Archive for May, 2014

NUMBERS 11:24-30

24 So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. 25 Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.

26 Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. 27 And a young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.” 28 And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, “My lord Moses, stop them!” 29 But Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” 30 And Moses and the elders of Israel returned to the camp.

The later writer of what is known as the Gospel of Luke used this episode from the Book of Numbers as one of three Old Testament sources for his story of Christianity’s charismatic beginnings (Pentecost, Acts 2) – the other sources being the Genesis myth of Babel (Gen 11) and the prophecy of Joel (2:28-29). The common theme throughout is this gift or visitation of God’s spirit on human beings.

There is a tendency in every religion – even in every form of human organization – to eventually erect out of the spontaneous sympathies of communal life a hierarchy of “command and control.” Those who put themselves or are perhaps elected to occupy the pinnacle of this hierarchy inevitably, it seems, begin taking to themselves certain attributes and privileges that separate them from everyone else farther down. In religion especially, we often find individuals trumpeting themselves as divine mediators, high holy reverends whose god-appointed position makes them exceptional.

This passage comes out of a minority report which was critical of what must have been the Old Testament’s equivalent to our pompous evangelical stage performers of today. Moses was the archetype of charismatic liberators: standing against Egypt’s pharaoh, calling down plagues, and ascending the holy mountain to meet with Yahweh, the Sinai warrior deity who rescued the Hebrews and helped them conquer settled villages on their rampage through Canaan.

Moses was a stand-alone leader. He didn’t meet with committees or consult the people in deciding his next course of action. God spoke and he did as commanded, regardless the human cost in victims.  The message: You don’t mess with Moses.

But out of this minority tradition comes a story of a time when Yahweh’s spirit was taken from Moses and distributed among seventy second-tier leaders – seventy-two (a symbolic number throughout near-eastern religions) if we count Eldad and Medad who were not with the group at the time. And we need to count them, for they are what makes the story both controversial and instructive. They were not among the Mosaic Pentecostals when the spirit was parsed out, and yet they were given the ability to prophesy.


The power to prophesy is not quite the same as the ability to “speak in tongues” (or other known languages) as happened in Luke’s story. And neither is it anything like what confronted the apostle Paul in that Corinthian congregation where individuals began “speaking” ecstatically in a private “language” no one else could understand. In fact, Paul puts his favor on the gift of prophecy over that of ecstasy, since it is something intended for the edification of the community rather than the validation of an individual’s uniqueness.

In the Bible, to prophesy is literally to “speak before” – announcing, predicting, or forecasting something before it happens. This is what Moses had done, and so consistently that it became his identity. He announced the day of liberation (exodus) and spoke to the people of what Yahweh would do with them and through them – or to them, if they didn’t cooperate. Prophets were men and women who reputedly had a god-given ability to foresee what is coming and help people anticipate, prepare, or change their ways so as to avoid it.

This ability can be highly coveted, as you might imagine. The one who can put an ear to the ground or see changes on the horizon of the future is typically someone you want to listen to. Unless he’s a fraud, where he might manage to pick your pockets before you even realize he’s skipped town. To put some controls around this, Christianity (for instance) has tended to elevate prophets to a special status, regulating them with education and ordination requirements even as it venerates them as supernaturally gifted.

So when Eldad and Medad started demonstrating prophetic abilities outside of Moses’ awareness or consent, the lesson was simple: The spirit of God moves of its own will and is not a respecter of titles, reputations, or positions. Just like that, the hierarchy is pulled down and everyone stands equally before God.