Multifaith Mashup: Spies in Ancient Texts

by Vicki Garlock on April 9, 2014

Odin with his Ravens

Odin with his Ravens
Wikimedia Commons

I’ve got spies on the brain. Last week, we took our kids to Washington D.C. for spring break. We visited the International Spy Museum. It was fascinating – fun for all ages, as they say – and we ended up spending three hours there. My son enjoyed climbing through the ductwork and locating military compounds on satellite images. My teenaged daughter liked all the James bond exhibits. And my husband and I loved reading about various espionage techniques and viewing the tools of the trade. Like all wonderful museums, it opened up an entirely new world for us. We were staying with friends in northern VA. Turns out his dad was a diplomat – and a spy – for the US during the Cold War.

When I arrived home, my copy of Twenty Jataka Tales had arrived in the mail. The Jataka Tales, which date from about the 4th century BCE, are stories about the previous lives of the Buddha. Over the ages, they have morphed into morality tales for kids, available in various forms and formats. Since the Buddha often appears in animal form, they may have been the basis for Aesop’s fables. This particular version, Twenty Jataka Tales, was penned by Noor Inayat Khan. Born in Russia to an Indian Sufi Muslim father and an American mother, she grew up in London and then France. Her first career was writing poetry and children’s stories. Her first book, Twenty Jataka Tales, was published in London in 1939. In 1940, she joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in Britain and was trained as a wireless operator. Eventually she joined a WWII spy network in Paris. Following the arrest of most of her colleagues by the Nazi Security Service, she became the only remaining British agent in Paris who could transmit wireless signals. In 1943, she was finally arrested by the Security Service, as well, and was later executed.

There are many coincidences in the spy world, but this one got me wondering about spies in ancient, sacred texts. It has been said that spying is one of the oldest professions – along with prostitution, of course – so it seemed to me that I should find various references to it in some of the world’s oldest texts.

The Bible refers to spies in various places (Judges 1, Luke 20), and King David certainly made use of spies (1Sa 26, 2Sa 15), but the three Biblical tales that come to mind most readily are found in books that appear earlier in the Bible. In the first instance, Joseph accuses his brothers of being spies when they arrive in Egypt seeking food during the time of famine. Joseph recognizes his brothers, and his accusation was only a ruse, but the brothers were not at all happy about the apparent confusion. That part of the Joseph saga can be found in Genesis 42.

Another well-known Old Testament spy story occurs when Moses sends spies – one from each of the 12 tribes of Israel – into the Land of Canaan. The spies return with reports of a land that “flows with milk and honey.” Ten of the spies also report on the very large and well-organized people who already occupied the land and discourage the Israelites from attacking. Two spies, relying on their faith in God, argue that the Israelites should attack. After threatening to disinherit the Israelites as the chosen people, God decides on a more moderate course of action – the Israelites will wander in the desert for another 40 years, and the two spies who kept the faith would be the only adults to ever reach the Promised Land.

The next Biblical spy mission occurred after the 40 years had passed. Joshua, now the leader of the Israelites, is trying again to enter the Promised Land. Interestingly, both of the world’s oldest professions make an appearance.

Then Joshua, son of Nun, sent two men secretly from Shittim as spies, saying, “Go, view the land, especially Jericho.” So they went, and entered the house of a prostitute whose name was Rahab, and spent the night there. The king of Jericho was told, “Some Israelites have come here tonight to search out the land.” Then the king of Jericho sent orders to Rahab, “Bring out the men who have come to you, who entered your house, for they have come only to search out the whole land.” But the woman took the two men and hid them. Then she said, “True, the men came to me, but I did not know where they came from. And when it was time to close the gate at dark, the men went out. Where the men went I do not know. Pursue them quickly, for you can overtake them.” She had, however, brought them up to the roof and hidden them with the stalks of flax that she had laid out on the roof.

Before they went to sleep, she came up to them on the roof and said to the men: “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that dread of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you…. Now then, since I have dealt kindly with you, swear to me by the lord that you in turn will deal kindly with my family. Give me a sign of good faith that you will spare my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.” The men said to her, “Our life for yours! If you do not tell this business of yours, then we will deal kindly and faithfully with you when the Lord give us the land.”

Then she let them down by a rope through the window, for her house was on the outer side of the city wall and she resided within the wall itself. (Joshua 2: 1-6, 8-9, 12-15)

Interestingly, spies don’t show up much in the usual sacred texts from other world religions – the Qu’ran, the Tao Te Ching, the Dhammapada, or the Bhagavad Gita. However, there are references to spies in some of the most ancient texts we have, including an entire chapter in the Art of War, a Chinese text written in the 6th century BCE. I will share passages from the Mahabharata, a Sanskrit epic tale dating from at least the 4th century BCE (of which the Bhagavad Gita is a part) and the Prose Edda, a collection of Norse poems dating from the 1st century CE at the latest.

In this portion of the Mahabharata, Yudhishthira is conversing with Bhishma. Yudhishthira was a leader of the Pandavas in the epic battle against the Kauravas. Bhishma, a great archer and grand-sire to both sides, tried to keep the peace, but ultimately ended up fighting for the Kauravas.

“Yudhishthira said, ‘What other special duties remain for the king to discharge? How should he protect his kingdom and how subdue his foes? How should he employ his spies? How should he inspire confidence in the four orders of his subjects, his own servants, wives, and sons, O Bharata?’

“Bhishma said, ‘Listen, O monarch, with attention to the diverse duties of kings, — to those acts which the king or one that is in the position of a king should first do. The king should first subdue himself and then seek to subdue his foes. How should a king who has not been able to conquer his own self be able to conquer his foes?… The king that has succeeded in subduing his senses is competent to resist his foes…. He should employ as spies men looking like idiots or like those that are blind and deaf. Those should all be persons who have been thoroughly examined (in respect of their ability), who are possessed of wisdom, and who are able to endure hunger and thirst. With proper attention, the king should set his spies upon all his counsellors and friends and sons, in his city and the provinces, and in dominions of the chiefs under him. His spies should be so employed that they may not know one another. He should also, O bull of Bharata’s race, know the spies of his foes by himself setting spies in shops and places of amusement, and concourses of people, among beggars, in his pleasure gardens and parks, in meetings and conclaves of the learned, in the country, in public places, in places where he holds his own court, and in the houses of the citizens. The king possessed of intelligence may thus ascertain the spies despatched by his foes. If these be known, the king may derive much benefit, O son of Pandu!

Clearly, the ancients had thought carefully about how to choose and use spies. In the Prose Edda, we get only a sense that spies were used — even by the gods. In this passage, High is describing Odin and his home, Valhalla, to Gangleri, the ancient king who arrived in disguise.

Two ravens sit on Odin’s shoulders, and into his ears they tell all the news they see or hear. Their names or Hugin [Thought] and Munin [Mind, Memory]. At sunrise he sends them off to fly throughout the whole world, and they return in time for the first meal. Thus he gathers knowledge about many things that are happening, and so people call him the raven god. As is said:

Hugin and Munin

fly each day

over the wide world.

I fear for Hugin

that he may not return,

though I worry more for Munin.

Spies are mentioned casually in Genesis and the Prose Edda with greater detail given in the Mahabharata and other parts of the Old Testament. Both types of passages suggest that spying may, in fact, be the second oldest profession in human history. And, as the International Spy Museum in Washtingon D.C. attests, our fascination continues today – not just for grown-ups, but also for kids.


Sturlson, Snorri. The Prose Edda. Trans. Jesse L Byock. NY: Penguin Books. 2005. Print.

Ganguli, K.M. (Trans.). The Mahabharata, Book 12: Santi Parva, Section 69. (1883-1896). Sacred Texts: Pacific. Updated Jan. 2005. Web. April 9, 2014. <>.

Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2007. Print.

Additional Reading 

Supposedly, Studies in Intelligence, a classified spy journal, once contained an article about spy stories from the Old Testament and what the CIA could learn from them.

A Bible Lesson on Spying

[In our Multifaith Mashup columns, we explore a topic from a variety of faith traditions and sacred texts. To see other columns, search our blog using the Multifaith Mashup tag. These columns are representative of the middle school Sunday School curriculum, and to a certain extent, the upper elementary Sunday School curriculum we developed at Jubilee! Community Church in Asheville, NC.]

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