[Note: As a military historian, I have a notable interest in the biblical way of war, a subject I would (eventually) like to write about in book-length detail. That said, the following note is a historical introduction to one aspect of biblical warfare.]
It is impossible to fully examine the subject of spying in the Bible in a short note like this one, but it is worthwhile to examine that within the Biblical way of war, espionage has a long and noble tradition. While we might at present view spying and espionage in a more negative light, it is clear that the Bible holds the profession in the highest esteem. A list of the more prominent and named spies in the Bible demonstrates an impressive roster of biblical spies. These spies include a prophet, (the prophet Elisha, known as a spy on behalf of the nation of Israel by the Syrians in 2 Kings 6:12-13), a future leader of Israel (Joshua, one of the two righteous spies in Numbers 13 and 14, and who had already been recognized as a general in Israel—as in Exodus 17:8-16—as well as Moses’ assistant in Exodus 32:17), as well as one of the ancestors of Jesus Christ himself (Rehab the harlot, whose involvement with spies led to her marrying a noble line within the tribe of Judah, a story detailed in Joshua 2). Even ungodly heathen among Israel were sufficiently knowledgeable about the biblical way of war to use spycraft, as happened with some idolatrous Danites in Judges 18. Clearly, the subject of spying and spycraft within the Bible is a large subject, worthy of lengthy analysis and treatment, beyond the scope of the present essay.
A False Accusation of Spying
Let us, though, examine one incident of falsely accused spycraft that had major repercussions within biblical history. In 2 Samuel 10:1-6 we have an “international incident” of considerable importance: “It happened after this that the king of the people of Ammon died, and Hanun his son reigned in his place. Then David said, “I will show kindness to Hanun the son of Nahash, as his father showed kindness to me.” So David sent by the hand of his servants to comfort him concerning his father. And David’s servants came into the land of the people of Ammon. And the princes of the people of Ammon said to Hanun their lord, “Do you think that David really honors your father because he has sent comforters to you? Has David not rather sent his servants to you to search the city, to spy it out, and to overthrow it?” Therefore Hanun took David’s servants, shaved off half of their beards, cut off their garments in the middle, at their buttocks, and sent them away. When they told David, he sent to meet them, because the men were greatly ashamed. And the king said, “Wait at Jericho until your beards have grown, and then return.” When the people of Ammon saw that they had made themselves repulsive to David, the people of Ammon sent and hired the Syrians of Beth Rehob and the Syrians of Zoba, twenty thousand foot soldiers; and from the king of Maacah one thousand men, and from Ish-Tob twelve thousand men.”
Let us therefore turn and examine what this passage is really saying. Let us focus on a few elements: the intent of David, Israel’s reputation for espionage, the bungled response of the Ammonite ruler, and its later repercussions. Each of these is worthy of some substantial comment.
First, let us examine David’s intent. Nahash had been the brutal king of Ammon whose threats against the city of Jabesh Gilead had led to the demand by Israel for a king (see 1 Samuel 11 and 12 for the historical context). Nonetheless, perhaps because they both had a common enemy in King Saul, Nahash had done some kindness for David, and so David wished to honor that kindness and show kindness to his son, to comfort him in his mourning for the loss of his father. Again, David’s intent was a kind and gentle intent, and he sent emissaries to that foreign land not out of hostility, but out of love.
Nonetheless, the response of the recipients, who misjudged David’s intentions, was both hateful and humiliating to the recipients. Harun had the beards of the ambassadors cut off and cut off their clothing in a shameful and dishonoring way. For the purposes of our discussion, let us note that this shocking and undiplomatic behavior was done because the advisers to Harun saw Israel’s ambassadors as spies. It was apparent that Israel had a reputation among its neighbors for spycraft that led them to mistrust any foreign deputation, and in this case led them to inaccurately judge David and behave in a deliberately provocative manner. Realizing that they had given David and his powerful kingdom a just cause for warfare, they replied by hiring as mercenaries armed contingents from their Syrian and Mesopotamian neighbors, in a grand coalition to stop the inevitable and just retribution.
Let us examine the repercussions of this act of deliberate disrespect shown to David’s emissaries by the Ammonites. For one, their kingdom was taken over by David’s troops, who defeated the coalition, and besieged and took Rabbah (now now city of Amman, Jordan), itself a difficult task. Additionally, Israel became the dominant power for over 40 years in Syria, all the way to the Euphrates River. Also, during this war the infamous David and Bathsheba incident occurred, itself with momentous consequences. Let us never forget the great damage that rejecting the polite overtures of a powerful government can do—and let us avoid repeating the error. Insulting emissaries can have momentous consequences.
What can we conclude from this incident? For one, the human capacity to misunderstand intentions and act on mistaken prejudices and judgments is nearly infinite. Before we irrevocably burn bridges, we ought to be sure that we really understand the hostile intentions of our future enemies, and make sure we have exhausted every possibility for an honorable peace, before there is only the possibility of brutal and open conflict. That lesson remains valid nowadays. However, it is also noteworthy and true (and of great historical interest) that the false accusation of spying came about because Israel had such a well-earned reputation for spying on its future enemies and seeking out their weak points in order to destroy them. Indeed, it is entirely possible that this incident was an aspect of divine providence to lead to the expansion of Israel and the defeat of the Ammonite state. After all, divine providence works in mysterious ways. What better way is there to provoke war than to insult ambassadors on an intentionally peaceful mission?