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Spy or Espy?

Updated: Feb 14, 2020

We continue along the nuance line and follow the article revealing the differences between Alway and Always. This next article compares Espy and Spy. We believe every word of God and will not summarily dismiss words such as espy as archaic. We will not smugly jettison the tried and true; instead, we just pray, dig, compare, ask questions, and rejoice to find the sharpness, the accuracy of the word of God.


Espy or Espied appears four times in the Bible, and each time it appears as a verb.

(A verb is a word that expresses action, and in some static cases, existence.)

The sense, the prevailing definition for Espy is an action of faithful observation, to carefully inspect, to notice and to watch for. An open and honest report is the result.

When the sons of Jacob returned from Egypt for the first time, they opened their sacks and discovered, observed, noticed, espied their money: “…he espied his money…”(Genesis 42:27). Unlike to spy, which has a connotation of treason, or at the least a nefarious motive, espy is motive neutral.

Spy: The noun—a person (like 007 James Bomb)—and the verb to spy, can have a negative tone and a hostile intention: to observe secretly (and possibly with a disguise), to gain information about an enemy for advantage against that enemy. To be labeled “a spy,” a foreign espionage agent, is a weighty charge. A sense of sin or evil is the implied result.

“…Ye are spies; to see the nakedness of the land ye are come” (Genesis 42:9).

A serious charge! They defend themselves against this character smear by declaring “we are true men; we are no spies…” (Genesis 42:31). The opposite of being true men is to be a spy, or spies.


Notice (espy) the nuance. When Joshua recalls his faithful report to Moses, he is referring back to the initial ‘searching’ of the Promised Land (Numbers 13:1,2). Twice it is recorded in the same context that they were to spy out the land: “these are the names of the men which Moses sent to spy out the land” (Numbers 13:16,17).

And they were indeed secretly observing, with the intention of destroying. But, when Joshua recalls the event, he changes spy to espy: “Forty years old was I when Moses …sent me to from Kadeesh-barnea to espy out the land” (Joshua 14:7). Perhaps this is why:

1. Although Moses was directly sending, it was God who actually initiated the search—and a word with a negative or sinister tone is not typically associated with God. Notice that God says of his own actions, “…to bring them forth…into a land that I espied for them…” (Ezekiel 20:6). Again, I think He could not use the word spy, for it implies some negativity, some darkness; whereas espy is neutral: just an act of observation.

2. I think it more likely that Joshua, speaking for himself, and as men typically do, chose to put a more positive tone on his part of the historical account. The product of espy is a good report, and that is exactly what Joshua brought. However, if one of the 10 ‘bad’ spies were to likewise recount this event, they, because of their evil report, could not use espy.


There is yet another seldom used avenue of investigation regarding word definition, specifically, the affect of letter construction. The shape, the form, of a letter may indeed affect our conscious or subconscious understanding of the word by merely suggesting an attitude.

For example, the letter E is open to the east, suggesting a broad view, especially over the letters that follow. Eureka, Eagle Eye, Expose and others indicate a discovery, a search, a broad view. The letter ‘e’ added to the word spy (which is generally secretive and has a negative tone) registers espy as more open and broad viewed.

The letter S, as in Spy, is not straight, but curves like a serpent. Its suggestive affect seems to match perfectly with Slippery, Snake, Secretly, Seductive, Sly, Sinister, and so on. Spy begins, not with straight lines vectoring toward a open field, but rather with a serpentine line that is not as clear.

Note: for myself, the deciphering of character shapes of the English alphabet is a yet untested thesis; therefore, this is not an absolute characterization of all words beginning with ‘e’ and ’s’. For example, some ’s’ words, like Saviour (and perhaps Scott!) are positive. I would recommend In Awe of thy Word, by Gail Riplinger, for those who seek a more exhaustive study. It’s an awesome book!


I may be a wee bit off in this and the other definitions, so I ask the readers to respond. But, if you do kindly reply, please bring buckets of pertinent biblical proof—for the final authority is not a dictionary, or a commentary, or an opinion, it is God’s word. Even the work involved to study, whether to deny or verify, will be a great exercise. I’ve been wrong before and can surely be persuaded to change, when the right change agent is involved. The point is, we all can, and should, come to further (not farther!) appreciate the nuances of the word of God.

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