The Lord said to Moses, “Send men to explore the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites. From each ancestral tribe send one of its leaders.” So at the Lord’s command Moses sent them out from the Desert. (Numbers 13: 1-3)
Compare this to the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 1: 22-23: Then all of you came to me and said, “Let us send men ahead to spy out the land for us and bring back a report about the route we are to take.” The idea seemed good to me; so I selected twelve of you, one man from each tribe.
So, whose idea was it to send the spies on their mission?
Rashi reconciles the apparent contradiction. The people came to Moses with their request and Moses asked God what he should do. God gave him permission to send the spies. He did not command it. He merely did not oppose it. The sages say that God does not stop us from an intended course of action, even though He knows that it may end in disaster. The nature of the freedom God has given us includes the freedom to make mistakes.
Maimonides offers an interpretation that gives a different perspective. He begins by noting this verse in Exodus: When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, “If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.” So God led them by the desert road toward the Reed Sea.
Maimonides comments that God took them by a different route because he feared that they might encounter hardships too great for their present strength. God does not impose on us tasks that we cannot manage. According to Maimonides, then, it was irrelevant who sent the spies. Nor was the verdict after the episode – that the people would spend 40 years in the wilderness, and that it would be their children who would enter the land – a punishment. It was an inevitable consequence of human nature.
It takes more than a few days or weeks to turn a population of slaves into a nation capable of handling the responsibilities of freedom. In the case of the Israelites it needed a generation born in liberty, and free from the habits of servitude. Freedom often takes a long time indeed, and there are no shortcuts.