Rashi opens his comments to Parashat Shelach by citing a seemingly peculiar question from the Midrash Tanchuma – why the story of the spies, which is told in the beginning of this parasha, is presented immediately following the story of Miriam’s punishment for inappropriately criticizing Moshe. The Midrash’s famous answer to this question is that this juxtaposition teaches that the scouts repeated Miriam’s mistake by speaking negatively about the Land of Israel, just as Miriam spoke negatively about Moshe Rabbenu.
Many later writers wondered by such a question needed to be asked. Why should we not assume that the Torah’s presentation follows the chronological sequence of the events, and the sin of spies was the first significant event to transpire after the story of Miriam? What compelled the Midrash to probe into a possible connection between these two episodes that accounts for their juxtaposition to one another?
One simple but surprising answer, as noted by Rav David Mandelbaum (Pardeis Yosef Ha-chadash, Parashat Shelach), is that Rashi himself elsewhere clearly indicates that the Torah’s presentation does not, in fact, follow chronological sequence. In his commentary to the opening verse of Sefer Devarim, Rashi writes that when the Torah tells of Moshe speaking to the people at Chatzeirot, it means that he reprimanded them for rebelling against him during the time of Korach’s uprising. Rashi appears to have felt that Korach’s revolt occurred in Chatzeirot – the place where Miriam spoke out against Moshe (see Bamidbar 11:35). If so, then we must conclude that Korach’s revolt – which is told in Parashat Korach, after the story of the spies, which we read in Parashat Shelach – occurred before the sin of the spies. After all, the Torah writes explicitly in the final verse of Parashat Behaalotekha that Benei Yisrael journeyed from Chatzeirot to the Paran Desert after Miriam’s sin, and it was from the Paran Desert that Moshe sent the spies (12:3). Necessarily, then, Korach’s revolt transpired in between Miriam’s punishment and the story of the spies. Thus, the Midrash poses the legitimate question of why the Torah chose to present the story of the spies immediately following the story of Miriam, rather than following chronological sequence and telling of Korach’s revolt first before telling the story of the spies.
Rav Mandelbaum further notes Rashi’s comments in Parashat Masei (33:18), regarding the Torah’s account of Benei Yisrael journeying from Chatzeirot and then arriving and encamping in a place called Ritma. Rashi writes that Ritma was the place in the Paran Desert from where the spies were sent, and it was so named because the verse in Tehillim (120:2) compares false, deceptive speech to “gachalei retamim” (coals made from broom-wood). The spies spoke falsely and deceptively about Eretz Yisrael, and thus the place where this occurred was named “Ritma.” This clearly proves that the sin of the spies took place after Benei Yisrael journeyed from Chatzeirot, and thus if, as Rashi indicates in the beginning of Sefer Devarim, Korach’s revolt occurred in Chatzeirot, then we must conclude that Korach’s revolt took place before the sin of the spies.
This is also the indication of the Midrash Tanchuma in Parashat Korach (2), which tells that among the Korach’s supporters in his campaign were the twelve tribal leaders. The Midrash specifies the name of Elitzur ben Shedeiur, the leader of Reuven who oversaw that tribe’s census (Bamidbar 1:5), and who is named as leader also in reference to his tribe’s encampment (2:10) and the celebration of the Mishkan’s consecration (7:30). Now here in Parashat Shelach, the Torah tells that the men chosen to spy land were the nesi’im – the leaders of the tribes (“kol nasi bahem” – 12:2), and that the spies were killed by a miraculous plague after convincing the people that they could not conquer Canaan (14:36-37). Accordingly, if the Midrash Tanchuma names Elitzur ben Shedeiur as one of Korach’s supporters, then necessarily, Korach’s revolt occurred before the sin of the spies.
However, in a different context, Rashi explicitly states that Korach’s revolt occurred after the sin of the spies. The Torah in Parashat Korach (16:4) tells that Moshe “fell on his face” after being confronted by Korach and his followers, and Rashi explains that he felt hopeless because this was the nation’s fourth grave misdeed. The first three, as Rashi lists, were the golden calf, the mit’onenim (Benei Yisrael’s complaints during travel), and the sin of the spies. Rashi thus seems inconsistent in his understanding of the chronology of the events, as in Parashat Korach he works off the assumption that Korach launched his revolt after the sin of the spies, whereas in other contexts, as we have seen, he implies just the opposite. This issue requires further study and discussion.