Happy Easter: the earliest recorded espionage operation was conducted by the Biblical Moses. He picked 12 prominent men... to be his SPIES and sent them to the "Promised Land" to scout it out.

    “The First Espionage Operation: Lessons for the modern intelligence agencies”

    Intelligence is one of the oldest profession of mankind and yet it is without a serious literature even in the twenty first century. It has been the “missing dimension” from history. It is not possible for an economist to be oblivious of the Industrial Revolution but many spies in today’s world might not be aware of the first intelligence operation. Sherman Kent who is known as the founding fathers of US intelligence analysis embodied this quandary in the following words: ‘From my point of view this is a matter of greatest importance. As long as this discipline lacks a literature, its methods, its vocabulary, its body of doctrine, and even its fundamental theory run the risk of never reaching full maturity.’ [1]

    Importance of intelligence was emphasised by none other than God himself. After the escape of Israelites under the command of Prophet Moses in about 1300 BC, God told Moses to send spies to carry out a reconnaissance of the land of Cannan (Palestine) which was the Promised Land. Since there were no professional spies, Moses chose one leading man from each of the 12 tribes of Israel. The tribes are the descendants of Prophet Jacob (Yaqub) whose name was changed to Israel as described in Genesis after he wrestled with an angel of Lord.

    After that, the Hebrew people became known as the Israelites. Jacob’s first wife, Leah, had six sons: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, and Zebulun. Each was the father of a tribe. Among the Levi’s descendants were Moses and Aaron. Gad and Asher were two other tribes which were named after the sons born to Jacob and Zilpah, Leah’s maidservant.

    Two additional tribes, Dan and Naphtali, were named after sons of Jacob born of Bilhah, the maidservant of Rachel. Prophet Jacob’s second wife was Rachel. She had two sons, Joseph and Benjamin. Saul who became the first King of Israel was from the tribe of Benjamin. They were merged into the tribe of Judah. Two tribes were named after Joseph’s sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. The British people learnt about the intelligence operations from Old Testament more than their own history for centuries before the Second World War. In fact, the Old Testament (the Jewish Tanakh) contains more references to spies than the history of any country. Moses (Musa) is also a Prophet in Islam. There are 136 references to him in the Glorious Qur’an.

    The twelve spies of Moses which were sent from the desolate Wilderness of Paran (north-west of today’s Aqaba) were chosen for their social standing but the mission goalsfor the advance into Canaan were pretty much in line with a modern military commander of Pakistan army whose objective is to reconnoitre the dispositions of ISIS in Rajgal valley in the Khyber disctrict of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan.

    “And Moses sent them to spy out the land of Canaan, and said unto them, ‘Get you up this [way] southward, and go up into the mountain: And see the land, what it [is]; and the people that dwelleth therein, whether they [be] strong or weak, few or many; And what the land [is] that they dwell in, whether it [be] good or bad; and what cities [they be] that they dwell in, whether in tents, or in strongholds; And what the land [is], whether it [be] fat or lean, whether there be wood there in, or not. And be ye of good courage, and bring of the fruit of the land. Now the time [was] the time of the first ripe grapes” [2]

    Carl von Clausewitz, defined the intelligence required by commanders on adversary’s territory as ‘every sort of information about the enemy and his country — the basis, in short, of our own plans and operations’.[3]

    All the twelve spies send by Moses reported in their debriefing report that Canaan was a land flowing with milk and honey. Two spies, Joshua and Caleb, were firm in their belief that the Israelites can easily invade the Promised Land with the support of God. “Let us go at once and possess it”. However the remaining pusillanimous spies gave an ‘evil report’, according to the Bible, which concluded that the Canaanites would destroy the Israelites: ‘We be not able to go up against the people; for they [are] stronger than we.’ The Canaanites, claimed the fearful ten, included giants who had made them feel no bigger than grasshoppers. [4]

    Joshua and Caleb spy out the land of Canaan

    In the same way, the Qur’an contains an analogous account of the spies. Joshua and Caleb are identified as two ‘God-fearing men’ on whom God ‘had bestowed His grace’. [5]

    The ‘whole congregation’ gathered to attend the reconnaissance report threatened to stone Caleb and Joshua. They sided with the fearful ten and complained that the Israelites would have been better off remaining in captivity in Egypt. According to the Quran, the Israelite majority told Moses they would never enter the promised land so long as its current inhabitants remained: ‘So go, you and your Lord, and fight. We are remaining right here’. [6]

    God was incandescent and His furious response exceeded any other recorded instance of divine anger: ‘And the Lord said unto Moses, How long this people will provoke me? And how long will it be ere they believe me, for all the signs which I have showed among them? I will smite them with the pestilence, and disinherit them . . .’

    The ten spies who gave the ‘evil’ report of their mission died because of plague. For forty years, the Israelites wandered in the wilderness. The death of Prophet Moses at Mount Nebo (at the age of 120 according to Bible) ended the punishment of Israelites. If you visit the Mount Nebo today, which is in present-day Jordan, you can get the same view of the Promised Land across the Dead Sea which Moses was allowed to glimpse before his death.[7]

    View from Mount Nebo

    God ordered Joshua who was the successor of Moses to enter the Promised Land. Joshua unlike the first intelligence operation chose two unidentified spies and kept the mission very confidential to reconnoitre the fortress city of Jericho which was the first target of the offensive planned by Joshua. [8]

    There were operational advantages of choosing the brothel as the hideout. People from different communities visiting Jericho must have been a good source of intelligence gathering for the spies. The biblical account of their mission provides the first record of a joint operation involving the world’s two oldest professions (said to be prostitutes and spies) working in collaboration. Joshua’s spies found accommodation with Rahab the harlot (prostitute), whose brothel was embedded in the city walls of Jericho. But the greatest asset which paid rich dividends was Rahab herself, who told the spies, ‘I know the Lord hath given you the land [of Canaan]’ Joshua’s spies told him on their return from the Promised Land: ‘Truly the Lord hath delivered into our hands all the land; for even all the inhabitants of the country do faint because of us.’ [9]

    Subsequently, Joshua effectively led the 12 tribes of Israel into the land of Canaan. Attempts made by twentieth-century intelligence agencies to deduce lessons from the biblical account of espionage in the era of Moses and Joshua include a 1978 study in the classified in-house journal of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA, Studies in Intelligence.

    John M.Cardwell in his study entitled, ‘A Bible Lesson on Spying’, wrote that the public indignation of the assassination plots by CIA in mid 1970s is similar to the disaster followed by the intelligence reports given by the 12 spies of Moses. John M.Cardwell is possibly a pseudonym. He writes: “If there is a lesson to be learned [from the Canaan espionage operation], it would appear that a strong case is made for the conduct of spying activities in secret by professionals, unencumbered by other political or military responsibilities, and that these professionals should report in secret to higher authority who would make policy decisions without debate.

    Spies should definitely not participate in the policy-decision-making process, nor should they take their cases to the public. When that occurs, although stoning passé, the people are likely to throw figurative rocks at the wrong people for the wrong reasons”

    In Cardwell’s view, the strategy used by Joshua was very pragmatic. He kept the mission very secretive. Any excessive publicity given to intelligence operations of CIA can also have adverse ramifications.

    “Moses’ operation, conducted by amateurs more or less in the public domain, resulted in a weakening of Moses’ position of authority, led to a loss of the people’s confidence in themselves, and precipitated an extended period of severe national punishment. Joshua’s operation, conducted in private by professionals, led to an achievement of national destiny . . . Joshua certainly did not have an oversight problem, nor did he worry about defining a politically acceptable mission scenario” [10]

    Moreover, it is interesting to note that the espionage missions sent by Moses and Joshua into the Promised Land are a key part of the curriculum of Israel’s modern intelligence agencies i.e Mossad, the foreign intelligence agency, and Shin Bet, the domestic security service. [11]

    The mottoes of Shin Bet and Mossad are taken from the Hebrew Bible. Shin Bet’s comes from Psalm 121: ‘He who watches over Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.’ The current Mossad motto is: ‘Where no counsel is, the people fall, but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety’ (Proverbs 11:14). An earlier motto of Mossad was based on Proverbs 24:6: ‘By way of deception, thou shalt conduct war.’ Mossad’s use of deception claims Biblical origin. [12]

    While celebrating the Hanukkah festival in December 2012, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the company of President Shimon Peres and Mossad’s chief, Tamir Pardo declared: On Hanukkah we traditionally say, ‘Who will sing the praises of Israel’s strength?’, and I add to that ‘Who will carry out Israel’s covert operations?’, as it is written: ‘By way of deception, thou shalt conduct war.’ This is the way the few defeat the many, and we have learned that from the days of our forefathers. We need a body that can operate on the international level using both ancient and modern methods. The Mossad does just that in the most outstanding way. [13]

    The history of intelligence operations is far older than today’s intelligence agencies across the world. But learning from the historical events in intelligence is quite esoteric. To quote the historian John Bew: “History does not lend itself easily to the PowerPoints or executive summaries on which our policymakers increasingly rely . . . A genuine understanding of history requires a patience that is not easy to reconcile with the urgency of policy. A good starting point is to view the past as a source of wisdom rather than revelation”. [14]

    Like I wrote in the beginning, Intelligence is the “missing dimension” from history and one cannot comprehend the past without the knowledge of what went on in “the secret world”.


    1. Kent. “Need for an Intelligence Literature”
    2. Numbers 13: 1–20. Biblical quotations are from the Authorized (King James) Version, until recently the best-known English translation

    3. Clausewitz, On War, p. 117.

    4. Numbers 13:21–33

    5. Qur’an 5:22–3

    6. Qur’an 5:24

    7. Deutronomy 34: 1–7

    8. Joshua 2:1-

    9. Joshua 2:9–14,24

    10. Cardwell, “A Bible Lesson on Spying”

    11. Christopher Andrew, “The Secret World: A History of Intelligence”

    12. The former Mossad officer Victor Ostrovsky entitles his controversial memoirs By Way of Deception

    13. www.jns.org/newsbriefs/2012/12/14 (accessed 15 April 2013)

    14. Bew, “What Lessons from History Keep being Forgotten?”


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    Evarist Chahali

    Evarist Chahali

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