fear in the eyes of Amalek. He had exacted revenge upon them. To a certain extent, as a result of this experience, Yehoshua possessed the characteristic of Yah.
The dispute between Yehoshua and Caleb, and the other spies revolved around whether or not the children of Israel had the ability to defeat the Canaanite nations who dwelt in the land.
“We came to the land into which you sent us and indeed it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the nation is mighty, those who inhabit the land, and the cities are greatly fortified to the utmost, and we also saw the offspring of the giant over there. Amalek dwells in the southern part of the land, the Hittites, Jebusites, and Emorites dwell in the mountain and the Canaanites dwell by the sea and next to the Jordan.”
Caleb silenced the people to Moses and he said: “We can surely go up [to the land] and we shall possess it for we are surely able to overcome it.’ But the men who went up with him said: ‘We are not able to go up against the nation for they are more powerful than we.” – Numbers 13:27-31
Put simply, the spies saw mighty nations – they saw Amalek – and they were afraid. Yehoshua and Caleb were not afraid.
Here is their report:
“The land through which we have passed to scout; the land is very, very good. If the Lord desires us, He will bring us into this land and give it to us, a land which flows with milk and honey. However, do not rebel against the Lord and you do not be afraid of the nation of the land for they are [as] our bread, their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us; do not be afraid of them.” – Numbers 14:7-9
For Yehoshua, the victor over Amalek, fear of the nations is nonsense. What saves Yehoshua from fear of the nations – the fear that the other spies felt – was the power of Yah, that Godly power over the enemies of Israel, the fear of God, which Yehoshua himself had experienced in the victory over Amalek. And it was the fear of God that prevented Yehoshua from fearing the Canaanite nations.
Today, as then, there are nations that seek to prevent the nation of Israel from possessing the land. We must follow the example of Yehoshua and Caleb who taught us that where there is fear of God, there is nothing else to fear.
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki is Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation and cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast